Nutrition for the performance horse

Proper nutrition is the foundation for a healthy horse who’s capable of training and performing to the best of his ability.

You spend a lot of time and money training and practicing with your horse in order to master your discipline. You have the right equipment, a great trainer, and most importantly, a wonderful horse. But have you stopped to think about how your horse’s diet affects his performance? The truth is that improper nutrition can cause his performance to suffer. It’s the same with human athletes – if a person consumes only junk food that lacks proper vitamins, minerals and protein, the body cannot function optimally and can even break down under stress. Proper nutrition is the foundation for a healthy equine body that’s capable of training and performing to the best of its ability.

Where’s the best place to start?

Every horse’s diet is forage-based, and should begin with good quality hay or pasture. The only scientific way to truly know the quality of a forage source is to have it analyzed at a commercial laboratory. It’s fairly inexpensive, but not always practical. Forages with higher values of acid detergent fiber (ADF) tend to have lower digestibility. Forage with an ADF value over 40 to 45 is typically fibrous mature hay that may not be suitable for hard keepers or performance horses. High neutral detergent fiber (NDF) values (above 50 to 55) often indicate lower palatability – typically, the higher the NDF value, the lower the intake is likely to be.

These values vary slightly for grass versus alfalfa, but they give an idea of how to estimate the quality of a forage, along with its protein and mineral content. If an analysis is not practical, look for hay that is leafy, free of weeds and molds, and is sweet-smelling. Hay with lots of sticks and stems is most likely nutrient-poor and less digestible than leafier hay. While you can’t tell the nutrient value of a hay just by looking at it, you can get a general idea of its quality.

Estimating work load

Many performance horses cannot maintain their weight or performance level on forage alone. That’s where concentrate feeds fill the gap. The National Research Council (NRC, 2007) has set guidelines on how to determine a horse’s work level, defining four categories (see Table 1 below).

The harder a horse works, the more energy his body needs to maintain performance. Remember that each horse is an individual, so it’s important to regularly monitor his condition. Become familiar with the body condition scoring (BCS) system – it’s a scale from 1 to 9, with a score of 1 to 2 being emaciated, 3 to 4 being thin, 5 to 6 being ideal, and 7 to 9 being obese (Henneke, 1983). An “Introduction to body condition scoring” fact sheet (AS-552-W, published by Purdue University Extension), provides a basic overview of how to evaluate BCS, which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

If a horse is too fat, concentrates likely need to be reduced or eliminated. Overweight horses are more likely to overheat, have a harder time cooling down after exercise (especially in warm climates), and may not tolerate higher-intensity exercise as well as their slimmer counterparts can. On the other hand, horses that are too thin may not have sufficient energy stores to perform at peak, and could potentially be lacking vital nutrients for optimal muscle development and repair.

Energy output needs energy input

Dietary energy comes in the form of calories. A carbohydrate contains four calories per gram, whereas fat contains nine calories per gram. Carbohydrates are a quick-burning source of energy, but can be depleted very quickly. Fat takes a longer time to metabolize, and has a slower steadier release of energy, which is why it is frequently referred to as a source of “cool” calories. A mix of fat and carbohydrates is appropriate for the demands of most performance disciplines, with endurance-type work favoring more fat, and race-type work more carbohydrates.

Horses who work hard and/or who have trouble maintaining weight often do well on concentrates with high fat content (10% to 14% crude fat). Easy keepers, even those in work, still need vitamins, minerals and protein; low-calorie feeds or ration balancers are frequently appropriate for these horses.

Each horse has unique nutritional needs. Consider his age, work load, overall health and training goals. A diet with good quality hay and/or pasture is the foundation, and can be supplemented with higher-calorie, fortified concentrate feeds if necessary. If you are unsure how to select a feed, call the feed company! Most manufacturers employ nutritionists who can help you select an appropriate product and help balance your horse’s diet. Just remember that change takes time, so when you implement a new feeding program it may take two to three months to start seeing results. Re-evaluate your horse frequently and adjust his diet as needed.


Henneke DR, Potter GD, Kreider JL, Yeates, BF. “Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares”. Equine Veterinary Journal, 1983, 15(4):371-372.

National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th Edition. National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2007.

Ralston SL. “Performance horse nutrition and notes on conditioning”. Rutgers Equine Science Center Fact Sheet #752, 2004. Accessed online at

University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. “Nutrition of the performance horse”. Document #ASC-113. Accessed online at