Supplementing the Performance Horse

Debbie Odell MSc Agric Pr. Sci. Nat
Consultant Nutritionist Bovasol cc

Forage or roughage should form the basis of the diet of all horses, with the obvious exception of the very young. Often horses can survive and thrive on forage alone, but as we demand more of our horses in terms of performance, forage alone will no longer be adequate to supply all the nutrients required and supplementation will become necessary.


Critically, horses need about 1.5% of their body weight in dry matter from roughage. A mixture of pasture, pasture hay (e.g. eragrostis) and legume hay (e.g. lucerne) is recommended, as the contribution of essential amino acids by the legume hay is significant. Providing this quantity of roughage will assist in maintaining the health of the hind gut micro biome. The roughage component will also significantly contribute to the energy needs of the horse, as well as some of the vitamin needs. Roughage will also assist the horse with thermoregulation in cold weather, but the contribution of roughage to the total energy mix may need to be varied in very hot climates. Your nutritionist will be able to assist with this.

As mentioned, performance horses require nutrient supplementation to maintain their expected workload. Conveniently, there are many commercial concentrate feeds purpose-formulated for the performance horse. The decision to supplement with commercial feeds is often made on a visual basis, meaning that if one perceives the horse to be losing condition, the concentrates offered will be increased, and if the horse appears to be gaining condition the concentrates offered will be reduced. Horses may gain or lose condition for a number of reasons, and the challenge for the commercial nutritionist is to provide sufficient nutrients in the supplemental feed to provide for the full requirements of all horses. Practically, the best that can be done is to supply sufficient nutrients for the average horse. Let us assume that the average horse will require 3 kg of concentrates per day. Horses that require more than this to maintain body condition (energy) will probably receive more of the other nutrients (protein, vitamins & minerals) than they potentially need. In most cases this is not a concern as excess nutrients could be excreted or stored for later use. The challenge is to provide sufficient nutrients for the horse in good condition that receives very little concentrate. Although supposedly receiving sufficient energy to maintain body condition, these horses could be being undersupplied in other critical nutrients necessary for top performance.

The extra nutrients required by performance horses include quality proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. Since each horse is an individual, some horses may benefit from higher levels of supplementation of these nutrients than the feed can supply. Some of the most common supplemental nutrients that provide considerable benefit are supplemental proteins (with the focus on supplying a balanced amino acid profile, rather than just increasing the overall protein level), B-vitamins like biotin, vitamin E organic minerals and additional fats (with a focus on supplying essential fatty acids).


There are 10 amino acids that are considered to be essential to the horse, lysine being the first limiting of these, followed by threonine, methionine and probably tryptophan. Proteins are made up of amino acids and the essential amino acids must be supplied in the diet. If any of the essential amino acids are in short supply, protein synthesis in the body will be suboptimal, and performance may suffer. Since lysine is usually the first limiting amino acid, supplementation may be useful, particularly in young horses with growth requirements. Lucerne is a particularly good source of essential amino acids for horses.


Biotin and other B vitamins are usually included in commercial diets; however supplemental biotin might be indicated if the hoof growth is of poor quality. Additionally, organic sources of zinc may also assist in the growth of healthy hooves. Vitamin E is a nutrient that tends to be undersupplied in general in commercial horse feeds. It is abundant in fresh pasture, and lucerne, but is low in stored hay and forages. Due to its antioxidant function, and depending on the total diet composition, supplemental vitamin E during the sporting season may be beneficial.


The two primary essential fatty acids are linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3), but the long chain omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have also been shown of particular value, especially in reduction of inflammatory responses to exercise.


Performance horses will need supplementation with electrolytes to replace those lost in sweat. Electrolytes are defined as minerals or their salts that are capable of ionizing in solution and can then conduct electrical impulses in the body. Electrolyte supplementation may be accomplished by simply providing a free choicesalt block, or by supplementing with a specializedelectrolyteproduct that contains sodium, chloride, potassium and preferably magnesium and calcium. Fresh water should always be freely available to horses supplemented with salt or electrolytes.


Each horse is an individual and other supplements may be required by particular horses. Joint supplements are among these, as well as supplements fortify gut health, including buffers and other products which may assist in the prevention of ulcers and maintain a healthy pH in the hind gut.Strike R8is an aid to the prevention of nutrition related ulcers, tying-up and laminitis.


It is important to consider the off season diet as well. In the South African hot summer season, performance horses are often given a well deserved break at pasture. Body condition will generally improve on good summer pastures, so concentrate feeds are decreased or in some cases are not given at all. Care must still be taken to supplement the macro minerals, especially when the summer pastures of choice are oxalate accumulator species (kikuyu, setaria, panic, guinea, buffel, pangola, and signal). Oxalates are capable of binding calcium in the grass rendering it unavailable to the horse. Balancing of the calcium: phosphorus ratio is particularly important on kikuyu pastures as not only is kikuyu an oxalate accumulator plant, but it also naturally has an inverse Ca:P ratio. Prolonged grazing without supplementation will result in bone demineralization and reduction of connective tissue integrity and strength over time. This may result in bone fractures or ruptured tendons when the horse resumes the stress of high performance. Horses grazingkikuyupastures over the summer months must have their diet balanced for calcium and phosphorus. For horses kept extensively in the off season, a specially formulatedlick blockcan be provided to correct the Ca:P ratio, and provide sufficient salt and trace minerals.

Consultation with a registered nutritionist is recommended to assist with dietary requirements

Bovasol cc 2018.

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