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Special Concerns for Feeding Exercising Horses
David W. Freeman, OSU Extension Equine Specialist
Nutrition is but one factor in athletic performance. It may be the easiest part to control. However, it will not overcome poor genetics, poor conditioning programs or deficiencies in other areas of management. On the other hand, it can be optimized and should not be limiting to athletic performance.
One area of concern when feeding large amounts of grain daily is the potential for carbohydrate overload. Grain contains large amounts of starches and sugars, and feeding large amounts of these compounds can cause colic and founder. As a general rule, grain mixes should be limited to levels of 0.5% of body weight at one feeding. Therefore, the high levels of grain inherently fed to exercising horses to meet energy demands should be split into three-a-day feedings. These feeding should be divided into 8-hour intervals. For example, a racetrack schedule might necessitate feeding at 11 a.m. (after morning workouts), 7 p.m. (after daily activities end), and 3 a.m. (several hours before the start of morning exercise workouts).
Timing of Feeding.
Another concern among trainers is the timing of feeding in relation to exercise. It is good management to allow the horse to digest its ration at least 2 to 4 hours before beginning any physical exertion. This delay would allow the majority of nutrients to pass from the stomach to the intestines of the horse. It is not recommended to restrict the horse's ration before the day of exercise. Restricting the diet for longer than 6 to 12 hours prior to exercise may decrease the availability of energy and as such decrease athletic performance.
It is a typical practice to remove long stem forage at the meal immediately preceding running on race day. This removal reduces the amount of forage and water weight the horse is carrying into the race. However, trainers should be careful not to make too many abrupt changes in the ration. While times of races and shows will necessitate changes in the normal routine, emphasizing as much consistency as possible will guard against nutrition adding to the stress of changes in physical and behavioral routines.
Body Weight Regulation.
Horses like other athletes are individuals and must be managed as such if maximal athletic performance is to be achieved. Horses can be expected to have an "ideal performance weight", and body condition will vary slightly between individuals maintaining their ideal weight. Every trainer has a subjective ability to visually determine body weight, however unnoticeable changes may be large enough to cause differences in performance. For that reason, some racetracks and training facilities provide scales. Comparisons of athletic performance at different body weights, changes in weight before and after performance and general trends of weight changes through a conditioning program assist trainers in regulating the nutritional and conditioning programs for each horse.
Balance and Quality of Feedstuffs. Exercising horses must consume large amounts of feed per day to meet nutrient needs. Feedstuffs must be high quality, clean and fresh. It is not sufficient to feed large amounts of low quality or unbalanced rations in hopes that requirements will be met.
A properly balanced ration has the necessary concentration of each of the nutrients. Too little or too high an amount and performance may be decreased. Also, levels of individual nutrients can affect the usability of other nutrients. As such, rations are balanced to not only provide adequate amounts of individual nutrients, but also are balanced so the level of one nutrient positively affects the use of another.
Certain individuals seem to thrive on the atmosphere of training and competing, while others will not be able to perform as frequently or as intensely. Even more so than other classes of horses, those exercising can be expected to be very individual in their acceptance and response to nutritional programs. While consistency of ration and feeding routine of a certain horse is important to guard against conditions associated with irregularity, these routines may be different between similar individuals.
The amount of ration needed to maintain the ideal performance weight will vary between similar sized horses performing similar types of work. Trainers must be able to assess these differences and make proper adjustments to the amount each horse is fed. Behavioral differences that affect appetite also will create needs for adjusting feeding times and frequency with certain horses.
Just like training and other management routines, the more that is known about the individual habits of a horse, the better a trainer can make the right decisions on its nutritional program.