Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Dangers of Rocket Fuel: Feeding the Performance Thoroughbred

**Disclaimer**

While I am a nutrition nerd, I have no formal training in nutrition or vet science. All statements are based on my own experience and the experiences of friends.

Maintaining a thoroughbred for dressage or another high performance sport can be difficult. Their high-energy personalities, sensitivity to temperature, and high metabolisms can make balancing energy requirements and weight-maintenance difficult.

A large majority of thoroughbreds come from a racetrack background. On the track, horses are often fed in way that supports their unique nutritional needs. Namely, quick bursts of immense energy. This type of energy expenditure requires a large amount of quickly accessible and easily digested carbohydrates(1), a minimal forage load, and an otherwise nutritionally balanced diet. This leads to racehorses often being fed mostly sweet-type, carb-heavy, feeds, with a dose of protein and some fat supplements to keep weight up. Forage is often alfalfa, and usually decreased the day of racing to try to keep weight down. (Ever try running sprints with a full belly? Don't. Even if you don't throw up, you'll be horribly slow.)
Remember, kids. Only small snacks prior to extreme exercise...
In the performance horse, energy requirements are often much the same as in the racehorse. However, the type of energy needed is quite different. Instead of requiring a quick burst of energy, most performance horses need to sustain a high level of energy for a longer period of time. (Aside: Lots of people taking horses off the track don't realize how much feed they still need to pour into their horses. This is why so many OTTBs look absolutely abysmal during their "transition" period. This shouldn't be normal. For god's sake. Feed your ex-racehorse a load of cool calories.) For the dressage horse, specifically, the need for exceptional strength is also required to maintain collection. In addition, an extremely sensitive temperament is usually unsuited to the more concentration-based training of the sport horse.

Putting all of this together, the recommended diet for the sport horse would do best with a high forage and fat based diet, lower in carbs than that of a racehorse, but still with a hefty dose of protein.(2) With easy keeping warmbloods, a mostly forage diet with a ration balancer is often enough. In heavy work, easy keepers often do well with an additional grain/fat supplement to maintain weight and long-lasting energy levels.
Om nom...
For the thoroughbred, I've noticed these recommendations don't always work out. Like all nutrition, feeding is incredibly personal. Each individual's unique body chemistry and fitness level dictates what will work best. For most of the high performance thoroughbred sport horses I've met, a lower carb and higher fat diet can work well. However, the thoroughbred build and propensity for developing lean muscle must be taken into effect. For Guinness, this means the addition of more protein to his diet.

As we've been schooling 3rd level, I've noticed Guinness lacking in the strength department. He's been very slow to develop a topline in response to his workload. His neck remained stubbornly the same, refusing to build muscle over the top. He's was also quick to tire when working in collection.
March 2015
In March, I decided to take action and add a protein supplement to Pig's diet. Though he was already getting a decent amount of protein through his grain/alfalfa diet, I wondered if maybe he didn't need more to support the additional muscle growth dressage required.

I chose to add a 32% protein rational balancer to his diet. The additional vitamin/mineral supplementation appealed to me, as Pig otherwise was not receiving enough through his normal grain ration. While on full turnout, his pasture waned in the winter and his exercise levels remained very high. I felt this meant balanced feed supplementation would be a good idea. Plus, a ration balancer is one of the cheapest ways to add protein to a horse's diet.

Since moving to Maryland, Guinness has been receiving two pounds of the ration balancer, on top of two pounds of 14% senior grain and his full pasture. His weight is still fantastic (not increasing or decreasing), but I have noticed other differences with the increased protein supplementation.

He's been growing topline. Like crazy...

As in, inches of topline...
 He's starting to look like "real" dressage horse. And, he's finally starting to be able to maintain collection for a longer period of time. He is much more willing and able to lift through the withers, and step under with a loose and strong back. Some of this development is definitely due to training and conditioning, but as our training hasn't changed too much I feel the additional protein in his diet is finally hitting the optimal levels.

