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Feed management of the Competition Horse

Equine Nutritionist, Ruth Bishop BSc (Hons) Dip EqSc considers some good general principles of the nutritional management of the competition horse, looking at how to feed your horse before, during and after an event.

th feeding and nutrition have important supporting roles as one component of your management “tool box”, alongside training, veterinary monitoring, good farriery, physiotherapy, sports psychology and the like. It requires both long term and short term strategies: long term its about finding a combination of forage, feeds and supplements that work for your horse, whilst short-term competition-day feed tactics can help ensure the best performance on the day, and help recovery afterwards.

Horses are of course individuals – the way they hold condition, their temperament, and the work and training level they are at are unique to each. However what and when you feed your horse influences all of these – as well as their basic health.

As a horse’s workload increases, many physiological changes take place, from increased blood flow to the tissues, increased tissue damage (often at a microscopic level) that requires ongoing repair, and changes in bone density. All these mean that the horse requires an increased plane of nutrition: not only in terms of energy, but also in relation to amino acids, vitamins and minerals.

It’s also a paradox of feeding that the harder we work horses, the more we challenge the natural function of the digestive tract by feeding against its design.

Inner health is key

e digestive tract as a whole is a huge organ that accounts for about 15% of a horse’s total weight when full, and is designed for the evolutionary horse that roamed plains, constantly eating fibrous feedstuffs. This means they have a relatively small stomach and small intestine, followed by a large fibre-fermenting hindgut.

Given its size, ensuring the digestive tract functions correctly is essential for health and behaviour. The challenge with competition horse is that we often want and need to feed them differently to free roaming grazing animals, with small discrete meals and restricted forage.

For the competition horse, forage, and more importantly, the fibre it supplies, are essential for inner health as the large intestine comprises approximately two thirds of the digestive tract. Changes to the diet or restricted forage can affect hindgut function and may cause colic or other digestive upset.

Forage and fibre can also help to protect against gastric ulcers. Horses have evolved to consume ad lib fibre and so its relatively small stomach produces gastric acid continuously to begin the digestive process. However saliva is only produced when chewing, so that if there is a gap between feeds, acid builds up in the stomach with the result that it can reach unprotected parts of the stomach, causing ulcers.

Since fibre takes longer to chew than compound feeds, it reduces the time for that acid to build up. Fibre is also thought to produce a fibrous “matrix” within the stomach that prevents gastric acid from “splashing” into unprotected parts of the stomach. Increasing the length of time a horse spends eating fibre via short or long chopped fibre sources reduces the risk of gastric ulcers.

The importance of good forage

Given that it forms the largest part of many horse’s diets, forage is often taken for granted as an inert base to the diet, contributing bulk but not much else. As a result it receives little attention in terms of understanding its quality and contribution to the diet. There are many kinds of forage available e.g. grass, hay, haylage, and each is inherently variable in their moisture energy and protein contents, and so can have a major impact on a competition horse. Additionally a concern with hay is its potential dust content in relation to respiratory irritation and disease.

Haylage is largely dust-free, but is consumed faster than hay, and can be nutritionally richer, which may not make it the ideal replacement in every case. Another challenge with haylage can be portion control – large bales or compressed small bales and variable moisture contents make it difficult to measure the precise amount of fibre the horse receives.

These considerations are especially important in relation to the fine-tuned diets of competition horses, such that all competition diets should begin with a forage plan.

Consider which forage; how much (little or large) does your horse work best off; can you source quality and consistent material; does this provide a decent base level of fibre (e.g. at least 50% of intake) and if not how other sources of fibre can be incorporated into the diet to help support digestive health.

Power, control and condition

Another main feeding challenge is maintaining the balance between power, control and condition, especially as work intensity increases. Generally one of three things happens –

  1. You increase the feed rate as the amount of work increases but this negatively affects the horse’s behaviour
  2. As work rate increases or the competition season gets going, your horse drops condition. This is difficult to replace with increased feed because it has an adverse affect on his behaviour.
  3. You have a good doer who although you want to feed more to support more work, just gets bigger.

