The Ultimate Equine Athlete: Nutrition and Supplementation

There may never be an agreement regarding the feeding of fat versus concentrates. Fat is not needed by the horse in levels above 3% per day of the total diet. This amount provides the essential fatty acids needed for basic metabolism. Fat feeding has now become an extremely important role in training endurance type racehorses and those animals that combine both high intensity anaerobic and aerobic work. By feeding fat on a regular basis, but not substituting the grain portion of the diet, the horse will be ...There may never be an agreement regarding the feeding of fat versus concentrates. Fat is not needed by the horse in levels above 3% per day of the total diet. This amount provides the essential fatty acids needed for basic metabolism. Fat feeding has now become an extremely important role in training endurance type racehorses and those animals that combine both high intensity anaerobic and aerobic work. By feeding fat on a regular basis, but not substituting the grain portion of the diet, the horse will be ...

Story originally posted by: Eve Rejman

In part two of our discussion of diet for the performance horse, we discuss the pros and cons of all the options.

Fat: There may never be an agreement regarding the feeding of fat versus concentrates. Fat is not needed by the horse in levels above 3% per day of the total diet. This amount provides the essential fatty acids needed for basic metabolism. Fat feeding has now become an extremely important role in training endurance type racehorses and those animals that combine both high intensity anaerobic and aerobic work. By feeding fat on a regular basis, but not substituting the grain portion of the diet, the horse will be guaranteed an energy supply. He will not need to rely on glycogen stores in the muscle. This is called "Glycogen Sparing Effect". Feeding 10% or more fat can train the horse’s metabolism to recognize fat and depend on it more as an integral part of its energy needs.

Horse’s on high fat diets and are trained hard exhibit less glycogen breakdown during workouts which leaves more resources of glycogen to use for the "extra edge". As an added benefit, feeding fat is less voluminous. This lightens the horse’s ‘gut-load’ during an event. Any type of fat can be used, including liquid vegetable or processed animal fats. Feeding high levels of fat just before or during an event cannot be converted to fuel by the muscles. It must be a constant and integral part of the training and nutrition program. You need to define the goals for your horse when you begin feeding fats. They are not a quick fix. A general rule of thumb is, one pound of concentrate is equal to 4-5 ounces of fat, as fed.

Electrolytes and Lasix (Furosemide)
Feeding forages, salt and concentrates to your horse supplies enough electrolytes under normal circumstances. In hot and humid weather and under intense workloads extra electrolytes should be given as part of the daily routine. Supplementation relates to how much work is performed in hot weather. Always keep a close check on a performance horse’s hydration during these times, by using typical methods such as the skin pinch.

Lasix is commonly used in racehorses who exhibit bleeding through the lungs during workouts and racing. This negatively effects performance. In states and provinces where Lasix is legal, trainers routinely treat any horse suspected of bleeding. However, Lasix does not function as a normal diuretic causing fluid loss and a resulting drop of blood pressure from mild dehydration; Lasix has a direct chemical action on the right side of the heart pumping blood to the lungs. Since it does not function like a normal diuretic, some horses may not improve their performance.

Certain circumstances affect a horse on Lasix. Horses do become dehydrated and water should not be withheld. Giving the horse phenylbuzatone (Bute) will completely negate the action of Lasix on the heart. Giving a horse Lasix is dangerous and should be administered by a professional racetrack veterinarian, and only in states and provinces where it is legal.

Interestingly, you can pick out a horse after a race that has been given Lasix. They can be identified by the shaking of their large hindquarters muscle. This is caused by a combination of dehydration and a massive loss of potassium. Potassium and other minerals (e.g. calcium, magnesium and sodium) lost during dehydration are critical for normal muscle function. If a horse presents this type of stress, it will not perform well and the use of Lasix should be reconsidered. Potassium chloride and magnesium sulfate could also be added at 2-4 grams per day during training to offset any loss of electrolytes during Lasix use. The horse should drink at least 3 gallons of water or be tubed that amount the night before a competition. Why go through all of this trouble and potential danger to dose a horse with Lasix? It provides the horse, which tends to bleed through the lungs, the "extra edge" and increases the possibility of crossing the finish line first.

