Feeding the Competition Horse

Feeding the competition horse can seem like a daunting task, not only does your horse need the right balance of nutrients, but he also needs the right amount of energy to perform at his best. Provide too much energy and control and concentration may be lost, provide too little and stamina and sparkle will be lacking.


Feeding plans are always based on energy levels. Energy requirements for each horse will be different, depending on the type of work he is doing and the intensity of the work. All horses need a maintenance level of energy for normal bodily function, however, when a horse is at work he will need to be given a diet that provides extra energy.

The type of energy that a horse is fed is an important consideration. Energy comes from foods that either contain carbohydrates and/or fat. The type of energy you feed (fast or slow release energy, or combinations of) will depend on your horse’s temperament and the type of work he is in. Fast release energy comes from cereals such as oats and will help to give your horse instant energy – ideal for horses that are working hard for short periods that need either power or speed, such as show jumping.

Slow release energy is good for providing sustained energy levels without the excitable behaviour often associated with fast release energy sources such as cereals. Feed ingredients, such as fibre and oil, are good sources of slow release energy – ideal for horses that require extra stamina, such as endurance or event horses.


Every horse, whether in work or at rest, needs a well-balanced diet containing the following nutrients:

• Carbohydrates
• Protein
• Fats
• Vitamins and Minerals
• Electrolytes
• Water

The level of work that a horse is in, along with the horses’ weight and body condition will determine the amount of each nutrient that needs to be fed.


Fibre such as hay, haylage and grass should always form the majority of the diet and is vital for a healthy digestive system. Fibre also provides the horse with excellent levels of slow release energy.

Some fibrous ingredients are termed ‘super fibres’, this means that as well as being good sources of highly digestible fibre, they are also high in energy. Unmolassedsugarbeet is an excellent example of a super fibre, which is why it is often found on the ingredients list of competition feeds.


Starch is a carbohydrate found in cereal grains such as barley, maize and oats and provides a good source of fast release energy, particularly useful for horses working hard for short periods. While starch is not ‘bad’ as such for the horse in small quantities, it can cause problems if the horse eats too much in one meal.

Starch should be digested in the small intestine, however, if large meals are fed, there is a risk that some will pass into the hindgut, which can lead to gastric ulcers or tying up. If starch passes into the hindgut, this upsets the bacterial balance and the hindgut becomes more acidic leading to endotoxins (poisons) being released. This acidic environment also makes the gut wall more ‘leaky’ allowing toxins to enter the bloodstream which can lead to laminitis. In addition, recent research has shown that diets high in starch can cause behavioural problems.


Sugar circulating in the blood is the most accessible form of fuel for the horse and can be beneficial for horses needing a short burst of instant energy, however, there is not enough in the circulatory system to sustain exercise for long periods. High blood sugar can cause excitable behaviour and the bigger the blood sugar peak, the more chance there is of your horse showing unwanted behaviour.


Although adult horses do not need a lot of protein in their diets, exercising horses will need more for the repair and renewal of cells within muscle tissue. The horse can produce some of its own amino acids (the building blocks that make up all proteins), but others known as essential amino acids have to be supplied in the diet. It is not only the quantity of protein that is important, but also the quality. High quality proteins such as those found in alfalfa and soya are similar to those that occur naturally in the horse, so are particularly beneficial. Various old wives tales surround protein, however, it is not responsible for laminitis, tying up, lumps and bumps or fizzy behaviour.


Higher levels of oil are often found in competition feeds as oil provides an excellent source of slow release energy, containing two to three times more energy than the equivalent weight of cereal. Although all oils contain a similar amount of energy, some have other benefits too. Linseed oil is a good source of omega 3 which horses cannot produce and also has anti-inflammatory properties. However, it is easy to overfeed Omega 6, so it is important that a careful balance of oils is met, to ensure that the benefits of Omega 3 (anti-inflammatory), are not counteracted by the properties of Omega 6 (inflammatory).

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are needed in the horse’s diet to maintain health, but the exact amount needed in the performance horse is difficult to determine. Factors such as age, condition, management, environment and if vitamins and minerals are included in their feed, will all influence if there is a need for supplementation.


Electrolytes are minerals found naturally in the horse’s body and are essential for muscle function. A lack of electrolytes can lead to serious problems such as dehydration, colic or tying up. Electrolytes are lost through sweating, in urine and in faeces. When the horse is not sweating heavily, lost electrolytes can usually be replaced by minerals present in the horse’s normal diet. However, for competition horses that are sweating heavily, or those working in hot and humid conditions, additional electrolytes need to be provided.


As with all animals, water is essential, but similarly to humans, horses in hard work will need more water than inactive horses to help them to cool down after work and to replace water lost through sweating.

How hard is your horse working?
Exercise Category Description
Maintenance Grass or stable kept. Not in any work.
Light Work Hacking and recreational riding between one and three times per week for up to an hour each time. Includes mainly walk and trot, but with a small amount of canter work.
Medium Work Recreational riding, schooling, showing, breaking and training and low-level competition work.

Ridden between three and five times per week for up to an hour at a time. Walk, trot and canter work, some low-level jumping and/or some lateral work.

Hard Work Polo ponies, horses in race training, novice to intermediate eventing, advanced show jumping, advanced dressage and hunting. Schooling up to five to six days for an hour each day. Lateral work, jump work and fast work may all be included in the schooling sessions.
Very Hard Work Racing (including trotting), advanced eventing, long distance endurance riding and hunting.

Which feed?

Power & Performance

Power & Performance is barley and molasses free and is, therefore, lower in starch and sugar than many traditional competition feeds. Power & Performance is boosted with vitamins, minerals and electrolytes and contains good levels of energy from a combination of both slow and fast release energy sources. Ideal for a wide range of hard-working horses and ponies.

Calm & Condition

Not only for horses that struggle to maintain their weight and condition, Calm & Condition is also ideal for horses and ponies that are in medium to hard work. Calm & Condition is also barley and molasses free, making it low in starch and sugar when compared to traditional diets with comparative energy levels. With linseed and soya oils and easily digestible, high fibre energy sources, Calm & Condition provides good levels of slow release energy.


Sustain is a highly palatable muesli mix with added alfalfa. Useful for the type of horse that, even when fit, has the energy to start with, but then tends to go ‘flat’. With fibre and oil for slow release, stamina energy, Sustain is ideal for endurance horses, eventers, driving horses and show ponies.