With modern feeds there are plenty of options in the balance of energy sources to help manage each of these scenarios. Energy sources available to horses from their feed and forage are:

Fibre: fermentable in the hindgut, made up of plant cellulose, hemicellulose and pectins. The nature of the fibre affects the speed at which the microbes in the hindgut break it down and therefore its energy content.

Starch and sugar (also known as non-structural carbohydrates): these are digested by enzymes in the small intestine and are rapidly available.

Oil: Horses can digest and utilise oil well as an energy source. Nutritionists recommend that for every 100mls added, extra Vitamin E is added to the diet to help cope with the added free radicals such high oil produces.


Competition day itself

Whilst competition day is what you have been building up for, it also represent a massive change in daily routine for the horse with added travel and excitement. There is much debate as to what to feed on competition day. It’s tempting to withhold forage on the way there to keep the horse light, but the current consensus is that feeding concentrates less than 5 hours before a competition is not beneficial. This is because not only does it take several hours to digest and process a meal, but the horse has already got stored in its muscles the energy needed for the day ahead.

Competition day management should therefore be focused on health – so provide plenty of water, and in terms of actual feed, feeding small amounts of forage in the morning allows the horse to chew, provides fibre into the delicate stomach and hindgut, and has a lesser metabolic impact than a starchy meal.

In summary, when feeding the competition horse, little should be left to chance. Day to day digestive health is paramount, but so is making sure the overall diet is calculated and fine-tuned for the individual. Competition day management is also important to get the best out of the horse on the day.

The munch™ range of healthy snacks with added benefits provide a convenient way to feed quality forage before, during and after competition. The compressed 1kg blocks of timothy grass, each with added vitamins, minerals and herbs are sealed in packs which can be stored without opening ready for use at any time.

  • Restricted forage? For competition horses that keep their condition well and for whom forage and other feeds are restricted, feeding munch™ blocks provides a low energy, portion-controlled way of providing high quality fibre together with vitamins and minerals in the diet. Each munch™ block weighs 1kg and when fed in the unique munch net can last over an hour.
  • For haylage based diets that tend to be eaten more quickly than hay, a munch™ block offers a consistent, high fibre, low energy, long-lasting addition for horses standing in for long periods of time.
  • On competition day, munch™ blocks provides a perfect fit on competition day. It makes the ideal morning fibre “chaser” to keep the digestive system healthy ahead of the day’s work; it can provide a boredom breaker for long periods waiting in the lorry or trailer, or on late running days. Fortified with additional vitamins and minerals it provides additional nutritional support on the day, and the compact, packaged form mean it fits well into any travelling situation with minimal mess;

Find out more about the full munch™ range of healthy snacks with added benefits.

Feeding Post Competition

After the competition is over, feeding and nutrition tactics should focus on rehydration and replacement of energy reserves and nutrients.

The effort of competing together with the excitement of the day mean the horse has used up muscle energy reserves – how much or little depends on the intensity of the effort. Fast or intense work efforts such as cross country, polo, endurance, show jumping or point-to-pointing utilise muscle glycogen stores, which provide instant energy during work, but once used up take 72 hours to restore. (Less intense work efforts are unlikely to have used up muscle glycogen however).

After sweating

Generally, after the competition, offer plenty of water plus electrolytes after exercise, taking care for it not to be too cold or for the horse to drink too much in one go. When it is particularly hot or humid or the horse is competing in particularly hard work the horse may need an electrolyte replacer added to its feed or water. Also offer plenty of forage for the horse to nibble at. A small hard (concentrate) feed, once the horse is cool and relaxed, will begin to replenish lost glycogen stores or bodyweight.

Electrolytes, principally sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium, are responsible for the correct function of nerves and muscles. They also help maintain normal hydration and are integral in maintaining the functioning of the digestive system, and the other vital organs.

One litre of horse sweat contains around 3.5g of sodium, 6g of chloride, 1.2g of potassium and 0.1g of calcium