Every rider, whether preparing for their first prelim test or eventing at CCI5*, wants to ensure their horse has the energy required to perform at their best and maintain optimum condition. Understanding how the amount and source of energy in the diet can affect your horse’s condition, health and performance will help you to choose a feed most suited to their individual needs.

Where does energy come from?

Energy isn’t a nutrient; the highly complex process of metabolism converts certain nutrients in food, the main ones being fibre, oil, starch (cereals are high in starch) and sugar, to energy that can be used by the body. Think of it a little like electricity – the energy generated by wind turbines or solar panels needs to be converted into electricity before it can power your television. Feeds high in fibre and oil are a great alternative to cereal based feeds for horses that need a low starch diet - oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in energy compared to cereal grains but starch (and sugar) free! It’s also important to remember that energy doesn’t just come in a bucket. As well as being essential for digestive health and mental wellbeing, forage accounts for a significant for portion of daily energy intake, even for horses in hard work.

Energy in vs. energy out

That’s right, like most things in life good nutrition is all about balance and this rule applies to energy intake as well as vitamins, minerals and protein. Regardless of your chosen discipline or how hard they are working, the amount of energy in your horse’s diet should be adjusted according to their body condition. Energy and calories are exactly the same thing so monitor your horse’s weight and body condition score regularly - undersupplying energy will lead to weight loss and oversupplying energy will lead to weight gain. A lack of energy under saddle is often mistaken for a lack of energy in the diet but it’s important to remember that many other factors influence energy levels including fitness (which is particularly important for stamina) and temperament. Excess weight gain may even lead to poor performance as well as increased joint strain, respiratory stress, heat intolerance and an increased risk of laminitis. Energy requirements vary considerably between individuals and good doers may maintain weight easily on relatively small amounts of feed, even in increased work. In these situations, a balancer is the ideal way to ensure nutrient requirements are met without over-suppling energy.   

Energy & behaviour

Competition horses need to be willing and responsive but if your horse is prone to excitability, you might be worried about how you can ensure they have enough ‘fuel in the tank’, without increasing the risk of shying at spectators, cantering sideways down the centre line or losing control on the cross-country course. Although over-supply energy can sometimes be the culprit or a contributing factor, cereal starch is the most common cause of feed related excitability. Avoid mixes and look for fibre and oil based feeds that are low in starch and sugar. On the flip side, some riders find that incorporating some cereal (and therefore a higher level of starch) into their horse’s diet helps achieve a more energetic response. However it’s important to remember that this strategy isn’t effective in all horses and high starch feeds are not suitable for horses prone to certain clinical conditions such as gastric ulcers or laminitis.

Energy & digestive health

Providing a diet that is high in fibre and low in starch and sugar is key to the nutritional management of horses prone to conditions such as gastric ulcers, colic and tying up. However, a healthy digestive system is the foundation of a healthy horse and if you work on the basis that prevention is always better than cure, choosing fibre-based feeds containing low or restricted levels of cereal starch is a sensible strategy for any horse.

For more advice on feeding your competition horse contact the SPILLERS Care-Line