Welcome to the first in a series of articles 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.

This initial article focuses on energy sources as well as other key areas of the horse’s diet and how to provide these to maximise health and performance. Some of these topics will be discussed in more detail in coming articles.

Energy for performance and weight maintenance during increasing work is arguably one of the most important factors to consider. Structural carbohydrates in the form of forage should be the main component of the horse’s diet and will provide significant energy. Then if required, additional energy can be supplied through non-structural carbohydrates in the form of processed grains, as well as high quality fat. The ratio of energy sources selected will depend on the individual horse’s temperament and metabolism.

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% 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 this fermentation supply long-lasting, sustainable energy.

Because proper gut function is essential to the health and wellbeing 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 in smaller amounts has fantastic benefits to working horses. Lucerne is higher in energy and protein than most grass type forages and the higher calcium content 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 your horse’s diet. Because it requires soaking, Grain Free is also a palatable way to increase 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. While 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 until next required. Consuming starch daily also ensures glycogen is 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 2.5x 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 horses at risk of tying up, behavioural changes 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 at risk of digestive issues, metabolic issues or tying up, or those which become hyperactive on grains should also receive feeds that provide energy in slow release forms.


For high energy feeds containing digestible grains ideal for show jumping and eventing, consider using NRM Sweet Feed, McMillan Protein Plus, Premium Plus or 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.



While protein is not as crucial to the mature performance horse as it is for breeding and growth, providing the correct level and ratio of amino acids is highly important for muscle development and maintenance. A performance horse receiving a diet that is deficient in protein or uses poor quality sources will over time begin to show signs of muscle wastage and lack of top line. McMillan Rapid Gain is ideal for providing high quality protein for top line improvement and conditioning.

Each trace mineral and vitamin plays a different role in the horse’s body and contributes to overall health and performance.Achieving optimum health by meeting all nutrient requirements improves overall vitality, therefore increasing the chance of improved performance while also reducing time needed for recovery. Key nutrients for performance horses include chromium, antioxidants, selenium and vitamin E, as well as electrolytes: sodium, chloride and potassium, which should always be supplied separately and altered according to sweat loss.
All NRM and McMillan performance horse feeds are formulated for NZ conditions and designed to provide optimum levels of nutrients when fed at the correct level daily.

Digestive Issues
Hard working horses are often candidates for digestive problems such as gastric ulcers and hindgut acidosis. These can occur for various reasons including management practices or stress and can cause significant discomfort, therefore impacting on performance. Ensuring at least 1.5% of the horse’s body weight in high quality forage is consumed daily at a consistent rate, keeping grain meals to less than 2.5kgs and only feeding digestible energy sources such as steam flaked grains and high quality fat sources, are essential management practices to avoid these conditions and ensure the equine athlete is able to perform to the best of their ability.
More information on nutrients specific for performance and tips on how to manage and prevent digestive conditions will be discussed in future articles.

Both McMillan and NRM work closely with our technical partners Kentucky Equine Research and have access to their diet analysis software Microsteed. Microsteed is available for any clients at and is a great tool for designing custom diets for individual horses, to ensure all nutrient requirements are met daily.

For more information or questions on your own horses’ diets for optimum performance, get in touch with your local NRM and McMillan Equine representative.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood,
Equine Nutritionist