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Performance Feeds: Pick Your Preference!

This week I'll be breaking down what I call the "Fortified Four" into a series of short articles. The OCEN Fortified Four include complete feeds, performance feeds, ration balancers, and trace mineral supplements. The next category we'll be discussing is the performance feed category. Most of the horse feeds at your local feed store are performance feeds, and there's a tremendous variety within this category. I'll break down these options for you!

The number one reason that people call me is because they are overwhelmed; overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of products and opinions in our equestrian spaces without a sound base of education to sift through them well. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the feed store and/or shopping online than this series is for you. I'm going to help you organize, categorize, and sift through the massive amount of products for better clarity and confidence. I make sense of the feed store cornucopia by putting products into one of 6 categories. The majority of products on the market will fall into what I call the "Fortified Four". Read on to learn more!

If you haven't read "What Is a Complete Feed" yet, then here is the link.


The word performance is a bit of a misnomer, because various equestrian communities have slightly different definitions of "performance horse". However, when a nutritionist sits down to create a new feed in this category, they do have a "working" horse in mind. I'll talk a little bit more about what a "working" horse is, but until then, this is what you need to know. Performance feeds are for horses that do not/can not get enough calories from hay or pasture alone to sustain good weight. Even if your horse is in no work at all (maintenance), but can not maintain weight on the hay they are being fed, then they still might need a performance feed for the calories. What makes a performance feed different from a commodity like beet pulp, rice bran, or alfalfa meal is that performance feeds include these things PLUS fortification.

The National Resource Council: Nutrient Requirements for Horses (2007) defines a horses' level of work in one of five ways; maintenance (no work), light, moderate, heavy and intense. An intense level of work could be an event horse ready for the Maryland 5*, an endurance horse running the 100 mile Tevis Cup, or a thoroughbred prepping for the Kentucky Derby. A horse in light work might be ridden 2-4 days per week with mostly walk and trot, some canter, and no conditioning days (i.e. hill work, sprint work, interval training, ect). Most horse owners that I talk to, and this includes myself, are in the moderate level of work. They are prepping for local and regional shows, riding 4-6 days per week, and include some level of conditioning in their weekly workouts. It's very important to know your horse's level of work before designing a good diet plan, because it helps determine their calorie requirement and whether or not the hay/pasture can supply those calories. The equation looks like this...

Horse's Level of Work + Forage Quality + Lifestage + Environmental Factors + Desired Change in Body Condition Score = What Category of "Fortified Four" Feed is Appropriate

The Best Equine Nutrition Course You'll Ever Take!




Just like complete feeds, you will always know a performance feed by its feeding instructions. It's easy...simply start with OCEN's FeedFlip Method which tells us to read the feed tag backwards...or bottom-up! What we are looking for in the instructions is the nutritionist's intentions. At what amount of feed did they design the product for optimum efficiency? I always look at what the nutritionist recommends for a 1,000 lb horse in moderate work. If the feeding instructions say to feed between 4-12 lbs per day then you can be sure the product falls into the performance feed category. Anything over 12 lbs per day for a 1,000 lb horse in moderate work is likely a complete feed, and anything below 3 lbs per day is either a ration balancer or a single function supplement.

Now, as I've mentioned, there is a lot of variety within the performance feed category. They will often look very different; some are textured with whole grains or shredded beet pulp and some are dry pellets. Some focus on fat calories, others on carbohydrate blends, and a few focus on protein as the primary calorie source, and then others have nice blends of all three calorie sources. Depending on which blend of calorie sources are present, you can divide performance feeds into either high carb/low calorie, high carb/high calorie, low carb/low calorie, and low carb/high calorie. *See image below. Which one you choose is often more personal preference rather than exact science. Some trainers want to "light a fire" under their horse and others want to "mellow out" an excitable horse. So, depending on your goals, you're going to choose a performance feed BECAUSE it has the right blend of calorie sources that give you the desired results.



