Performance horses have higher energy and protein requirements than horses at maintenance (not exercising).

Formulating diets to meet the requirements of horses in work should take into account their level of work and performance goals, as well as help mitigate the increased risk of certain health conditions that come with exercise.

Most horses in work can meet their energy and protein needs from high-quality forages. However, additional sources may be required to fully meet their needs.

Optimizing the diet of any performance horse also needs to take into account their discipline, breed, age, training/racing schedule, frequency of travel, and health history.

For example, although endurance horses and racehorses have similar nutritional requirements based on the NRC’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses, approaches to meet these needs will differ to best support their performance and recovery.

Consult with an equine nutritionist to develop a nutritional plan specific to your horse and your management & performance goals.

Equine Exercise Physiology

Horses evolved as a prey species that used their high capacity for intense exercise to escape predators. They also adapted to maintaining exercise endurance over long distances as they roamed expansive prairies in search of forages and water.

Since domestication, breeding to select for improved performance has produced breeds tailored toward specific forms of exercise.

Thoroughbreds have relatively little genetic diversity and are geared to short bursts of intense exercise. Conversely, Arabians are more suited to endurance exercise, and draft breeds excel at hauling heavy loads. [1]

All forms of exercise involve coordinated muscle contractions that use cellular energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is the fuel that muscles use to contract and relax.

This energy comes mostly from breaking down fat and carbohydrates supplied by the diet and stored in the body. To a lesser extent, protein can also provide energy.

Some glucose (carbohydrate) is always being burned but fat predominates at rest and for low level exercise. This energy is generated aerobically (with oxygen) in the mitochondria.

As work intensity increases, the mitochondrial pathway may not be adequate so anaerobic (without oxygen) burning of glucose becomes a major contributor. Glucose is derived from glycogen stored in muscle or delivered by the blood to muscle.

Exercise Performance

In addition to training and conditioning, your horse’s feeding program plays a crucial role in supporting equine exercise performance.

Other aspects of equine management must also be considered to promote optimal performance. Some of these factors include supporting gut health, respiratory health, antioxidant status, post-workout recovery, electrolyte balance and immune function.

Maintaining Optimal Body Condition

Excess body condition (ie. fat coverage on the body) can affect performance by increasing the weight that needs to be moved and by making it harder to dissipate heat.

However, being too lean is also detrimental as it means there are less energy reserves available. A study in endurance horses found lower rates of completion of races with body condition score below 4.5. [24]

The ideal body condition score to support health and performance is 4.5 – 5 on the 9-point Henneke body condition scale. Although some disciplines may aesthetically prefer over-conditioned horses, this is not recommended on a health basis.

Minimizing stress

Chronic stress can significantly impact your horse’s well-being by affecting their appetite, compromising gut health, and reducing performance. Common sources of stress for exercising horses include: [2]