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Feeding hacks, dressage & show horses

Show hacks and dressage horses are traditionally well cared for in terms of general health, feed and grooming standards. Show horses must not only be highly trained to exhibit faultless manners and movement, but be presented in a robust, well-conditioned appearance with a shiny hair coat.

Whilst performance demands in terms of speed is not required, adequate nutrition must be provided to allow daily training sessions of up to sixty minutes or more, and to maintain optimum body and coat condition. A careful balance is required for the horse to be “energised” whilst in the arena, yet sensible and not “fizzy”. This requires a delicate balance between several key nutrients: Energy, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Where horses are also travelled extensively to compete, they must maintain their appetite, and avoid risk of dehydration during travelling.

Basic nutritional requirements for hacks, dressage & show horses

Energy

Show horses are often required to be in “fleshy” robust body condition. These horses may also be in quite heavy work and are trained consistently during the show season. Energy-providing feeds must be carefully selected to avoid making the horse "fizzy" and "above the bit". Adjustment to the type of energy feed used must be considered on an individual basis.

Sources of energy

Generally dressage horses are taller and heavier than show hacks, and are exercised from 30-60 minutes per day. They require a higher energy ration to maintain condition and exercise willingness, and in most cases, benefit from extra grain or oil to meet their increased workload demand.

Some horses have a reputation of reacting to grain with increased "fizziness" and difficulty in handling. In some cases, this is due to excessive grain in comparison with the amount of work given to the horse. If a horse is not being worked regularly, then the very little grain is needed in the ration. Many owners feed pollard as a conditioning food in place of grain, but this can have a "heating" effect as well. Often horses maintain better appetite when a small amount of grain is added to their diet. When grain is completely withdrawn from the ration to avoid the horse becoming "fizzy", the appetite may decline. Therefore, it is considered that in most horses working daily for 30-60 mins up to 1-2 kg of grain mixed into the hard feed is beneficial in helping to encourage the appetite.

The common grains

  • Oats: Oats is the traditional grain fed to horses, and most horses find it palatable. It is a "safe" grain that is unlikely to cause digestive upset even when "gorged". However, oats can have an effect of making some horses "fizzy" and nervy when fed more than 1½-2 kg daily.
     
  • Barley: Barley is often the preferred choice of grain for the performance horse. While it has an energy content between oats and corn, it is regarded as a “cooler” and “conditioning” feed most likely due to its comparatively lower glycaemic index. Steam rolling or crimping aids its palatability and opens up the grain to facilitate chewing. Barley is now also available in roasted (micronised) and extruded form, which increases the starch digestion in the small intestine from 23-25% in raw form to 80-90% and improves its palatability. Boiled barley mixed into the ration is ideal for horses "off their feed" after a hard workout when a palatable, easily digested feed is beneficial.
     
  • Sunflower Seeds: Whole black sunflower seeds contain 26% oil, which gives them a higher energy content than other grains, but with low "heating" or "fizz". Up to 4 cups daily are suitable as an energy and coat gloss supplement.
     
  • Pollard: Pollard is a widely used energy source to put on condition in preparation for competition. It should however be limited as it contains very low amounts of poorly absorbed calcium (and other trace minerals) which can lead to an induced calcium deficiency.

Fats & oils as an energy source

Oil is often added to show horse diets. The main reasons for inclusion of oil in the equine diet is improvement of body condition and coat, increasing the energy component of the diet without increasing bulk and decreasing heat produced from digestion of grains. The performance related benefits include lower lactic acid accumulation in muscles and blood by sparing glycogen use, reduced severity of tying up, reduced muscle damage and calmer behaviour in horses on typically high grain diets.

The typical rate of oil in the diet is approximately 15 ml/100 kg bodyweight. One cupful of oil has the same amount of energy as 1.5 L (700 g) of whole oats or 1 L (660 g) of rolled barley. Fats take more time to digest and release their energy compared with carbohydrates.

