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Regardless of the discipline, nutrition remains pivotal to achieving peak performance. Without a customized, nutritionally-balanced ration, a horse will be unable to develop the levels of fitness and muscle mass required to perform at its full potential. Energy deficits caused by inadequate nutrition represent the most significant detriment to performance.

Energy Balance for Performance Horses

When determining your horse’s ration, it is absolutely essential to establish the ideal energy (calorie) balance for your horse. It goes without saying that a horse’s energy needs are proportional to its level of exercise. The ration’s caloric content should allow your horse to maintain a body condition of between 5 and 6 on the Henneke scale, a universal evaluation method for assessing body condition with a ranking scale that ranges from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese). If your horse’s body condition falls outside of the optimal range, it is considered to be either underweight or overweight. In such cases the ration will need to be modified.

Ideally, a horse should be consuming a minimum of 1% of its body weight in forage (hay) daily and preferably 2-2.5%. Then commerical feed can be added for extra calories if necessary.

My Horse is Too Thin

If your horse is losing weight, you can improve its condition by simply increasing its daily caloric intake through either hay or concentrates. Your horse’s body condition will determine if, in addition to hay, you need to provide more concentrates. For performance horses, supplementary concentrates often prove to be necessary, since concentrates provide a great deal more calories per kilogram than forage. The more the body condition falls below 5, the more concentrates will need to be added. Ideally, this can be accomplished by introducing an extra meal per day, or by using a feed that is higher in calories and better adapted to your horse’s specific individual needs.

For a 500 kg horse, the National Research Council of Canada (2007) suggests that a weight gain of 16 to 20 kg will enable the horse’s body condition to rise from 4 to 6. That said, other research has obtained different results. It will therefore be necessary to employ your common sense, particularly when considering the metabolism of each breed and each individual horse within that same breed.

A horse’s main source of calories comes from carbohydrates in the form of starch and sugar (grains) and fibre (forage). These food sources are stored in the adipose tissues as fat or in the liver or muscles as glycogen. Horses also obtain food from plant-based oils, which the body stores as fat in the adipose tissues.

Weight gain needs to come from one of these three energy sources, or a calculated dose of each. Determining a horse’s source of extra calories will depend on its training discipline, health status and individual temperament. Fat reserves fuel a horse’s aerobic activities, as does stored glycogen; however, glycogen remains the only available energy source for anaerobic activities.

My Horse is Overweight

If your horse’s body condition is higher than 6, you will need to decrease its daily caloric intake by reducing its consumption of concentrates. Depending on your horse, you may also need to cut down on its quantity of forage. The higher the body condition, the more you will need to decrease the horse’s calories. As a result, it may happen that your horse’s prescribed level of concentrates falls below the recommended amount for its weight and activity level. In this case, a compensatory vitamin and mineral supplement will be essential for meeting your horse’s nutritional needs, one that provides your horse with the protein, vitamins and minerals it requires, without the excess calories. Consultation with an equine nutrition specialist is recommended.

The Special Nutrition Needs of the Eventing Horse

An eventing horse expends its energy through approximately equal proportions of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Depending on the phase of competition (dressage, cross-country, jumping), its ration must contain a high percentage of plant-based oils and fibres, in addition to a certain amount of starch.

Fibre allows for water to accumulate in the large intestine. This prevents dehydration, a danger for all performance horses, especially those who train for long distances in high temperatures. Plant-based oils serve to increase the ration’s caloric levels without causing colic, digestive troubles or the temperamental problems that frequently arise from excess starch. Certain plant-based fats such as flaxseed oil have the added advantage of an optimal omega-3:6 ratio; this strengthens the horse’s immune and anti-inflammatory systems. When the horse uses its fat stores as fuel, it is able to save its precious glycogen reserves for anaerobic activity. To ensure that the horse performs optimally during the anaerobic phase, it is essential to add some starch to the ration, although this starch must be derived from highly-digestible sources such as extruded feed or flaked grains like corn or barley.

Specially-formulated complete feeds offer the best nutritional profile for the eventing horse. These products also contain significant amounts of vitamins and minerals, including high levels of antioxidants, omega-3 essential fatty acids and probiotics. Combine these feeds with a perfectly-timed and measured high-quality hay, and if needed, you can also incorporate a supplement. With added electrolytes, especially salt, your high-performance athlete will have everything it needs.