Feeding high-performance horses is a challenge. If nutritional requirements are met appropriately, performance can be improved over those horses which are fed imbalanced diets in irregular amounts. When working with a veterinarian or nutritionist to develop an economical and efficient feeding program, take into consideration energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals.


A challenge in feeding the equine athlete is to maintain ideal body condition for a specific type of work. Whatever the workload, energy is the nutrient of concern. Energy must be provided in a reasonable amount of daily feed that can be safely consumed by the equine athlete. Depending on the horse's activity level and the diet's energy concentration, the intake of forage and concentrate will range from 1.5-3% of the horse's body weight daily.

Grain feeds provide energy that can be used directly or stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. Blood glucose and muscle and liver glycogen contribute to the energy needs of performance horses, especially those using anaerobic metabolism (i.e. working in short, intense bursts), such as cutting horses and racehorses. These horses often require a combination of aerobic and anaerobic metabolism, and therefore have trouble obtaining sufficient energy from conventional concentrates.

Research has shown that fat can be used as part of the total dietary energy source to provide a more concentrated supply of energy. Horses need time to adjust to fat utilization--sometimes up to three weeks. A fat-supplemented diet will provide more energy, so total daily feed intake must be decreased if the work level and body condition are to remain the same. Horse owners who intend to top-dress fat or oil on feed should begin with a small amount and increase that gradually, keeping an eye on eating behavior and general well-being. Also, supplementation of fats or oils requires a reassessment of the total dietary nutrient balance, especially for young, growing horses which receive exercise.


Overfeeding of protein is common in performance horses. Too often their diets--and the description of their nutritional needs--are looked at by percentage of protein in the diet. The percent of crude protein content in the grain or concentrate mix should not be increased dramatically as a horse's activity increases.

The protein requirements of the mature horse, for example, are comparatively low (10% of the diet or less), depending on the level of feed intake. There is no justification for feeding high-protein feeds to the mature athlete. The protein a horse receives beyond that required is not economical and creates metabolic stress.

Performance horses which receive average-quality grass hay (7-8% crude protein) will receive sufficient additional protein by feeding a 12% crude protein grain or concentrate mix, or feeding 14% if it contains significant levels of crude fat. At a moderate workload, horses will consume total daily feed (hay plus grain) between 1.75% and 2.5% of body weight.

The addition of fat or oils provides increased energy density, but dilutes the protein concentration in the feed. When fat is added at 5-10% of the grain mix, horses should be fed a concentrate that contains approximately 14% crude protein. This is especially important for working 2- and 3-year-olds.


Vitamin nutrition in the horse is not well understood, and many performance horse owners grossly overdo vitamin supplementation. If the horse is receiving a well-balanced diet containing sufficient vitamins, then over-supplementation of vitamins will not enhance his performance. In fact, it can be dangerous.

Some B vitamins are important for performance and might need to be supplemented. Loss of appetite is one symptom of a thiamine deficiency (one of the prime B vitamin sources). Thiamine can be synthesized in the horse's gut in sufficient amounts to meet the needs of most mature horses, but might not be synthesized or absorbed fast enough to meet the requirements of the stressed/exercising horse.

Biotin is a B vitamin that is often supplemented to enhance hoof growth or strength. Recent research demonstrated beneficial effects of one form of biotin supplementation as evidenced by reduced incidence and severity of horn defects, increased tensile strength, and improved condition of the white line. Improvement can take several months. More research is needed before recommendations can be made about supplementing diets of horses with poor hooves.


Working horses lose significant amounts of sodium, chloride, and potassium in sweat. Two major sources of these minerals are good-quality forage and supplemental minerals in trace-mineralized salt in the concentrate mix. Top-quality, commercially prepared horse feeds normally contain sufficient amounts of minerals. The most effective way to meet the mineral needs of exercising horses is to select roughage and concentrates that have a good balance of the minerals required, and feed those in amounts that meet the energy requirements of the animal. Horses which sweat excessively might need additional salt to bring the total salt content of the diet up to 1% of the horse's daily ration. Further information on this subject can be found in the Nutrition category on the Horse Health page at www.myHorseMatters.com.  

About the Author

Brett Scott, PhD, Dipl. ACAN

Brett Scott, PhD, Dipl. ACAN, is a professor and extension horse specialist in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University.

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