High-Fat Horse Diets: Performance Horses

A high-performing horse can have up to twice the calorie requirement as the same horse in a maintenance stage. Owners and trainers of performance horses often give more feed to meet that calorie need. Because horses can use fat as a calorie source efficiently, and fat contains more than double the calories of starch, high-fat horse feeds make perfect sense to increase the energy intake without greatly increasing the quantity of feed needed. 

Feeding higher-fat, controlled starch level feeds can play a role in lowering the chance of colic and laminitis by reducing the amount of starch (carbohydrates) in the ration.  Here’s why: 

  • Horses with a very high grain ration are often at risk because high levels of grain feeding can cause a starch overload in the small intestine and cecum.
  • Overloading the small intestine with starch allows that extra starch to pass in to the cecum and large colon, which is where forage is digested.
  • Fiber digestion is accomplished by the bacterial and protozoal populations residing in these organs. When starch enters the cecum the pH drops and this bacterial population dies.
  • This can result in a cascade of events that may include colic, laminitis and death.

Keep in mind that starch is still a crucial part of a horse’s diet, and is required for proper muscle function.  As horse owners, it is best to work towards an optimal balance of all nutrients in the diet, not the use of one to replace another.   A proper balance of controlled starch levels, along with increased fat levels in the horse feed, will help deliver a horse that is ready to go and has the fuel in the tank to keep on going.

Feeding Fat to Horses

Lately there has been tremendous interest in the horse world about fat. In regards to human nutrition, “fat” is often considered a bad word, and low-fat diets are popular. But we should remember that in people, some fats are necessary and healthy. This is equally true for horses: fats play a very important role in horse feeds and nutrition.

There are many reasons to feed horses added fat. The best reason for using added fat is for an energy (calorie) source. The primary purpose for grain feeding is to provide energy for maintenance, performance, growth and reproduction.  Because fat contains more than twice the calorie content of starch, and horses digest and utilize fat well, higher fat horse feeds offer an excellent opportunity to increase calorie intake without greatly increasing the quantity of feed.

Other reasons for adding fat to a feed ration include improved endurance, heat tolerance, hair coat and attitude:

  • Horses on fat supplemented diets experience increased endurance because of a glycogen sparing effect. Glycogen is the fuel for muscular activity that is stored in the muscle cells. Horses that are on high fat diets conserve glycogen, which can help them finish a performance event stronger. This is particularly important in racing, eventing, cutting and other activities that require high performance over time.
  • Horses trained in hot, humid environments show improvement to heat tolerance because fat supplemented rations generate less heat as a by-product of digestion. This becomes important in parts of the country where heat is prevalent.
  • A shiny hair coat, a side benefit of added fat in the diet, is important to horse owners who are showing or selling horses. Higher fat levels, especially those that contain a balance of omega three and omega six fatty acids, are good choices for those in the show ring or sale ring business.
  • Horse owners often report that horses that are fed lower-starch diets with added fat have a calmer attitude than those that are fed a conventional high starch and forage diet.

It is important to keep in mind that indiscriminate fat supplementation can create deficiencies of other nutrients. This is known as empty calories; where energy levels are adequate, but protein, lysine and mineral levels are not. Developmental bone problems can result which may precipitate injuries in young horses.

There also is a period of adjustment of about three to four weeks for horses to receive benefits from added fat. Any change in diet should be done gradually over seven to10 days to avoid the possibility of digestive upsets.

A balanced diet, tailored to the use and age of the horse, is the most important consideration. A trained nutritional consultant can make recommendations that will best fit your horse and the activity involved.