As you increase workload building up to the first competitions of the spring season, it’s good to have an idea how you can adjust your horse’s diet to match.

Feeding for a Flying Start

As you increase workload building up to the first competitions of the spring season, it’s good to have an idea how you can adjust your horse’s diet to match.

The Right Condition

The amounts of body fat and muscle a horse carries varies according to their type and level of fitness and it is our job to ensure that they are appropriate for the work expected, adjusting diet and workload as necessary. Body condition scoring, using a numerical scale, can be a useful way of objectively assessing condition by looking at the horse’s neck, ribs and rump, whilst keeping a photographic record can also be useful.

Having established your horse’s current condition, you then need to decide whether it’s appropriate or whether it needs to change, taking into consideration the type of work and the level of fitness required. Horses at the peak of fitness can be lean but should still be rounded and well-muscled; overly lean horses are likely to have low body reserves of all nutrients, not just fat, and will take longer to recover from a tough event or may generally under-perform.

Changing Condition

A horse needs food (energy/calories and other nutrients) for body maintenance and to fuel his work. If he needs to lose weight, the amount of energy (calories) provided should meet little more than his maintenance requirements, so that his body is encouraged to use its fat stores to fuel his work. To gain weight, he’ll need more calories than he uses for maintenance and work, without overloading his system, so manageable meals of a concentrated conditioning feed, alongside forage, should be effective.

Trying to encourage weight loss by under-feeding a compound feed, formulated to be fed in greater quantities, deprives your horse of vitamins and minerals while still providing some calories that he probably doesn’t need. For the real good-doer a balancer is an ideal option as you can provide all the protein, vitamins and minerals he needs without unwanted calories. To keep the diet fully balanced, stick to the manufacturer’s recommended feeding levels and, if that provides too many, or too few calories, then swap to a feed that you can feed at the recommended level.

Increasing Demands

As your horse gets fitter and workload increases so will his nutritional demands, not just for energy but for protein, to build and repair muscle and other tissues, and vitamins and minerals, to support metabolism. Check that your feed is formulated to support the level of work you expect of your horse and be prepared to change, or top up, if necessary. It may be that a lower energy feed provides all the calories your horse needs but, if it is only formulated for light work, it will fall short of other nutrients. Adding a balancer will provide the extra nutrients to support the work but without the additional calories of a higher energy feed.

Energy Sources

Your horse’s temperament will also influence the type of feed you give, alongside his forage, as a laid back type will allow you to choose faster release energy sources, including oats, whilst a fizzier type might be better suited to slower release energy sources, such as oil and fibre. Cubes tend to be less “heating”, as they are generally lower in starch than a mix of equivalent energy level, whilst best results may be achieved with a blend of energy sources rather than a focus on one to the exclusion of all others.

If your horse struggles with stamina, first check that his diet is fully balanced by ensuring he’s getting the recommended amount of mix, cube or balancer. Then consider including oil in his diet, which is more calorie-dense than carbohydrate from cereals and helps promote stamina. Oil must be introduced gradually and the horse will also need additional antioxidants, like vitamin E and selenium, to support its metabolism and this makes specially formulated high oil supplements particularly handy as they usually have these “built in”.

Electrolyte Support

Dehydration can also affect a horse’s stamina and ability to recover from work, due to the loss of electrolyte salts in sweat. Using an electrolyte supplement regularly, whenever your horse sweats, will replace those lost during work and help your horse recover. Most are formulated to be administered in the water but you may find it easier to mix them with feed, as long as it is wet and slushy and the horse has access to plenty of drinking water.

Keeping it Right

Once your horse is where you want him, careful monitoring will help you make the adjustments necessary to keep it that way. The odd hiccup is inevitable during a season so, if workload is reduced, take this into account when feeding by keeping nutrient levels up whilst controlling calorie intake as necessary. If your horse finds increased levels of training and competing stressful, consider using a digestive enhancer (pre or probiotic) to help promote gut efficiency and keep his system in balance. Keep a watchful eye and, above all, be prepared to alter your regime accordingly to ensure your horse remains on a balanced diet and is fit and healthy to perform all season long.

For friendly practical advice contact Baileys Horse Feeds on 01371 850247 (option 2) or visit

First published in March 2018