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Feeding the Performance Horse

Feeding the Performance Horse

EB1612
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Larry Lawrence, former Extension Equine Specialist, Washington State University
Discusses the amounts and types of feed to give performance horses, especially as related to the horse's activities and conditioning program. Discussion includes fatigue and energy metabolism, nutrition, intensity of work, vitamins, minerals, grass, salt, alfalfa and timothy hay, water, electrolytes, feed management, health care as related to feeding, and metabolic problems. Supplemented with references, several tables, and detailed condition scoring charts.
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The horse has an enormous capacity for physical work. Its athletic potential for speed, endurance, and agility renewed its popularity in sports events such as endurance riding, three-day events, and cutting competitions. A horse’s inherent athletic ability is highly dependent on genetics. Certain breeds and lines of horses are better suited for specific events. Horses should be selected for particular activities based on genetic potential, then trained and conditioned for that specific activity.

As we continuously challenge the horse’s performance abilities, we seek the finished horse, an animal that has peaked in its training and conditioning program. The trainer is responsible for the level of fitness a horse has for a specific activity. Two very important systems help determine the success of a performance horse:

1) Nutrition/energy metabolism—the supply of energy and its utilization.

2) Conditioning/fitness—the mechanics of gait, coordination, and muscular strength.

Nutrition and conditioning development programs are closely related to and dependent on each other. One of the best ways to

evaluate a horse’s condition and nutritional status is by body weight and/or condition scores. Livestock scales are needed for accurate determination of weight, and accurate weights are very helpful in predicting performance. If scales are not available then equine weight tapes can be used to estimate body weight. However, they are not accurate enough to monitor changes that may affect performance. For example, a difference of 1% in the horse’s weight (11 lbs. in a 1,100-lb. horse) can affect performance of race horses.

Table 1 contains conversions from inches measured around the heart girth to estimated weight. A condition score system (Figure 1) has been developed at Texas A&M based upon visual appraisal and palpable fat cover. Horses are rated from emaciated to extremely fat. Horses should be fed based upon a percentage of their body weight (Table 2). Once the horse’s weight has been estimated you can calculate the amount of feed it will require. Don’t measure feed by volume; weigh it on a scale (Table 3).

Conditioning Program

It is difficult to separate condition and fitness from nutrition in performance horses. The horse that has been laid off for the winter may come into the season underweight or overweight. So, part of the program may include weight gain or reduction.

A good fitness conditioning program combined with proper nutrition influences energy use. The performance horse uses 80–90% of its feed for energy metabolism. The muscles can actually be trained to use energy substrates (carbohydrates and fats) more efficiently. There are two general muscle fiber groups: fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers. Glycogen (carbohydrate) is the stored form of energy that hard-working fast twitch muscle fibers use most. Research has shown that glycogen can be increased by 33% during a conditioning program of10 weeks. Slow twitch fibers are associated with endurance-type activities. Endurance conditioning can increase the aerobic capacity, or ability to deliver and utilize oxygen and energy-rich fatty acids. Both groups of muscle fibers respond to endurance training by increasing the aerobic capacity. This is one key to a good conditioning program.

There are many ways to condition horses. The best conditioning programs increase aerobic capacity and prepare them for the actual work they will perform (Table 4). One conditioning system is known as interval training. Interval training builds horses up gradually to the actual work that will be expected of them. Interval training stresses the horse’s cardiovascular and locomotor systems during repeated short exercise bouts interrupted by rest or recovery periods. This work-rest system builds resistance to the stress of exercise and slowly conditions horses to their maximum potential.

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Copyright 2004 Washington State University

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