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Performance Horses Benefit From High-Energy ForagesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 23, 2017

Performance horses require more calories per day than pleasure horses or horses used for light or moderate work. These additional calories are typically delivered to horses as concentrates. Researchers from Sweden* suggest adding “high-energy” forage to diets to help meet the calorie demands of equine athletes.

“Performance horses have a higher risk of developing gastric ulcers and stereotypies than pleasure horses, and offering concentrated feeds can, in some cases, potentially contribute to either the development or worsening of these conditions,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Because of these potential problems, some horse owners have looked into forage-only diets for high-performance horses.

According to the researchers, the potential limitation of forage-only diets for horses performing rigorous exercise could be the lower levels of muscle glycogen observed compared to horses fed traditional starch-rich diets. Glycogen is the storage form of sugar that muscles need to contract during exercise.

To test the hypothesis that performance horses can thrive on a high-energy, forage-only diet, Standardbred racehorses offered forage (high-quality haylage) ad libitum were followed for two years of training. Horses underwent either a controlled training program or one in which the high-intensity training distance was reduced by 30% with various parameters recorded.

Key findings of the study included:

  • Horses consumed 1.7- 2.6% dry matter of body weight when given ad libitum forage;
  • No differences in body measurements (e.g., thickness of the longissimus dorsi muscle or rump fat) were noted between the two groups;
  • Body condition scores (BCS) were maintained between 4.8 and 5.1; and
  • Muscle glycogen levels were normal in both groups.

According to the researchers, “when managed under normal conditions, no nutrition-related health disorders or stereotypic behaviors were observed” in horses offered forage-only diets. Further, they wrote, “…the training program did not affect feed intake, growth, body condition score (BCS), or muscle glycogen content. In addition, the forage-only diet did not appear to prohibit muscle glycogen storage, growth, or maintenance of body condition, and seemed to promote good nutrition-related health.

“All horses are different, and their diets must be individualized, particularly for sport. Concentrate feeds are more than just sources of energy. They contain other vital nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals that are incredibly important not just to high-performance horses but to horses of all ages and uses,” said Crandell.

Consult a KER nutritionist to optimize your horse’s diet.

*Ringmark, S., T. Revold, A. Jansson. 2017. Effects of training distance on feed intake, growth, body condition and muscle glycogen content in young Standardbred horses fed a forage-only diet. Animal. In press.