In today’s industry where fractions of seconds mean the difference between winning first and not making the short round, our equine partners must have every competitive edge. Continued research on the performance horse’s nutrient needs has allowed horsemen to feed the athletic horse more scientifically than ever before to maintain that edge. Horses are complicated creatures. From what they’re thinking to how to keep them from getting hurt (padded stalls are an option!), to knowing when they aren’t feeling their best, it’s imperative that barrel racers know how to supply proper nutrition, especially during those times when their competitive schedule is rigorous.

Digestive System Limitations

Horses are non-ruminant herbivores, also known as hindgut fermenters. They have a small stomach, which only has a capacity of 2-4 gallons for the average, 1,000 lb. horse. This in turn limits the amount of feed that a horse can take in at one period of time. The horse’s stomach secretes hydrochloric acid (HCI) and pepsin to begin the breakdown of food that enters the stomach.

Horses are also unique in that they do not have a gall bladder. This makes high fat diets hard to digest and utilize. Normal rations contain only 3-4 percent fat but horses can also digest rations with up to 20 percent fat in their diet, it just takes a span of 3-4 weeks for them to adjust.

The small intestine in a horse is not so small. It is 50-70 feet long and can hold up to 23 gallons. Most nutrients such as protein, some carbohydrates and fat are digested in the small intestine. In addition, most vitamins and minerals are also digested in the small intestine.

After the small intestine comes the cecum. Most liquids are passed through the cecum, which is 3-4 feet long and holds 7-8 gallons. Detoxification of toxic substances occurs in the cecum and it contains bacteria and protozoa that pass through the small intestine to digest fiber and any soluble carbohydrates.

Last, but certainly not least, is the large intestine. The large colon, small colon and rectum make up the large intestine. The large colon is roughly 10-12 feet long and holds up to 16 gallons. It has four parts: the right ventral colon, sternal flexure to left ventral colon, pelvic flexure to left dorsal colon and diaphragmatic flexure to the right dorsal colon. Where impaction, or colic, typically occurs is in the sternal and diaphragmatic flexure. The small colon being the last organ before the rectum, leads straight to the rectum and is 10 feet long and only holds 5 gallons of material.

Nutrition 101

Horses require six main classes of nutrients to survive, which include water, fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Water is the most important nutrient and horses cannot live long without it. Always provide an adequate, clean supply of water. Horses drink 2 quarts of water for every pound of hay they consume. In high temperatures, periods of hard work, and for the lactating mare, the requirement is higher and may be 3-4 times the normal consumption. Electrolytes are also imperative to the horse and the most important ones to remember are potassium, sodium, chloride and calcium. During exercise and even hauling down the road, your horse will sweat for a prolonged period of time and will need to drink more water and utilize more electrolytes than normal to replace losses. While grasses are high in potassium, most grains are deficient in all of the major electrolytes. It is important to carry electrolytes in your trailer at all times while hauling and most importantly during the summer.

It is important to know the signs of dehydration in order to recognize when horse is not receiving the adequate water requirements. Dry mucous membranes in the mouth, dry feces, and decreased capillary refill time are all common signs of dehydration.

Energy is a huge requirement for sustaining life and although it is not one of the six nutrients (because horses cannot physically consume energy), energy is important. The densest source of energy is fat, almost three times more than carbohydrates and proteins.

When your horses are in training and going down the rodeo road, they need more energy than the average horse and even more than horses in light training. Energy is supplied by fat, protein, carbohydrates or fiber in the diet. Carbohydrates and fats are the most concentrated and efficient sources of calories for horses, and fiber is the most natural source. After these energy sources are broken down into component parts by digestive processes, they are absorbed and used directly for energy production or stored as fat.

Carbohydrates are the main energy source in most feeds and are abundant in grains, fresh green grass and legume (alfalfa or clover) hay. Grass hay contains variable amounts of available carbs, depending upon the quality of the hay. The main building block of carbohydrates is glucose and there are two types, soluble and insoluble. Soluble carbohydrates such as starches and sugars are readily broken down to glucose in the small intestine and then absorbed. Insoluble carbohydrates such as fiber bypass enzymatic digestion and must be fermented by microbes in the large intestine to release their energy source, which are the volatiles fatty acids. Soluble carbohydrates are found in nearly every feed source and corn has the highest amount followed by barley and oats.

Protein is needed for muscle development during growth and exercise and the main building blocks of protein are amino acids. Alfalfa is a great source of protein that can be easily added to the horse’s diet. Most adult horses only require 8-10 percent protein in the ration, however higher protein is important for lactating mares and young growing horses.

Hay, depending upon its quality, can meet a high degree of equine nutritional needs, while some horses may benefit from supplementation with grain.
Hay, depending upon its quality, can meet a high degree of equine nutritional needs, while some horses may benefit from supplementation with grain.

