Feeding Considerations for Working Horses

 
 
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 Contents Introduction

The horse is an incredible athlete, excelling at both maximal sprinting, such as racing or rodeo events, and low-intensity, long duration activities, such as a 100-mile endurance ride. Whether your horse is competing at top levels or just being used for the occasional trail ride, they must be fed adequately to ensure optimal health and performance.

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Exercise Increases Nutrient Needs

The major nutrients needed by all horses are energy, protein, minerals, vitamins and water. By far, the most important nutrient affected by exercise is energy. Muscles require energy to contract. The fuels used by muscle during exercise ultimately originate from the diet; therefore, the energy content of the diet must increase to meet these needs. Muscles rely primarily on stored carbohydrates (blood glucose and muscle glycogen) and fats (from subcutaneous fat stores or muscle fat stores) to fuel contraction during exercise. Protein can also be used as an energy source, but it is very inefficient and doesn't contribute greatly as a fuel for muscle contraction. Therefore, while dietary protein needs increase with an increased level of activity, the additional feed intake required to supply the necessary energy will usually supply the additional protein needed.

Slightly higher levels of vitamins and minerals are also needed by exercising horses. Special attention should be paid to meeting the calcium and phosphorus needs of young horses just beginning training because they are still growing. In addition, hays and grains grown in Alberta are notoriously low in the trace minerals zinc, copper and manganese, and will likely need to be supplemented in the diets of all horses. And, depending on the area, selenium may be deficient in feeds. Feeding high quality feeds will provide the majority of the vitamins and minerals needed by active horses, especially if using a commercial grain mix that has these nutrients added. When feeding plain grains, such as whole oats, vitamins and minerals can be added by including a 1:1 livestock mineral or other suitable vitamin/mineral supplement. At a minimum, the horse should have access to a trace-mineralized salt. Be careful of over-supplementing vitamins and minerals. Excess vitamins and minerals are not only a waste of money, but may also create problems by upsetting the balance of other nutrients in the diet or by causing toxicity.

An adequate source of salt is critical to working horses because the horse loses salt in sweat during exercise. For horses performing light work, free access to a salt block works well. Horses performing moderate to heavy work may need to have additional loose salt top-dressed on their grain ration. In cool to moderate temperatures, the horse will need at least 2 to 3 oz of salt per day. In the warmer summer months, 4 to 6 oz of salt per day, or more, may be needed to replace heavier sweat losses.

The minimum nutrient concentrations needed by mature working horses and young horses entering training are presented in Table 1. The concentrations of nutrients needed are shown as a percentage of the total diet.

Table 1: Minimum nutrient concentrations needed in the total diet of working horsesa
Horse
Energy
Mcal/lb
Protein
%
Calcium
%
Phosphorus
%

Mature Horses:
      Idle
0.80
8
0.25
0.15
      Light workb
1.05
9
0.30
0.20
      Moderate workc
1.10
10
0.30
0.25
      Heavy work d
1.20
11
0.35
0.25
Young horses in
Training:
      Long yearling
1.20
11
0.35
0.25
      2 year old
1.20
11
0.35
0.25

a Values are on an as-fed basis (90% dry matter).
b Light work = pleasure riding, trail riding, equitation.
c Moderate work = roping, cutting, reining, jumping.
d Heavy work = race training, eventing, polo, endurance.

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Feeds for the Active Horse

when designing your feeding program, remember that good-quality forages should form the basis of the ration for ALL horses. Good quality forage in the form of hay or pasture provides energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. With good quality forages, less supplementation is needed to complete the diet. Alfalfa hays are usually higher in digestible energy, protein and calcium than grass hays, such as brome, timothy or orchardgrass (Table 2). The protein and energy contents of mixed alfalfa/grass hays are usually intermediate between plain alfalfa and grass hays. The nutrient content of hays is strongly influenced by the stage of growth in which it was cut. As forage matures from early bloom to full bloom in the field, protein and energy content may decrease by more than 40%. Therefore, hays that were cut in the early- to mid-bloom stage should be fed to horses.

Depending on the level of activity, many horses will be unable to consume enough feed to meet their energy needs from forage alone. Grains contain 25 to 75% more energy per pound than hays. While most grains contain a relatively similar protein content, they differ greatly in their energy content. By weight, corn contains 15% more energy, and barley contains 10% more energy than oats (Table 3). Therefore, a smaller volume of corn or barley would be fed compared to oats. This illustrates why it is important to feed by weight, rather than volume.

Commercial grain mixes offer convenience by incorporating additional vitamins and minerals into the grain mix to create a balanced ration. When commercial grain mixes are used, they should be selected to complement the forage being fed. For mature, working horses, a 10% protein grain mix should be used with alfalfa hay. A 12% protein mix works well with mixed grass/alfalfa hays and early- to mid-maturity grass hays. Feeding a mature, late-bloom grass hay requires a 14% protein grain mix to meet the requirements of working horses.