Each oil or fat has a blend of different fatty acids (Omega-3, Omega-6) in its triglyceride content and a correct ratio of these is essential. Sunflower oil is palatable and contains high levels of Omega-6 for coat conditioning but very little Omega-3. Oils that contain higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids are considered to provide natural anti-inflammatory compounds and hormone action to improve the function and strength of blood vessels and body cells. Canola oil is generally suitable in its pure form or blended 50:50 with soyabean or corn oil. Oils should be introduced slowly into the diet (suggest 40 mL increments at 3-4 day intervals) and should be stored in a cool place.

Protein

Protein requirements in hacks and dressage horses are generally less than performance horses, but adequate protein must be provided for work and body development. Protein quality is always more important than quantity and supplying high quality protein in the diet (such as full fat extruded soyabean meal or cracked/micronized/extruded lupins) will help to maintain muscle condition especially during extended training.

The table below describes the major protein meals commonly used in horse feeds.

Table 1. Common protein sources in horse feeds
Feed Protein % Best form to feed to horses Comments
Soyabean meal 44.5 Meal extracted Best source of balanced protein and amino acids available for growing and performance horses
Full fat soyabean 38% Granules/meal extruded Higher energy than extracted meal, suitable to boost energy – very palatable, turns rancid on storage unless extruded
Linseed meal 34.6% Low dust meal Often expensive and not widely available, stepwise introduction to ensure acceptance
Cottonseed meal 41% Clean meal Reduced availability in drought seasons, stepwise introduction to ensure acceptance
Sunflower seeds 23% Plump whole seeds Good "cool" energy boost to performance and show horses, lower in protein so more is required to replace high protein sources
Tick beans 25.5% Clean cracked beans Common protein source in racehorses, if not available replace with lupins
Lupins 33.8% Clean cracked seeds Good energy source, palatable and suitable replacement for other protein meals
Copra meal 22% Clean, free of shells Palatable, cool energy feed, low lysine content

From: Kohnke et al. (1999) Feeding Horses in Australia RIRDC Publication No 99/49)

Fibre (roughage)

Roughage is an important part of the horse’s diet. It opens up the digestive mass and traps water to aid soluble nutrient uptake, facilitates controlled fermentation to provide volatile fatty acids for energy synthesis of B-group vitamins, generates heat during fermentation to maintain body warmth and stores a reserve of fluid in the hindgut that can be absorbed as a horse dehydrates due to sweat, respiratory and urinary loss.

Lucerne hay and chaff are good sources of protein, calcium, vitamin D and fibre for all horses. A mixture of 50:50 lucerne (green chaff) and cereal (white chaff) is a good basis for "bulk" in a hard feed. Lucerne chaff is generally more nutritious than cereal chaff, although cereal chaff helps to improve the general "sweetness", and acceptance of the ration. Lucerne chaff can be very dusty, which can lead to "snorting" when feeding, and respiratory problems. Dampening feeds can reduce the amount of dust inhalation during feeding time.

It is recommended that horses in work receive 1% of their body weight as roughage to ensure efficient digestive processes and to assist in preventing dehydration. This equates to approximately 5 kg roughage for a 500 kg horse.

Optimum vitamin, mineral and trace mineral intake for hacks, dressage and show horses

Minerals and vitamins

In the equine diet, minerals and vitamins should be regarded as a group rather than individually. As the intake of a mineral increases above that needed, the amount absorbed and/or excreted in the urine and/or faeces also increases. An excess amount absorbed may be harmful. Any minerals not absorbed may bind other minerals, decreasing their absorption and possibly resulting in a deficiency of these minerals. It is the balanced amount of all minerals in the diet that is important. Indiscriminately adding one or even several minerals to the diet is likely to be more harmful than beneficial. Therefore, minerals should not be added to the diet unless it is known which ones and how much are needed.

