The question of whether you should feed your horse before exercise is one of the most hotly debated in the equestrian field, particularly for performance horses. We are often told that horses should never be fed before exercise, and while it is generally agreed that feeding practices before competition exercise have an important bearing on performance, there is little consensus as to what is most beneficial.
In this technical blog, Lisa Elliott, MSc – Equine Nutrition Solutions explains the science behind feeding horses before exercise, when you should feed and what types of feed you should or shouldn’t give for optimum health and performance.
Full or Empty Stomach?
Horses are browsing herbivores, typically spending 16-18 hours eating a variety of plant and forage-based fibre. This flows through the digestive tract in a slow constant trickle, so logically a horse’s stomach should never be empty. A full stomach is important for horses as it prevents gastric acid from the lower or ‘glandular’ part of the stomach, splashing around and irritating the unprotected upper ‘squamous’ section of the stomach. Acid splash that occurs in horses exercised on an empty stomach is thought to contribute to the development of gastric ulcers. Feeding a daily supplement like Coligone Liquid, can guard against gastric irritation and provide a buffer to support the horse during these periods spent without access to food.
If a horse is stabled without constant access to forage, or if it has been around one to two hours since the horse last grazed or had feed, feeding before exercise is beneficial.
A small fibre-focused feed will protect a horse from gastric ulcers in two ways.
- Chewing the feed will stimulate saliva production and saliva as an alkaline, acts as a buffer to acid in the stomach
- The feed will fill up the stomach and prevent gastric acid from splashing around
What should you feed before Exercise?
The type of feed offered before exercise is key. Forage, like hay and haylage or fibre-based feeds like Coligone Fibre Cubes or Fibre-Bio are most beneficial. Hay or haylage require a lot of chewing and will stimulate plenty of saliva production which provides buffering protection for the stomach. Forage or a fibre-based feed also form a fibre matt in the stomach which actively holds stomach acid in the glandular part of the stomach stopping it splashing around during exercise and potentially damaging the lining in the upper squamous part of the stomach. Feeding forage or a fibre-based meal as a pre-exercise feed will actively help to prevent ulcers, and maintain optimum digestive health for good performance.
Additionally, including Coligone Powder or Liquid, which is packed with calcium, an alkaline, in your pre-exercise fibre-based feed, will further help to deal with excess gastric acid in the stomach prior to riding. Remember when it comes to ulcers, prevention is much better than the cure.
How much should you feed before exercise?
While you wouldn’t want to give your horse a very large feed before exercising, you do need to feed enough. It needs to provide some fill in the stomach to form a decent matt to prevent the movement of acid from the glandular to the squamous part of the stomach.
Depending on when your horse was last fed, you should feed around 500g – 1kg (200g/100 kg of bodyweight) of a fibre-based feed or forage prior to exercise. Alternatively, offering your horse forage for around 30 minutes before riding will have the same effects.
What not to feed before riding
Whilst feeding fibre is beneficial before exercise, feeding grain or cereal based meals is not. Cereals should never be fed within four to five hours of a ride or exercise, particularly those that are high in starch or sugar. The starch and sugars in these feeds are rapidly absorbed from the small intestine as glucose, which triggers the release of insulin from the horse’s pancreas. Insulin is an important hormone that stimulates the horse’s muscles and organs to absorb glucose from the blood and store it away. Blood glucose and insulin levels following a cereal-based feed generally peak at two to three hours following a meal and return to normal within four to five hours.
If there’s insulin in a horse’s blood when exercise starts, they are not able to mobilise glucose stores to burn and fuel the muscles during work. This is because the presence of insulin tells the muscles to store all the glucose away. A horse’s ability to burn fat as an energy source is also reduced when insulin is present. The result of feeding a cereal-based, high starch and sugar feed too close to exercise, is that the horse will run out of muscle energy supplies and tire quickly, severely impacting their performance.
This concept is particularly important for high intensity exercise like racing, endurance riding or the cross-country phase of high-level eventing, where a horse’s glucose supplies will be burnt up very quickly. Since fibre produces slow-release energy, a fibre-based meal can, therefore, be much more beneficial to provide stamina for longer bouts of exercise.
Also, feeding large cereal-based meals before exercise could potentially be harmful to digestive health. During exercise, blood is diverted to the muscles and lungs, digestion is consequently slowed. Therefore, a large meal before exercise can increase the risk of colic developing.
Understanding the concepts around feeding and its impact on exercise is essential to ensure you are always promoting optimal health and performance. Feeding your horse with a fibre-focused approach is always best and that goes for the time leading up to a ride too.
If you have any questions about creating the best diet for your horse and keeping your horse healthy through the right nutrition, please contact Coligone – 0333 0503785/07986 183616 or email@example.com