I’ve always thought that my horses have had pretty easy lives. Five or six days a week I ask them to carry me around for an hour or two. Sometimes that ride is just an amble; other times it involves galloping and jumping. But still, that’s not much. I wish that my workday was so, well, reasonable.
However, I’ve been told that I work my horses hard. In fact, I remember having a discussion with someone at a barn in Connecticut who marveled at how much I asked of my horse. That puzzled me because if a horse worked much less it would practically be retired!
When speaking to a nutritionist about feeding regimes, I discovered that my horses generally were considered to be only in light work. He told me that most people vastly overestimate how hard their horses work. An article in The Horse from Kentucky Equine Research reminded me of this. The Horse: Hard at work or hardly working? Equine work intensity looks at the nutrition a horse needs based on the intensity and type of work it does. According to the article, equine nutritionists divide work into three classes based on how horses derive energy from their bodies to fuel exercise.
High-intensity, short-duration work includes performance events with a primary sprint component.
Quick acceleration and top speed over a short distance require anaerobic energy production. Examples of high-intensity, short-duration work are Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horse racing; barrel racing and pole bending; rodeo events such as heading, heeling, calf roping, and steer wrestling; and draft horse pulling contests.
Traditional carbohydrate-laden feeds, which include most low-fat textured or pelleted concentrates, and forage may satisfy the nutritional requirements of horses performing this type of exercise. The digestion of carbohydrates provides muscles with glycogen, a fuel critical for high-intensity performance. As workload increases and energy reserves empty, large quantities of complex carbohydrates may be offered to the horse in an attempt to maintain body condition.
As carbohydrate intake rises, the risk of colic and laminitis escalates. Replacing a fraction of the carbohydrate content of the diet with energy-rich fat is one way to reduce the risk of metabolic disorders while supplying necessary calories.
Horses fed high-fat rations typically require fewer pounds of feed to satisfy caloric requirements because fat delivers 2.25 times the energy of an equal amount of carbohydrate. Fat is becoming an increasingly popular nutrient among those caring for horses with elevated energy requirements.
Research has proven that feeds too rich in protein may negatively affect performance. From an economic perspective, diets overly abundant in protein should be shunned as protein-packed feedstuffs are far more expensive than other energy sources.
Moderate-intensity, medium-duration work encompasses exercise that taxes but not necessarily exhausts a horse and requires aerobic and anaerobic energy production. The primary moderate-intensity, medium-duration work involves intensive show training and competition.
Horses are asked to perform for several minutes, perhaps close to an hour, and often more than once per day.
Feeds formulated for horses performing moderate- intensity, medium-duration work should be similar to those fed horses involved in high intensity, short-duration performance. One primary difference, however, involves feeding management. Horses in this classification may require less feed to support the work effort.
Low-intensity, long-duration work includes endurance activities that typically last two or more hours. Aerobic energy production is required to sustain this type of exercise. Examples of low-intensity, long-duration exercise include endurance races, competitive trail rides, and draft horse, ranch horse, and heavily used school horse work.
As workouts become longer, high-quality forage, that which is low in indigestible lignin, becomes more imperative in the diet. Not only is fiber a source of energy, but it holds water and electrolytes in the hindgut. Horses can draw on these reserves during exercise, effectively suppressing dehydration.
In particular, beet pulp and soybean hulls are considered “super fibers” because of their high bacterial fermentation rate and water-holding capacity.