Zebras, fussy performance horses and Olympic triathletes. What’s the link? Appetite! Top class human endurance athletes like the triathlete Brownlee brothers have no problem with their appetite (they tend to be always hungry) and wild equids in non-drought environments, like zebras, always look well fed with healthy appetites. So why do so many performance horses suffer from poor appetites?

The answer, I propose, is their inappropriate feeding and management regimes. It is interesting that human athletes usually have no problem eating enough energy to fuel their training and performance, and I do sometimes see horses in the same situation. More often, however, I see horses at top level whose appetites are poor and who struggle to take in enough energy for optimum health and performance. If exercise doesn’t inhibit the appetite – and it wouldn’t make sense for it to – then what does?

Apart from predators who take out old, ill or unfit individuals, what do zebras have that our top performance horses do not? They have (almost) unlimited access to fibrous feed. They have freedom to roam. They have a herd of other zebras with them at all times. Many performance horses are stabled 24/7 or have a couple of hours turnout, so unless they are endurance horses exercising for over several hours daily, their movement is highly restricted. Many performance horses are fed very limited forage and given high levels of high-energy starchy feed based on cereal grains. Many are kept separate from other horses and some have no social contact with their own species at all.

Zebra behaviour can give us guidelines for good welfare for our performance horses.
Zebra behaviour can give us guidelines for good welfare for our performance horses.

The reason for such restrictive management is often to reduce the risk of injury, which, considering the financial value of some of these animals could maybe be forgiven. But fibre-deficient, starch-rich diets that are unhealthy enough to cause gut disturbance and poor appetites are not forgivable because there is plenty of science available nowadays that explains why such diets are unhealthy and indeed, compromise good welfare. Fibre deficient, starch-rich diets cause stomach irritation and hindgut acidosis and increase the risk of stomach ulcers. They might also, either directly or indirectly, affect hormones involved in appetite, although this is an area that we currently know nothing about.

Performance horses fed plenty of forage (over 1.5% of their body weight daily) and starchy feed limited to the maximum that can be safely digested in a single meal (about 1 g starch per kg bodyweight) usually have good appetites, which makes feeding them easier. Ensure nutritious forage to get as much energy as possible from it, and the concentrate part of the ration needn’t be so large.

It’s about time we moved on from the archaic feeding practices that still pervade performance horse circles and started treating them like the athletes they are, making use of the scientific knowledge we have, as human athletes do. But without forgetting that they have the same digestive tract as that well-covered, happy zebra, roaming the plains with his pals.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.