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Feeding Eventing Horses

feeding eventing horsesEventing is the most varied and demanding of all horse sports, requiring a horse to be well conditioned, physically fit and yet calm and obedient to compete successfully and score well in all three phases.

A well balanced diet, formulated to meet the specific needs of each horse is essential to ensure maximum fitness, stamina and adequate recovery following strenuous competition. The energy, protein, mineral and vitamin content of the ration must be relative to the duration and speed of exercise, stage of training, and the individual needs of the horse to maintain its body condition, vitality and attitude to work and competition.

Basic Nutritional Requirements

The requirements in the showjumping and dressage phase are matched to those of show horses, with increases to match those of strenuous and intense exercise in the steeple chase and cross country phases. Three day eventing has more day to day variation in nutritional requirement.

Energy

Elite riders require a horse that is extremely sound and fit with stamina and endurance to perform at top-level over three days of competition. As a consequence, the energy demand is relatively high but dependent on the type, speed and duration of exercise. Energy levels must be increased for steeplechase and cross-country exercise to ensure staying power, without making the horses “fizzy” and hard to control during subsequent arena training.

A recent paper describing a survey on the feeding practices of eventing horses during one-star competitions revealed that on average horses are fed 4.3kg concentrates daily (minimum 1.54kg, maximum 8kg) (Leahy et al., 2012). Typical concentrates used include the grains oats, barley and corn. Compared to the other grains, oats has lower energy content and a relatively high fibre content reducing the risk of digestive upset and laminitis if excess is fed relative to needs. With moderate energy levels, barley is generally regarded as a “cooler” and more “conditioning” energy source and is more typically used in performance (non-racing) diets. Corn is a very energy dense grain and should only be used in situations where horses are undergoing a very heavy workload. This grain is not well digested in the small intestine and should be limit fed.

Fat (as an energy source)

Fat, as vegetable oil, is a low “fizz” energy booster that is particularly suited for strenuous, long distance exercise and during hot weather. Because it is a concentrated source of energy, it can be substituted for part of the grain content to increase energy density in the ration whilst reducing the bulk. Fat is therefore an ideal low bulk energy source for small framed horses, picky eaters or those that start to leave feed when worked hard and as fitness improves in training.

Each oil or fat has a blend of different fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6) in its triglyceride content and a correct ratio of these is essential. 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. Too much Omega-3 relative to Omega-6 can however imbalance the action of other fatty acids. Omega-6 can have a great coat conditioning effect, but in excess levels relative to Omega-3 can interfere with cell metabolism. Canola oil is generally suitable in its pure form. Oil should be added fresh each day to the meal at feed time to prevent oxidation and Vitamin E should be supplemented to ensure best utilisation.

Horses will readily accept up to about 2 cups of oil daily introduced in a step-wise fashion over 10-14 days to allow acceptance and efficient utilisation of the increased fat in the ration.

Table 1. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acid levels in various oil sources
Oil % of Fatty Acids in Oil Comments
  Omega 3 Omega 6  
Canola Oil 10 20 Palatable, well accepted, cold pressed is stable, less risk of oxidation
Soyabean Oil 8 54 Reasonably well accepted, some Omega-3, but high content of Omega-6
Corn Oil 2 52 Low Omega-3, not as palatable, more easily oxidised
Sunflower Oil < 1 66 Palatable.  Contains high levels of Omega-6 for coat conditioning but very little Omega-3
Blended Polyunsaturated Cooking Oil 1-5 45-60 Ratios depend on blend of oils.  Canola blends contain higher Omega-3 fatty acids


From: Kohnke at al., 1999.


Fats and oils generally cost two to five times more per unit of weight than cereal grain, but since they provide about three times more available energy, they may not be much more expensive on a digestible energy basis.

Black sunflower seeds are also a useful energy supplement (often fed at approx. 2 cups daily) and contain a high fat content. Due to their high omega 6 levels, they also promote a glossy and shiny coat.

Protein

High quality protein (e.g. extruded full fat soyabean meal or crushed/cracked tick beans or lupins) will promote muscular development and recovery during training and competition. Extra protein in each of the 2 meals after strenuous exercise may help maintain muscle mass during extended training. Excess protein intake must be avoided as it increases fermentation heat in the hindgut during digestion, increasing body temperature, elevating heart and respiratory rates, with risk of poor heart rate recovery and “blowing” after exercise, and loss of overall performance.

Roughage

Roughage, as hay or chaff, provides the necessary fibre to ensure efficient hindgut digestion and water holding capacity as a reserve against dehydration. Feeding a ratio of 50 - 60% concentrate and 40 - 50% roughage by weight as chaff or good quality hay will provide adequate fibre, without adding excessive gut volume or weight, or risking digestive upset. Dampening lucerne hay before feeding by wrapping each biscuit up in a wet hessian bag in the morning for night feed, and vice versa, no longer, helps to improve palatability and fluid intake while reducing dust and wastage, especially during travelling.

