Feeding the Dressage Horse Part 1: What Makes a Good Diet?

Here are tips on feeding various types of dressage horses.

Dressage does not require huge intakes of energy, and any excess body fat will hinder performance and soundness.

Dressage requires power, athleticism, concentration and obedience from the horse. The type of work required from a dressage horse could be compared to a cross between weight lifting and ballet, in human terms, and requires the development of muscle. 

Feeding to achieve all of these aims can be difficult. Too much energy, and the control and concentration might be lost. Too little energy and the horse might lack the energy and impulsion required in the arena. Added to this, each horse needs to be treated as an individual, and other considerations such as condition and temperament need to be taken into account. 

Dressage does not require huge intakes of energy, and any excess body fat will hinder performance and soundness.

At least 50% of the dressage horse’s diet should be forage even when competing at the top levels. Fiber is essential for the maintenance of a healthy gut. It reduces the incidence of stereotypic behavior, as well as the likelihood of gastric ulcers and colic, along with helping maintain appetite and hydration. Highly digestible fiber sources such as the Super Fiber (beet pulp), included in Standlee Premium Western Forage products, also provide slow release energy that will not elicit an excitable behavior in your horse.

When it comes to choosing a concentrate feed, remember to take into account your horse’s workload, temperament, age and condition. For young horses just starting out or for mature horses in light work, a low-energy, high-fiber feed should provide adequate energy levels. Feeds with low cereal grain content are ideal as these should be low in starch level to help avoid excitable behaviors. 

For horses in harder work, but that have a tendency to be excitable, a higher energy feed with a high fiber and fat content can help to provide the necessary levels of energy without the behavior sometimes associated with traditional cereal based feeds.

For the calm (maybe lazy) horse, a feed containing some fast-release energy sources such as cereal grains might be helpful to provide some instant energy for short periods of intense work. Care should be taken, however, that meals are not too large, as this can lead to undigested sugar and starch entering the hindgut, which can cause serious consequences, such as colic and laminitis. Never feed more than 4-5 pounds of concentrate feed per meal. It is also very important to make sure the grains are processed in a way that makes them more available to the horse for digestion.

If your horse loses weight easily, most of his additional concentrate feed should be in the form of an increased fat and highly digestible fibers. Very often laid-back horses tend to be good doers that are prone to gaining weight easily. If your horse keeps weight on well, then any additional energy will be converted to extra fat. In this situation, your horse needs a low intake feed that is moderate to low fat, but still made up of highly digestible fiber sources—look for feeds that are formulated to be fed at low levels. 

Regular weight taping and condition scoring will allow you to pick up on any changes in your horse’s weight and condition. As a guide, you should be able to feel your horse’s ribs easily, but not be able to see them. An ideal condition score is a 5 or 6 (on a scale of 1 to 9).

Like all horses, the dressage horse will need vitamins and minerals to maintain health and performance. Not all minerals are the same however, and in their inorganic state, they are not very bio-available to the horse. 

A mineral’s bioavailability is the proportion of the mineral that, when ingested, actually gets absorbed by the body. The remaining amount is not absorbed and is removed as waste. Unfortunately, most minerals in their natural or salt state are not easily absorbed, and are therefore not very “bioavailable.” 

The movement of most minerals across the intestinal mucosa requires chelation. A chelated mineral that can be utilized by the body is one that has been bonded to two or more amino acids. A mineral in this “chelated state” allows easy passage through the intestinal wall into the blood, resulting in increased metabolism of that mineral. In other words, when this mineral (for example, zinc) is bound to an amino acid, the combined particle (mineral plus amino acid) is perceived as food by the body, whereas the mineral itself, is not food. Your horse’s intestines are designed to allow food to pass through, but not raw (unbound) minerals.

By adhering to the principles of feeding plenty of fiber and choosing your horse’s feed according to workload, temperament and condition, you can help to achieve a healthy dressage horse with the energy needed to perform at his or her best.

This article was written by Dr. Tania Cubitt, PhD, of Equine Nutrition & Reproduction.



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