Feeding the Performance Horse

By Wendy Mollat, DVM, DACVIM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

For many of you, the show season is in full swing. In order to keep your equine companion healthy and performing optimally, it is important to frequently assess her nutritional status by monitoring body condition and energy levels throughout the competition season. (For most competitive horses, a body condition score of 4 to 6 out of 9 is considered appropriate.) Additionally, travel and environment changes that accompany the show season may lead to decreased water consumption and increase the risk of impaction colic and other illnesses.

How many calories does a horse need, anyway? As a baseline, the average horse will need to consume between 16 to 17 megacalories per day to maintain current body condition. When the caloric expenditure of work is considered, some horses will require twice that number of calories to maintain body condition. Roughly speaking, a horse in moderate work (3 to 5 hours of work per week) will require 23 megacalories per day, whereas a high-level eventer or racehorse exercising 6 to 12 hours per week may need 34.5 megacalories per day. 

Most grass hay only has 850 calories per pound, and alfalfa hay has about 950 calories per pound. That means it would take 27 pounds of grass hay/24 pounds of alfalfa to meet the needs of a horse in moderate work, and about 40 pounds of grass hay/36 pounds of alfalfa for a horse in heavy work. Clearly, alternative high-caloric density feeds are a necessity with horses in moderate to heavy work. There are so many commercial grain products available these days that it can be overwhelming to choose something appropriate for your horse. 

Generally, I recommend sticking to a commercially produced blended grain versus the do-it-yourself mixing of various grains. Why? Because commercial grain blends are designed to be fed as a supplement to hay and will better balance out the protein, vitamin and mineral deficiencies in hay. Recently, the types of amino acids included in these grains have been getting more research and publicity. Amino acids are the building blocks for protein; if the essential amino acids are not provided in the correct ratios, your horse will be unable to maintain good muscle development. (Lysine and methionine are the two most important essential amino acids.)

Once you have narrowed it down to a few products, take the time to turn the bag around and read the feeding directions. To get the most benefit from the grain product, you want to closely follow the label directions, taking into consideration the size and activity level of your horse. For example, Purina recommends feeding 6.5 to 7.5 pounds per day of Ultium® Competition, plus a minimum of 11 pounds of hay, for a horse weighing 1,100 pounds in moderate to heavy work. In the off-season, your horse may get too heavy on this amount of grain. You should then pick feed geared toward a lower activity level, such as Strategy Healthy Edge®.

Finally, after all this talk about feed supplements, don’t forget the most important nutrient – water! On average, horses require 4 to 5 gallons per day of fresh water. This volume will go up or down depending on a number of factors including ambient temperature, workload and type of feed. Contact your veterinarian with any questions about your horse’s particular nutritional needs.

Located in Snohomish, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital offers ambulatory and referral hospital services, including 24/7 emergency. Call 360.568.3111 for more information.

Article added 6.25.14