EQUINE - Feeding during the fittening period Jan 2018

1 Jan 2018

Many of us in Scotland may feel like we have now gone in to permanent hibernation as regards our horse life. Wall to wall ice does not make for fun times with our horses.  There is light at the end of the tunnel however and at some point, with increasing day length and improving weather, we must turn our thoughts to either increasing workload or to fittening from scratch, depending on how much time your horse has had off.

Rules of Feeding

I don’t very often hear people speaking about the “Golden Rules of Feeding” anymore and this is possibly a sad reflection of the times that we are in, where fads and shortcuts seem to be becoming the norm.  Anyone who has consulted with me about nutrition for their horse(s) will know that firstly I like to keep things simple and secondly I am a firm believer in getting back to basics.  Therefore, I am going to spout forth one of these rules as it seems to be one that is most often forgotten; that you should always feed for work done not what you are going to do. This is particularly pertinent during the fittening period and it should be borne in mind that more harm can be done by over-feeding than by under feeding during this period!

Early stages

In the initial stages of fittening it is important to assess the condition of your horse (your starting point). Would you like him to be trimmer, or has he dropped too much condition over the winter?  You should then have in your mind what you intend to do with him (your end point), he needs to be fit for purpose. Obviously a horse intended to compete in an affiliated 3 Day Event has to be considerably fitter than one competing in a few local shows over the summer. Your end point will affect the type of feeding your horse will ultimately require, and therefore what you are building up to.  The type of horse you have will also have an influence on how you go about the fittening process and how you feed him during this time.

Different Horses Different Strategies

In terms of fittening and conditioning, there are 2 distinct groups of horses, the good-doer/cobbie type or the natural athlete (possibly poor doer).

The Good Doer

This horse has probably come out of the winter with varying degrees of too much condition. To start with a good quality mineral supplement (check out Harbro One Scoop) or balancer pellet and chaff will be plenty and in some cases, may be all that the animal ever needs, dependent on the level of work required.  It has to be remembered that as the spring progresses those horses at grazing are receiving more and more nutrients from grass, and this also must be taken into account.  At some point those being fittened to a light-medium level and beyond may begin to feel like they need a little more energy or “oomph”. 

Energy and “Oomph”

Stepping up to a light-medium work feed will be unlikely to have the desired effect on this type and the extra calories are likely to be laid down as fat. Instead, add a small quantity of oats or competition mix, to the feed to give a rapid release energy source.  It is surprising how small an amount is needed to have an effect. Start with a small handful in each feed and increase slowly until the desired effect is achieved, giving it a few days at each new level.  Small amounts of oil can also be fed to provide some slow release energy.  Experience shows that the best way of feeding this type of animal is to use a balancer pellet and chaff as a year round base ration with the flexibility of adjusting the amount of oats, oil and chaff type depending on work level, condition and temperament.

Strict Dieting

 An easy mistake is to panic that your horse has too much condition a month before its first competition (in particular eventing) and cut back its feed drastically. This means the poor animal goes into competition with low energy reserves and feeling terrible.  Think how terrible and low in energy a strict diet can make you feel!  The desired body condition should be achieved in the early stages of fittening and then maintained, this means that the horse can be fed according to its work load in the latter stages of fittening.

The Natural Athlete and Poor Doer

This horse will probably be running up a little light after winter or be just about perfect. Feeding a conditioning feed (e.g. Harbro Conditioning Cubes) 50:50 with a light-medium work feed (e.g. Harbro Horse and Pony mix, Pasture Mix, Cool Mix) should help to regain lost condition and aid muscle development throughout the fittening period. Otherwise feed a light-medium work feed or chaff and a balancer pellet topped up with oats, beet pulp and oil as required. Depending on condition, once the grass comes through, this type of horse may not require an energy boost, and could easily go through the majority of the fittening period without any changes to feeding.  Higher levels of energy will be required, however, if training progresses to medium-hard levels. This is when it is pertinent to consider introducing a specially formulated competition feed, to avoid any imbalances.  Look for feeds based on oil and fibre for stamina events, (eg endurance) and ones with a higher proportion of cereals for events requiring bursts of speed (eg affiliated show jumping).


Rations for “fizzy” horses should be based on high oil, high fibre feeds with a low starch level (low to zero cereal content). This can be achieved by using feeds that are specially formulated for this scenario (e.g. Harbo Conditioning Cubes, Cool and Condition, Gain Freedom Nuts etc etc) or by using high spec chaffs (alfalfa or dried grass), with sugar beet pulp and oil being increased, as required, for controlled energy and condition. In this scenario a balancer pellet should be used to provide all the protein and trace elements required. It has been shown that it is possible to compete to Novice 3 day event level and beyond on a forage and oil based ration. 

As with all feeding, each animal is an individual and what suits one horse will not necessarily suit another. Knowing your horse well is essential to knowing when it is ready to move up a level in its feeding. A weigh band used once a week along with some body condition scoring will help you to keep an eye on condition. If in doubt make use of a nutritionist and don’t forget to make any changes gradually – another of those golden rules!!

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