Equine Expert Share Insights on Race Horse Feeding

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Horses have been a favourite of UAE residents for long.  While most of them prefer to own a horse for a performance, it is important that horses are groomed, saddled and fed well. Dr. Mohammad Nisar, Brand Manager – Equine (Royal Horse) says it is important to consider a premium feed for a hard-keeping equine athlete, particularly with Dubai World Cup being around.  So whether in a show ring – waiting to show, having their hooves worked on, or out on the trail, horses need absolute attention and care. Here are some tips from the pro to keep you going.

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What should owners of performance horses keep in mind while feeding their horses? and how important is it?

The performance may be the events like endurance, flat race, show jumping, dressage etc. Since the performance activities of horses vary in both duration and intensity, the nutrient requirements and energy needs of these horses also differs vastly.

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Each and every performance horse requires water, energy (calories), protein, vitamins and minerals. As with all horses, it is important to feed a balanced ration to a performance horse. Nutritionists and horse owners spend a great deal of time and effort balancing the diet for energy, protein, vitamins and minerals for each horse depending on performance or training. Improperly balanced rations can lead to a decrease in performance, metabolic stress and digestive upsets.

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Water is the single most important nutrient. Small decreases in the amount of water contained within the body (dehydration) can lead to serious health consequences as well as a decline in performance potential. Performance horses must maintain proper hydration to transport materials to and from the cells within the body and to synthesize and repair body tissues. For performance horses, water is lost from the body primarily in sweat, urine, and feces. To replace the water lost from the body, performance horses should have free access to fresh, clean water.

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Energy is the dietary factor most influenced by work or exercise performance. The source of energy also differs according to the activity.  An endurance horse, for example, can effectively utilize energy sources such as fat, while the short-duration horse or high-velocity performance horse in flat race will perform its work anaerobically using carbohydrates. Simply stated, the more work a horse performs the more energy (calories) required to fuel that work. Within feed, there are four chemical constituents that can be metabolized to produce mechanical energy: carbohydrate (starch), fat, protein and fiber.

The most overlooked source of energy for a performance horse is dietary fiber. The digestive system of the horse is designed to digest fiber, and hay and pasture can provide an extensive amount of energy for the performance horse. In fact, for the digestive system to function correctly horses require at least 1.5% of their body weight in hay/pasture per day.Because of the energy requirements of exercise, most performance horses cannot fuel work and maintain body condition on forage alone. While forage should be an essential component of any diet, a concentrated source of calories is required for optimal health and well-being of most performance horses.

Starch is a carbohydrate that can be broken down within the small intestine of the horse to form glucose. The main source of starch in a performance horse diet is cereal grain (oats, corn or barley). Since the digestive system of a horse is designed primarily to digest fiber and has a limited capacity to digest starch, there is a restriction to the amount of grain that can be fed to performance horses.

Dietary fat is commonly added to commercial grain concentrates intended for performance horses. Depending on the type of performance, it is common to have fat content between 6 and 12% fat.

Protein can also be used as an energy source, but it is very inefficient and doesn’t contribute greatly as a fuel for muscle contraction. Some protein is a necessity, but all proteins are not the same in terms of quality and digestibility. Protein in equine diets should be selected to provide essential amino acids. Soybean meal is one of the leading protein sources due to its high lysine content. This amino acid is essential, especially for young growing horses, as the horse cannot synthesize this “building block” for making and repairing tissue. Young horses need higher levels of protein than do mature, idle, or lightly worked horses.

Exercising horses also need slightly higher levels of vitamins and minerals in their diet. Special attention should be paid to meeting the calcium and phosphorus needs of young horses just beginning training because they are still growing.

Royal Horse feeds have all the above discussed components in its proper ratio to excel the horses in their respective performances.

Can you shed light on the type of feed to be taken into consideration?

The type of the feed depends on the performance activities of horse. Royal Horse feed can fulfill all the needs of performance horses whether it is in endurance or flat race or show jumping. and so on.

There are many options to choose from in terms of concentrate feed including manufactured cubes, or coarse mixes or muesli. For performance horses nearly all of these feeds will incorporate some high starch containing cereal including oats, barley, maize or wheat. Starch is an important component of the diet of a performance horse, as it provides a readily available source of glucose to fuel the muscles and other tissues of the body and in addition it represents the most efficient precursor or building block for the formation of muscle and liver glycogen, which are both important carbohydrate stores in the body. The structure of the starch molecules in different cereals varies, which means that its digestion in the small intestine can also be increased or reduced depending on the cereal source. Oat starch is digested easily in the small intestine, whilst the starch in uncooked barley has a low digestibility in the small intestine which will result in an increased but undesirable flow of starch to the hindgut. Cooking increases the digestibility of starch in the small intestine by unravelling or gelatinizing the starch molecules.

Does quality of feed make a difference?

Feeding high quality feeds like Royal Horse will provide all the nutrients in adequate level and proportion to the performing horses. It also fulfills all the vitamins and minerals needed by active horses.  The quality is important because only through quality proteins in the feed, the essential amino acids are readily available to the horses.

Low quality feed cannot satisfy the nutrient requirements of the performing horses.

Things to be kept in mind while feeding horses at the day of the race?

Feeding management is also important for active horses because what and when you feed can influence performance.

The best time to feed a full meal of grain before riding is at least 4 hours before exercise (Table 1). Blood glucose and insulin increase when the horse eats grain. Horses that begin exercise with elevated insulin may fatigue quicker, because insulin prevents muscles from making the best use of nutrients needed to fuel muscle contraction. Allowing at least 4 hours between a grain meal and exercise will allow blood glucose and insulin to come back to baseline, leaving muscles to work optimally.

Table 1. When to feed before riding
Type of activity When to feed HAY When to feed GRAIN
High intensityRemove hay 4 hours before competition.Feed grain 4 or more hours before competition.
Light to moderate intensityRemove hay 4 hours before riding.

Or, adapt horse to eating smaller meals throughout the day.

Or, allow horse access to pasture.

Feed grain 4 or more hours before riding.
Long distanceAllow free access to hay right up until competition.

Allow access to hay during the ride.

Feed large grain meals no closer than 4 hours before the ride.

Feed smaller amounts of grain throughout the ride.


In general, experts advise feeding grain no less than four hours before riding. Similarly, for light, moderate, and intense workers, remove hay four hours before riding to avoid “gut fill.” Endurance horses are the exception to this rule; offer free access to hay right up until riding, and offer hay when possible during the competition.

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