That said, extra protein in the diet does have some pitfalls. Like what? Like ... bringing out the crazy.
I would say Guinness is about 30% hotter and spookier than he has ever been. Two days ago he tried to "save" us both from a feral and dangerous golf cart by bolting towards the road. The day before that he spooked so hard at another horse in a pasture, I actually thought he might have unseated me. Yesterday he decided the sound of the farrier grinding shoes was actually the sound of his pasture-mate being ground into bits. Walking from our pasture to the ring has made me contemplate horse-exorcism, and wearing an air vest. He's completely lost his mind.

Once he's in the ring and settled down to work, however, Guinness has been a perfect gentleman. The extra muscle has helped him feel more prepared for the work, so we have fewer "I can't even" meltdowns. His hotness is just about even with my capabilities, making him a very fun and responsive Ferrari ride. Honestly, I'm enjoying the shenanigans. Hot horses, they are kind of my thing.

The whole thing makes me wonder, though. What kind of balance is there in feeding your horse for optimal performance and keeping him a willing and mindful partner? It seems to be harder for thoroughbreds.

**Thanks to Jodi from Racing to Ride for more detailed info on the feeding of racehorses.

38 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this post, it hits very close to home!

    Roger has only been off the track for a year, and I **shamefully** don't know that much about equine nutrition, but reading this post is really educational. My trainer/BO is very specific about what the horses eat every day depending on their workload and their breed and nutritional needs, and she has helped Roger's physical appearance tremendously. While his neck, butt, shoulder and topline are filling out nicely, his coat quality is drastically improved from where it was at the end of March and I know that has everything to do with what he eats. Thoroughbreds, especially OTTBs, can be hard keepers, but I think finding the right balance of nutrition is important, and it seems like you've definitely done that with Guinness. Great post! I feel like I need to go hide my head in a few equine nutrition books now :) Sorry for the novel.

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    1. Hey, we all start somewhere. No shame about it! If you're willing to learn and take steps to figure it out, I think you're doing right by Roger! Sounds like you have a great source of knowledge in your trainer/BO, too!

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  2. Sounds like you found what works! I have a few friends with TB's that have also noticed HUGE improvements with the addition of a protein supplement - they are fitter and better-muscled than they've ever been, and if the rider can handle the extra spark, I say go for it!

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  3. When I first purchased Fiction he had been off the track for a year. They were feeding him sweetfeed and cool calories. He looked abysmal - needed at least 300 lbs put on. The first place I took him put him on oats/sweet feed. I supplemented with rice bran and omegatin. No real change. Moved him to another place - same feed. Finally moved him somewhere that fed high protein pelleted food. I dropped the rice bran/omegatin and put him on Platinum. It took a little bit, but he got pretty big and muscular....but also crazy. He was getting 9lbs of pelleted food a day + supps and 2-3 flakes of timothy grass hay with tons of grass to supplement.

    Now I have him on Exceed 6-way supplements plus DuMor and he's dropped to maybe 6 lbs of food a day. He's not as hot, but he's also not as fit (we've been struggling to keep a good schedule). Interestingly enough though, this combination keeps him so well put together that even after a winter of little riding the vet proclaimed him the fittest horse in the barn (of 18 horses). I would love a neck like Pigs, but I think honestly I just need to put in the work to get it - Fiction's food seems adequate enough :). Took a while to get there though!

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    1. So cool! Fiction will get a big dressage neck in no time, I'm sure. He really seems to like his change of career! I've found thoroughbreds tend to keep an amazing base of fitness, even with time off. It's probably partly the breeding and partly the early race training. True story: studies show that if you have been hard fit at one point in your life, your muscles tend to remember that fitness and return to it more easily. It pays to get super fit! While Pig could go all day just trotting or cantering around, before the feed change I noticed 20 minutes of hard collection work left him really struggling. I think it's just harder for them. Probably because they are build a little longer and leaner than the warmbloods and need more muscle to support that kind of engagement, where it comes more naturally to a horse bred for it? Maybe?

