When things aren’t going to plan how do we decide what course of action to take? How many of us are guilty of trying to treat the symptoms rather than the cause – do we even take the trouble to establish what the cause of the problem is? With so many products available marketed as the answer to every possible problem, it is easy to get caught up in trying to find the quick- fix solution. Nutrition is no exception and feed merchants have an array of feeds and supplements for customers to choose from.


There are several factors which all interact to influence performance. Nutrition and management are fundamental in determining the health and behaviour of the horse but equally the health and behaviour of the horse may influence the feeding and management regimes used. Understanding the interaction between these factors is important if a problem occurs as it is necessary to look at the whole picture, not each factor in isolation.

There are several factors that all interact to influence performance


Nutrition is a combination of art and science – there is an increasing amount of research being conducted but it is being able to apply the findings to a real life situation that is the art of nutrition. Most people can feed the straightforward horse but it is coping with individuals with problems that is the real test.


Problems can be physiological or psychological in that they can affect the horse’s body or mind. The usual reason for a problem occurring is that that the horse has been removed too far from his natural diet or lifestyle. Dressage horses competing at the highest level have constant disruptions to their routines, spend long periods travelling and those that compete abroad also have to deal with changes in climatic conditions. Even when they are at home, dressage horses are often considered to be too valuable to turn out as the risk of injury is too great. This combines to create a lifestyle that is very different to that of a horse in its natural environment.

If the diet and management are not adjusted to try and counteract the effects of high level competition, problems can occur. Changes to both the diet and routine may be necessary to rectify a problem. Changing one without the other may be ineffective and may compromise the horse’s well-being further.


The first thing to do when a problem arises is to go back to basics. The first thing to establish is whether the diet is balanced. To determine this you need to ask:

  • Am I using the right type of feed relative to the work the horse is doing?
  • Am I feeding enough of a suitable feed for the work the horse is doing?
  • Does the forage I use have any nutrient shortfalls?
A Totally Balanced Ration

Total Ration Balancing is very important for the performance horse. Forage is an important part of the horse’s diet and the nutrients it provides should not just be ignored. Analysing forage establishes which nutrients are being provided and should be the first step taken to achieving a balanced diet. As forage is not sufficient to support most competing dressage horses, concentrates will probably be required.

Compound Feeds

Compound feeds are balanced rations designed to be fed alongside forage with average nutrient levels at certain quantities according to the horse’s workload. If the manufacturer’s guidelines are not followed, the nutrient levels provided will not be ideal. In theory, extra supplements should not be necessary if using a compound feed, however there are some possible scenarios where they may be required.

  • To counteract the nutrient shortfalls of a particularly poor forage.
  • If the diet is balanced and is appropriate for the horse and its workload but a problem still exists.

There are a variety of supplements available, some are prophylactic – designed to prevent problems occurring, whilst others treat existing problems. Supplements that are designed to counteract nutrient shortfalls tend to be marketed differently to those that are promoted for preventing or treating health and behavioural problems. If you have established that you require a supplement to counteract a particular problem, compare products that claim to do the same job. There has been concern in the horse industry that there is no legislation to prevent manufacturers from making false claims about their products and so when choosing a supplement speak to the manufacturer about any testing and research they may have done. Compare value for money by looking at feeding rates and the size of containers. If one product doesn’t work then stop using it before you try another one, otherwise the feed room starts to look more like an apothecary and you can not establish which product is having an effect.

The Rules of Feeding

The rules of feeding are guidelines for keeping the horse healthy by suggesting ways of replicating the horse’s natural behaviour. The extent to which they are implemented will determine how healthy the horse is. The more effort and greater attention to detail is made the greater the results should be.


It can be difficult to have the courage to change a horse’s feeding or management regime, particularly in the middle of the competitive season. Use this time of year to be more objective about whether your horse could look or perform better. Make use of the resources available to you. Most of the larger feed companies will analyse your forage and make suggestions as to how you could be providing a more appropriate diet. Also consider ways in which you could improve the horse’s routine as, no matter how dedicated you are, there is always room for improvement.

By Katie Lugsden B.Sc. (Hons)
Equine Nutritionist for Baileys Horse Feeds

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Updated: October 2005.