While nutrition is one of the most important ways to influence any animal’s health, feeding horses often seems somewhat complicated.

Here, we will break it down step by step so that you can make sure your horses receive exactly what they need. 

1) Determine your horses’ energy needs based on their exercise schedule. 

According to The Nutrient Requirements of Horses (NRC), there are four categories of activity level and intensity, ranging from light to very heavy exercise. It is important to take an HONEST inventory of your horse’s training regimen.

Generally, the only horses that fit into the “very heavy” category are racehorses, elite endurance horses or three-day eventing horses, while most other horses fit into the light or moderate exercise categories. 

It’s very easy for us to overestimate our horses’ workload. Keep in mind that modern horses evolved from animals who often traveled 40 to 50 miles per day! They had to really work for their meals, which is not the case for domestic horses. The reason it is so important to be honest with yourself about your horse’s activity level is because if you have a horse in the light or moderate category who you unintentionally feed at the heavy or very heavy level, you will likely be at risk for overfeeding, which can have detrimental and debilitating health consequences for your horse, such as putting them at higher risk for laminitis and metabolic syndrome.

2) Always start with hay (and a hay test).

Energy can be supplied in the diet by carbohydrates and fat. Carbohydrates fall into two categories: non-structural and structural.

Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) come from sugars and starches, primarily from grain concentrates. Most performance horses require some form of NSC, and while there is no reason to fear feeding sugar and starch — sometimes glucose is necessary! — they do tend to be more problematic for our equine friends. As such, it is important to limit the NSCs in the diet to what the horse really needs based on its age and exercise intensity. 

Structural carbohydrates, on the other hand, include fiber from forage sources and are one of the most critical components in making sure that the horse’s hindgut functions optimally. Remember: A happy hindgut equals a happy horse. 

If you are feeding performance horses, invest in a hay test, which will tell you the exact nutrient levels and help you determine which nutrients need to be added to the diet (based on equine requirements) in the form of grain and horse supplements. 

We should also note that good-quality fat is an easy — and, often, safer — way to increase energy in a performance horse’s diet. Fats will be used by the horse’s body during aerobic exercise, which can help save the glucose from NSCs for high-intensity or long-duration exercise.  

3) Remember the importance of water and salts.

While often overlooked, adequate access to fresh, clean water and iodized salt is crucial for all animals, but especially for performance horses. 

When exercised in hot, humid weather, horses could lose up to four gallons of sweat per hour! Given that electrolytes are required to maintain the fluid balance and electrical activity of each cell, they are hugely important for performance! 

In normal circumstances when a horse is only emitting small amounts of sweat, an iodized white salt block or loose salt, in addition to hay and grain, will do the trick. If weather and exercise — or some other form of stress, like long-distance travel — lead to prolonged, excessive sweating, providing a high-quality electrolyte supplement with potassium, sodium and chloride is a very good idea. 

4) Don’t overdo it on protein.

Many horse owners mistakenly misunderstand how protein should be used in their horses’ diet. As mentioned above, adding energy (or extra calories) to the diet should be done via carbohydrates or fat. While protein and, more specifically, levels of certain amino acids are required for growth, muscle and the maintenance of body systems, protein is an inefficient energy source. 

Horses have specific requirements for essential amino acids, the most important of which are lysine, methionine and threonine. This is another reason why investing in a hay test will help you to balance your performance horse’s diet.  

5) Help minimize and manage stress.

It’s no secret that performance horses often endure a great deal of stress. What we sometimes forget, however, is that this stress can impact almost every system in a horse’s body, from its digestive system to its musculoskeletal system. A well-rounded approach to managing performance horses includes taking all of these systems into consideration.

The key to feeding performance horses is moderation. No one ingredient or nutrient can be beneficial if there is either a deficiency or an excess. Use common sense, pay attention to your horse’s behavior and cues, and seek appropriate balance by working with an equine nutritionist.

Alltech’s new line of premium equine supplements was formulated to assist with that balance. Lifeforce™ Elite Performance was designed to be the only horse supplement you’ll need in a performance setting. It promotes a healthy, whole-body stress response. We are certain that you will get your money’s worth — and you and your horse will also be able to tell the difference!

Check out Lifeforce™ by Alltech® here, and follow Alltech on social media @lifeforcehorse, for more tips on keeping your performance horse healthy and happy!