Creatine is biomechanically the only form of energy storage that can provide an athlete with peak powers of acceleration. Presently, the benefits of creatine to racehorses are unclear, but it is considered a racing supplement. Creatine is part of Creatine Phosphate, a high energy compound instantly available to the muscle under aerobic or rapid acceleration situations such as bursting out of a starting gate. It is hypothesized that the more creatine available, the longer the horse could possibly maintain acceleration and speed. No nutritional supplement has been offered to provide such an effect. Initial laboratory studies in horses did indicate an increased capacity for acceleration and greater speed endurance when used.

Feeding creatine to gain this advantage can be tricky. It can be administered in a liquid molasses base or as a powder mixed with a bit of concentrate and given via stomach tube. Approximately 100 grams should be administered via gastric tubing 3-4 days before an event or race. This is more of a safety precaution, as some horses may exhibit colic and severe intestinal discomfort from creatine. Since there is no performance benefit if a horse is in distress, remove creatine dosing immediately.

If the horse has not previously indicated negative symptoms, another dosing regimen can be established. Specifically, provide about 25 grams, or 1/4 the above mentioned amount per day for 2-3 weeks before a big event. On the day of the race/event you will be able to ascertain whether a seasoned performer is benefiting from creatine or not.

Creatine in raw meat is the best active source of the material. The rationale behind dosing horses with creatine relates to its use in human vegetarian athletes. These athletes had lower muscle levels of creatine than meat eaters. However, when fed supplemental creatine, muscles’ levels of creatine increased as well as some performance in these vegetarian athletes. The horse, being a herbivore, may indeed benefit the same way.

A word of caution if you elect to administer creatine: It is highly unstable and looses its efficacy within 15-20 minutes of opening the package. You cannot have this bulk mixed or allow it to sit out on the feed shelf! It should be tubed on an empty stomach since large amounts of buffer in the saliva deactivate it. Furthermore, it needs to be absorbed through the intestinal wall, not the stomach. In human athletes, taking it mixed with glucose enhances muscle uptake of creatine by slightly raising blood glucose, and therefore blood insulin levels. This is why molasses or a bit of concentrate should be mixed with it. If a horse is already performing well and creatine supplementation does not appear to give any "extra edge", then there may be a genetic limit to the amount of creatine phosphate utilized by muscle tissue. This has been proven in human trials, and horses may have the same genetic tendency.

Most concentrate or whole ration formulations for horses in intense training have higher levels of crude protein. This is usually in the form of milk whey or soy protein addition. Soybeans fed to horses, raw or cooked, tends to cause digestive upsets such as bloating and gas in some individuals. If you have a horse that has gone up to the level of intense training, and just does not seem to be muscling up well, or maintaining its large muscle mass, the crude protein level of its diet should be increased. Also, try feeding a supplement that derives extra protein from milk whey or egg products. These forms of protein are highly digestible in the small intestine, without the chance of gas formation. Dairy and egg proteins have a high level of biological availability, meaning they are digested very quickly in the small intestine. You should have your horse on at least 12% crude protein as fed already, in his regular daily program.

You may not find a protein product or supplement in feed stores such as this. Human health food stores have them. Since the protein quality is so high and the digestibility so great, the cost is not that much more. If utilizing a human supplement, increase the dosage by at least 6 times. You want at least a dosage that provides 18% protein. This extra boost of high, pure quality protein should be given with the feed after an intense workout or race and complete cool down. This allows the muscles to recover and utilize the protein as building blocks for more muscle tissue.

Lipoic Acid
Lipoic acid can be grouped with the anti-oxidants as a supplement. However, it also is essential for the efficient energy utilization in all cells of the body. There are many supplements on the market that contain lipoic acid, specifically for high performance horses. Just as in feeding hoof supplements, feeding extra lipoic acid to give your horse the "extra edge" takes time. You need to feed it at least a few weeks before a big race/event. For improved result you should probably feed lower doses for a month or two. For short term supplementation, feed 1 to 1.5 milligrams per day two weeks prior to the event, backing off before to the event. Long term supplementation should be less than half of that dose. If your horse does seem to perform a bit better, and this is the only change you have made in his diet, then it appears that he has benefited from extra lipoic acid. Then you can maintain performance on the lower dose regimen.

