Nutrition Advice for Low-Intensity Western Performance Horses

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Many Western performance horses are not being used for high-intensity work. Proper feeding these horses working at low intensity is discussed by the nutrition experts at Kentucky Equine Research.

In some parts of the world, Western performance horses are the most numerous performance horses being ridden and trained. Activities and level of work intensity vary widely from the recreational western pleasure horse to the professional reining or cutting horse. As such, accurate identification of nutrient needs is sometimes difficult. For example, the amount of feed necessary for the very solid non-pro reining horse may be totally inadequate for a horse in intense reining training headed for the more prestigious classes with larger purses.

The loss of horses in the Western performance horse industry to colic and laminitis is large. These losses are due in large part to the failure of the horseman and trainer to realize the critical aspect of adequate fiber in the horse’s diet. Not only can fibrous feeds meet a large portion of the horse’s nutrient needs for all classes of nutrients, but also the healthy cecum can serve as a tremendous buffer against gut pathology and dehydration.

The best estimate of voluntary forage intake by horses is somewhere between 3% to 4% of body weight per day in forage dry matter. Using these numbers, it is likely that many of the Western performance horses could meet most of their nutrient requirements using a diet of good-quality fiber alone. For example, if a horse requires 20 Mcal of (digestible energy) DE per day it would have to eat 28, 20 or 16.5 pounds (13, 9, or 7.5 kg) of hay per day that contained 0.7, 1.0 or 1.2 Mcal of DE per lb/kg, respectively. Assuming the horse weighed 1,100 lb (500 kg), these intakes would represent 2.5%, 1.8% or 1.5% of body weight per day in hay intake. These numbers are well within the capacity of the horse to eat hay.

Even though these numbers work in theory, in practice this feeding management routine is the exception rather than the rule due to tradition, ease of feeding and lack of availability and storage for these amounts of hay in many parts of the country. Therefore, a practical guide is to meet at least 50% of the Western performance horse’s energy requirements with fibrous feeds, with an absolute minimum forage intake of 1% of body weight per day. Adhering to these rules will result in greater economy, fewer gut problems, fewer stable vices and probably most important, a happier horse.

Western performance horses that fit into the light work category include Western pleasure horses, trail horses, equitation horses and recreational roping horses that are used for roping no more than five or six head of cattle per day. There may be instances when horses used in other events fit into this category and times when horse listed above may fit better into the moderate work category, but for purposes of a basic discussion of nutrient needs and feeding management, these horses group quite nicely. The difference in nutrient requirements between maintenance horses and horses doing light work is quite small.

For horses doing light work that are fed to meet at least 50% of the DE requirement with hay and or other fibrous feed, they would need a basal ration of about 14 pounds (6 kg) of timothy or coastal hay, 12 pounds (5 kg) of a mixed alfalfa/grass hay, or 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of a straight alfalfa, lespedeza or clover hay. To get the remaining energy required over and above that provided by the hay, an average horse in light work would be fed about 7 pounds (3 kg) of grain per day. This is pretty close to the average grain intake that one might see fed to these horses on a practical basis.

Meeting the protein requirement is generally not a problem if practical diets are being fed in amounts adequate to meet energy needs. When owners feed a 12% to 14% protein grain mix to meet energy requirements, protein requirements are almost always met as well. At least when grass or grass/legume mixed hays are being fed, it does not really matter if a 12%, 13% or 14% protein grain mix is fed. The other nutrients in the diet also fall in line if a horse is getting a well-formulated, fully fortified feed.

A typical nutrient profile one might encounter for one of these feeds is 0.65% calcium, 0.5% phosphorus, 0.25% magnesium, 0.3 ppm selenium and 4,000 IU/lb vitamin A. If these concentrations of the above nutrients are in the feed, the requirements for all nutrients are being met. For most horses, there should be little or no need for supplements. The obvious exception is salt. Even though most manufacturers include salt as 0.5% of the grain concentrate, it is a good idea to provide a free-choice trace-mineral salt source, either loose or block, to all horses, even those not in work.

Instead of using a fortified textured or pelleted feed, many people like to use bulk grains as the concentrate part of the ration. This option may meet energy requirements, but the macromineral and micromineral requirements are not generally met using this method of feeding. Adding a balancer pellet or vitamin/mineral supplement to straight grains is a way to provide needed nutrients.

Even though these horses are not doing a great deal of work in terms of caloric expenditure, they are still athletes. Flexibility, muscular fitness, cardiovascular fitness and soundness are still of extreme importance. For these horses to carry excessive finish or fat can only be described as potentially detrimental to their performance.

The definition of the really good performance horse is elegance, symmetry and balance. These traits are difficult to achieve in the fat horse. Just as fit and fat are different for the halter horse, fit and thin are different for the performance horse. Judges have been instructed by breed associations to discriminate against horses that look emaciated, dull, worn out and intimidated. The way to get a horse that is supposed to go slow to do so is through appropriate training and not through starvation. It takes energy to be balanced, round, cadenced and pure in movement. These attributes of the Western performance horse are not achieved by restricting feed and/or water intake.

In conclusion, for the lightly worked horse, it is energy balance in the individual that ultimately is going to be the critical aspect of getting the job done right. The owner or trainer needs to consider each horse as an individual and develop a program of feed and exercise that will produce an animal that looks good and has enough energy to perform well.