Feeding Advice for Hard-Working Western Performance Horses

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Those horses doing Western performance work such as barrel racing, reining, working cow horse, and cutting have higher nutrient requirements than horses doing lower levels of work (see Nurition Advice for Low-Intensity Western Performance Horses). In this article from Kentucky Equine Research, you will learn more about the nutritional needs of horses that are working harder than your average trail horse.

Feeding the Western performance horse in a manner consistent with nutrient requirements is predominantly a function of properly identifying energy needs. Depending on the type and amount of work they do, these horses may have energy requirements ranging from maintenance to those of the racehorse in intense training. Although energy is not the only nutrient for which there is an increase in requirement as work intensity increases, the higher requirements for many of the other nutrients associated with work are met simply by increasing feed intake to meet the additional needed for energy.

For Western performance horses performing moderate or intense work, owners need to establish a baseline set of feeding recommendations, adjusting for individuality, actual response to work and training, and the critical role that forage plays in the overall feeding program. Body style must also be taken into account when discussing the feeding programs for performance horses, since nutrition plays such a large role in the perceived frame that these horses go in.

Events covered in the moderate work category would be reining, steer roping (more than six head per day), working cow horse, calf roping, cutting, team penning, ranch work, barrel racing, pole bending and steer wrestling. This category contains the largest portion of the real “using” horses, those that have speed and anaerobic metabolism as any significant component of their work. The training program for these horses when compared to the typical pleasure horse or trail horse would generally consist of longer and more intense daily training sessions and more intensity of work during the event at the horse show. A greater amount of aerobic as well as anaerobic fitness is required for these horses when compared to those horses doing light work.

A good place to start feed management planning is the suggestion that 50% of the diet of horses doing moderate work may be comprised of forage and 50% of grain. When horses are consuming high-quality forages (good pasture or legume hay), it is possible that all of the protein and energy requirements may be met by the forage component of the diet. This may be true of horses that are maintained outside on pasture except when they are being ridden and trained.

However, this is not how the majority of Western performance horses are managed. More frequently than not, horses in training for or being shown in Western performance events are housed in stalls with limited--if any--turnout, and this fairly well necessitates the feeding of grain.

Assuming that 50% of the digestible energy (DE) requirements can be met by hay, the average-sized horse doing moderate work would need 17 pounds (7.7 kg), 12 pounds (5.5 kg), and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of grass, mixed grass/legume, or legume hays respectively. These figures would represent 1.7%, 1.1%, and 0.9 % of body weight per day respectively for the 1,100-pound (500 kg) horse. These kinds of hay intakes are certainly well within the capability of the horse to consume fibrous feeds.

Grain intake for horses doing moderate work would need to be in the neighborhood of 9-10 pounds/day (4.1 to 4.5 kg/day) to make up the rest of the energy requirement.

The above intakes must be modified to reflect training intensity, stage of training (maintenance of training level takes less work than getting to the peak), individual response to training, and feed efficiency differences between horses. Additionally, if more than 50% of the DE requirements are met by forage, then grain intake can be reduced. A fully fortified pelleted or textured feed (12-14% protein) or a supplement pellet plus straight grain fed at levels which meet energy requirements will insure that other nutrient needs are met.

Unlike horses doing light work, there is a considerable risk for horses at moderate work intensities to develop muscle problems. It is critical for horses to be ridden every day, to be worked within their metabolic means, and to have feed intakes reduced on light work days if tying-up and other types of muscle pathology are to be prevented. For horses at risk, maximizing the role of forage in the diet, adding fat and beet pulp to the diet to replace some of the starch calories, and providing adequate electrolyte intake all help to prevent muscle problems from occurring. These measures also apply to the maintenance of horses that have tied-up in the past.

Oil or fat intakes of 12 ounces/day (1.5 cups) can easily be tolerated by these horses, and concentrate rations with as high as 25% beet pulp are excellent for horses at higher intensities of work.

It is also good to remember that a strictly aerobic, stress-free warm-up period is effective in helping to promote normal metabolism (besides being good for the horse’s brain). Even though people would like there to be a real difference in the way one feeds reiners, cutters and roping horses, they really are very similar from a nutritional point of view.

The Western performance horse doing intense work is the exception rather than the rule. When we think about horses doing heavy work, we generally think about the high-goal polo pony, the racehorse, or the upper-level three-day event horse rather than the Western horse. Some professional Western performance horses that might need to be fed like a racehorse include barrel racing horses headed for a futurity, upper-level cutting horses, and reining futurity prospects in the final stages of preparation for shows. Some might even argue that some really top team roping horses get enough riding to warrant being in this nutritional classification.

Unlike horses in light or moderate work, it is not likely that 50% of a hard-working horse’s energy requirements can be met by forages. For example, meeting half of the energy requirement of the 1,000-pound, hard-working horse would necessitate a hay intake of roughly 27 pounds (12.3 kg) of timothy hay, or about 2.7% of a 1,000-pound (454.5 kg) horse’s body weight per day. This is close to reaching the horse’s capacity to consume dry matter.

For higher-quality hays, the problem is not quite so severe, and indeed some high-goal polo ponies play the Argentine Open fed only good-quality pasture. However, the reality works better than the theory, and it is commonplace for horses at intense or heavy work loads to be fed free-choice hay.

Research has indicated that when this is done, the horse will voluntarily consume about 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of hay. To make up the deficit in energy with a typical grain mix, the horse would need to consume 14-15 pounds (6.4 to 6.8 kg) of grain per day. Interestingly, these numbers are nearly identical to the amount of grain fed to racehorses in hard training at the racetrack. These are average numbers, and there is a large variation in actual intake of feed between individuals. It is also important to identify methods of decreasing the starch load of horses consuming a great deal of feed.

Probably the most effective way of accomplishing this is by using a fat-added feed or by top-dressing with fat at the time of feeding. Modern performance rations may contain fat at levels of 5-10%.

Another effective and fairly popular method of replacing starch calories is the use of beet pulp, a readily fermentable fiber source that has roughly the same DE value as oats. Unlike oats, the energy from beet pulp is derived by fermenting the fiber to produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which when absorbed in the cecum.

Another viable source of readily fermentable fiber that can effectively be used in the diets of performance horses is soy hulls. Pelleted feeds containing as much as 30% soy hulls can be made and are readily consumed by the horse.

The real key to meeting these horses’ energy requirements in a safe and efficacious manner is feed management utilizing small, frequent meals with a variety of energy sources.