Important Dietary Factors for Performance

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs focusing on performance horse nutrition to assist all competitors in the lead up to Horse of the Year. With just a few weeks to go, it’s a great time to assess your horse’s diet and make minor changes if required. Like any athlete, the right nutrition is crucial and dietary adjustments can make a significant difference to how the horse feels, recovers and performs. 

The following four areas outline the parts of the horse’s diet that influence performance the most and how to provide these components to maximise health and performance.

Energy is arguably one of the most important factors to consider in the performance horse diet, especially selecting the correct ratio of slow and fast release energy sources to match the work asked of the horse.


Structural carbohydrates in the form of pasture, hay, chaff and fibre products are essential components of the equine diet. Each horse requires a minimum of 1.5 percent of their body weight in forage daily to maintain optimum digestive health. Horses have a highly developed hindgut that houses billions of bacteria and protozoa capable of fermenting large quantities of fibre. The end products of fibre fermentation can be used as energy sources throughout the day because fermentation continues long after a meal has been eaten. 

Since proper gut function is essential to the health and well-being of the horse, fibre-rich forage should be considered the foundation of any feeding program. Pasture and grass type hays are ideal for making up the bulk of forage requirements and the inclusion of lucerne at smaller amounts has fantastic benefits to working horses. Lucerne is higher in energy and protein than most grass type forages and the higher calcium it contains increases buffering qualities against gastric ulcers. Lucerne should be a part of the diet for all harder working horses such as upper-level eventing and show jumping.

McMillan Grain Free is a blend of super fibres, soy hulls and beet pulp which is a great way to increase fibre in the horse’s diet. Grain Free also provides fat and organic trace minerals and as it requires soaking it is also ideal for increasing water consumption while away from home.


Grain and Concentrate Feeds
While structural carbohydrates such as forages should be the largest part of all equine diets, horses performing fast-paced work such as eventing, show jumping and games will most likely require some amount of grain in their diet. The starch grain contains is released rapidly into the bloodstream as glucose and fuels anaerobic work and fast paced muscle contractions. Blood glucose is the first form of energy the horse uses. Remaining glucose not utilised initially is converted to glycogen and stored in the horse’s muscle and liver for use when next required. Consuming starch daily also ensures glycogen stores are replenished after each period of exertion, to ensure stores are at adequate levels for the next heavy work period. 


Similar to fibre, fat is a slow-release energy source that has numerous benefits to working horses. It is a highly dense form of energy, containing 2.5 x the energy as the same amount of oats. This makes it great for weight gain and for fussy horses that can't eat large volumes. Fat has an important role to play in high performance horse diets as it can assist with exercise efficiency and recovery. Feeding stabilised rice bran (KER Equi-Jewel) has shown to reduce heart rate and lactate accumulation during work. Fat is also ideal for replacing part of the grain ration for sensitive horses who are at risk of tying up, laminitis or digestive conditions such as gastric ulcers.

Most working horse diets will require a blend of structural and non-structural carbohydrates for energy as well as some amount of fat, however the levels of each of these provided should depend on the work type being asked of the horse. Horses performing fast paced work would benefit from some amount of starch in their diets, while horses performing slower paced work that is aerobic in nature such as dressage and show hunter, require higher levels of structural carbohydrates such as forage and slow-release forms of energy such as fat, with less energy from grains. Horses that can become hyperactive on grains or are at risk of digestive issues, metabolic issues or tying up, should also receive feeds that provide energy in slow-release forms.

For high energy feeds containing digestible grains that are ideal for show jumping and eventing, look to using NRM Sweet Feed, McMillan Protein or Premium Plus or the new McMillan Energy Max. For low starch feeds that release energy slowly NRM Low GI Sport, McMillan Grain Free or Muscle Relieve are ideal. For moderate starch feeds use NRM Ultimate Sport or McMillan Rapid Gain.



Look out for the next blog where we discuss the vitamins and minerals essential for optimum performance.

For more information or questions on your own horses’ diet get in touch with your local NRM and McMillan Equine representative.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood, Equine Nutritionist - 0278097846