Typical roughage sources include oaten, wheaten and lucerne chaff, and lucerne and grass hay. In addition to providing fibre, roughage (particularly lucerne) is also a valuable source of protein, and contributes to the macro- and micromineral requirements of the horses.

Minerals, Electrolytes and Vitamins

Individual horses have changing needs relative to their age, exercise level and appetite. Although a ration may meet major nutrient demands for energy and protein, it may be low or imbalanced in calcium, phosphorus, other minerals, electrolytes and essential vitamins to meet daily needs. The provision of specific supplements to meet increased needs or losses is possible when rations are tailored to supply these essential, but changing, demands.

Calcium

Cal-Plus with Biotin

Eventers that are in heavy training and competing on a regular basis, require adequate calcium to ensure bone modelling and maintain bone structure and strength during long term training. Although 3kg or more of lucerne hay (about 1 ½ biscuits) daily can make up some of the shortfall in essential calcium, a supplement of readily available calcium, with Vitamin D to aid its uptake, will provide a more reliable intake of calcium to meet extra requirements.

A daily supplement of Cal-Plus with Biotin will provide key macrominerals including calcium, phosphorus and magnesium as well as trace minerals iron, zinc and manganese and Vitamin A, D and biotin which will also help to harden and strengthen hoof walls of horses with shelly, easily broken away hooves.

Optimum Vitamins and Trace Elements

Feramo Every HorseA well formulated and balanced quality, vitamin and trace element supplement, as contained in a daily dose of Feramo Every Horse, will provide the “foundation” source of essential nutrients for exercise, blood and muscle development. Higher levels of Vitamin A also help maintain tendon strength, and B Complex, zinc, iodine and selenium help ensure optimum energy utilisation and muscle strength.

Feramo with Chromium also provides a wide range of vitamins and trace minerals but includes a 5mg dose of chromium, a trace mineral that helps protein utilisation and development of more muscle to fat ration during training by providing a natural “anabolic” type effect.

Antioxidants and Vitamin E

White-E

Horses under intense workloads experience physiological stress that may compromise health and performance. Oxidative stress results in damage to cell components, and antioxidants have a protective action against excessive cell damage. A recent study conducted in the USA showed that antioxidant levels appear to be challenged during three-day eventing (Williams and Burk, 2012). To ensure any horse is receiving enough antioxidants, at least a few hours a day of pasture turnout is recommended. For horses with limited pasture access or those in heavy competition, the addition of at least 2500IU of Vitamin E per day is recommended. Vitamin E is an eessential 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. 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. Vitamin E is often low in diets and a survey of Australian Olympic-calibre riders revealed that of 22 horses studies, 17 were receiving less than 1000IU Vitamin E (Owens, E., 2005).

One scoop (16g) of White E provides 1000IU of natural Vitamin E which will help to maintain optimum muscle, blood, and tissue levels of this important antioxidant to maximise muscle function, oxygen utilisation and performance.

Electrolytes

HumidimixEventers that are worked for extended periods in long term preparation for major upper level events, or those travelled regularly to compete, will require supplementary body-salt replacement to maintain water intake, and replace sweat losses ranging from 15-30 litres daily. Electrolyte imbalance, with loss of potassium and chloride in sweat, can lead to dehydration with “dried-out” coat, tucking up in the belly, slow recovery after exercise and reduced performance.

A daily supplement of a high potassium, high chloride salt mix, such as provided by 45g of Humidimix will help to replace average sweat loss. In hot weather, or very heavily sweating horses, and extra scoop of Humidimix plus salt (up to about 80g sodium chloride) is recommended. The provision of a salt block for free access is also advised (however it should be placed separate to the feed bowl).

RechargeWhere horses are travelled over long distances a dose of 60 – 80ml Recharge rehydration concentrate over the tongue with cool water provided to drink before and after exercise and travelling will help to quickly restore electrolyte and fluid levels, and improve vitality and rate of recovery.

An adequate supply of clean fresh water should always be available, particularly during hot weather and when electrolytes are being added to the feed.
 

Nutrition-associated problems facing elite level three-day eventing horses

Gastric ulcers and decreased appetite were found to be two of the main problems contributing to poor performance of 3-day eventers in a recent university study (Leahy et al., 2010). Hard exercise and increasing fitness also reduces a horse’s appetite.
 

References

  • Kohnke, J., Kelleher, F., Trevor-Jones, P. (1999). Feeding horses in Australia. RIRDC Publication 99/49
  • Leahy, E.R., Burk, A.O., Greene, E.A., Williams, C.A. (2010) Nutrition-associated problems facing elite level three-day eventing horses. Equine Veterinary Journal Suppl. 38, 370-374.
  • Owens, E. 2005. Sport horse nutrition—An Australian perspective. In: J.D. Pagan (Ed.) Advances in Equine Nutrition, Vol. III. pp. 185-192. Nottingham University Press, Nottingham, U.K.
  • Williams, C.A., Burk, A.O. (2012). Antioxidant status in elite three-day event horses during competition. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Article ID 572090, 8 pages, 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/572090

 

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