In order to answer the above question, you have to compare the guaranteed analysis which will give us clues as to which calorie source is being favored. The protein and fat percentages are obvious, but to understand the carbohydrate calories, we have to look at both ends of the carb spectrum which is fiber and sugar/starch.

I'm going to use four different performance feeds from one brand to illustrate the concept of energy sources. I'm going to go ahead and use Purina to simplify this concept and because they are ubiquitous and have a lot of performance feeds. You can use this same method within different brands and even across brands to compare. One important note about comparing within and across brands; make sure that you ONLY compare performance feeds to performance feeds, complete feeds to complete feeds, and so on and so forth within the same category of products. When you try to compare guaranteed analysis between the "OCEN Fortified Four", the comparisons don't make sense. In essence, be sure that you are comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges.

  • Recommended feeding for 1,000 lb horse in moderate work = 7 lbs per day

  • 14% crude protein, 6% fat, 7.5% fiber, and 41% sugar + starch

  • A high calorie, high carb performance feed with the major source of calories coming from simple carbohydrates. This would be appropriate for disciplines that require short bursts of speed like barrel racing (on the cover of the bag), jumpers, and racing. Carbohydrates fuel the fast twitch muscles necessary for this kind of work.

  • Recommended feeding for 1,000 lb horse in moderate work = 7 lbs per day

  • 12% crude protein, 8% fat, 9% fiber, 35% sugar + starch

  • A high calorie performance feed with a blend of all calorie sources including protein, fat and carbs. This is type of calorie blend is popular for eventing horses who need to do relaxed gymnastic work one day, endurance the second day, and precision power on day three. The blend of protein, fat, and carbohydrates fuels the entire body!

  • Recommended feeding for 1,000 lb horse in moderate work = 6.5 lbs per day

  • 12% crude protein, 1% fat, 26% fiber, 13% starch + sugar

  • A low calorie, low carb performance feed. I call it relatively low calorie, because it has less than half the calories per pound compared to Purina Ultium, Omolene 500 and 200! This product is also unique in that it's extruded which has been shown to make horses feel more full and horse owners to "feel" satisfied that their horse got something.

  • Recommended feeding for 1,000 lb horse in moderate work = 6 lb per day

  • Guarantee Analysis = 11.7% crude protein, 12.4% fat, 18.5% fiber, 16% sugar + starch

  • A very high calorie, low carb performance feed. At 12.4% fat, this product most definitely offers the majority of calories from fat sources. You would choose this product if your horse needed maximum calories for weight gain/maintenance, but without the disadvantages of high carb grains.


Here is a non exhaustive list of reasons that I've had to recommend complete feeds over the years...

  1. You're horse doesn't do well on alfalfa hay, but needs more calories to maintain weight and muscle condition. Feed a performance feed!

  2. Your horse is aging and his metabolism is slowing, but teeth are still good and he's not ready for a complete feed. A performance feed might be more appropriate.

  3. You're at a boarding facility where you are the only one actively competing your horse at a high level. Everyone else does fine on the low calorie "local" hay, but your horse can't keep weight on that hay alone. A performance feed is just what you need for greatest feed efficiency.

  4. Mare pregnant? Mare and Foal feeds are really performance feeds- remember the feeding directions!

  5. Your horse came through the winter with a body condition score of 4.5 and you want to increase their condition before show season starts to ramp up. Feed a performance product to it's recommended level and see your horse bloom!



Highlights to review...

Performance feeds are for horses that do not/can not get enough calories from hay or pasture alone.

You can distinguish a performance feed at the feed store by looking at the feeding directions. You'll know it's a performance feed if the nutritionist suggests 4-12 lbs per day for a 1,000 lb horse in moderate work.

Performance feeds differ from complete feeds in their feeding directions. Complete feeds can be a horse's entire diet, but performance feeds can not. They don't have enough fiber.

Which one you choose is often more personal preference rather than exact science. Trial different ones. Consider your nutrition goals! What works for you might not work for your friend, trainer, or neighbor. Good luck!

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