Table 2a. Brief description of the role and importance of some of the minerals and vitamins in equine performance
Mineral Role/Importance
Calcium
  • Critically involved in bone growth, development and maintenance.
  • Should be maintained in an appropriate balance to phosphorus.
  • Deficiencies result in bone deformities/skeletal weakness, joint problems, may lead to muscle weakness and conditions such as "tying up", and the "thumps" in heavily sweating, exhausted horses.
Phosphorus

A deficiency in phosphorus can result in retarded bone formation, retarded growth, poor appetite, infertility and poor conception and lowered milk production.

Sodium

Essential for normal growth, key electrolyte in all performance animals. Critically involved in normal nerve and muscle function, and carbohydrate digestion. Sodium is often inadequate in diets.

Magnesium

Important electrolyte in muscle contraction, body fluids and metabolic enzymes.

Potassium

Involved in nerve and muscular function. Deficiencies can result in reduced appetite, retarded growth, weight loss, and dehydration.

Sulphur

Essential for healthy hair, skin and hooves. Involved in oxygenation of the brain to maintain oxygen balance and works closely with B vitamins for many basic metabolic functions. Is part of many essential amino acids.

Iodine

Incorporated into the hormone thyroxin in the thyroid gland which regulates the metabolic rate.Deficiency can reduce metabolic rate and exercise tolerance. Iodine toxicosis may occur as a result of feeding seaweed (kelp). Seaweed may contain as much as 1850 mg/kg of iodine, at which level more than 20 g of it per horse per day would be harmful.

Zinc

Essential in bone, cartilage and hoof formation. Deficiency can result in reduced appetite, retarded growth, dry thickened skin and hair loss in severe deficiencies.

Copper
  • Required for the development of bone, joint cartilage, elastic connective tissue, uptake and utilization of iron and copper containing metabolic and tissue anti-inflammatory enzymes.
  • Deficiency can result in lameness in growing horses and anaemia.
Manganese

Contributes to carbohydrate and fat metabolism and formation of chondroitin sulphate in cartilage of joints.

Cobalt

Integral in synthesis of the vitamin B12 and is involved in the formation of the oxygen carrying component of red blood cells. A deficiency can result in anaemia.

Selenium

Deficiency can result in poor muscle development and pale, weak muscles (White muscle disease) in foals on deficient diets. Can also result in poor performance in racing horses, and may predispose to "tying-up", lower fertility in mares. 

 

Table 2b. Brief description of the roles and importance of some of the vitamins in equine performance.
Vitamin Role/Importance
Vitamin A
(ß-carotene Retinol)

Fat soluble natural vitamin essential for growth processes. It is required for visual pigments in eyes, bone remodelling, tendon strength, health of skin and mucus membranes. Deficiency results in progressively poor night vision, loss of appetite, poor growth, infertility in mares (older mares more affected), reduced tendon strength, and a higher risk of respiratory infections.

Vitamin D
(Ergocalciferol, Cholecalciferol)

Critically concerned with the absorption, regulation, metabolism and excretion of calcium and phosphorus. Deficiency depresses calcium uptake and can lead to abnormal gait, lameness, weak bones and swollen joints.

Vitamin E
(α-Tocopherol)

Essential fat-soluble vitamin and has an antioxidant activity to protect against oxidation of compounds in food, and within fats in membranes of muscles and body tissue. Vitamin E has antioxidant function and supplementation has been shown to improve track performance in racehorses. It is recognized as a compound which dilates capillaries and preserves capillary walls. It is also known to increase cardiac efficiency significantly and reduce lactic acid production.

B-Group Vitamins

B-group vitamins play a role in the release of energy, and are needed for numerous essential body functions. Symptoms of deficiencies of B-group vitamins include loss of appetite, abnormal heart beat, muscle tremors, poor coordination, stiffness in limbs and lung fluid build-up. In diets consisting largely of cereal grains, protein meals, chaff and dried hays, natural forms of B-group vitamins are generally in short supply. Injections do not elevate blood levels for very long and supplementation is best given in the feed. 

