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Feeding Polo & Polocrosse Horses

Feeding Polo & Polocrosse HorsesThe popularity of competitive Polo and Polocrosse has resulted in traditional paddock training and feeding often being replaced by stabling and hard feed diets during the competitive season. An adequate and balanced diet is essential to sustain exercise capacity for training and regular week-end carnival competition. The diet must keep a horse in optimum condition and fitness for up to 8 months of training and on-going competition. The stress of regular competition and travelling over distances to compete must be taken into account when formulating the diet.

Nutritional Requirements

Feeding horses is a science and there are a range of factors which influence the individual horse’s requirements. The type of activity the horse in involved in; its age, breed, physiological state; the environment the horse is kept in – the climate, stabling, pasture availability and quality which varies not only from farm to farm, but from season to season. These factors all influence the horse’s energy, protein, macro mineral, trace mineral and vitamin requirements.

Polo and polocrosse horses in training might be worked at medium to high intensity for up to 30-50 minutes daily. Competitions impose considerable energy demands on the horse. Studies have shown that polo horses exercise with great intensity and travel long total distances during competition (Buzas et al., 2008). During a weekend carnival, a polocrosse horse requires about the same energy intake as a racehorse, even though most are smaller in size and not galloping at a high average speed.

Under natural conditions, horses would be able to roam and select a variety of plant types to provide themselves with a natural, balanced diet to meet their needs. A horse would also consume a mostly fibre based diet which would provide the majority of their energy needs. However, once a horse is confined to a stable, with access to a small yard or grazed out day paddock, then the hard feed and hay has to meet the total nutritional needs for training and competition. A stabled horse will normally require two feeds daily, with pasture grazing during the day, and hay overnight.

Basic Nutritional Requirements

There are certain nutrients required for frequent or prolonged physical activity. These include:

  1. Water (a loss of only 15% body water is fatal)
  2. Body salt or electrolytes
  3. Energy, protein, vitamins and minerals

Energy

Energy is required to fuel the body processes including muscle contraction and to provide heat to maintain body temperature. The energy needs of the horse are influenced by the intensity of exercise the horse is involved in, the horse’s temperament, the weight of the horse and the general metabolic efficiency of the breed or individual animal. As polo and polocrosse horses specifically require athletic agility and bursts of intense speed as well as overall endurance and stamina, sufficiently high energy diets will not only promote strength and minimise the effects of fatigue but will consequently improve overall performance and reduce the likelihood of injury.

The relative energy demand changes in proportion to the speed and duration of exercise. Energy levels must be increased for weekend carnivals to ensure performance without a horse being playful, over energetic or likely to suffer tying-up. Horses that are trained out of the paddock tend to require less grain to maintain good condition for performance. These horses tend to be quieter, often more contented and relaxed, and some of their daily requirement is provided by grazing itself. In all types of hard working horses, extra energy is required to maintain strength and continual repair of bone, ligament and tendons during extended training and competitive periods.

For horses in daily training and regular weekend carnival competition, grains such as oats, rolled barley, lupins, sunflower seeds are suitable sources of energy, with small amounts of cracked corn or vegetable oil (canola, blended cooking oil) as an energy boost for weekend competition.

Although oats are well accepted by most horses, in most cases where more than 2½-3kg of oats (about 5-6 litres in volume) needs to be fed each day to supply energy for exercise, it is best to add rolled barley (1kg or 1½ litres) or alternatively (crushed lupins (800g or l litre) as well as 3-4 cups of sunflower seed. These provide “cool”, low “fizz” energy sources. In horses that are small framed, or have a “nervy” temperament, then all the oats can be replaced by rolled barley at the rate of 1.5 litres rolled barley for each 2 litres of oats in the ration.

