Feeding the Performance Horse

Five Keys for Ultimate Wellness

by Allison Trimble, Willfully Guided Horsemanship, and Gina Fresquez


Hard working performance horses have high demands on their body. One of the building blocks of the complete horse is their feeding program. There is no one better to talk about equine nutrition than my friend Gina Fresquez, Equine Nutrition Specialist. I trust her with the management of my feeding program and asked what the five most important things are when assessing a feeding program.

  1. Forage First. Hay, hay pellets, pasture or beet pulp are all considered forage and are absolutely required for normal and healthy gut function. As for quantity, your horse needs to consume about 1% to 2% of its body weight in forage per day, therefore making up the majority of your horse’s diet. For example, a 1,200 lb. horse needs to consume 12 to 24lbs. of total forage per day, in addition to any other feeds or supplements. If your horse is overweight, feed towards the 1%; if he is underweight more towards the 2%. Any more than that will cause gut fill and that dreaded hay belly. Keep in mind that forage quality is critical. Choose forage that is green, smells fresh, has a high leaf to stem ratio and is free from mold, dust and debris. Beware that in most cases you “get what you pay for.” If you skimp on forage quality, it will have less nutrition per pound and you’ll need to feed more hay, grain and supplements to maintain your horse compared to feeding higher quality forage.
  2. Evaluate your horse’s condition. The simple way to do this is to get familiar with the Body Condition Scoring System, an objective way to evaluate a horse’s level of condition, or amount of stored fat on the body. The scale runs from 1–emaciated, to 9—extremely obese. If you can see the horse’s ribs they are a score of 4 or less. If you cannot see ribs than the horse is scored 5 or higher. Ideally, a good fit equine athlete should be between a 5 and 6. For more detailed information on how to body condition score your horse visit: http://horse.purinamills.com/products/BodyConditionsScoringChart/
  3. Follow feeding directions. It is extremely important for a horse to receive the correct amount of nutrition provided to perform at its best. Many horse owners forget to read the back of the bag or bucket to know exactly how much their horse should be consuming. Feeding directions are there for a reason, to provide your horse with exact nutrients needed for its weight and activity level required by the National Research Council. Of course it’s not an exact science as all horses are individuals, therefore altering a feed recommendation by a pound or two may not be a problem. However, if you find yourself feeding your horse a quantity that is way off from the directions it is probably not the correct feed for your horse. Find another feed that can meet the nutrient requirements at the appropriate level for your horse.
  4. Protein IS important. Don’t be scared of protein in your horse’s diet. Protein makes up many important things in your horse’s body like muscle, hair coat, hooves, skin, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, etc., all needed to promote good health and performance. The key is quality over quantity. The quality of a protein is determined by its amino acid profile rather than its crude protein content (or %). The horse needs 20 amino acids in the diet and the most limiting is lysine. The signs of protein deficiency in a horse will be poor hoof, skin or hair quality, anemia, difficulty building muscle, protruding hips and a weak or thin topline. In some cases you may have a horse with a healthy body condition score but still shows signs of lacking quality protein in the diet. In this case a good ration balancer may be beneficial.
  5. When in doubt, consult an expert. There is so much information on horse nutrition and feed that it can get complicated and overwhelming. If you find yourself confused or have a difficult case get help. Consult your veterinarian, an equine nutritionist, or even specifically the feed or supplement company you use to get clear information on how you should be feeding your performance horse to ensure the best results.
Photo credit April Crandall

Gina Fresquez received both her B.S. degree in Equine Business and her Master’s degree in Equine Nutrition from the University of Arizona. In 2004, she was an intern at the Purina Animal Nutrition Equine Research Facility in Missouri, and began working as an Equine Nutrition Specialist in January 2006. Gina works closely with horse operations testing hay, balancing feed rations, going over nutrition management programs and helping owners with feed-related challenges. Gina has been riding horses since childhood and competed in english, western, endurance, dressage and reining. She loves all breeds and disciplines. Gina can be contacted at (206) 743 – 6453 or at gmfresquez@landolakes.com*


*This link was no longer active at the time this article was added to the website in 2018.


Published October 2012 Issue

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