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Three Big Myths about Feeding Performance Horses

When it comes to high-octane performance horses, the equine industry has come a long, long way in terms of its understanding of athletic conditioning.† Today’s top racehorses, showjumpers, cutting horses, polo ponies, and other equine athletes now benefit from decades of research into the best way to develop fitness, stamina, and speed, and stimulate fast recovery.

But in many ways, we are still labouring under some very old and inaccurate beliefs when it comes to feeding a high-performance horse.

Let’s explore a few myths, and explore whether might be a better way to fuel the performance of an equine athlete, shall we?

MYTH #1: A horse in hard work needs higher levels of protein in his diet.

FACT: In a pinch, protein can be used by the horse’s body as an energy source, but it’s a very poor way to fuel performance, because molecule for molecule, protein doesn’t produce much energy, and the horse’s body has to go to great effort (chemically speaking) to extract it.† In other words, it is "metabolically expensive" for a horse to utilize protein as an energy source.

Carbohydrates and fats are infinitely better energy sources, both far more energy-packed than protein, and easier to break down and absorb.

Protein does have a role to play in the diet:† it provides amino acids, the ‘building blocks’ for the construction and repair of muscles, bones, ligaments, and all the other structures of the body.† Young, growing horses, and those being used for breeding, have higher protein demands because they are building new tissues;† mature horses not being used for breeding, however, only need about 7 to 11% crude protein in their overall diets to provide enough amino acids for the occasional tissue repair.† The need for protein doesn’t really increase as a horse’s energy demands do, either, so there’s no need to switch to a higher protein feed if your horse is in high-intensity work.

Furthermore, some researchers feel that a diet which consistently delivers more protein than the horse needs, can be hard on the kidneys and the liver, which have to convert these complex molecules into urea and ammonia for excretion.† Feeds high in protein also tend to result in higher urine outputs with concentrated ammonia, which are hard on the stable manager!

MYTH #2: High-performance horses need to consume large amounts of grain.

FACT: Although grain is a source of concentrated dietary energy, and most horses relish it, it is very much a double-edged sword.† That’s because horses are really not designed to digest the complex carbohydrates contained in grain.† Nature intended the horse to be a wandering, grazing animal, digesting large quantities of soluble (and some insoluble) fibre ? aka roughage — for his metabolic needs, the very definition of a herbivore.† The equine digestive system is designed to break down tough, fibrous plants and extract all the nutrition and energy it needs from those materials.

Feeding grain began as a way to supply concentrated energy, which some horses need when they’re being asked to do work over and above what they would normally do in the wild.† Show horses, race horses, and nursing broodmares can all use the extra nutritional support of some concentrated energy, to help fuel their higher energy expenditure.

But there’s a serious downside to feeding large quantities of grain.† Small amounts can be digested in the small intestine, but large quantities often get pushed on to the ?fermentation vat’ of the cecum, where the byproducts of carbohydrate digestion can lower the pH of the horse’s gut.† Cecal acidosis can in turn lead to colic, gastric and colonic ulcers, and sometimes laminitis.

Most performance horses are fed far too much grain, in the opinion of Ralph Robinson, CEO of Selected Bioproducts, Inc.† ?It’s important that we recognize that horses are designed to eat soluble fibre, not carbohydrates,? he says.† ?High-performance horses would be better served if we could minimize the amount of grain in their diets and supply concentrated energy from other sources.?

Feed manufacturers in North America currently lag behind their counterparts in the United Kingdom and Australia, where ?muesli’ style horse feeds, with higher levels of fibre from sources like beet pulp and chaff (chopped hay or straw), as well as sources of fat, are common.

MYTH #3: Horses aren’t designed to digest fats.

FACT: Despite the reality that wild horses don’t encounter much fat in their diets, horses actually are capable of digesting both vegetable and animal fats quite well.† And as an energy source, fat has several advantages over the carbohydrates in grain:

a) Pound for pound, fat supplies almost two and a half times as much energy as the equivalent weight of carbohydrates.† So if you want to supply more energy to your horse without dramatically increasing his overall feed intake, supplementing the fat in his diet is a great way to do it.

b) Fat is easily metabolized and well tolerated by horses.† A fat-supplemented diet, unlike a high-carbohydrate diet, has no detrimental effect on the pH of the cecum.† Fat appears to be absorbed almost exclusively in the small intestine.

c) Fat-supplemented diets decrease the amount of energy used for heat production in the horse’s body. This decreases the horse’s heat load, and increases the amount of energy available for physical activity.† In one study where horses ate a fat-supplemented diet, the animals’ total body heat production decreased by 14%, and the diet had no effect on the amount of energy needed for maintenance metabolism, therefore leaving more energy available for performance requirements.† As a result, over 60% more energy was available for athletic activity.

d) Feeding fat enhances the quality and shine of the hair coat, encourages thorough shedding of the winter coat in spring, and can assist broodmares in producing lots of high-quality milk for their foals.

e) Fat can help put or keep weight on a ?hard keeper’ when heat or performance stress is melting pounds away, and help maintain condition in geriatric horses because it is easy to digest.

The only limitation of fat as an energy source is palatability; if there is more than about 12% fat in the total diet, horses may become reluctant to consume it.† But many feed manufacturers now incorporate added fat levels in their feeds in such a way that palatability is enhanced, and storage, simplified.

Not all fats are equal: mills routinely use the cheaper oils such as soy, canola and corn but these don’t have the right Omega 3 profile, a factor that has only recently been recognised as having major health implications in horses, dogs and humans. in a 2011 survey of 12 Canadian mills not one of them had the right ratio of omega 3 to omega 6. Some of the sample were as much as 13 times as much omega 6 as omega 3. Omega 6 is a catalyst† for inflammation.

Feeding methods for high-performance horses need an overhaul.† With a better understanding of appropriate levels of protein, and a creative approach to providing concentrated energy, we can enhance both equine health and performance.† But first, we have to let go of ?tradition’ and old-school thinking, and be willing to take a fresh look at what’s most compatible with the equine digestive system.

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