Table 1. Advantages and disadvantages of oats, corn and barley
Grain Advantages Disdvantages
Oats
  • Renowned as a “safe” grain. Has a high crude fibre content which dilutes the starch content reducing risk of digestive upset and laminitis if excess is fed relative to needs.
  • Contains the lowest amount of starch but highest proportion of starch digested in small intestine.
  • While crimping, rolling and grinding oats do not improve digestibility, they may improve palatability particularly for growing foals and older horses.
  • Of the grains, oats has the lowest digestible energy content which increases the amount that has to be fed.
  • There is also the suggestion that it may lead to “tying-up” in some horses.
  • May lead to nervy, hyperactive behaviour in some horses.
Corn
  • Energy dense grain. Contains twice as much energy as oats on a volume basis and about 18% more digestible energy on a weight basis.
  • Not well digested in small intestine.
  • Overloading of starch into hindgut increases risk of D-lactic acid build-up, which can trigger the onset of laminitis and founder, as well as low grade diarrhoea and excitable behaviour.
  • Aim to feed no more than 50g/100kg body weight.
Barley
  • Energy levels mid way between oats and corn.
  • Known as a “conditioning” feed possibly due to high levels of chromium. Widely used in standardbreds and eventers.
  • Whole raw barley is harder and less palatable than oats. Low starch digestibility.
  • (Boiling at a simmer for 10-15mins improves digestion of starch in small intestine as compared to rolling or steam flaking, now also available in roasted and extruded form).

 

There is also a large variety of commercially prepared “cool” feeds which are useful in horses that “heat-up” on grain or have a tendency to “tie-up” on oat based feeds. Increasing the amount of vegetable oil in the ration also provides cool energy, reducing bulk for small framed, picky eaters, as well as eliminating dust in a dry, lucerne chaff based feed.

Protein

Proteins are complex organic compounds primarily comprised of amino acids which are essential to support bones, ligaments, muscle development, hoof structure, and maintain structural tissues of the body. The quality of protein and amino acid composition is important to adequately balance the diet, with amounts being dependent on the stage of growth, gestation, lactation and work load.

A horse needs a daily intake of protein to maintain, grow and repair tissues, however, unlike energy which is stored as glycogen or fat, excess protein is not stored in the body. This means it is pointless (even in young growing horses) to feed any more protein than is recommended, it will simply add cost to your feeding program.

If there is not enough protein in the diet, there will be a breakdown of protein contained in muscle and the horse will lose condition. Excess protein in the diet is fermented in the hindgut, producing heat, which adds to the heat load of exercising horses. This basically means that excess protein isn’t good for horses that sweat as it increases the demand for water.

If a horse is worked hard or competed regularly on weekends, then a supplemental source of protein, such as extruded full fat soyabean meal or crushed lupins will help provide extra protein for intensive exercise. In most cases 2 cups per day would be adequate if a high quality roughage source such as lucerne hay is also offered.

A daily supplement of Feramo with Chromium provides 5mg chromium, a trace mineral that aids the utilisation of protein and helps increase muscle size and strength during early training.

Fat

Fats (as oils) are highly digestible in the horse. The main reasons oil is added to equine diets include 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. Fats therefore not only increase endurance activity but also delay the effects of muscle fatigue during competitions serving as a useful substrate in the diet for the high intensity activity required of the polo and polocrosse competition horse.

Vegetable oils, such as canola or blended cooking oils, provide a “low fizz” energy boost to hard working horses, and substituting some of the grain with oil is particularly useful to reduce the bulk of a ration in small framed horses or “picky eaters”. 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.

When substituting grain with oil, ensure a step-wise replacement over 10-14 days to allow acceptance and efficient utilisation of the increased fat in the ration.

Fibre

Although pasture will provide some fibre, horses that are stabled and fed grain, must receive adequate chaff in a 50:50 chaff-hay volume mix, and have access to long stem hay, such as lucerne, meadow or clover hay. Horses trained from the paddock often maintain a “hay belly” if grazing is not limited by confining them to a yard or stable and providing an evening and morning meal of hard feed and hay.

Minerals and Vitamins

Minerals and vitamins are critical components of the sport horse ration. Excessive intake of specific minerals and vitamins can be harmful, as can deficiencies. Therefore total mineral contribution from the daily ration should be considered when evaluating your horse’s daily requirements. An adequate intake of essential minerals and vitamins must be provided to correct low or inadequate levels in the feed to meet the increased needs of hard, regular exercise, travelling and competition.

