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3 Ways to Think About Your Horse's Energy Level

Would you like more energy? Less energy? Dull. Excitable. Skinny. Fat. Weak. Strong. Fit. Explosive. These are all terms and phrases that we use to describe our horse's energy level, but they get muddled when we start thinking about manipulating them with nutrition. Allow me to pull the braided threads apart for you and suggest three unique ways to think about your horse's energy level.

Energy is a very vague term, isn't it? If you were asked to define the word "energy", what would you say? A physicist might say "the ability to do work". A chemist might say "the amount of energy necessary to increase the temperature of water by 1 degree Celcius." A nutritionist might say "chemical energy derived from carbohydrates, protein, fats and other organic compounds." A rider might say, "how my horse feels and behaves each time that I get on."

* An endurance event might last several hours, a show jump round 2 minutes, or just 17 seconds for a fast barrel race.

But WHAT a rider/trainer wants to feel underneath them varies a lot too. It varies by breed and discipline, from rider to rider, and changes daily with each horse. The dressage horse needs to be strong like a gymnist, but relaxed and alert at the same time. The barrel racer needs to be explosive and fast. The endurance and eventing horse needs to have extreme stamina like a marathon runner. With each new nutrition consultation, I can not assume that you prefer your horse extremely relaxed and dull or if you want your horse spicy and ready to go. Some ask if nutrition can "light a fire" under their horse and some ask if nutrition can "calm down the intensity" a bit. While yet another rider wants to know if nutritional energy can keep the rails up on Stadium day (me pointing finger at myself). So, let's be super clear about each way in which we can discuss energy as it relates to nutrition.

3 Ways to Think About Energy for Horses

It's extremely important to decide which of these three areas you are trying to manipulate before you start adjusting and experimenting with your feed program. We can adjust the ratios of protein, carbohydrates, fat and other nutraceuticals differently depending on which energy type you prioritize and if you want it to go up or down.

#1: Making a Horse Skinnier, Fatter, or the Same: Energy in its Measurable Form

To a nutritionist, energy is first and foremost a simple measurement of calories in and calories out. It's the first thing that we balance a ration for, because we ALWAYS want a horse to either a) gain weight, b) lose weight, or c) stay the same. We call this energy "Digestible Energy", and it is calculated as Megacalories or kilocalories per day or per pound of feed. A flake of alfalfa hay might contain 5.75 Megacalories of Digestible Energy, and a heaping scoop of high fat horse feed might contain 4.8 Megacalories. A skinny OTTB might require 42 Mcal per day while an overweight laminitic horse of the same size might only need 16 Mcal per day. It is absolutely critical that we ensure appropriate calorie intake first before we address energy as it relates to behavior and optimal performance.

#2: Energy as it Relates to Behavior

Discussions about energy become more complicated when we combine a horse's digestible energy requirement (how many calories they need to eat each day to have a proper weight) with their behavior. If you want to calm the excitability of a horse, you can NOT simply take away ALL of their calories, right. Instead, the trick lies in choosing the RIGHT blend of calories. At OCEN, that starts with careful consideration of the forage type (i.e. alfalfa, grass, pasture, ect). Then, we can layer on an appropriate blend of carbohydrates, fiber, protein and fat to facilitate the behavior we want. Simple carbohydrates are associated with speed, short quick bursts of performance, and general hyperactivity. Fats are associated with long distance stamina and calmer demeanor. Proteins are associated with strength and muscle building. And, then sometimes, like in the case of an event horse, you need all three! Finally, once forage and feed are properly balanced, we can experiment with nutraceuticals such as "calming ingredients" and "performance boosters".

*To read more about Calming Supplements Categories, CLICK HERE for OCEN's article.

#3: Energy as it Relates to Performance (i.e. stamina and strength)

The last category of energy jargon I'd like to discuss is about muscular, cardiovascular, and respiratory output. In the competitive world of equine sport, riders are always looking for ways to get that last 1% from their horse. Nutritionally, we try to gain the advantage by adding a scoop of this or scoop of that to facilitate greater stamina, strength, or other output. I'm going to refer to these scoops as "performance boosters".

We accomplish optimal stamina and strength by balancing the basics first. Great performance starts with the right blend of calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and water. That fact can not be understated. However, once the basics are perfected, there is room to experiment with nutraceuticals that relate to energy metabolism. Much of what we know about human and other livestock performance nutrition trickles over to the equine world and we get supplement ingredients such as CoQ10, dimethylglycine, creatine, gamma oryzanol, branched chain amino acids, colostrum, plasma, omega-3s and B vitamins. I'm actually going to address these "performance boosters" in my next article at much greater depth, because I've been interested in them for personal reasons. First off, my horse and I are heading to our first 2* star today. Secondly, my husband has been doggedly pursuing the sport of long distance cross country mountain biking. So, stay tuned for that!


As you can now see, talking about our horse's energy level is not a simple conversation. You have to ask yourself, am I trying to manipulate my horse's weight, behavior, performance parameter, or all three? Do you want a fatter horse with a calmer behavior and greater stamina or do you want a skinnier horse with greater enthusiasm and strength? There are many combinations to choose from as you can imagine. Depending on your desired outcome, we can start manipulating the blend of energy sources and then incorporate nutraceuticals. OCEN can help you do this with a private consultation.

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