• Briony Witherow BSc MSc RNutr. PGCERT FHEA

What to feed a horse for fitness: eat, sleep, compete, repeat

Briony Witherow BSc MSc RNutr. PGCERT FHEA, explains why nutrition is important for competition success

As many of us are pencilling in events for the coming months, we also need to take some time to ensure our feeding regimes complement our fitness plans and, competition aspirations - we understand what to feed a horse for fitness. One of the biggest challenges when feeding for fitness and competition is to ensure that your horse’s requirements are met throughout, and that nutrition is not a factor that could be holding you back.

Reflect and improve upon past performance

Pre-season checks of vital signs and, reflection upon the previous season should be the starting point of any fitness programme; helping to inform a plan of action for the season ahead. Good planning and preparation is essential for success in any sport but, perhaps even more in our sport which encompasses not one, but two athletes!

Know your horse inside out

The more ‘in-tune’ you are with your horse ¹ ², what is normal for him, the more likely you are to notice when something’s not quite right. Knowing how much forage and water your horse consumes at home and when competing away, can make the difference when it comes to making those all-important performance gains.

Taking the time when training to monitor your horse under ‘competition management routines can be invaluable. Consistency in management is key here, as factors such as water intake, will vary depending on the moisture content of the diet. For example, when most of us are competing away our horses often do not get turnout, so water intake and hay/haylage intake need to be assessed under similar conditions, in order to provide a reference point for when you are away from home.

Keeping track of the following throughout training and competition can offer insight and help to fine-tune the ration and management:

  • Water intake

  • Forage intake

  • Manure (pictures can be handy here)

  • Weight and condition

If your horse does not eat while travelling, formulate a plan to ensure this doesn’t hinder this is stopping regularly to allow a munch, or providing a high fibre feed substitute – a strategy is vital.ar water intake correlates with slower cross-country times, or more poles down.

Meals on wheels

Another essential aspect of most busy horse’s schedules is travel. Knowing how your horse copes and adapts to travelling can be a key success factor when competing. While many horses will adapt to eating when being transported over time, some will only eat when stationary, and many fail to consume sufficient quantities vital for maintaining healthy gut function³ ⁴ ⁵. Knowing where your horse sits on this spectrum will allow you to address this as part of your bigger picture competition plan moving forward.

Knowing what to feed a horse for fitness includes understanding how vital forage is – it is of course absolutely essential for all horses but, it holds particular importance for the performance horse. A 2% loss of water can be detrimental to performance⁶ so, keeping tabs on water and forage intake can be the difference between a good day and a great day. Travelling can be a key pinch-point, with a horse losing around 0.5% of his body weight for every hour travelled through fluid loss alone⁷ ⁸. Forage is not only important for the horse psychologically, but also physiologically. When forage is consumed, it doesn’t just help to maintain healthy gut function, but also acts as a reservoir for fluid and electrolytes, helping our horses to avoid dehydration ⁹.

Top Tips for maximising water and forage intake on the go:

  • Monitor forage intake when travelling – weigh what goes in and then what comes out (also adding in any dropped on the floor); use this as a guide to intake.

  • If your horse doesn't eat while travelling, formulate a plan to ensure this doesn’t hinder performance. Whether this is stopping regularly to allow a munch, or providing a high fibre feed substitute – a strategy is vital.

  • Make sure that you introduce any feeds required when away competing or while travelling ahead of time – ensuring they are a feature of the typical diet. This will give you the flexibility to increase their provision as and when required, without detriment to the gut.

  • For shy drinkers, experiment with flavoured water (adding a few drops of apple juice for example) at home and, wherever possible take your home water with you. Horses can be very sensitive to ‘foreign water’, which can severely hinder intake.

  • Make the most of high moisture feedstuffs; for example, unmolassed beet products, succulents and using haylage or soaked hay² ¹⁰ and, when travelling, stop regularly to offer water – at least once every 2-3 hours, more frequently in warm weather¹¹ ¹².

  • If forage and water intake are a struggle, employ products that tick both boxes such as Fibre-Beet or Alfa-Beet. Both are soaked feeds and can also be used as partial forage replacers if needed.

  • If at all possible when competing away, take your normal hay/haylage with you or, if using a larger forage producer, ensure that you can source it at the competition venue. If you need to introduce a new forage, always try to make the change gradually, mixing your own forage with the new forage, and consider providing a digestive support supplement as well.

Preparation makes perfect

Being proactive and looking for ways to improve management for your horse through reflection, monitoring and record keeping, should allow you to develop a winning strategy for the season ahead. Making this part of your ‘out of season’ homework will help you and your horse to get a head start on the competition.

When it comes to the gut, this will primarily focus on ensuring that any feeds required while training and competing, are introduced to the diet in ample time to allow for the digestive system to adapt. Remember to allow at least 10-14 days for a change in concentrate feed and 3-4 weeks for a change in forage⁴ (longer for those with sensitive tummies). There are multiple ways of providing a suitable diet that meets your horse’s needs. With this in mind, finding the perfect fit takes some trial-and-error. Giving strategies a ‘dry run’ out of season in the fittening stages, can allow for tweaks and avoid significant changes when it matters the most. Where possible try to make only one change at a time; this makes it easier for you to attribute any specific changes in behaviour or health to one particular change.


Keep it simple

When it comes to diet, don’t be afraid to go back to basics.

