William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 7: Feeding for Fitness

If you haven’t been reading William Micklem’s series on fitness, you are seriously missing out! In case you missed it: Part 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse SafePart 3 – It’s All About Balance, Part 4 – Fit to Train and Fit to CompetePart 5 — Warm Up and Warm Down and Part 6 – Limits of Fitness. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“We should bear in mind that colic kills more horses than falls at cross country fences ever will.”

Our equine competition partners need fuel, therefore good feeding and nutrition must obviously go hand in hand with fitness training. Whenever possible use grass, as it is the ideal safe fuel for horses, but that is not always possible and not always enough for the competition horse, so we have to use other forage.

Of course all forage needs to be of good quality, dust free and palatable, but there is now a vastly increased range of horse feed and additives to consider and confuse. But we can be guided by the key ‘rules of feeding’ that have been known for thousands of years. They still hold good and they are still vital, however many break these rules to the detriment of the horse’s performance.

Horses must eat little and often

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a horse’s stomach produces acid, even when not eating. With a natural, high roughage diet, with a horse trickle feeding for 18 hours a day, this works wonderfully well. But what do we do instead? We feed large quantities of high food value nutrition in short time periods, leaving the horse for prolonged periods without food and with little for the stomach acid to do, and little to do apart from staring at the walls and going stir crazy. This is not only a recipe for boredom and mental problems, but also a recipe for wasting money, a way to ensure stomach ulcers, and a way to stop a horse performing at their best!

The horse is designed to graze, eating a little and wandering a little for most of the day. Their stomach is designed to suit this lifestyle. What it does not suit is a small number of large concentrate (grain) meals and a small amount of high food value haylage or alfalfa. Horses have a small stomach for their size, which limits the amount of feed that can be taken in at one time, and it begins to empty when it is two-thirds full, whether the food in the stomach is processed or not. As a result both wasting nutrients and money and making colics more likely.

Therefore a maximum of 1 pound concentrates per 250 pounds bodyweight should not be exceeded per meal. This means that with an average event horse we should never give a dry concentrate feed that is greater than 4 pounds and we should ensure they can nibble away ad lib on roughage. However even at Rolex this year I saw feeds being given that were obviously well over this 4 pounds rule of thumb. 

Horses must drink often

To digest 4 pounds of concentrates the horse should produce between 4 to 8 pounds of saliva, but if they have been left without food for some time they will tend to hoover down their food too quickly for normal saliva production leading to possible digestion difficulties and even colic. We should bear in mind that colic kills more horses than falls at cross country fences ever will. It is the biggest cause of fatalities in horses after death from old age. The difference being that the former is largely inevitable and the latter largely preventable. One has to wonder why there can be an outcry about a fatal fall but little is said about poor feeding practices?

The key elements of avoiding colics and constipation are to ensure almost constant availability of roughage (digestible fibre) and water and avoid excessive feeding of concentrates. Even with those horses or ponies that tend to being overweight it is possible to increase the availability of low feed value roughage by giving them clean oat or barley straw to nibble. When eating hay about two to three times as much saliva is produce compared with eating concentrates. This means the more the horse chews, the more saliva is produced and the saliva is vital for good digestion including neutralizing stomach acid.

This requires a well hydrated horse. Water should be constantly available as it is the most essential ingredient of all. However try different water temperatures and see which your horse likes. There is no doubt that in extreme cold that horses rend to reduce their water intake and it soon shows in their droppings which become hard and their coats which become dry. Being constantly aware of changes in their droppings and coats is a way to stay ahead of potential problems. Droppings should break on landing and it is better for them to be a little soft rather than a little hard.

Water warmed by the sun is often more appealing than cold water from underground and despite what one is told many horses prefer it with a little flavouring of hay of feed. It is a very individual and you have to find out what each horse likes. Certainly if you are going to add electrolytes or anything to the water it is important that you gradually train a horse to like it, rather than discourage water intake at the competition. 

Horses need to balance fuel intake with work done

So how much food does your horse need? As with humans it can vary enormously but undoubtedly the tendency is to over feed concentrates high in starch, and fail to understand that different foodstuffs have different levels of digestibility for a horse, no matter what the theoretical analysis says. For example on paper two grain samples such as barley and oats may have similar constituents, apart from a little less fibre in the barley, but we know that in terms of digestibility and utilising nutrients that oats are the best grain for horses. Just add a little salt and possibly soaked sugar beet or molasses and you have probably the most cost effective and palatable hard feed you can find.

There are numerous high quality pre-mixed pellets available that can provide exactly what is needed but beware being led astray by thinking that the higher he level of protein the better it is. Brood mares may need 14% protein, but few competition horses need more than 10% protein and what is more important is the starch and carbohydrate content.

Many people gets confused about protein and carbohydrate, thinking in terms of percentages rather than actual amount, and forgetting about calories. Even an average quality hay will typically have at least 7% protein. Feeding a 12% protein feed might sound like a good way to boost protein, but-pound for pound-that grain may have about three times more calories than a pound of hay. So if you want to avoid a horse getting overweight it might be better to feed good quality hay rather than increase the weight of concentrate. But get the hay or haylage analyzed as different types can have hugely different food values.

Molly Brant (see start of my previous article) had 10 pounds of oats a day, with all the hay she wanted, and some horses may get most of their carbohydrate needs from hay. Be Fair went to Badminton with Lucinda Green on 6 pounds of hard feed per day plus about 10 pounds of hay. Whereas some very hardworking hunters in Leicestershire, the best hunting country in the UK, will be getting through at least 15 pounds of hard food and 30 pounds of hay.

But so much depends on the food value of the particular feedstuffs being used and the individual needs of each horse. As a rule of thumb horses will consume 1.5-2.5% of their body weight daily in forage, with ‘easy keepers’ on the lower end of that range and ‘hard keepers’ on the higher end.

Additives & supplements

There is a golden rule for additives and supplements, ‘only add if there is a reason’. Often there is a reason because of specific functional problems or nutritional weaknesses, but do not be tempted to use additives continuously like an insurance policy. The digestive system doesn’t work like that and anything unneeded will either be flushed out, or at worst create an imbalance. It will also waste money and possibly even put a horse off their feed.

Typically horses that have copper or iron deficiencies can be helped, as can those with poor foot growth or joint problems, and especially in hot weather, when horses sweat profusely, electrolytes are important. They help preserve the correct balance of fluids in the body’s cells and are involved in muscle function and the processing of wastes. Deficiencies cause dehydration, impaired performance and may exacerbate clinical problems such as azoturia, or tying up. So work with your veterinary surgeon to provide targeted treatment for specific needs.

So this completes my series FIT TO DO THE JOB. I am aware that this subject is not as much fun as riding articles, but if you are serious about competition riding and making the most of your opportunities, and particularly if you are serious about safety and accident prevention, then this subject is just as important as any other. Happy days and happy competitions on well conditioned horses.

© William Micklem