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Matching Your Horse’s Feed to Its Workload

Matching your horse’s diet to their workload involves supplying the calories and nutrients they need to maintain the desired body condition and provide energy for their work whilst keeping the diet balanced at all times.

Whatever the level of work horses are doing, they need essential quality protein, vitamins and minerals to support general health and well-being, including tissue integrity, muscle tone and healthy hoof growth.

For horses in little/no work or very good doers’ balancers’ are particularly useful as they supply all these essential nutrients with no additional calories, thus ensuring a balanced diet at times when recommended amounts of even a low energy feed would provide too many calories.

As workload increases, so does the requirement for certain nutrients, in particular antioxidants and quality protein, and calories. It can be difficult to assess which level of work your horse is in and thus what their feed requirements are. The table below provides a guide to assessing work load.

Feed type

Workload

Typical activities

Low energy

Rest/ light

Quiet hacking, light schooling 1 - 3 times per week

Medium energy

Moderate

Daily hacking 1 - 2 hours, schooling 30 - 60 mins, riding club competitions, show-jumping

High energy

Hard

Hard schooling / training, endurance, eventing, racing


Feeding concentrates

A horse has a limited appetite so, in theory, can physically only consume the equivalent of 2-2.5% of its bodyweight in food per day.  So, as energy and nutrient requirements go up, the total diet must be more energy and nutrient dense to supply “more per mouthful”. This means that equine diets are often supplemented with concentrates which provide more nutrients and calories per gram than forage.

Horses in hard work, such as racehorses need high energy feed, such as concentrates.
Horses in hard work, such as racehorses need high energy feed, such as concentrates.

The total concentrate ration should be divided into as many small meals as possible to avoid overloading the digestive system. Furthermore, any changes should be made gradually – reducing the existing feed and correspondingly increasing the new feed.

When feeding concentrates manufacturers recommended feeding levels should be adhered to, to ensure a horse is receiving an appropriate and balanced diet. No obligation advice is available from trained nutritionists via feed company helplines for those who have any doubts. Alternatively speak to your vet for advice.

Feeding forage

With a greater amount of calories and nutrients coming from concentrate feed, it is possible that horses will lose some of their appetite for forage but ideally horses should still have access to forage ad lib, to satisfy their need to chew and to maintain a healthy digestive system.

The psychological and physiological benefits of this approach far outweigh any which suggest that forage intake should be limited for horses in intense work in an attempt to minimise bulky fibre sitting in the horse’s digestive system.

The only instance when forage intake really requires management is for the especially good- doer or overweight horse, when a calorie-controlled diet is required. The recommended minimum level of forage for maintaining overall health and function of the digestive system is not less than the equivalent of 1% of the horse’s bodyweight.

‘Good-doers’

Different horses have different metabolisms so whilst a horse’s requirement for calories (energy) will depend both on workload and body condition, “good-doers” generally have lower requirements whatever the workload.

Their requirement for protein, vitamins and minerals however, remains directly related to workload so a good-doer in hard work will still need elevated nutritional support, just fewer calories than a “poorer-doer”.

For these horses, a lower energy feed or reduced amount of a higher energy feed, may be best to suit calorie requirements but both would need topping up with a balancer to provide essential nutrients for a balanced diet.