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26th July - How Team GBR's Top Performance Horses Are Fed - by Chris Gordon, Technical Director

On the eve of the world’s largest sporting event, Chris Gordon, Technical Director of Dodson & Horrell, gives an insight into how Britain’s top performance horses are fed.

Leading horse feed manufacturer Dodson & Horrell has been the official supplier of nutrition to Team GBR since 2010 and with the lead up to this summer’s Olympics it has been an interesting and hectic time!

All Team GBR members, from the development squads upwards, enjoy the benefit of support from team trainers , physiotherapists (horse and human), sports psychologists, vets, dieticians and of course equine nutritionists. This is all co-ordinated by the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) with funds from the lottery via Sport England and not only targets this year’s event but prepares for 2016 and even 2020.

Every factor that may affect performance has been evaluated with a view to achieving optimum performance whether for dressage, eventing, showjumping or paralympic competitions, on the basis that an improvement of a fraction of a percent could make the difference between team gold and not reaching the medal winners’ rostrum.

During recent years the Dodson & Horrell nutrition team has had the opportunity to evaluate the diets of a large number of elite horses, not only within Team GBR but other sport horses and horses performing in other disciplines such as racing, endurance and polo.

Whilst not wishing to reveal any key findings to other competing nations or compromising individual confidentiality it has, as always with horses, been interesting and revealing, emphasising the fact that you never stop learning.

Feeding cereals

Whilst we will always encourage riders to maintain good levels of fibre within the daily ration (ideally more than 1.5% of body weight, i.e. a minimum of 7.5kg of forage per day for a 500kg horse) the majority of these elite horses are, not surprisingly, also fed cereals often in the form of cubes or muesli as a more concentrated energy source.

Some will argue that feeding cereals to horses is “unnatural” but when you consider that cereals are effectively developed grasses and with the correct management by feeding the right quantity and choosing the right cereals, these valuable energy sources can be fed safely with great success to horses that are in work; the problems arise when they are fed inappropriately.

An additional factor which is crucial to Team GBR and all affiliated competitors is to ensure that they follow the BHA and BEF recommendations and only use feed or supplements that have the BETA NOPS logo, indicating that they have been manufactured to a standard which minimises the risk of a Naturally Occurring Prohibited Substance (NOPS) being present.

Dodson & Horrell has undertaken research in the UK and Europe into the effects of cooking and flaking the cereals on the degree of gelatinisation of the starch and how this effectively targets digestion of cereals in the upper gut. This minimises the amount of undigested starch entering the hindgut and upsetting the balance of bacteria which are essential for breaking down the fibre element of the diet. This means that not all flaked cereals are equal as an undercooked or overcooked cereal will contain resistant starch which could end up in the hindgut.

As mentioned, the application of the feed is also crucial as even the best cooked cereals in a muesli will not be effectively digested in the upper gut if the meal size is too big (concentrate meals should be no larger than 2.5kg and preferably less than 2kg per meal for a 500kg horse).

Glycaemic response

This leads us on to the contentious issue of glycaemic response. This is a normal response that occurs following a meal where the soluble carbohydrate digestion results in the rise of blood glucose.   Another area that has been researched by Dodson & Horrell and it has been demonstrated that when fed as recommended the glycaemic response of all their feeds is within the normal range.

The glycaemic response is an indication of efficient digestion of starch in the upper gut and is essential for the storage of energy in the muscles in the form of glycogen.  It is the depletion of glycogen reserves that leads to a horse “running out of steam” and interestingly as the horse is trained and becomes fitter his ability to store glycogen increases. In contrast, a low glycaemic response may indicate a poor efficiency of digestion in the upper gut, resulting in a lower level of glycogen being stored which will impair the speed of recovery.

Ulcers and tying-up

It is true that performance horses do have a higher incidence of ulcers than leisure horses at grass but as the graph below shows, all horses have a degree of ulceration. The increased incidence of ulcers in performance horses could be  associated with a reduction of fibre rather than an increase in starch. Less fibre means that there is a reduction in time spent chewing and as the horse only produces saliva when he chews there is a reduction in the buffering action that balances the acid contents of the stomach, leading to an increased stomach acidity and therefore a higher risk of ulcers occurring.

So do high levels of starch cause horses to “tie-up”? Whilst Dodson & Horrell recommends a low starch diet (such as ERS Pellets or Staypower Cubes) for horses that have a tendency to “tie-up” a recent research project supported by Dodson & Horrell showed that higher incidents of “tying-up” occurred in yards that fed larger meal sizes rather than being related to the total quantity of starch fed per day. Once again this emphasises the importance of the management of the feed and the daily regime.

What is high starch? As a reasonable quantity of equine research originates from the US it is worth considering  that they have a lot of corn or maize available at a very cost-effective price, resulting in mueslis or “sweet feeds” with starch levels of 50% or more. Compare this with the UK where most companies produce mueslis and cubes at less than 30% starch and with the recommended levels being ideally 27% or less, most Dodson & Horrell mixes and cubes fall into this “ideal” category.

In summary:

  • Select a feed that is designed for the level and type of work your horse is undertaking. This should ideally contain a balance of energy sources i.e. starch, fibre and oil.
  • Check that the quantity you are feeding corresponds to the feeding guide. If it is less than recommended you will most likely need to top up some of the nutrients with a supplement or balancer such as Performance Vitamins & Minerals or Ultimate Balancer. If you are feeding considerably more than recommended consider moving to a higher energy feed and reduce the quantity.
  • If you choose a mix or muesli feed make sure the cereals are cooked and flaked, with the exception of oats which have good levels of upper gut digestibility.
  • Feed small meals to avoid overloading the system which pushes feed through the upper gut too fast.
  • Adjust the quantity fed according to the work done and reduce by half if your horse has to stand in for a day or two.
  • Feed at least 1.5% Body weight as forage.

For help and advice call the Dodson & Horrell Helpline (0845 345 2627)