Feramo Every Horse
Optimum Vitamins and Trace Minerals

A well balanced, quality vitamin/mineral supplement such as a daily dose of Feramo Every Horse, will provide the “foundation” source of essential nutrients for exercise, as well as supplement iron, copper and vitamins for the blood, Vitamin A to help maintain tendon strength, combined with copper and zinc for coat condition and B complex for appetite and energy use. A daily supplement of Feramo Every Horse is recommended even when complete feeds, sweet feeds or pelleted rations are being fed.
White-E

Vitamin E is an 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.

White-E, should be added as a separate supplement to ensure best benefit (see chart).

Cal-Plus with Biotin
Calcium

Where horses are worked hard and sweat heavily during warmer weather, calcium should also be added to the ration, particularly where cereal chaff with minimal lucerne is provided as roughage. In most cases, 2 scoops (or 60g) of Cal-Plus with Biotin will provide calcium to meet losses and maintain bone strength in working horses. This supplement is also recommended for horses with shelly, easily broken away hooves to harden and strengthen the hoof walls.


 

Electrolytes

Scientific studies have evaluated the effects of high-intensity polo training on altered electrolytes including sodium, potassium and chloride in addition to their acid-base equilibrium following exercise. These reports demonstrate significant changes following strenuous exercise which are similar to those recorded in 3-day event horses and racehorses. Consequently diets should be supplemented with a well-balanced electrolyte mix during recovery periods. Humidimix

Horses in heavy work, or those travelled and regularly competed, benefit from electrolytes added to their feeds to maintain water intake, replace salts lost in sweat, and prevent dried out coat and “tucking up” caused by dehydration. Although 1-2 tablespoons of salt will help improve the palatability of the ration, it is not a complete electrolyte replacer. An additional scoopful of Humidimix each morning and evening in the feed will provide a range of essential salts, including potassium, to replace sweat loss and combat dehydration.

Recharge


Where horses are travelled over long distances, or would benefit from a top-up of salts and fluids between games to replace sweat loss, a drink of Recharge in water, (or alternatively 60-80mL of Recharge squirted over the tongue after hard training exercise or competition, or prior to travelling, or every 2-3 hours during long trips to weekend carnivals) and cool water provided to drink, will rapidly replace electrolytes and fluids and help restore vitality and hasten recovery.


Suggested feeding program for a Polo Horse

The table below outlines a suggested feeding program for a 500kg Polo horse in early training and full competition without access to pasture.

Feed type Early training Full work Purpose in ration
BASE DIET
Oaten chaff 400g 400g Roughage
Lucerne chaff 400g 400g Roughage
1Whole Oats 1.5 - 2kg 2 - 4kg Energy
1Steam/rolled barley 2kg 2kg Energy
Extruded full fat soyabean meal 125g 250g Protein
Cracked/Crushed/rolled lupins or tick beans 125g 250 - 500g Protein
Black sunflower seeds 250g 250g Protein/energy/fat
Vegetable Oil ½ - 1 cup 1 cup Fat as energy
Lucerne hay ad lib ad lib Roughage
SUPPLEMENT SCHEDULE
Cal-Plus with Biotin 60g 30g Bone & Hoof supplement
Feramo with Chromium 56g 56g Trace mineral & Vitamins
Humidimix   45g Electrolytes
White-E 16g 16g Vitamin E booster
Salt (sodium chloride) 60g 80g Electrolyte 

 

Please note feeding program is intended as a guide only. Please alter feeding rates according to individual horse bodyweight and workload. It is recommended that any new feed ingredient be added to the diet in a gradual and step-wise fashion to reduce the risk of digestive upset.

1 The amount of barley may be increased, and oats reduced for excitable horses and for horses prone to tying up. Please note that barley is more energy dense and weighs heavier than oats. As a guideline, every 1kg (volume 2 litres) of oats removed may be replaced by 900g (volume 1.4 litres) of rolled barley. Founderguard

Hint: Chronic overload with high carbohydrate grain can result in low grade laminitis from excess hindgut acid build-up. This can lead to symptoms of a scratchy gait, broken-away hoof edges and foot soreness when a horse is galloped hard. Recent observations indicate that a daily supplement of Founderguard - starting on half the dose and half the grain level for 2-3 days, and then increased to full grain and daily dose over 2-3 days will help to control these symptoms.

 

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