Feeding Horses For Optimal Performance (Full Guide)

Feeding Horses For Optimal Performance (Full Guide)

What does it take to be successful with your horse? Without a doubt, having a reputable coach, world-class training facilities, and cutting-edge equipment will give you an advantage. However, in order for your horse to feel and perform at his best, you must first consider what kind of fuel you are feeding him.


Equine athletes have nutritional needs that are specific to their discipline, workload, and lifestyle; you must address them for optimal performance.

Horses use various methods to obtain the energy they require to excel athletically. Taylor explains that “the metabolic pathway used to generate energy varies with exercise intensity and duration, and not all feed calories are created equal.”

Horses get the majority of their energy from glucose (found mostly in carbohydrates) and amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.

Once digested, the body can turn both glucose and amino acids into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to be used for energy.


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Feeding Horses For Optimal Performance

The inherent athletic ability of the horse is impressive. However, to achieve optimal performance in any equine sport, a conditioning program must be designed that improves cardiovascular function, capillary density in muscle, flexibility, bone strength, increased muscle mass, increased energy substrate storage, and more efficient utilization.

1. Carbohydrates

Starch and sugar are the two most common nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs) fed to adult horses. They account for most corn, oats, barley, and other cereal grains. When carbohydrate-derived glucose enters the bloodstream, the body can either create ATP and use it as the energy right away or store it intramuscularly as glycogen.


When the horse requires that stored energy, his body converts it back to glucose through a process known as glycogenolysis. Starch and sugar are excellent energy sources, and it can be tempting to lavish them on our equine athletes. We must, however, feed NSCs in moderation. While most horses can handle them (Pagan/KER, 2011), if they consume too much starch or sugar at once, they can become ill.

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2. Fat

Fat is a relatively safe and effective source of energy for horses in heavy work. It contains 2.25 times more energy per weight than carbohydrates and is extremely calorie dense. Fat molecules are broken down into fatty acids, which the horse’s body can either use as energy or store in adipose (fat) tissue. Upton encourages horse owners to embrace this beneficial nutrient because fat-based feeds cause horses to be less “hot” and excitable than starch- or sugar-based feeds.

In practice, fat is also less expensive to feed: Affordable sources include vegetable oil, rice bran, soy hulls, linseed/flaxseed oil, and sunflower seeds. Horses can digest up to 20% fat in their total diet, but add it gradually because too much can reduce palatability and result in colic.

3. Protein

Joe Pagan, PhD, published a study in 2012 that demonstrated that mature working horses require very little protein. A traditional performance diet of hay and grain usually provides enough, especially if alfalfa is included. As previously stated, protein is made up of amino acids, and the quality of these acids is important. Those classified as essential amino acids are especially important. A few things to keep in mind when it comes to protein: Any excess is excreted as ammonia in the urine, a highly irritating gas to the respiratory tract and hooves. A high-protein diet also increases water requirements, which can be especially troublesome for athletes who travel and exercise frequently, putting them at risk of dehydration. Finally, protein breakdown generates internal body heat, which adds insult to injury.

Feeding Programs

Feeds are formulated based on the amount of energy a horse will receive for a given activity. Remember that energy is the most important component of the ration and a body condition score is the best way to monitor energy balance.

However, energy isn’t the only ingredient that helps a hard-working horse thrive, and hay alone does not provide all the necessary nutrients required for healthy bodily function. The solution? Ration balancers. These low-calorie pelleted feeds provide a concentrated source of nutrients, including often-overlooked vitamins and minerals. They’re convenient to feed and ensure all dietary needs are met without adding unnecessary calories.