Jennifer Little BSc Hons MSc RNutr,
Equinutrition, Independent Equine Nutritionist
All horses, be retired or elite performance athletes, pose us as owners challenges to ensure their digestive health. However, as workload increases, and we include competing into their exercise schedules additional challenges are introduced. Some of these challenges may only occur when the work load and level of competition reach advanced levels, whereas others are common to all levels. Be that local fun rides or shows, unaffiliated intro dressage, clear rounds suitable for youngsters or beginners, right through to international eventers, high goal polo, elite showjumpers, and Grand Prix dressage horses. This article hopes to detail some of the most common challenges and discuss the measures that can be employed to limit the impact of these in relation to the competition horse’s digestive health.
Increasing workload & balancing the ration
Fibre should form the basis of a horse’s ration at every level of workload and competition. Fibre sources include grass, dried forages such as hay, haylage or commercially available chaffs and even fibre mashes. For those at lower levels of workload and carrying excess weight, fibre may need to be restricted down to a minimum of 1.5% body weight per day. If a restricted provision of fibre is required it will need to be provided in a manner to ensure it lasts over the course of the day, preventing periods of 4 plus hours without available forage.
For those underweight or at higher work intensity fibre should be provided at a minimum of 2% body weight per day, and preferably ad lib.
As workloads increases the requirement for energy (calories) and protein increase, as to does the requirement of multiple vitamins and minerals. To create an optimal ration for the individual horse requires a few considerations. For the good-doer in lower work levels it is unlikely to require energy or protein in addition to that provided by the forage. A vitamin and mineral supplement or a balancer, formulated for low calorie intake, would likely be sufficient. At higher levels of work, it is often advisable with the good-doer to opt for a vitamin and mineral supplement of balancer formulated for competition work. These will not contribute much in the way of excessive calories, but they are formulated to provide the vitamins and minerals at a higher contribution. Meeting the elevated levels required at higher workloads. For the poor doer, or those prone to loose excessive weight over the competition season a vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer will probably be insufficient to maintain body condition and energy levels. For these individuals selecting a suitable compound feed formulated for the actual work level is more appropriate.
It is worth bearing in mind that work intensity is based on the horse’s heart rate during exercise, frequency and duration of work, and not how hard we as the rider find it.
Competing and hindgut health
Fibre should form the consistent base to a horse’s ration, regardless of the level of competition. The digestion of this fibre occurs in the horse’s hindgut, by a process of bacteria converting fibre into an energy source available to the horse. This bacteria consists of numerous different types and collectively are sometimes referred to as the gut biome. A healthy gut biome is not only essential for efficient fibre digestion, but for the health of the whole horse. Imbalances in the different types of bacteria increase the risks of damage to the gut wall, exaggerated flight responses, poor performance, weight loss and even colic and laminitis. There are several factors relating to the competition horse that unfortunately increase the challenges in maintaining a healthy gut biome. These primarily involve the fact that ensuring consistency in the provision of the fibre and hard feeds or supplements can be problematic while competing.
Challenges relating to travel and staying away
Transporting horses to and from competitions, as well as the time at the event can interrupt a horses normal fibre intake. Care should be taken while travelling and when not being ridden at the venue to provide access to their normal hay or haylage. For horses turned out 24 x 7 on sufficient grass it may mean that the only time they eat hay or haylage is on competition days. Such a sudden switch of fibre source could result in rapid changes to the hindgut biome. This is also the same situation that can arise from the rapid switch of the source of hay or haylage, more commonly occurring during stay away competitions or events. To reduce these risks, it is advisable for the horse normally grazed all day to be pulled off the grass for a period each day to eat some of the hay or haylage used while travelling and competing. For the horse expected to stay away it is advisable to take sufficient hay or haylage for the duration of the stay. If this is not possible, then to take sufficient to allow for mixing of the home forage with that provided at the venue. In relation to the hard feeds or supplements it can be easier to ensure consistency while competing.
Hard feeds and hindgut health
This is not to say that hard feeds are free from potential risks for the hindgut. As with the fibre sources, rapid changes to bucket feeds can also result in disturbances to the gut biome. In competition horses it can be tempting to quickly change or add in a new feed to increase energy levels. However, for the bacteria within the hindgut to be able to adapt to a new feed any changes should take place in stages occurring over 1-2 weeks. Also feeds with lower digestibility such as unprocessed grains, or bucket feeds exceeding either 2kg in total or exceeding 1g/kg body weight in sugar and starch can result in starch overflow from the foregut into the hindgut. If this occurs, it can result in the rapid proliferation of a group of bacteria know as Amylolytic bacteria. These then produce lactic acid, which further damages the gut wall and results in the death of the good bacteria. To avoid this from occurring total sugar and starches should be controlled, and if bucket feeds exceed 2kg they should be split into a greater number of buckets fed across the day.
Additional Hindgut support
Considering what is fed, how it is fed, when it is fed, and how if required it’s changed, will support consistency and hindgut health. But the act of travelling and competing can mean achieving complete consistency is difficult and challenging.
Especially when these changes tend to coincide with increased levels of exercise at competitions or events. One means of providing daily, consistent support for the gut biome is with the supplementation of pro and pre-biotics, such as those found within the Max-Gut Health range. Probiotics provide beneficial bacteria to help populate the biome in the hindgut. Whereas pre-biotics supply a feed source for these bacteria to help maintain their health. Providing a means to support the gut biome, the horse’s health and performance in the face of the challenges of competing.