Feeding for Recovery

Professor Jo-Anne Murray
PhD, MSc, PgDip, BSc (Hons), BHSII, RNutr, PFHEA University of Glasgow Veterinary School

Hard-working horses that are training towards, and competing in, high-intensity competitions require good nutritional support.  This support involves ensuring the horse is hydrated and refuelled.  Horses obtain the nutrients required for work from their diet and the types of feeds that horses eat contain a range of different nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water.  Horses training and competing in high-intensity sports, such as racing, eventing and endurance will require high levels of energy in their diet; in fact, the energy requirements of racehorses are almost twice that of horses at rest.   Therefore, it is important to ensure that your horse is receiving the right type of fuel (energy) to support his work. 


Fuel for work

Horses obtain energy from their food, primarily from carbohydrates (CHO) as the types of feeds most commonly fed to horses are high in CHO.  However, fat can be used as an energy source for horses and actually in terms of megajoules (MJ), which is the international unit of energy used for horses, fat contains twice the amount of energy (39 MJ/Kg) compared to CHO (18 MJ/Kg). Horses can obtain energy from protein, but this is only in extreme cases where the horse is malnourished or unwell.  Therefore, energy is not a nutrient, but is derived from nutrients such as CHO and fat.  Horses store energy as either glycogen or triglycerides (fats) and when exercising at high-intensity horses will draw upon these stores when exercising and competing.  After high-intensity work or competition these stores, in particular, the glycogen stores in your horse’s muscles, will be depleted and so restoring those stores is an important part of recovery.


However, recovery after a competition is also very much dependent on the diet that your horse has received when training, as it is not possible to resolve any deficiencies in your horse’s diet in the short-term leading up to a competition.  Therefore, a well-balanced diet that is appropriate for your horse’s level of work is crucial.   


Keeping your horse hydrated

Water is an essential component of the diet; 65 to 75 % of an adult horse’s bodyweight is comprised of water.  Water requirements depend on your horse’s age, level of exercise, environmental conditions (temperature and humidity) and the type of feed they eat (horses drink more on feeds that are dry, such as hay).   Hydration and refuelling go hand in hand, as glycogen replenishment is improved if your horse is hydrated.  Muscle glycogen requires water for storage; therefore, if your horse is dehydrated then the repletion of glycogen stores will be less.  Measures to ensure your horse is hydrated should begin way before the actual competition.  Traveling your horse can affect hydration as many horses may sweat during a journey.  In fact, even if you cannot see your horse sweating it is known that horses can lose

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