Sport horse nutrition: Winning is in the details - DVM
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Sport horse nutrition: Winning is in the details
A new study in top equine athletes brings nutritional deficiencies into the spotlight


Daily feed intake

Photo 3: A horse training in the Kentucky Horse Park before the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games held in October in Lexington, Ky. Horses competing in different disciplines require differing food intake percentages.
One of the simple pieces of information uncovered in Owens' study was the potential importance of daily feed intake. She found that eventing horses consumed an average of between 1.48 and 2.45 percent of their body weight, dressage horses consumed between 1.04 and 1.79 percent, while show jumpers consumed between 1.09 and 2.55 percent. This is significant because it points out that not all elite equine athletes are alike, and horses from different disciplines have different daily feed intakes (Photo 3).

The National Research Council (NRC) suggested daily intake for working horses is between 2 percent and 3 percent of body weight. A study of 25 racing Thoroughbred and Standardbred stables showed good correlation to NRC-suggested intakes, but it becomes clear that requirements vary for differing breeds and disciplines.

"These results illustrate how important it is for each horse to be fed as an individual and why it is sometimes necessary to be critical of feed manufacturers' recommendations for feed allowances," says Owens. Not taking these subtle, but important, differences in intake need into consideration might result in unwanted weight gain, reduced performance and reactions to increased, unneeded protein or carbohydrates such as skin bumps or urticarial reactions, changes in manure consistency and behavioral problems (excessive activity, anxiousness and inattentiveness).

Body weight

Body weight is another detail that can have significance for the elite performance horse. Decreases in weight can be an early indicator of a problem, with possible causes ranging from training concerns to medical or lameness issues to physiological or stress factors.

A study done by Susan Garlinghouse, DVM, MSc, at the 1999 Tevis Cup 100-mile endurance ride showed a strong correlation between body condition score (BCS) and the ability to successfully finish the race. Non-finishing horses had an average BCS of 2.9, while BCS for the finishers averaged 4.5.

Horses that are training well and improving condition generally have good appetites and stable to slowly increasing body weights. Overtrained and stale horses will not eat well and may show subtleties in weight loss, if riders and trainers look for them.

"Generally, riders are not aware of the actual weights of their horses, nor the normal range for variation of those body weights in response to work intensity, climate or feed changes," Owens says.

Diet supplementation

To achieve the ultimate goal of ensuring that the performances of Australia's equine athletes are not being limited by suboptimal nutrition, it was important in Owens' study to evaluate the feeds and supplements being used and to determine any dietary deficiencies. Of the 22 horses investigated in her study, only one eventer and three dressage horses were deemed balanced and, therefore, received no additional vitamin or trace mineral supplementation.

In contrast, 17 of the 22 were receiving inadequate levels of vitamin E (< 1,000 IU/day). Because vitamin E is important in its role for muscle function, it is easy to see how small changes or deficiencies can contribute to suboptimal performance and a horse that is simply not working to its potential. Nine horses were receiving sodium at a level significantly lower than the NRC recommendations, and four others were deficient in other minor vitamins.

The take-home message

It is worth noting that this study was done among the best equine athletes in a nation that is currently one of the top sport-horse countries in the world. This is an extremely successful program, and yet there are still some areas for improvement.

"While some of the participants in this study had a clear grasp of the principles of basic equine nutrition, several were confused about feeding and viewed nutrition as a low priority in the performance of their horses," Owens says.

It brings into question how much nutritional knowledge and attention exists in the smaller, less elite and less successful programs that veterinarians consult with routinely. Encouraging clients to learn about and integrate new nutritional information and high-quality feeds and supplements into their established feeding programs is one area that veterinarians can still make a significant contribution to the performance of the equine athlete.

Dr. Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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