Having always been fascinated by how the body adapts to fitness training as well as how nutrition fuels exercise, my choice of further study after graduating was human and equine sports science. My Masters’ lecturers included top sports physiologists as well as biochemists and nutritionists and during my study I gained an in-depth understanding of how nutrition is involved in exercise and the adaptations the body makes when it undergoes all types of exercise regimes.
Understanding exercise physiology helps us to realise that, despite nutrition being key in delivering the body what it needs to function, it can never make up for a lack of exercise training, which results in a lack of fitness (for a given task or competition). Many horse owners believe that it’s the change in diet that increases their horse’s stamina or exercise performance, but this is a myth – it’s the increase in fitness from a structured exercise programme that increases stamina, strength and skill, and reduces the risk of injury.
That’s not to say that nutrition isn’t important, and poor nutrition can have both a detrimental impact on exercise performance and a direct influence on risk of injury. But you can’t make a horse a better athlete than their genetic potential via good nutrition; you can only help them to reach that potential.
Worth mentioning is that the most important dietary factor for exercise in the horse is energy, the ‘fuel’. Energy is extracted from carbohydrates – including fibre, starches, sugar – and oil, but not in any significant amount from protein (in the horse). Little extra protein is required for horses in work, and it is unhelpful to increase dietary protein without paying attention to energy supply.
Overfeeding energy in an attempt to improve stamina will cause the horse to lay down more fat, which could inhibit performance. Unnecessary body fat adds extra weight and inhibits heat loss from working muscles. You might get more exuberance from a horse sensitive to cereal starch whom you feed more oats or competition mix to, but this is behavioural energy and not true stamina or performance. Undernourishment could limit exercise performance and both limit a horse’s ability to get fit during training and limit performance on the day of a competition or other test of fitness. Feeding without regard to all the horse’s requirements can also limit performance by causing gut disturbance and psychological disturbances, for example, feeding too little fibre.
A structured, progressive exercise program – supported by good nutrition – is what gets a horse fitter and able to exercise harder and for longer before fatigue. A careful fitness programme will optimise exercise performance and reduce the risk of injury. Nutrition could be considered the foundation blocks onto which fitness is built – it’s a key factor but it doesn’t create an successful athlete alone.