Why Does My Horse Lack Energy?

If you often feel that you’ve been working harder than your horse, you may be thinking that a change of diet could solve all of your problems; but can feeding help to improve your horse’s energy levels?

Before making changes to your horse’s diet check the following first:

  1. If your horse’s lack of energy is out of character it is important to establish if there is an underlying cause to the problem, such as ill health or pain and discomfort from ill-fitting tack for example.
  2. It is important to honestly assess whether your horse is capable and fit enough to do what is being asked of them and address this if necessary.
  3. Consider if your horse’s lack of energy could relate to behaviour rather than diet. Some horses are naturally laid-back characters and others become ‘bored’ with repetition. Feeding is unlikely to influence your horse’s behaviour in these situations, but sometimes rider training and a more varied exercise regime can.

When it comes to feeding the following questions are important to ask:

Has my horse got enough energy in their diet?

The easiest way to determine whether your horse has sufficient energy for the work they are doing is to assess their bodyweight using body condition scoring. Ideally your horse should be a 3 on the 5 point scale for optimal body condition. Click here to learn how to assess your horses body condition score.

Horse Condition Score Chart

A horse that is above 3 on this scale is receiving excessive amounts of energy or calories and is carrying too much weight. Encouraging weight loss by decreasing overall energy intake and increasing exercise to improve fitness levels will ultimately help to improve your horse’s energy levels.

A horse that is well below 3 on this scale is receiving insufficient amounts of energy or calories in their ration. Increasing overall energy intake to promote weight gain and achievement of optimal body condition may help improve overall energy levels. It is important to note that very fit horses may maintain their weight and have an optimal body condition and health at just under a 3 on the condition scoring scale.

If your horse is in optimum body condition this suggests they are receiving the correct amount of energy in the diet for the work being done. At this stage, looking at the type of energy supplied may also potentially influence behaviour. Fibre and oil provide slow release energy whereas sugars and starch provide quick release energy. For lazy horses where more sparkle is required, cereal grains are usually fed as they provide lots of starch and therefore quick release energy. There is however, no certainty as to how the introduction of cereal grains will affect your horse’s behaviour; it may have no effect, or result in spooky, silly behaviour rather than helping them to be more forward-going. Recent research found that horses fed a cereal-based concentrate mix were more reactive to new situations and equipment than those on a high fibre and oil diet. They were less consistent in their behaviour and had higher heart rates compared with horses fed the fibre-based feed.

If feeding cereal grains does provide the desired increase in energy levels then research has suggested that time of feeding is important. Within 2 hours of eating a starchy feed the horse’s blood glucose levels rise, followed by a rise in insulin to store glucose. If the horse is exercising whilst the body is also trying to store glucose, this could potentially affect performance due to low blood glucose levels. Cereal based feeds should therefore not be given within 3-4 hours prior to exercise. Feeding fibre does not have this effect and can be fed prior to exercise.

As too much starch can contribute to problems such as colic and laminitis, it is important that cereals are used in moderation. For horses that haven’t been fed cereals before they should be introduced gradually, literally a handful at a time to give the digestive system time to adjust to the new feed. Oats tend to be the cereal that is most commonly used to try and give horses more energy although all cereals provide quick release energy and so may have the desired effect. Feeding cereals to an overweight horse would not be beneficial as it is likely to encourage further weight gain which will compound the problem of lethargy further.

If your horse runs out of steam towards the end of a ride then the feeding strategy should focus on improving stamina. Research has shown that feeding additional oil helps to improve stamina in the horse which is why relatively high levels of oil are fed to endurance horses. If your horse lacks stamina then the oil content of the ration can be increased by introducing high oil feeds such as Dengie Alfa-A Oil if it is appropriate for the horse’s bodyweight. Horses will need to be trained on a high oil ration for two to three weeks before improvements are seen.

Is my horse receiving a balanced diet?

Vitamins and minerals are integral components of energy metabolism and a shortfall of these in the diet can result in poor performance. If you are feeding the recommended quantities of a compound feed that is intended for the level and type of work your horse is doing, the diet should be balanced. Using straights with a balancer or supplement at the recommended levels should also provide a balanced ration.

One thing that many horse owners are concerned about if their horse is lethargic is anaemia. This can be diagnosed with a blood test carried out by a veterinarian. Unlike humans, anaemia in horses is rarely due to low levels of iron in the diet as grass and forage are naturally abundant sources. If your horse’s anaemia isn’t caused by blood loss, an unbalanced diet with insufficient levels of copper in the diet could be the culprit. Copper is important as it is involved in haemoglobin synthesis and the mobilisation of iron stores. Haemoglobin is the pigment that carries oxygen within the body to the tissues where it releases it for aerobic respiration to occur which ultimately produces energy. Copper is typically low in UK pasture and forage and so should be supplemented as part of a balanced ration.

Electrolytes are minerals that are found in fluids in the body and their concentration in fluids found both in and around cells affects neuro-muscular function. Electrolytes are also found in sweat and horses in prolonged work such as endurance can lose considerable amounts. Electrolyte losses and dehydration are linked to fatigue and ultimately compromise performance. Excessive losses can have serious repercussions for health. Horses that appear to get tired towards the end of their work may well be doing so as a result of electrolyte losses, particularly if they are working in hot conditions. Electrolyte supplements can be used before, during and after a busy work period or routinely every
day if the horse is in hard work or sweats profusely.

Top Tips for Feeding Lazy Horses

  • Ensure you are feeding enough of the right feed for the work the horse is doing
  • Ensure that you are not exceeding your horse’s capabilities or fitness level
  • Promote weight loss gradually if the horse is overweight.
  • Ensure the ration is balanced
  • Add electrolytes if the horse is working or sweats profusely
  • Start with very small amounts of cereals to reduce the risk of digestive upsets
  • Reduce the amount of cereals on rest days
  • Be prepared to accept that sometimes laziness is the nature of the beast!

For personalised feeding advice call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to complete the Feed Advice Form.

For some great training tips on making a lazy horse more energetic watch the video below where Georgia from LilPetChannel has a lesson with Hannah Esberger-Hancock.