The art of horse nutrition
While a diet can appear balanced in theory, what should that look like for your horse?
In simple terms, a balanced diet is one that contains the nutrients required by an individual horse according to their specific requirements for work, life stage or reproductive status.
Sounds simple, right? Well, in theory yes. The main component of any horse’s diet should be forage such as grass, hay or haylage. Forage provides a good source of slow-release energy as microbes in the horse’s hind gut gradually ferment the fibre it provides. These microbes are also involved in producing B vitamins, which help with metabolism.
Essential for equine digestive health, fibre also provides a glut of nutrients and a significant amount of energy for the working horse.
The more mature a plant, the less digestible and, therefore, the less energy it will provide. Straw is a particularly low-energy fibre for this reason making it fantastic for good doers but not as useful for the performance horse.
Fibre is also vital for your horse’s digestion. Low-fibre diets, combined with higher starch rations, are linked to an increased risk of colic and gastric ulcers. Research shows that alfalfa as a source of fibre is a superior buffer to acidity in the digestive tract. Feeding a double handful of a chopped alfalfa-based fibre feed in the 20-25 minutes before you ride is recommended to help prevent ‘acid splash’ in the non-glandular region of your horse’s stomach. The fibre makes sure the stomach isn’t empty and suppresses the movement of the acidic contents when the horse moves.
Protein – obtained from a variety of sources including grass, forage and bucket feed – is vital for growth, renewal and repair, which translates to strength and top line muscle condition for performance horses. Having sufficient quality protein is essential for building muscle. Of these, lysine is particularly important as it is a limiting amino acid. If a horse has insufficient lysine, then protein synthesis and, therefore, muscle development would be limited.
Hydration, of course, is key, particularly during the winter months when your horse may drink less. Feeding them a soaked, fibre mash means water is carried into the digestive tract and, as it is so highly digestible, is then released readily to aid hydration.
Taking all of that into consideration, it’s easy to see why getting your horse’s diet just right can be a minefield. The market is flooded with feeds and supplements, which can make it difficult to recognise which are invaluable additions to your horse’s diet and which are unnecessary. Feeds are designed to be fed at a certain weight according to the horse’s body weight. If you need to feed more or less, it’s likely to be the wrong feed for your horse.
When giving supplements, if too many are given the minerals compete against each other for absorption sites in the gut, leading to the overabsorption of one and insufficient absorption of another. While animals are usually efficient at regulating their uptake of nutrients, increasing consumption doesn’t necessarily mean more will be absorbed, especially if the body doesn’t think it needs it.
The proof always has to be in your horse. Do they look well? Are they the correct weight? Are they performing at the level you’d expect? If so, the chances are their diet is balanced. If you’re noticing that your horse isn’t right, is lacking in energy or is putting on or losing weight, then some adjustment may be needed.
Article originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of British Eventing Life magazine