By: Tarsha Walsh B. LSc (Hon)
Specialist Endurance & Performance Horse Nutritionist
Feeding and nutrition can literally make or break an endurance horse. It is one of the only horse sports where a small imbalance in nutrition will bring your entire event undone.
To help you think through getting the feeding and nutrition of your endurance horses right, here are my 5 top tips:
1. Rely heavily on forages and fibres
Forages like pasture, hay and chaff, as well as fibres like beet pulp should always form the basis of your endurance diet. The diet should be at least 70% forages/fibres (equivalent to 8 kg of forage for a 450 kg horse, or close to 18 lb for a 1000 lb horse).
For horses that struggle to maintain weight, you should use the highest quality, highest energy forages you can find and incorporate high energy ‘super fibres’ like beet pulp into the diet.
For horses that need to lose weight, you can use lower quality, lower energy forages. That way you can still feed plenty of forage without overfeeding calories (which will just make your horse fat).
It is also a great idea to provide a variety of forages and fibres. We get the best results with endurance horses when we feed multiple types of grass hay, or grassy hay plus a mixed species pasture… plus some lucerne/alfalfa (for most horses) and high energy fibres like beet pulp. The variety helps to maintain appetites and also helps with gut health by encouraging a more diverse and therefore more robust gut microbiome.
It is also a good idea for stabled horses to provide a variety of forage lengths from short chopped chaff to long stemmed hay, with the majority of your forage being long stemmed hay.
Because forages often make up a significant portion of an endurance horse’s diet, testing your hay and pasture can be a really useful tool in managing a diet’s energy and protein content. And it also helps to ensure you are able to meet and correctly balance minerals.
How FeedXL Helps: FeedXL will help ensure you are feeding enough forage and also show you what is missing from the forage base of the diet. PLUS FeedXL will help you find the right feeds and supplements to fill up any gaps left in the diet by the forages.
2. Use grains carefully to top up energy
Forages and fibres will rarely be capable of meeting an endurance horse’s full energy requirements… which means energy levels in the diet need to be ‘topped up’. Most commonly it is grains that are used as the concentrated source of energy to top up an endurance diet. And they work well, BUT … grains come with risks, with the two main ones being:
- A higher risk of ulcers, OUCH! And;
- Hindgut acidosis
But it’s not all bad… we can safely feed grains without causing gastric ulcers or hindgut acidosis by following these rules for grain feeding:
- Keep grain meals to less than 1 kg/feed to reduce the risk of ulcers. I like to keep grain to 800 grams per meal.
- Always feed a processed (cooked) grain to reduce the flow of starch into the hindgut and reduce the risk of hindgut acidosis; and
- Keep following Tip #1 above and keep the amount of forage and fibre up in the diet so you don’t have to add too much grain to meet energy requirements.
Depending on how much grain you are feeding, you may need to consider the level of omega 3 and 6 in the diet. Grains are naturally higher in omega 6 than 3. Balancing the omegas is extremely important for the endurance horse as one of the biggest problems we have is soundness in the joints and muscles.
High amounts of omega 6 have a pro inflammatory effect which is going to increase the risk of muscle inflammation and joint inflammation. Keeping the omega 3 levels the same or a little bit higher than the omega 6 levels in the diet is good way to ensure we are keeping the inflammation at bay as best we can.
Flaxseed (linseed) oil is an excellent way to increase the omega 3 content of the diet and it also adds extra calories which can help reduce the need for grains. For more information on omega 3 you can keep reading here: https://feedxl.com/29-omega-3/
How FeedXL Helps: FeedXL will show you exactly how much extra energy your horse needs to have topped up in the diet and will help you find appropriate grains or feeds to meet energy requirements.
3. Control protein intake
Protein is critically important in an endurance horse’s diet. But there must not be too much… nor too little.
Too Much Protein
Too much protein will cause your horse to urinate excessively, potentially causing electrolyte imbalances and issues with dehydration. It may also cause high total protein in the blood which often leads to a higher creatinine level which can fast track a metabolic result at the vet gate.
So it is really important not to overfeed protein. The key is to get enough of the right type of protein!
FeedXL will help you balance the levels of protein in the diet correctly for your horse. And using FeedXL in combination with a forage analysis will help you get the diet as accurate as possible!
