We may be able to answer some of your commonly asked questions below. However, we know it's sometimes more reassuring to speak to a person and we have a team of vets and performance horse specialists available to support you, so please don't hesitate to call our helpline on 01270 782223, or talk to us below on live chat.

What should I feed my excitable, fizzy horse who is competing regularly?

For horses prone to excitability we recommend feeding a diet lower in starch and sugar to avoid any potential ‘sugar rushes’ caused by dietary carbohydrates.  Instead, provide calories from non-heating sources such as fibre and oil. An ideal product is Dodson & Horrell Staypower Cubes, which are low in starch and sugar but provide all the nutrition your horse needs to compete.

What is the difference between fast and slow release energy and why does it matter?

Every food ingredient has an energy value, or level of calories that it provides. These calories are used as fuel for cells within the body. If this fuel is not used immediately then it is stored as either glycogen within the muscles or as fat.

These calories can come from carbohydrates (starch within cereals, sugar within grass and hay), oil (added to the diet or present in some cereals such as soya) or fibre (present in varying amounts in most ingredients but higher in forages).

Carbohydrates (starch and sugar) are digested in the horse’s small intestine, broken down into glucose, which is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream. They therefore provide ‘fast-release’ energy with a quick increase in blood sugar levels from around 1-4 hours after eating them. This is useful for speed and power, and we use it for horses who are showjumping, playing polo, some dressage horses and those who need extra ‘oomph’.

Oil is digested in the small intestine and broken down into complex fats, which are absorbed into the bloodstream and processed by the liver. They can then either be stored or used as fuel. Fibre is digested in the large intestine, or ‘hindgut’ and broken down into volatile fatty acids, which are also used as fuel. The process of converting and releasing energy from oil and fibre takes a relatively long time; energy is released from 4-8 hours after eating them. Oil and fibre provide ‘slow release’ energy, which is ideal for stamina.  We use them in eventers, hunters, endurance horses and also in excitable horses.

My horse is in hard work but is slightly overweight and can be lethargic. What should I feed him?

It is important to remember that energy and calories are the same thing. As your horse is slightly overweight, we need to allow him to lose this excess weight before using high energy (high calorie) feeds. It is recommended to monitor their weight every fortnight by fat scoring and aiming for a score of 2.5-3. When they are at their ideal body weight, their ration can then be assessed and a high energy (high calorie) feed can be considered.

How do I help my horse develop topline?

Topline in horses is used to describe the muscle coverage over the top of the horse’s neck, back and hindquarters. The predominant ‘topline’ muscles are the rhomboideus, splenius, trapezius, longissimus dorsi and gluteal muscles which enable the horse to collect and extend the neck, lift the shoulder and forehand, flex the back and engage the hind legs.  It is important that the difference between fat and muscle within the neck is clear, therefore owners should get their hands on the horse using body fat scoring.

The only way to build muscle is through an appropriate exercise regime and by providing essential dietary support together; neither method will work alone. A common myth is that fat can be turned to muscle, however this is unfortunately not the case.

Muscle has a tremendous capacity to respond to training, with muscle fibres needing to stretch and lay down new cells in order to grow. Single bouts of exercise have very little effect on a horse’s fitness, therefore we need to train the muscles through repeated bouts of exercise to improve fitness.

Although it can be tempting to get cracking with your horse’s new fitness regime it is important to get the balance right between fitness and injury. Ensure you give your horse time to rest and recover between training sessions to allow muscle recovery and do not increase the intensity of the exercise suddenly.

To encourage muscle development a strength training programme should be initiated, with specific exercises to target the key muscle groups and engage the muscles correctly. Ensure that your horse is working actively and correctly even when out for a short hack to promote correct muscle development. One of the most effective ways to develop the hindquarters is through the use of hill work. Encouraging your horse to walk actively uphill (no jogging allowed!) approximately seven times, twice a week to engage the gluteal muscles. Don’t worry if you do not live in a hilly area, cavaletti poles encourage the gluteals to work through lifting of the hind leg so can be utilised instead!