Supplementation of L-Arginine is controversial. It is used by human athletes to trigger growth hormone release into the bloodstream. Growth hormone is a very powerful stimulator of large muscle mass, increasing strength with large decreases in internal stores of muscle and body fat. Normal growth hormone release is triggered by exercise. It is not really known if L-Arginine supplementation works in horses. The only way to nutritionally stimulate the release of growth hormone is by dosing with L-Arginine. Adding Gamma-Oryzanol, a plant sterol that mimics the effects of body building anabolic steroids, could complement supplementation with L-Arginine.

This is what human athletes often do. Human athletes often report side effects of nausea and bouts of massive diarrhea after L-Arginine dosing. Again, these effects are also possible in horses. If one does decide that the extra muscle boost of L-Arginine would help horse performance, the animal should have it removed immediately from the diet if it exhibits any intestinal discomfort, or any reaction such as hyperactivity, depression, and irritability. This is harmful to the horse and certainly will not enhance performance. L-Arginine in horses has not been well studied and should be administered under the supervision of a veterinarian.

As in creatine dosing, administering L-Arginine can be tricky and time-consuming. It must be fed as the pure crystalline amino acid on an empty stomach, at least 10 hours before any protein consumption! This is extremely difficult to do on a horse’s diet, and you will have to remove all food to ensure no protein is consumed at all for about 4-6 hours. Horses in heavy training do not often have the luxury of abstaining from their high protein diets. Amino acids are also a cost consideration. However, once you have made the decision, put the horse on a schedule of administration and stick exactly to it.

You can buy L-Arginine supplements for horses. They recommend administration of 30 gms/day. However, since human athletes take 12-20 gms/ day, realistically, 60 or more grams of L-Arginine is probably needed to show any performance effect. The supplement tastes horrid. Therefore, any L-Arginine should be mixed with ample water and syringed down the back of the throat, so the horse does not spit it out. Do not mix it with any molasses or concentrate. In addition, do not give it on the day of a big event, only before and after. Since so little research has been conducted with horses and the side effects in humans are high, try a few doses of L-Arginine and if you do not see any improvement in 6-8 weeks, it should not be continued.

Extra Supplements
There are many supplements on the market touting better performance for your upper level athlete. I would always proceed with caution, but the one group of supplements I would continually provide and monitor are substances that show a high level of anti-oxidant activity such as Vitamin E, Selenium, Grapeseed Extract, Co-Enzyme Q, Lipoic Acid and Dimethyglycine (DMG). You may encounter toxic effects with selenium and lipoic acid, so always keep a daily account of how much of any supplement you give to your horse, above ordinary maintenance requirements.

Most high performance horses are fed concentrates that have added anti-oxidants mixed in for an ample supply. One company also markets packets you can have packaged for daily additions, so you don’t have to keep daily tabs. If your horse shows muscle fatigue or is prone to tying up during events or training, I would increase the level of anti-oxidants fed. I would also try to give him some turnout time on fresh forage, increasing it a bit every day. Fresh forage stimulates his gut, provides low impact exercise and enhances his frame of mind.

This is an overview of nutrition and supplementation for horses that some of you probably have integrated into your horse’s diet. Some people feed higher levels of different supplements. This must be a program integrated slowly and cautiously with increased intensity of training. I can assume that any performance horse at upper levels of competition has owners, trainers and veterinarians who are well aware of the environment of this type of horse in training. Usually all is done to maintain the health, welfare and soundness of the individual, but sometimes the "extra edge" is just not there. Some horses may just be very superior individuals, and this extra supplementation will not affect their already peak performance. On the other hand, extra nutrition and specialized types of supplements have helped many other horses.

Time, money and great expense at upper competition may justify owners’ and trainers’ minds to try anything new on the market for the "extra edge". Feed manufacturers have certainly taken notice of this, and there are many new and highly successful bagged products on the market. Again, I cannot emphasize how important it is to do research on your own, enlisting the support of your local equine extension agent or a qualified nutritionist, who have some expertise at managing upper competition horses.
I am sure that with caution to the welfare of your horse, the extra trophies you win will feel wonderful. May success come to you and your equine companion, whatever the endeavor.

Review Part I!

Eve-Karen Rejman is a Dairy Biochemist and Equine Nutritionist living in rural Poland, Maine. She can be reached at