And when horses are kept in a stable you can sometimes smell the urea levels in their urine or the high ammonia levels in the bedding indicating protein is being fed in excess.
Too Little Protein
You can actually ‘see’ when your horse is not getting enough of the ‘right protein’. They simply don’t build muscle with work, or worse, they will start to lose muscle.
If your horse is not building muscle or is in fact losing muscle it will either be because they aren’t getting enough protein. OR they may be getting plenty of protein but the protein quality is too low.
If this is the case for your horse, have a read of our article ‘Understanding Protein Quality’ https://feedxl.com/30-understanding-protein-quality/ and use this along with FeedXL to determine how to best increase the amount and/or the quality of the protein in the diet.
How FeedXL Helps: FeedXL will calculate the amount of protein in your horse’s diet and show you if there is too much or too little and help you to adjust the diet up or down for protein.
4. Balance electrolytes
Balancing electrolytes can be a difficult task, especially when we are training in uncontrolled environments with constant shifts in ambient temperature and humidity.
Horses lose a lot of electrolytes in normal bodily functions and this electrolyte loss increases exponentially when the horse is sweating from hard work. Hot weather increases electrolyte losses via sweating and humidity will dramatically increase the losses via the excessive sweating that occurs in humid conditions.
I’ve seen horses lose more than 20kg of weight as sweat within a couple hours of work. The amount of electrolyte in this amount of sweat is HUGE and it all needs to be replaced.
Replacing what is lost is vital to your horse’s performance and is particularly important for your horse’s recovery.
When horses are working hard and peaking in their training, imbalances in their electrolytes minerals can result higher heart rates, reduced sweating, inability to remove heat from the body, tying up episodes, severe dehydration and in extreme situations horses can collapse and die. Plus electrolyte deficient horses take longer to rebuild muscle glycogen reserves, cannot fully rehydrate themselves and as a consequence take longer to recover from hard work.
Keeping the electrolytes up in your horse’s daily routine is an effective way of ensuring they don’t become deficient and suffer these consequences.
How FeedXL Helps: Use FeedXL to determine your horse’s electrolyte requirements and to find high quality electrolyte supplements that have good levels of all of the electrolyte minerals (sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium).
5. Feed appropriately during the loops
During the loops you are time pressured to get your horse to eat and recover as quickly as possible. In most situations you only have 30-40 minutes to get them eating what they can.
From a gut health perspective it’s great for them to eat alfalfa (lucerne) prior to going back out on the loop in terms of preventing ulcers. From a performance perspective though, we probably want a little more energy than what just alfalfa can provide.
Focusing on the sugars and the carbohydrates is crucial. The best kind of feed is one that has processed / cooked grains and added oils to give longer lasting, more sustained energy. If your horse is a great eater and will eat anything during the loops it’s better to keep them on their usual feed if it fits this description.
If your horse is a fussy eater, try adding some fresh chopped up carrot or apples to your horse’s feed. Cinnamon is a flavor that many horses like so you can add a little sprinkle of cinnamon to the feed to help with appetite. Be aware though that some horses don’t like it so try it before the race!
If this is still not enough to encourage eating, then using a highly palatable sweetfeed or topping their usual feed with molasses are strategies that might help.
I have found it’s best not to feed a very ‘sweet’ sweetfeed (muesli or open feed) that’s loaded with molasses before or after the first loop. Feeding these high sugar feeds is going to challenge the horse with glucose peaks and then energy slumps.
BUT a sweet feed is great to feed before the last loop, especially when the last loop is not as long as other loops, so you can (try and) time the glucose peak to parallel with the same time as the last loop. Generally glucose peaks can last 40 minutes before energy levels start to drop.
If you have a very fussy eater, then using a sweetfeed or molasses at any time is OK because something is better than nothing!
To Finish …
Endurance horses need a truly balanced diet to be able to compete to the best of their ability. Getting enough but not too much energy, enough but not too much of the right protein and making sure vitamin and mineral requirements are met, especially for those oh so important electrolyte minerals can be the difference between best conditioned or vetting out.
Using the tips given here along with FeedXL to do all of the number crunching for you, you can achieve a scientifically balanced diet, perfectly customised for your specific horse!
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