Most health and fitness professionals worth their salt will tell you that the most important element of any performance plan is diet. Exercise can only take the body so far without the proper nutrition, which is important to consider when formulating the diet for both horse and rider to reach their optimum performance level.
Though the running joke is that riders will always prioritize the health and welfare of their horse ahead of their own, there is a strong argument to be made for rider health to be a bigger priority. A rider cannot reasonably expect the horse to bear the burden of keeping both themselves as well as an out of shape, off-balance rider safe. And a performance diet doesn’t need to be “hardcore” or limiting, just as it doesn’t need to be for your horse, either.
A balanced diet is the best. There are a multitude of trendy diets on the market these days, most of which involve severely limiting or eliminating certain foods or ingredients. While you absolutely should be conscious of your intake levels of some things more than others (sugar, for example), what is more important is to feed your body quality food in balance. That means balancing carbs with proteins and fats, and so on.
If you do feel the need to limit something, such as carbs, be sure you are making up for that in other areas of your eating. One common mistake is not eating enough calories. For example, I recently starting to cut carbs in my diet. When I didn’t feel this change was making a difference, I sat down and counted out my caloric intake – and wasn’t surprised to find that I was barely eating half of my required needs. Because of this imbalance, I wouldn’t be able to lose any weight healthily, and I would also be forcing my body to hold onto excess nutrients.
The same concept can be applied to an equine diet. A common trap that many horse owners fall into is that of micro-management or over-compensating for issues that may or may not be present. Here again, it’s important to remember that basic balance is a good place to start.
Forage is perhaps the single most important element of a horse’s diet. “It is critical that a horse is fed high quality forage,” said equine nutritionist Dr. Stephen Duren, PhD. “Many performance horse owners are very conscious as to the type of grain or supplements are included in the diet, but the type and amount of forage is often left to chance.”
A good rule of thumb, Dr. Duren says, is to feed 1.5%-2% of the horse’s body weight in quality forage. Better yet, he said, let the horse have free choice access and only use grain and supplements as necessary.
While there typically aren’t such things as horse fad diets, there are plenty of marketing gimmicks to beware of. A “number one ranked” brand of feed may only be ranked number one against far inferior opponents, for example. It is beneficial to you as a horse owner to learn how to properly read a feed tag and analyze the ingredients yourself.
When it comes to adding grain and supplements to your horse’s diet, consider the usual factors such as age and work load. But there is an argument to be made for consulting with a nutritionist who can help come up with a proper feeding plan. Each horse needs to be managed individually, which means that there is no one size fits all solution for feed. If you board your horse, keep the lines of communication open with your barn manager (respectfully!) if you feel your horse’s nutrition is lacking.