 

Most feeds contain some minerals and vitamins but whether these feeds contain enough will be determined by the level of activity of the horse. Under most circumstances additional supplementation will be required to meet recommended dietary requirements and to promote optimal health, well-being and performance.

Essential nutrients for optimal health and performance are outlined in the Tables 2a and 2b above. It is often best to add these nutrients separately on a continual basis using high quality supplements. This gives horse owners the flexibility of being able to alter the level of grain in the diet (as the energy requirement changes) while ensuring their horses receive continued adequate levels of minerals and vitamins.

Calcium

In heavily sweating horses, and those receiving cereal-based rations (chaff or grain) or grazing on predominantly grass pastures, additional calcium should be added to the ration.

A supplement on CAL-PLUS® with BIOTIN daily will help to balance the ration and maintain an adequate intake of calcium and other essential bone-forming minerals.

A note on biotin for hoof health

Horses with thin, brittle hoof walls, cracks, and open white lines prone to infection have been reported to display marked improvement in hoof health within six months of giving 15 mg biotin/day to average 500 kg horses. Heavier breeds should be given twice this amount. As feed sources do not provide sufficient biotin, an additional supplement is required to meet this recommendation. In order to promote optimal hoof health, each 56 g dose of FERAMO® EVERY HORSE supplies 20 mg of biotin, while a 60 g dose of CAL-PLUS with BIOTIN also supplies a 15 mg dose of biotin.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E as in pure WHITE-E® helps general stamina and muscle strength in all performance horses, whilst the addition of selenium as in WHITE-E® with SELENIUM will support better immune function and fertility in high performance horses.

Trace minerals and vitamins

FERAMO® with CHROMIUM, containing an oil seed meal base, will promote a glossy, well-conditioned, richly coloured coat essential in the show ring. FERAMO with CHROMIUM also supplies:

  • Cobalt, which is integral in synthesis of the Vitamin B12 and is involved in the formation of the oxygen carrying component of red blood cells. A deficiency can result in anaemia;
  • Copper, which is required for the development of bone, joint cartilage, elastic connective tissue, uptake and utilization of iron and copper containing metabolic and tissue anti-inflammatory enzymes;
  • Iodine, which is incorporated into the hormone thyroxin in the thyroid gland and regulates the metabolic rate;
  • Manganese, which contributes to carbohydrate and fat metabolism and formation of chondroitin sulphate in cartilage of joints;
  • Selenium and iron, to help improve performance and immunity;
  • Zinc, which is essential in bone, cartilage and hoof formation;
  • Vitamin A to help maintain tendon strength in hard working horses;
  • Vitamin D which is critically concerned with the absorption, regulation, metabolism and excretion of calcium and phosphorus;
  • B-group vitamins which play a role in the release of energy, and are needed for numerous essential body functions.
  • Amino acids, to help replace tissue degradation and losses in sweat in working horses.
  • Chromium, which has been shown to improve muscle development and bulk in human athletes and is a suitable supplement for hacks and dressage horses.  

Optimum electrolytes intake for hacks, dressage & show horses

Electrolytes

Although 2-3 tablespoons of salt will help palatability of the ration, it is not a complete electrolyte replacer in hard working horses that are worked for more than 30 minutes each day. Supplementation with a range of essential body salts is required during hot weather, when horses are travelling over long distances, or in "nervy" horses that "compete before their time". In cooler weather, or when horses are not sweating heavily, one scoopful of STRESSALYTE® morning and evening will help to meet daily needs. During the warmer months, when horses are travelling regularly, horses that sweat up when worked, or those with a "nervous" temperament are recommended one scoopful of HUMIDIMIX® in the morning and evening.

Electrolytes are best added to the feed, giving half daily dose morning and evening. On the morning of long distance travel, on arrival at the competition and after hard workouts on a hot day, offering 60 mL of RECHARGE® concentrate over the tongue by syringe and providing access to cool fresh water will help to maintain hydration. Alternatively once a horse gets used to it, 80 mL of RECHARGE in 2 – 3 litres of water may be offered as a drink after hard work.

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