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  4. I consider Courage to be an "air fern OTTB".

    Which is to say--he eats free choice hay (mostly alfalfa), gets several hours of turnout on grass, and only gets enough pelleted feed to make him think he's eating grain.

    At this point.

    We're just training level starting to think about first though, so I'll be curious to see how his dietary needs change as his training and fitness increase.

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    1. Interestingly enough, Pig is also a bit of an air fern. He's honestly an easy keeper (did I mention he only gets a couple of lbs of senior on top of pasture?!). The full pasture helps a lot. When he was stalled, I remember having to really pour in more grain calories and beet pulp. That wasn't so good for his brain, either....

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  5. That explains why Mikey just wasn't building dressage neck. At all. He started standing up to the work better when he started getting alfalfa flakes in his daily hay... Maybe I'll try a protein ration balancer for my new guy- he is just underweight and I want him to feel good as I ask him to work muscles he didn't know he had! But I've found the same as you- low carb, high fat works well until 3rd level for the TBs and they just go stale and have trouble.

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    1. I remember you were feeding alfalfa at shows with success! At shows, Pig seems to pick all the alfalfa and ration balancer out of his feed and leave the rest. What a weirdo. I've heard that alfalfa has some cushioning effect on ulcers, too. Wonder if that's it? (I have no idea. This might be a total old wives tale...)

      A ration balancer is maybe a good idea for Penn. But the low carb, high fat is probably just as good for the first little while. You can always experiment later.

      Loooooove the phrase "go stale and have trouble." That is EXACTLY the feeling!! It's so weird when your TB just goes "can't do it" since he's usually all "got this, got that, gonna get this over here too..."

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    2. Alfalfa has a lot of calcium, which helps neutralize the stomach acid, so yes. It is beneficial against ulcers, though obviously not a medication on it's own.

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    3. I am NOT imagining things. Always good to know. ;) Thanks Aimee!

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  6. May I suggest adding 20 grams of pure lysine to his mix? It is an amino-acid that helps with protein uptake and use in building muscle. A four month supply is about $30 on Amazon and it has helped Ashke a lot. (It was recommended by my DVM and we have been on it for several years).

    I have been messing with trying to find the correct mix of long term energy and short term energy for Ashke so we can do both the arena work and the 20 mile trail rides we are enjoying. I was feeding Ampify for the fat and protein and just about a month ago switched to whole oats. It's made a huge difference in his long term energy and he is finishing his rides with gas left in the tank. I have pony ready to do an endurance ride - I'm just not sure about his rider.

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    1. Really interesting. I have never had luck with whole oats. They seem to just go straight through my horse. I've heard some people get great results with them, though. Another example of how individual nutrition and digestive health are!

      I was under the impression that elevated lysine supplementation isn't necessary once a horse is mature, and that feeding a high quality and balanced protein source gives a good balance of the amino acids. Really interesting that it helped so much. I wonder if it's deficient in your area?

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  7. Tristan also improves with protein, but sadly for me, does not turn into a rocket. It might be nice to have some extra energy to work with...

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    1. Hahaha. You and JenJ need to get together and look into pricing out a cattle prod. ;) In all seriousness, I bet Tristan's needs are more complicated because of cushings (that's what he has, right? wrong? halp?). Metabolic things seem to really weird up the nutritional system.

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  8. I love this post!

    Moe and Gina are stalled half the day with obscene amounts of prairie grass hay and turned out onto good quality grass the other half of the day. They eat a high-fat feed plus alfalfa pellets and Moe gets SmartGain, which has helped him gain a little weight. Gina has been on various muscle recovery supplements for the last year and they're really helped her develop a topline and muscular booty.

    Pig is looking great!!

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    1. Full access to grass is such a benefit, I think. Moe and Gina look great, especially Moe. It's hard to remember he's an old man! So cool the muscle supplements have been helping. Which ones have you tried?

