Endurance horses travel very long distances at the top competitive levels, and they are monitored for health and fitness throughout the competition. Their nutrition and fitness regimes are therefore key to their performance.
As for all horses, endurance horses should be fed plenty of forage, and that forage should be selected according to the horse’s requirements. Some endurance horses can live out all the time and gain all the nutrients they require (with the exception of some minerals) from good pasture grass. For those who are stabled or kept on insufficient grass, their forage should be chosen carefully. Hard working endurance horses with high energy requirements need to be fed relatively high energy forage to limit their requirement for concentrate feed. Forage holds water in the gut and endurance horses should not have their forage intake limited pre-event.
If an endurance horse maintains weight, condition and performance on forage alone, a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer (plus salt) will be enough to balance the diet. If not, then concentrate feed may be necessary. Be sure to pick one that can be fed at the full recommended amount to ensure the horse receives all the essential micronutrients.
Medium to high energy high digestible fibre, low starch concentrate feeds are usually the most suitable, but some starch could be useful. Endurance horses need good muscle glycogen stores in order to perform well and a little dietary starch may help maximise stores. Correctly structured training is as, if not more important than diet in maximising muscle glycogen stores, however.
Many endurance horses are fed supplementary vegetable oil to increase their energy supply, and for some performance benefits. Oil must be fed throughout training so that the muscles are used to using it as an energy source. The combination of added vegetable oil and a conditioning program allows endurance horses to better mobilise and use oil during long distance exercise. 10% of dietary intake is the maximum that should be fed to ensure palatability and avoid detrimental effects on muscle glycogen stores.
Adequate electrolyte (body salt) intake is key for endurance horses, during fittening and competition, due to the high levels of salts lost in sweat.
All horses, no matter their discipline, need a balanced diet, so levels of all the essential nutrients should be checked. Levels of vitamin E and selenium should be maintained at the upper level of recommendations because they are useful muscle-protective antioxidants.
All performance horses should be tapered before an event, to allow them to maximise their muscle glycogen (fuel) stores. Their exercise should be gradually reduced; giving them a change to recover fully, which in turn will boost performance.
During an event, horses should ideally be offered feed from their usual diet. Any feed, however, can be offered to those whose appetites are poor during an event and grass is often a good choice. Ideal feeds are high in fibre and in energy e.g. sugar beet, wheatbran, dried grass or alfalfa (ideally soaked), and medium to high energy high digestible fibre compounds. Oats can also be useful.
Endurance horses should be fed like all horses – plenty of forage, balanced appropriately, with extra care taken with salt and vitamin E and selenium intake.