Signs of protein deficiency include a rough or coarse hair coat, weight loss, reduced growth, reduced milk production and lackluster performance. Excess protein in a horse’s diet can result in increased water intake and urination and increased sweating, which in turn leads to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Vitamins play an important role in the horse’s diet and there are two kinds: fat-soluble (vitamin A, D, E, and K) or water-soluble (vitamin C, and B-complex). Horses usually have more than adequate amounts of vitamins in their diet but can become deficient during times of stress or prolonged strenuous activity. Most of their vitamin needs can be found in green, leafy forage, but vitamin D is obtained from sunlight. Horses that are under heavy exercise or increased levels of stress may also benefit from vitamin E supplementation. In addition, vitamin C can be used when horses are experiencing times of stress.

Minerals are required for maintenance of body structure and fluid balance in cells. Only small amounts of macro-minerals are needed daily, such as calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium and sulfur. You can offer your horse salt blocks and free choice mineral blocks developed specifically to suit the unique needs of the equine to help maintain their requirements.

What to Feed

Grain has higher energy density (energy content/unit wt.) than hay, and grain is often preferred over hay as an energy source because horses with an intense workload cannot consume enough hay with their limited gastrointestinal tract capacity. For horses, especially hard working ones, it’s important to consider supplementing their diet with a concentrate such as grain. By adding grain you can meet additional energy requirements.

What type of grain should you feed to provide for optimal performance? Numerous surveys have determined that most trainers and riders have fed some type of sweet feed, containing corn in addition to oats. However, horse owners should be aware that corn contains almost twice as much energy as oats per volume and is consequently easier to overfeed than oats. With this in mind, trainers, riders, and owners need to establish a careful feed management program.

Using fat rations for performance horses has recently received much attention. Feeding high volumes of fat during training is used to condition the horse to more efficiently utilize fat stores and to adapt the enzymes involved to more efficient fat metabolism. During long bouts of exercise, fat is more likely to be the horse’s primary energy source.

The most important thing to remember in feeding the performance horse is that as activity or exercise increases, you need to increase only the amount of energy fed. Increasing workload requires no increase in protein, but does call for an increase in energy and always keep in mind that horses receiving large amounts of concentrates require extremely good management.

Horses are individuals whose feed requirements vary greatly. Some horses lose weight when fed according to basic guidelines, while others gain weight. Always monitor each individual horse’s condition and attitude and feed accordingly.

Pasture Fever

As winter fades in many parts of the country and gives way to spring, horses nationwide will be turned out to enjoy fresh, green grass. If your horse has been eating sparse pasture or hay all winter, grass should be introduced gradually. An abrupt change in feed can result in colic, laminitis (also known as founder). Ponies, overweight horses and senior horses seem to be particularly susceptible and a pony can founder on rich grass in less than one hour of grazing time.

If your horse is grazing a pasture from the time the ground thaws in early spring, he will be introduced to the new growth of grass naturally. It is when you make the sudden switch from a hay diet to a lush grass that problems occur.

Introduce lush, green pasture gradually in order to avoid colic or founder.
Introduce lush, green pasture gradually in order to avoid colic or founder.

Beet Pulp for the Barrel Horse?

Equine athletes have added nutritional requirements much like human athletes do. Grain is commonly used to provide our horses with extra energy in order for them to work as hard as they do for us.

Beet pulp is roughage that is high in digestible fiber and appealing to horses.

“The high fiber quality of beet pulp slows the rate of digestion, allowing the stomach acids to work on digesting the feed, rather than irritating the lining of the stomach,” explained Dr. Gray Pusillo, lead nutritionist at Woody’s Feed and Grain in Dickinson, N.D.

In addition to it slowing the rate of digestion, beet pulp also allows for a slower rate of passage, which exercises the function of a healthy digestive tract, including the cecum and large intestine.

“Our beet pulp-based feeds are well suited for ulcer-prone horses and you will notice added benefits when feeding beet pulp such as your horse staying full longer, having even blood sugar levels and strong, reliable energy. Beet pulp also holds the equivalent amount of energy as oats, in addition to being an excellent source of fiber,” Pusillo said.

Pusillo added that it’s important for horse owners to recognize that in order for beet pulp to be effective, it must be fed at levels that permit a balance of all dietary fiber intakes.

He emphasized that in addition to supplementing the equine diet with grain, it is very important to keep water available to your horse at all times.

“One thing most people forget is how important water is to the horse. Without water they are unable to digest their feed, which is turn could lead to impaction of the gut or colic,” explained Pusillo.

Hope Sickler is an avid barrel racer and aspiring writer based out of Colorado. Email comments on this article to  [email protected].


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