Since the earliest beginnings of point-to-point racing in the 1870s, people have struggled to provide their horses with optimal levels of energy. High levels of energy are supplied by starch, but physiological and psychological health relies largely on fibre. So how can one strike the right balance and what other factors must be considered?
The horse has evolved to obtain its energy from fibre and must receive a minimum of 1% body weight as fibre daily to maintain gut health. Furthermore, daily turn out is essential for both mental and physical well-being.
In the UK hay production is on the decline and, due to our climatic conditions, hay is often poorly dried and dusty. Obviously, the point-to-point horse needs to be able to utilize his full lung capacity to achieve maximal performance and soaking hay for 30mins is usually sufficient to remove this respiratory challenge without the loss of too many nutrients.
Haylage is increasing in popularity, due to its lower dust content, but because haylage may contain more than 35% more water than hay larger quantities of haylage must be fed to meet fibre requirements. A number of feed manufacturers have developed concentrate feeds specifically to be fed alongside haylage due to its increase in popularity, including Dodson & Horrell Racehorse Plus Mix or Cubes.
Good quality highly digestible fibre can make a substantial contribution to a point-to-pointer’s energy needs. For example, sugar beet pulp and alfalfa chaff have energy values of around 10.5MJ/Kg (nearly the same as conventional oats) and can be used to replace some of the concentrate ration.
Starch is the primary component of cereals such as oats. It is a good source of energy, which is why cereals often form the major part of the working horse’s diet. The amount of energy present in different cereals varies; oats contain 11-12 MJ/Kg, barley contains 13MJ/Kg while maize has the highest energy levels of all the cereals at 14MJ/Kg.
Unfortunately the horse isn’t very effective in digesting starch. If a horse is fed a large starch-based meal (more than 3kg), any undigested starch will pass into the large intestine where bacteria ferment it. This increases the risk of metabolic disorders such as acidosis and colic. Cereal processing such as micronizing, and feeding small frequent meals will help reduce the risk of these disorders.
Many people prefer to feed straight cereals rather than a compound feed. They may have a good supplier, a local farmer perhaps, which makes it a cost effective way to feeding or may like the flexibility to adjust the amount of oats fed according to workload and energy. However, feeding straight cereals without supplementing the diet with a specifically formulated cereal balancer, such as Dodson & Horrell’s Racing Balancer, results in the horse being deficient in key vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, oats are low in essential amino acids, which are required for muscle development and function. This can result in poor performance and may also increase the risk of problems such as tying up and fractures.
Oil for energy
Oil is becoming used extensively as a dietary energy source. It contains approx. 35MJ/kg (nearly three time more energy than starches), enabling lower levels of starch to be fed and is ideal for animals with poor appetites. The best type of oil to feed is soya oil, however, sunflower and vegetable oil are also suitable.
Although water is seldom thought of as food, it is second only in importance to oxygen in maintaining life. It aids temperature control, digestion and blood flow and nearly all of our horse’s metabolic reactions depend on the solvency of water.
In the winter, your horse may drink less, as the air temperature is cooler and therefore he loses less water through evaporation, however his diet is likely to be drier. Hay contains only 15% water compared to 80-90% water in grass, so in theory he should drink more.
If your horse is marginally dehydrated there may not be enough blood to supply the muscles, resulting fatigue and weakness. A reduction in water intake for your horse will result in a decrease in appetite; potential dehydration, an increased risk of impaction colic and reduced performance. Dampening his feed or adding sugar beet to each feed will increase the levels of water in the diet.
Hunting and racing result in considerable water and electrolyte losses, and besides aiding the prevention of disorders such as tying-up, electrolytes help the horse to rebound from strenuous work sooner and regain appetite quicker.
Many people find that their horses’ appetites drop off as they become fitter. B-vitamins will help to stimulate appetite and are particularly recommended for fussy feeders. Research in humans has shown that a deficiency decreases athletic performance, therefore supplementing the diet of point-to-point horses may help to improve performance. However, be aware that many B-vitamin supplements contain high levels of iron, which is stored in the liver and can be toxic so choose a supplement that is high in B-vitamins and low in iron.
Feeding has come a long way since the 1870’s, but if you are still concerned as to what to feed your point-to-point horse call the Dodson & Horrell Helpline (tel: 0870 442 3322) for some friendly advice.