Properly feeding a performance horse
Competition horses must demonstrate endurance and power several days a year. What can be done to reduce muscle fatigue and promote recovery? Developing a good feed program is the key to a performance horse’s success.
Demanding nutritional requirements
To begin with, to develop an adapted feed program, it’s important to know that nutritional needs vary significantly from one horse to another, depending on each one’s level of exercise. Training frequency and intensity must therefore be taken into account to correctly adjust rations according to exercise level:
Light: 1-3 hours/week, 40 % walk, 50 % trot, 10 % gallop
Moderate: 3-5 hours/week, 30 % walk, 55 % trot, 10 % gallop, 5 % small jumps or other
Intense: 4-5 hours/week, 20 % walk, 50 % trot, 15 % gallop, 15 % intense gallop, jumps or other
Very intense: Varies according to type of training, from 1 hour/week high-intensity exercise to 6-12 hours/week light work
Table 2, adapted from the NRC’s scientific reference work Nutrient Requirements of Horses, clearly illustrates the variation in energy requirements (calories), proteins and specific micronutrients for a 500-kg horse that goes from light to very intense exercise. To meet the horse’s increasingly demanding nutritional needs, it’s necessary to make gradual changes to rations by increasing the quantities of hay and feed given, and providing more digestible and nutritious feed.
For example, to go from light training during the winter to sustained work during the summer, it’s appropriate to gradually transition from grass hay (timothy, orchard, brome) to a hay containing a certain percentage of legumes (alfalfa, clover). If this type of forage is not available, opt for a dry hay that was cut earlier in the season or, better yet, provide access to a good pasture whenever possible. It’s also appropriate to gradually increase the quantity of feed and supplements given. The type of changes made to rations is determined according to the horse’s overall condition, environment and behaviour, as well as the increase in workload, and the available feed.
Nutritional needs of a 500-kg horse based on level of exercise
(Table adapted from NRC 2007)
The importance of easy access to water
Remember too that the need for water increases considerably with an increase in work intensity, and even more so when the ambient temperature is hot and humid. Consequently, access to fresh, clean water is a must at all times.
With the help of specific feed and some good dietary practices, it’s possible to affect a horse’s work behaviour, promote muscle endurance and facilitate recovery in order to maintain a high level of daily training and ensure good performance at competitions.
Muscle fatigue and how to reduce it
Several factors cause muscle fatigue, and they depend greatly on whether the work done is aerobic or anaerobic. Aerobic work involves light cardiovascular training, where oxygen is the main fuel for the muscles. Anaerobic work involves high-intensity training, where the oxygen supply alone is not enough to sustain muscular effort. Below are some examples of each type of work.
Examples of primarily aerobic equestrian activities:
Leisure trail riding
Beginner riding lessons
Examples of primarily anaerobic equestrian activities:
Heavy horse pulling
It’s recommended that horses drink at regular intervals during lengthy training sessions, and that electrolytes be used to offset mineral loss from sweating. The main source of muscle fatigue during aerobic work is dehydration and the loss of minerals such as:
Hay is an important ally in preventing dehydration. When a horse drinks enough, hay serves as a water reservoir that contains high levels of potassium and magnesium.
With anaerobic work, muscle fatigue is caused by the depletion of muscle glycogen and the accumulation of lactic acid. Muscle glycogen can be compared to a car’s gas tank. In the same way that a gas tank provides the fuel needed to run the engine, glycogen is the main source of glucose that produces the energy needed to perform.
The consumption of quality grains or the use of a complete grain-based feed helps regenerate muscle glycogen stores, since they are an important source of starch.
However, providing a meal rich in sugar and starch three hours prior to physical activity should be avoided, since this will increase the use of glycogen stores and decrease the positive effect of the fat. Waiting an hour after the recovery period before giving a horse a meal of concentrates is strongly recommended.
Regardless of the type of training, it’s important to follow a few golden rules to maximize a horse’s performance and prevent diet-related digestive and metabolic problems.