EQUINE - Feeding the Competition Horse

16 Jan 2017

Feeding the competition horse is always a fine balance between providing enough energy for competition whilst maintaining a controllable and trainable equine partner. A common problem for many people is the competition horse that is full of explosive energy and difficult to handle. Some are like this the entire time whilst others fade as the day/competition season goes on, running out of “petrol” at often crucial moments.

As I have mentioned many times, personality traits cannot be changed by feeding. We can, however alleviate matters by ensuring that we select the correct type of energy source to feed to our horses.

Slow/Fast Release

In the world of equine nutrition feeds are often referred to as either fast release or slow release. This basically refers to how the energy in that particular feed is metabolised by the horse. Fast release feeds supply energy for short sharp bursts of speed (as would be required by a top level show jumper) and slow release feeds providing energy for a sustained period of time (as would be required by an endurance horse). The problem is that all working horses ideally require a good balance of both types of energy, and it is the balance between the two types which will change depending on the type of horse and the type of activity. This is the reason why all horses should be fed as individuals as what will suit a part bred hunter type may not be suitable for the thoroughbred on the yard doing the same work level and discipline.

Energy without Fizz

To provide energy without producing the undesirable fizz the horse should be fed a diet consisting mostly of slow release energy sources. This essentially means that the diet should be high in fibre (including superfibres) and oil but lower in cereals (starch). This is eminently achievable by selecting the appropriate compound feed. The feed should be high in oil and contain “super fibres” such as sugarbeet pulp, soya hulls, grass or alfalfa. They will normally have descriptions such as slow response or endurance in the title but if in doubt check with the manufacturer of the feed. It is best to stick to nuts for “fizzy” types as they tend to contain a lot less cereal. Mixes tend to be higher in cereal and generally will not suit this type of horse.

Home mix

Another route that can work out very successfully is to select a balancer pellet and build up the horse’s feeding requirements around this. Use a 'high spec' chaff such as Alfalfa or dried grass as your base, which will provide as much energy as your average leisure mix/nut. Use sugarbeet pulp and oil to provide the slow release energy to your horse as required. Oil provides 2.25 times more energy than the equivalent weight of cereal and so is also ideal for increasing the nutrient density of the diet. In other words a lot of energy can be provided in a small amount and is therefore ideal for keeping the meal size low. No more than 2 kg of hard feed should be fed in any one meal to prevent digestive upset, which can in itself lead to behavioural problems.

Energy Stores 

The use of oils in feeds for performance horses also has other benefits. One of these is the fact that there is a glycogen sparing effect when high oil diets are used. This basically means that the fat stores are used up when the animal is performing aerobically at slower speeds and the glycogen stores in the muscles are reserved for the fast anaerobic sprint work. What this means is that there is more fuel left in the tank and less muscle damage, post hard exercise, due to lower levels of lactic acid accumulation in the muscles. It must be remembered that when high levels of oil are fed extra vitamin E should also be fed, with the current recommendations being an extra 100 IU of vitamin E per 100ml of oil fed. There are some products that are designed to provide high oil levels in a dry form that also contain the appropriate Vitamin E levels to remove this worry (Alfa-Oil and Outshine to name but two).


The majority of competition horses will still require some cereal content in their diet to provide fast release energy and ensure good glycogen reserves in the muscles. If you buy a ready manufactured feed then this is likely already taken care of. If a nut is used, you can rest assured that the cereal content will have been cooked during the pelleting process thus meaning it will be digested in the foregut, which lessens any potential problems in the hindgut (unless you have fed too big a meal size!!). Coarse mixes should contain cooked, flaked or micronised maize and/or barley and whole or cooked oats. As already mentioned, however, mixes are best avoided if your horse is a livewire. Oats are the only cereal that can be fed unprocessed and are in fact the least heating cereal. If you have gone down the balancer route then this would be the most appropriate cereal to select. Small amounts would probably suffice; be prepared to experiment and adjust accordingly to suit temperament and work load (100-500g).

On the level

Fizzy horses should be maintained on a high oil, high fibre and low starch (cereals) diet. This can be achieved by selecting the appropriate compound feed or by utilising a balancer pellet with a 'high spec' short chop product and topping up with sugar beet, oil, oats etc as required. More laid back times can benefit from a diet with more fast release type energy sources, again a competition mix will usually do the job nicely or if your horse is a good doer use a balancer and add oats as required. If in doubt please speak to a nutritionist or use the many available help lines offered by the feed manufacturers.

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