Feeding the Competition Horse

High Forage Diets for the Competition Horse

Have you been contemplating feeding your horse a forage-based diet but aren’t convinced it will provide enough energy? Katie Williams, Senior Nutritionist at Dengie, tells you more about how forages can be used to fuel horses in hard work.

Last year, the European Workshop on Equine Nutrition was held in Lisbon, Portugal, with the theme “forages and grazing in horse nutrition”. The contribution forage can make to the energy requirements of working horses was a topic of particular interest because little work exists in this area.

Studies by researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Science revealed that adult horses in heavy exercise were able to meet their energy requirements from high-energy forages alone and at intakes that would be considered normal – about 2% of body weight. Their most recent work has also shown that two-year-old Standardbreds in training – requiring energy for growth in addition to work – maintained body weight on a forage diet, too.

In this study, the researchers were using body weight and body condition scores to measure whether the horses were consuming sufficient energy. Weight loss and/or condition indicated that the horses were not getting sufficient energy to meet their requirements. So what does this mean for us as horse owners?

What’s the difference between forage and fibre?

Fibre can be found in a number of raw materials and ingredients – even oats contain fibre and quite a lot of fibre relative to other cereals! Forages are typically the feedstuffs we think of as being high in fibre, such as haylage, alfalfa and straw, but they also supply other nutrients, such as sugar, minerals and protein. Although a forage-based diet is high in fibre, it also supplies other valuable nutrients, although not necessarily at levels the competition horse needs.

There are different types of fibre, from the very digestible pectin to the less digestible cellulose. Lignin is often referred to as fibre but, despite having a structural function in the plant, it is indigestible and not technically fibre. High levels of lignin significantly reduce the digestibility of the fibre within forage, which has a significant impact on the contribution it makes to the horse’s requirements.

Straw – the base ingredient in many molassed chaffs, for example – contains higher levels of indigestible fibre than high temperature dried alfalfa or grass. It can be useful for good doers because it provides chew time without too many calories, but it is unlikely to make a great base to forage-based rations for competition horses.

DSC 0797 ppAlfalfa, grass and sugar beet are examples of feedstuffs that are high in more digestible fibre and are much better suited to the competition horse. Dengie’s Alfa-A Original contains about the same level of energy as a cool mix and, when oil is added, for example in Alfa-A Oil, this can be increased to about 12.5MJ, which is the same level of energy as a competition mix. Both fibre and oil bring slow-release energy, which is why they are the staple components of endurance horse rations because the prolonged, low-intensity nature of endurance work means the horse is working aerobically and can utilise slow-release energy sources.

There is no question that fibre and oil are great fuels for endurance work, but what about high-intensity work where speed and/or power are required? Although we know fibre can be converted to glucose, it is a relatively inefficient process and, theoretically, quick-release energy sources might be required for the very highest levels of work intensity.

However, it is important to consider the natural athleticism of the individual horse and its temperament because these factors can also influence the type and amount of dietary energy required. Many Thoroughbred event horses, for example, can make the time cross-country, even at four-star level, with no problem at all and the biggest challenge is often keeping them calm enough to perform a good dressage test.

The slow-release energy from fibre is therefore ideal and can even improve performance by avoiding wasting energy on silly behaviour or large losses of electrolytes through excessive sweating, which can result in the early onset of fatigue, particularly in hot conditions.

Fibre and hydration

Sugar beet often causes confusion because it contains highly digestible fibre and is actually low in sugar because the sugar has been extracted for use in human foods. A highly digestible fibre source is left that trials have shown increases the digestibility of other forages fed with it.

As sugar beet is fed soaked, it takes more water into the digestive system, which is released readily as the fibre is broken down relatively quickly. This helps to keep the horse hydrated, another reason for sugar beet being popular for endurance horses and making products such as Dengie Alfa-Beet particularly useful for competition horses.

A balanced ration

Hopefully you are convinced now that forage rations can supply enough energy for your competition horse, but what about the other nutrients? Forages such as haylage and hay are clearly straights, so require a good-quality source of protein, vitamins and minerals such as a balancer to be fed alongside.

In many cases, typical UK-grown hay and haylages won’t be sufficient to supply enough energy for a competition horse and this is where chopped fibre feeds can be used instead of mixes to make up the shortfall.

Many of these are still straights and so require a balancer or supplement alongside. Dengie’s Alfa-A Balancer and Performance Vits and Mins are both designed for the performance horse to top up the vitamins and mineral levels when a fibre only or straight diet is fed. Alternatively, Dengie has a range of complete fibre feeds such as Healthy Tummy that contain added vitamins and minerals and, if fed at the recommended quantities, will provide a balanced ration for your horse.

Case study

DSC 0366Hannah Esberger is a good example of a rider who has been using forage-based rations for her top-level dressage horses for a number of years. She has used Dengie Alfa-A Oil as the basis to rations because it provides a high level of slow-release energy, which helps to maintain performance over several tests and days of competition.

More recently, Hannah has started to use Healthy Tummy for some of her team because it is fully balanced and contains key ingredients to promote gut health, such as Protexin and a unique blend of herbs. “The herbs in Healthy Tummy seem to make it really palatable, which encourages some of my more sensitive horses to eat up, even when they are staying away from home,” Hannah explains.

Although the inclusion of Protexin and herbs benefits the horse’s digestive system, the main ingredient is alfalfa, which is incredibly beneficial for gut health in competition horses.

Alfalfa is a natural buffer to acidity and independent research carried out at Texas A&M University showed that including alfalfa in the ration was more effective at reducing the incidence of ulcers, even compared with turning out to grass 24/7.

Because there is a high incidence of ulcers in competition horses, feeding a high-forage diet that includes alfalfa is a more sympathetic approach that should help to keep competition horses healthy.

For more information on feeding the competition horse call the Dengie Feedline on 0845 345 5115 or email feeds@dengie.com

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