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  9. his neck looks so beefy!! my mare is such an easy keeper she just gets a pound of ration balancer each day, plus full access to grass. but i'm thinking about upping it a little since she's kinda scrawny in some areas and more food might give her better support?

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    1. Bodybuilder TB. It's what he does. ;)

      Isabel is an easy keeper, but she reminds me a little of a "skinny fat" person. She's not struggling with the work, though. So I think she's doing fine. :) Might need more as things get more demanding for her. All that access to grass seems to be working well for her! Air fern!

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  10. You're welcome :) Love this post! I really think that good quality of alfalfa is the most important thing when they're at the lower levels. I don't mind feeding grass with it, but I insist they have alfalfa too. As they start to move up, I think that they need more protein to be able to handle the physical demands of higher levels and to become developed enough to perform them correctly. Two main things I've noticed is that people pour the higher protein/energy feed to them to early and the horses act like psychos or they don't give them enough and the horse remains dull and underdeveloped. It's really such a balancing act and figuring out what each individual horse needs is definitely a learning process.

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    1. I luff alfalfa. It's the best stuff ever. It seems to be a good balance of "enough protein" but also forage and cooler energy. Pig used to be on a TON of alfalfa at the last barn, and he would hoover that stuff up.

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  11. I'm all about the protein PROTEIN WOLF

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    1. I should show up at the barn, do a killer workout, and chug a protein shake while my horse downs his ration balancer. WE GONNA GET SWOL!

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  12. We added a ration balancer at Mo's barn this year. I think it's fabulous. I'm considering it for Red, who doesn't really need to eat much but who also struggles with the topline thing. Feeding horses right definitely requires paying constant attention to the changes in their bodies. Guinness looks great!

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    1. Ooh. Might work for Red. I'm a huge proponent of ration balancers when you just need a "little more" of what it has to offer, but not a lot of extra calories.

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  13. This is such great information to file away. I've always had Quarter Horses who look at food and gain weight, so uh, not really an issue. Lucy gets alfalfa (since it's pretty much the only thing she's not allergic to) and Platinum Performance - literally by itself, she'll eat it right out of a bucket without anything else, and has absolutely no problem maintaining weight. We're really lucky there. It was a struggle when we were figuring out her allergy issues, since it ruled out most grass hays, but luckily she does well on alfalfa.

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    1. Yeah QH are sort of the body builders of the equine world, aren't they? I compare them to me. I'm a natural sprinter- I put on muscle when I look at a barbell. My husband on the other hand? Total distance runner build. He has to supplement TONS of protein to put on muscle. It's so frustrating for him. This dynamic is part of what gave me the idea to try protein for Pig!

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  14. If only they made something that provides short fat-n-Haffies with extra energy without the extra roundness!

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  15. Totally hard for Thoroughbreds. I switched Simon to Purina Ultium, and he's totally hotter than he was before. Can I handle it? Totally. Is it my favorite? Maybe not.

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    1. Haha. Simon as a hot potato? Nooooooo! ;)

      Ultium is a lot of concentrated energy. It's supposed to be "cool" but I know lots of people who have had similar issues. Maybe look in other places in his diet to try to trim the excess hot energy food?

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  16. I've noticed this with Miles! I used to have a mild-mannered QH who I could eat anything stay exactly the same physically and mentally. Miles is NOT that way! It can be a challenge to find the right combo of feed to maintain his body weight and condition, but not make him hot. I couldn't handle 30% hotter with Miles! Haha

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    1. I bet! Hunters have it so much harder than dressage riders. You guys need to have that bulky and kinda fat look, but with the quiet personality. I can get away with having a hot potato on my hands in the dressage ring, though! Maybe a rice bran or beet pulp or something will put weight on without adding the crazy? It's so hard because you kind of have to experiment (and then deal with the aftermath! Haha! Oops!)!

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  17. It's interesting how training does effect demeanor!! Elles gets a little wet mix but mainly survives on hay :)

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  18. great topline development! and interesting read ;)

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