To develop the longissimus dorsi muscle core strength exercises can be used that will improve tone and flexibility such as ‘carrot stretches’. These stretches must be done whilst the muscles are warm to avoid damage so ensure you warm up first! Take a piece of carrot and encourage your horse to stretch to each side and to the chest, repeating several times and ensuring you are performing the exercise evenly on both sides. Ask four your vet or physiotherapist’s advice if you are unsure.

The main component of muscle and body tissue is protein which is supplied in limited amounts by forage (grass, hay and haylage). However working horses will require supplementation in the form of a fully balanced compound feed or balancer. Some riders can be afraid of feeding protein in the belief that it will cause excitable behaviour - it won’t! Fizziness and excitability may be the result of a horse having excess energy through being fed too many calories, but not too much protein. It is not just the level of protein in a feed we need to consider but more importantly the quality, determined by the amino acid ‘building blocks’ from which it is made up. The horse’s body can produce some amino acids, however there are a number of essential amino acids such as lysine, which when limited will limit muscle development.

The most common problem that we see is a horse being fed less than the recommended amount of hard feed, as extra calories aren’t needed, without ‘topping-up’ with a balancer to supply essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Dodson & Horrell recommend either feeding the full recommended amount of a performance feed that contains lysine or, if your horse does not need the calories, using a high quality balancer that contains lysine. If you feed a chaff alongside your feeds consider using alfalfa, a natural source of high quality protein.

Changing your horse onto a high quality protein diet, alongside an appropriate exercise regime should be sufficient to enable topline development within six weeks, however if no improvement is made a protein supplement could be considered.

How close to exercise should I feed my horse?

We generally recommend leaving at least 90 minutes in between feeding a concentrate feed an exercising your horse.  This allows the food to pass normally through the stomach and into the small intestine, minimising the risk of choke or colic.  Hay or haylage is generally fine to feed up until you begin to tack up.

One exception to this rule is feeding alfalfa chaff before exercise to provide a fibre matt in the stomach and reduce gastric acid ‘splashing’ onto the sensitive squamous mucosa. We recommend feeding half a scoop of alfalfa chaff half an hour before exercise in these cases, particularly if your horse has a sensitive stomach or will be doing any fast work or jumping.

How do I keep my horse hydrated?

The body contains 60-70% water and this water plays an essential role in transporting blood cells and nutrients around the body. The water in the body is also important for thermoregulation - during exercise sweat is produced, which then evaporates from the skins surface helping us to keep cool. Sweat also contains electrolytes including sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium and magnesium. These electrolytes play an important role in both nerve and muscle function.

The Effects of Dehydration

Bodyweight Loss 
Result of water loss on the body
Clinics in Sports Medicine 13, 235-246 (1994) 

Normal heat regulation and performance

1%Thirst is stimulated, performance begins to decline
2%Decrease in heat regulation, worsening performance
3%Continuing decrease in performance, muscular endurance decreases
4%20-30% decrease in performance, dizziness occurs
5%Headache, irritability, nausea, fatigue
6%Weakness, severe loss of thermoregulation, heart races

Dehydration occurs when you or your horse lose excessive amounts of water and electrolytes. If you become dehydrated you might notice that you feel dizzy, cannot concentrate or even feel sick. In your horse signs of dehydration can include decreased appetite, increased risk of impaction colic and reduced athletic performance. It's amazing how much sweat your horse can produce; for example after a cross country phase horses can lose 15-20 litres of sweat and an endurance horse could lose double this during a race!

It can be difficult to monitor how much your horse is sweating and the skin-pinch test is very inaccurate. However, a good way of estimating fluid losses is to use a weigh-tape. It is generally accepted that 90% of a horse's weight loss after exercise is due to sweating and 1kg of bodyweight equates to approximately 1 litre of fluids. Following initial research on 100 horses at Warwickshire College our scientifically validated weigh-tape has been used to measure post-exercise body weight losses at Burghley Horse Trials.

Fluid and electrolyte losses must be replaced to avoid dehydration. Simply drinking a bottle of water or offering your horse water after exercise will not be enough to re-hydrate properly as the body cannot hold onto water without the presence of electrolytes. Drinking a sports drink that contains electrolytes will help you re-hydrate and replenish any losses. Similarly if your horse is losing more than 10kg of body weight after work you will need to feed an electrolyte supplement such as Dodson & Horrell Electrolytes.

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