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.
Feeding for recovery after exercise is vital when horses compete in intense exercise or competitions such as multiday events, or endurance.
There are three key considerations identified with feeding post-exercise;
- Replenishment of muscle glycogen stores
- Muscle repair and recovery
Timing – Research has shown that exercised horses should be allowed to eat and drink after cooling down in order to restore the lost water and energy.
In terms of rehydration, horses lose both water and electrolytes when they sweat during and after exercise. This needs to be replaced to avoid the negative consequences of dehydration on recovery such as nerve and muscle disturbances, colic and decreased further performance.
Plasma sodium levels drive thirst, so supplementation of sodium with other electrolytes (Chloride, Potassium, Magnesium etc) is an important strategy after intense exercise.
Of course water replacement is vital and water should be offered after exercise. Electrolytes stimulate the thirst reaction and help to encourage water intake.
Feeding forage and grain following an intense or long duration bout of exercise is essential to restoring glycogen (stored carbohydrate) pools in the liver and muscle. Remember Glycogen is a primary fuel for exercise,
Think of Glycogen as the same thing as petrol; for our cars, once the petrol runs out, your car stops! So you have to refill the tank, especially if your horse is competing over multiple days, or between rest stops if on an endurance ride.
Forage can be fed as soon as horse has cooled and has normal respiration rate.
Concentrates containing grain should be fed within 1 hour of intense exercise. Grains (cooked, extruded etc) contain starch, which is digested and absorbed as glucose and this glucose is directly used to replenish glycogen supplies.
If a horse is has not yet finished exercise such as at a vet check point in an endurance race, limit the grain to 200g per 100kg bodyweight so that blood insulin levels don’t spike high.
Supplementation with electrolytes has a beneficial effect on glycogen repletion, so this is another reason for fast electrolyte replacement after intense exercise.
Another consideration for muscle recovery after intense exercise is Protein.
Specifically amino acids, as these are the horses building blocks for muscle repair and development.
The protein source is just as important as the quantity included in the feed, high quality protein sources will include amino acids such as lysine, known as the first limiting amino acid in the horse’s diet. Sources such as whey protein and soybean have excellent essential amino acid profiles.
The timing of feeding protein can be quite critical for recovery
The close time frame around exercise is when muscle uptakes amino acids, which are used to build and repair muscle fibers. Therefore, supplying high quality protein in the form protein concentrate immediately following work (within the first 15 minutes of finishing exercise) may help lightly muscled horses build muscle bulk faster.
Build and balance your horses nutrition up slowly as their exercise intensity increases.
Ensure electrolyte requirements are met daily and are replenished after intense exercise.
Always feed high energy fibres.
Feed fibre immediately prior to exercising. This provides a fibre matt to protect the gut from gastric acid splash and help prevent gut ulcers.
Do Not feed grain within 3 – 4 hrs of intense exercise. This produces insulin spikes which prevent glucose from being used as an energy source by the muscles, causing fatigue.
Feed water, fibre and grains after exercise when horse has cooled to replenish muscle glycogen stores. Can be fed within 1 hour.
Feed high quality protein (amino acid) source within 15 min of exercise to aid in muscle rebuilding.
Avoid decreased performance at home and at competition with the best nutrition for your horse.