  • Forage first. Start with forage, (the basis of any diet) and build up from here. Many rations could be made much simpler and more effective, if the forage ration is well considered and from a consistent source⁴.

  • Be realistic about workload AND reassess. Workload is inherently hard to assess objectively but, is a key part of ensuring we meet our horse’s nutritional requirements. Most feed manufacturers will have their own workload descriptions to accompany their feeds – refer to these and use your records to select the appropriate workload. Reassess this alongside your fittening programme.

Feed for requirement. Ensure that you select a feed that is appropriate to the workload – some feeds are formulated for just rest to light work, while others accommodate light to moderate work – be sure to check this when choosing a feed. Always feed the recommended amount for your horse’s size and workload – these are not a marketing ploy; this is the quantity required to ensure that a feed meets requirements. If when fed at the manufacturer’s feeding rates the feed provides too much energy or calories, you need to reconsider if this is the most appropriate feed. Ensure that all feeds provided (including supplements) are accredited to the BETA (British Equestrian Trade Association) NOPS (Naturally Occurring Prohibited Substances) code. While nothing can be guaranteed ‘NOPS Free,’ products that use the NOPS logo on their products, should provide reassurance to owners of the rigorous quality management procedures in place (for further information, see the BETA website where you can access a list of participating companies).

  • Review regularly. Monitor weight and condition on a weekly basis during the competition season and reflect any changes in your management and feeding. Try not to get too hung up on ‘small’ weight changes – remember for a horse, a change of 2-5kg can just be the difference of wee or poo before or after weighing! Focus on the big picture and overall trends.

  • Bells and whistles. If your horse suffers from specific nutrition related issues, the diet can be further tailored to support these through management and perhaps the addition of supplements. A baseline for all performance horses should be the provision of salt (in the bucket feed) and electrolytes as required¹³ ¹⁴. Both of these are integral in maintaining thirst response and therefore, keeping our horses hydrated¹⁵. Be wary of providing lots of different supplements; when it comes to safety and efficacy, a simple approach is also best ¹⁶ ¹⁷.

Top image: Supercilious ex racehorse owned and produced by Chris Keate - sadly now over the rainbow bridge

Reference List

1. Freeman, D.A., Cymbaluk, N.F., Schott, H.C., Hinchcliff, K., McDonnell, S.M., and Kyle, B. (1999) Clinical, biochemical and hygiene assessment of stabled horses provided continuous or intermittent access to drinking water. American Journal of Veterinary Research, 60 (11): 1445-1450

2. Muhonen, S. (2008) Metabolism and hindgut ecosystem in forage fed sedentary and athletic horses. PhD thesis, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.

3. Smith, B.L., Jone, J.H., Hornof, W.J. Miles, J.A., Longworth, K.E., and Willits, N.H. (1996) Effects of road transport on indices of stress in horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 28:446-454

4. Harris, P.A., Ellis, A.D., Fradinho, M.J., Jansson, A., Julliand, V., Luthersson, N., Santos, A.S., Vervuert, I. (2017) Review: Feeding conserved forage to horses: recent advances and recommendations. Animal: An International Journal of Animal Science, 11 (6): 958-967

5. Kay, R., Hall, C., (2009) The use of a mirror reduces isolation stress in horses being transported by trailer. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 116, 237-243.

6. Cymbaluk, N.F. (2013) Water. In: Geor, R., Harris, P. and Coenen, M., eds. (2013) Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. China: Saunders Elsevier, pp. 80-95.

7. Marlin, D.J., (2004) Transport of horses, In: Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery. Elsevier Saunders, St.Louis, USA, pp. 1239-1250.

8. White, N.A. (1997) Risk factors associated with colic. In: Robinson, N.E. (Ed.), Current Therapy in Equine Medicine, fourth ed. W.B. Saunders Co, Philadelphia, pp. 174–179.

9. Sneedon, J.C., and Argenzio, R.A. (1998) Feeding strategy and water homeostasis in equids: The role of the hindgut. Journal of Arid Environments, 38: 493-509

10. Meissner, H.H., and Paulsmeier, D.V. (1995) Plant compositional constituents affecting between plant and animal species prediction of forage intake. Journal of Animal Science, 73: 2447-2457

11. Cymbaluk, N.F. and Christison, G.I. (1990) Environmental effects of thermoregulation and nutrition of horses. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice, 6:355-372

12. Geor, R.J., McCutcheon, L.J.,Ecker, G.L. and Lindinger, M.I. (2000) Heat storage in horses during submaximal exercise before and after humid heat accumulation. Journal of Applied Physiology, 89 (6) :2283-2293

13. Coenen, M. and Meyer, H. (1987) Water and electrolyte content of the equine gastrointestinal tract in dependence of the ration type. Proceedings of the Equine Nutrition and Physiology Symposium 10, 531-536.

14. NRC, (2007) Nutrient requirements of Horses, Sixth edition. National Academies Press: Washington, DC.

15. Schott, H.C. (2008) Editorial: Hydration, body fluid volumes and fluid therapy - are we moving forward as fast as we think? Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 17 (2):124-126

16. Brosnahan, M.M. and Paradis, M.R. (2003) Demographic and clinical characteristics of geriatric horses: 467 cases (1989-1999). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 223: 93-98

17. Hoffman, C.J., Costa, L.R., Freeman, L.M. (2009) Survey of feeding practices, supplement use, and knowledge of equine nutrition among a subpopulation of horse owners in New England. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 29(10):719–24


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