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Horse Feeding Recommendations for a Successful Show Season


Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

To be a successful show competitor, you must select a proper feeding program for your horse, with the right type and amount of hay, concentrate or grain and supplements to provide your horse with the proper body condition, muscling, appearance, stamina and attitude to compete successfully. This can be a complex and time-consuming process as the metabolism of horses varies according to breed and activity, as we have "easy keepers" and "hard keepers" that require different amounts and types of feeds. Following are some common horse feeding questions and answers that can allow your horse to perform at its best.

How can I feed my horse for more energy?

The first thing to be sure of is that your horse has a proper body condition that will allow adequate energy reserves for strenuous activity as well as a strong topline or muscle development that shows your conditioning and feeding program has been successful. Body condition scores range from 1 to 9, and show horses should have a body condition score of 5 to 6. Topline scores range from A to E, with a score of "A" referring to a strong back, loin, croup and hindquarters that show prominent muscle development that is dependent on exercise and nutrition (adequate protein and amino acids). Once good body condition and topline has been achieved, performance horses doing mainly aerobic work, like dressage, can lack stamina or fatigue due to lack of glycogen, overheating from lack of hydration due to sweat loss, or electrolyte depletion from sweat loss. Switching to a feed with more fat, or adding a fat supplement can allow a glycogen sparing effect in the horse and increase stamina. Make sure that you are meeting all the nutrient requirements of your horse when you change the horse's diet, and Southern States can assist you with those recommendations. Also, add an electrolyte supplement to your horse's feeding program whenever you are working your horse one hour or more per day and when the temperature and humidity together exceeds 104° F (70° F + 40% humidity = 110, for example). Adding 1 to 2 ounces of salt or 2 to 4 ounces of electrolytes per day to your horse's feeding program during training and show season is usually sufficient to keep the horse drinking enough in relation to water losses from sweating and maintain good performance. Also the use of a vitamin B12 supplement is recommended on show days if you need to increase the energy level of your horse. The use of a vitamin E/selenium supplement that supplies a daily dosage of 1,000 IU of vitamin E and 1 mg of selenium is recommended for hard working horses as these nutrients are antioxidants needed to repair active muscle tissue. Especially if you are feeding a small amount of feed, have an equine nutritionist check your daily ration for vitamin E and selenium concentration, or add this supplement and look for an improved response in 30 days.

How can I feed my horse for less energy?

Horses can be nervous or excitable from many reasons. But we have research that shows that the sugar/starch content of the feed can have an effect. To prevent excitability, our research has shown that providing a horse feed that contains 20% nonstructural carbohydrates or NSC (defined as simple sugar and starch content) with a feeding rate of no more than 0.5% BW per meal (for example, limit feed to 5 pounds per meal for a 1,000-pound horse) reduces excitability in the exercised horse compared to feed containing higher levels of NSC. You can find NSC (defined as starch plus simple sugars)  values for all Southern States horse feeds from your Southern States feed specialists, feed dealers, and website. And studies that have added fat to the diet have shown calmer behavior in the horse. So select a low starch/sugar or NSC feed (20% or less) and look for a fat level of 10% or more, or add more fat with a supplement when providing feed with less than 10% fat content. Legends Performance Pelleted is a horse feed that meets the high fat/low starch level described above. Also, deficiencies of magnesium and thiamin can result in symptoms of anxiety, excitability and muscle soreness in the horse. So make sure you are feeding adequate amounts of magnesium and thiamin (vitamin B1) or supplement these in your horse’s feeding program and look for any behavioral or performance benefits.

How can I feed my horse most effectively during hot weather?

The importance of electrolytes had already been mentioned, and these are essential in keeping your horse hydrated and working well in hot weather. Feed electrolytes daily during training and show season in hot weather, including during travel days in the trailer to keep your horse drinking. When fat is digested, it produces the least amount of metabolic heat of any nutrient, so a high fat diet is beneficial to the horse in hot weather. Also, excess dietary protein increases the heat load in the horse, so provide a dietary protein level of only 10 to 12% in the total diet. Southern States can help you determine the correct amount of protein that your horse needs based on the horse's weight, breed, activity and current feeding program. Since alfalfa hay is high in protein content, limit feeding it to only 5 to 10 pounds per day along with grass hay, or switch to a grass or mixed hay with lower protein content.

How should I feed my horse during cold weather?

Cold weather increases the energy requirement of the horse, because it must generate more heat in order to maintain body temperature as heat or energy is lost to a cold environment. On an average 40° F day, your horse's energy requirement increases by 10%, and an average 30° F day, energy requirements are increased by 20%. The most efficient way to feed the horse in cold weather is more hay, as it generates more heat when fermented in the horse than other feedstuffs. This heat of fermentation helps to offset the extra heat loss in the horse during cold weather and allows it to be a little more efficient. But the most important feeding concern during cold weather is to make sure the horse drinks enough to prevent impaction colic. If you don't have insulated or heated water for your horse and there are freezing temperatures, be sure to add two ounces of salt or four ounces of electrolytes to the horse's daily feeding program to insure adequate water intake, and reduce the risk of impaction colic. Horses prefer water with a temperature of 45° – 65° F and can reduce their water intake enough to become dehydrated enough to get an impaction. The lower the hay quality, the greater the risk of an impaction, as it takes longer for low quality hay to become soluble and break down in the hindgut of the horse.

How much water should a horse drink during show and travel and how can I keep my horse drinking when traveling to different shows?

Horses require from 8 to 30 gallons of water per day, depending on environmental conditions and activity level. In hot, humid weather the horse can sweat as much as 4 gallons per hour, so they can become severely dehydrated under prolonged work or travel. Again, electrolytes should be used during training, showing and travel in hot weather. Horses that are stressed will not drink as much or as often as they should to avoid dehydration. Also, some horses are reluctant to drink water from other sources than their own barn. To keep the horse from refusing to drink water as you travel from show to show, "flavor" the water at your barn. You can use a small amount of sweetened Kool-Aid, molasses, spearmint or peppermint oil, Gatorade, whatever your horse likes and you can use to get him to drink readily from any water source. Another "trick" you can use if your horse won't eat powdered electrolytes that you put in the feed is to take a container or resealable plastic bag, like a gallon Ziploc bag, fill it half way full of beet pulp, add 2 to 4 ounces of salt or electrolytes and then fill it with water. Wait an hour and then add a portion of the wet beet pulp that contains the added salt or electrolyte. Your horse should eat the web beet pulp mixture readily and get their salt or electrolytes as you feed it through the day.


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