A dietary fat source, such as corn oil or canola oil, can also be fed to increase the energy density of the diet. Vegetable oils contain almost three times as much energy as oats (Table 3). In other words, one cup of oil has the same amount of energy as about 1.5 pounds of oats. For horses receiving large quantities of grain (5 pounds or more), substituting a proportion of the grain ration with oil also has the benefit of reducing the amount of starch in the diet. Too much starch from grains can overload the horse's hindgut, leading to colic or founder.

For light work (pleasure and trail riding), the horse may be able to meet its increased needs simply by eating an additional 5 to 7 pounds of hay on top of what they already receive. Alternatively, an additional 3 to 4 pounds of grain can be fed. Moderate work (barrel racing, ranch work, jumping), usually requires the addition of grain to the diet because these horses will likely not receive enough energy from hay alone. Their hay ration can be increased, but usually 7 to 10 pounds of grain per day is also needed. Heavy work usually requires the use of large amounts of grain to meet increased energy needs. A dietary fat source should be considered for horses in heavy work.

Table 2: Average nutrient composition of Alberta hays*
Feed
Energy
Mcal/lb
Protein
%
Calcium
%
Phosphorus
%

Alfalfa hay
1.15
16.0
1.60
0.20
Alfalfa / grass mix hay
1.05
13.5
1.40
0.16
Grass hay
0.95
8.0
0.45
0.13
*Values are on an as-fed basis (90% dry matter).

Table 3: Average nutrient composition of Alberta grains and vegetable oil*
Feed
Energy
Mcal/lb
Protein
%
Calcium
%
Phosphorus
%

Corn
1.60
9.5
0.05
0.30
Barley
1.55
11.0
0.06
0.34
Oats
1.45
10.5
0.08
0.32
Oil
4.05
---
---
---
*Values are on an as-fed basis (90% dry matter).

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When to Feed Before Riding

Feeding management is also important for active horses because what and when you feed can influence performance.

The best time to feed a full meal of grain before riding is at least 4 hours before exercise (Table 4). Blood glucose and insulin increase when the horse eats grain. Horses that begin exercise with elevated insulin may fatigue quicker because insulin prevents the muscle from making the best use of nutrients needed to fuel muscle contraction. Allowing at least 4 hours between a grain meal and exercise will allow blood glucose and insulin to come back to baseline, leaving muscle to work optimally.

For horses that will be exerting themselves heavily, hay should also be removed 4 hours before exercise (Table 4). Ingestion of hay increases "gut fill," which increases the amount of weight the horse has to carry. This additional weight (20 to 40 lbs) could be a handicap for horses competing in high-speed events. Hay feeding also temporarily reduces the volume of blood circulating to the tissues. This means less blood is available to fuel muscle contraction and less blood is directed towards the skin to remove excess heat. As a result, horses may get muscle cramps or overheat if they are exercised after a large meal of hay. A digestive tract full of hay also demands a certain amount of blood flow to aide in digestion. Blood diverted away from a full digestive tract and towards working muscles may put the horse at risk for colic. Hay will not affect gut fill and blood flow if the horse is fed smaller meals (2 to 4 pounds) of hay in the 4-hour period before exercise rather than a large meal (6 to 10 pounds), or if the horse is used to grazing pasture throughout the day.

Exceptions to the above feeding management recommendations involve horses participating in long distance events (endurance riding, competitive trail riding, pack trips, etc). These horses should have access to hay right up until the event, to promote water consumption and to enhance the fluid reserve in the horse's hind gut. In addition, these horses should be given small amounts of grain (0.5 to 1.0 lb) throughout the ride to maintain adequate energy levels. If the horse consumes this grain and is back on the trail within an hour, elevated blood glucose and insulin levels, and the resulting impact on muscle function, will be avoided.

Remember, adequately fed horses perform better!!

Table 4: When to Feed Before Riding
Type of Activity
When to Feed HAY
When to Feed GRAIN

High intensitya
      Remove hay 4 hours before competition.
      Feed grain 4 or more hours before competition.
Light to Moderate intensityb
    • Remove hay 4 hours before riding.
    • Or, adapt horse to eating smaller meals throughout the day.
    • Or, allow horse access to pasture.
      Feed grain 4 or more hours before riding.
Long distancec
    • Allow free access to hay right up until competition.
    • Allow access to hay during the ride.
    • Feed large grain meals no closer than 4 hours before the ride.
    • Feed smaller amounts of grain throughout the ride.
a High Intensity activity = Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse racing; barrel racing, roping, cutting, etc.
b Light to Moderate intensity = pleasure/trail riding, jumping, team penning, reining, etc.
c Long distance activity = endurance riding, competitive trail riding, pack trips, etc.

Lori K. Warren, PhD, PAS
Provincial Horse Specialist
Alberta Agriculture and Food

 
 
 
 
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Adrienne Herron.
This information published to the web on February 20, 2002.
Last Reviewed/Revised on December 9, 2014.