Nutrition can play a significant role in achieving peak athletic performance in horses.
Give your horse the best chance of performing well on competition days by planning ahead and feeding the correct diet to prepare your horse for competition.
High intensity exercise and performance horses train and compete under a variety of stressful conditions that can adversely affect health and performance. For these reasons there are important feeding and management strategies that can be implemented to reduce many of these problems.
Working at this level means your horse is at a higher risk of health issues such as gastric ulcers (EGUS) and hind gut acidosis, dehydration and electrolyte imbalance all contributing to the obvious and sometimes not so obvious lower performance.
So whilst some horse (not all), when exercising hard may require a grain source to meet these energy requirements, your first port of call will always need to be a high quality, highly digestible fibre sources. Performance horses should receive forage intake in the region of 1.5 – 2% of body weight.
These fibre sources such as quality hay, lucerne, beet pulp and soy hulls will be high energy, low starch therefore very ‘gut friendly’. As they will be a great source of food to the hind gut microbes which will break them down into volatile fatty acids which can be used to release energy slowly over a period of time.
The performance horses’ s main fuels are fats and carbohydrates, in the forms of free fatty acids and glucose. The type, intensity and duration of exercise will determine the amount of each form of fuel used.
If you have your horse fit and exercising at heavy levels your horse can have a 60% higher energy demand compared to maintenance. Energy is defined as the capacity to do work. The amount of energy available for muscular work is the most important factor in a horse’s performance.
Horses store energy in the form of glycogen in muscle and liver and as fat in adipose tissue. To a lesser extent, amino acids (from protein breakdown) can also be used for energy.
Glycogen is a branched structure of glucose (sugar) molecules bound together. During exercise, glycogen and fat are broken down to make energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). This powers muscle contraction and other processes involved in exercise. Glycogen provides a rapidly available source of energy.
There are basically two main ways in which horse cells generate energy when exercising.
1.Slower, longer exercise such as in the endurance and trekking horse, the body mainly uses the burning of fatty acids by oxygen to produce energy. This mechanism is highly efficient, being an almost inexhaustible source and does not produce lactic acid.
It’s called aerobic metabolism. = + Oxygen
Aerobic metabolism is more energy efficient and allows for energy production from fats, protein, and liver and muscle glycogen.
Aerobic metabolism produces less lactic acid compared to anaerobic metabolism and horses are therefore able to sustain this level of exercise for prolonged periods of time.
2.During faster, powerful exercise such as reining, show jumping, polo or even higher-level dressage, the muscles will predominately use anaerobic metabolism= – Oxygen
During anaerobic metabolism, muscle and liver glycogen stores (from carbohydrates) serve as the primary energy source. Body stores of both are relatively small, so depletion occurs quickly, and once the glycogen is depleted, the horse becomes fatigued.
Anaerobic metabolism or specifically anaerobic glycolysis, is less efficient than aerobic both in choice of fuels and end product produced. The end products of anaerobic metabolism are lactate and heat.
A recommendation is to add fat to the diet as this can increase muscle glycogen storage that can improve performance, particularly that of high-intensity, short-term, anaerobic work,
Its important to remember -The more fit the horse, the more efficient it is in energy utilization.
Feeding Times –
1/Prior to exercise
A horse should always exercise with fibre in its stomach. Feeding fibre has multiple advantages:
- A horse must chew long stemmed fibre, like hay and this produces saliva.
- This saliva aids in the movement of food thru the digestive system.
- The saliva also aids in buffering the stomach acid that is Continually produced in the stomach.
- The fibre forms a protective matt that prevents the acid from splashing up into the upper unprotected areas of the stomach, therefore preventing gastric ulcers that can form in that section.
Therefore, if a horse is stabled or penned at competition, without constant access to forage, or if it has been more than 2 hours since the horse last grazed or fed, you should feed your horse fibre before exercise.
A good recommendation is feed 200g/100kg body weight if it has been 2 hours since your horse last ate. Or if they were happily munching away on their hay then keep them eating that hay as you tack up for riding.
If your horses normal feed contains grain, then do NOT feed it within 4 – 5 hrs of a ride. This is due to the higher starch and sugar in the grain feed. In this situation the blood glucose and insulin levels following a grain feed generally peak at 2 to 3 hours following a meal and return to normal within 4 to 5 hours. Insulin is a hormone that instructs the horse’s muscles and organs to store away glucose.
So what you don’t want is insulin in a horse’s blood when exercise starts, as the horse isn’t able to mobilise glucose stores to burn and fuel the muscles during work (because insulin is there telling the muscles to store all the glucose away). And when this happens your horse can run out of energy supply to its muscles and get fatigued quickly.
See research of Pagan and Harris, 1999, who proved feeding did not decrease free fatty acid and glucose availability; therefore, performance will not be limited by the decreased fuels as seen with grain meals prior to exercise.
Also research of Lawrence et al., 1993.
If you are feeding higher level endurance horses, they perform best when fed a forage-based diet with high energy and nutrient density. These horses may be fed small grain-based meals during a race, but you should avoid excess grain consumption. Remember these grains have a high glycemic response and quickly spike their blood sugar.
Always feed extruded or cooked grains and limit the meal to 200 g of grain per 100 kg of bodyweight so that you don’t induce a large increase in blood insulin levels.
Instead, for this exercise, fat is preferred as an energy source because it has a low glycaemic response and provides slow-release energy. So build up the horses fat content of the diet slowly over a period of time before competition, with sources such as flaxseed or ricebran oil or canola.
Remember for any competition, no matter the type, stick to your high energy fibres before riding and keep your horse eating his hay whilst at competition and keep him drinking!