Hardworking athletes need a high-octane diet. Whether we’re talking about Rocky Balboa and his famed raw-egg diet in the movie Rocky, or a daring racehorse who needs extra grain to fuel that burst of speed down the racetrack, the premise is the same: hardworking bodies require a specialized diet.
And when a racehorse is eased from track life and into a less taxing career or even a backyard farm, a critical part of that transition becomes diet.
New owners of ex-racehorses often tweak the diet of their new companion, considering how to do it safely without sudden change that can overwhelm their systems, and giving them what they need to grow healthier and rounder.
The importance of diet and suggestions for the best supplements to use are addressed in this fourth installment of a Q&A Horse Health Series with renowned equine practice Rood & Riddle of Kentucky.
Dr. Bonnie Barr answers questions about the best practices for “letting down” a racehorse after the track.
Q: When letting down a racehorse, what are considerations in rebalancing the horse’s nutritional needs and diet?
Racehorses in training are fed a high energy, high starch diet, which is mostly made up of concentrate feed. If left at this high level of energy, obesity and management problems may occur. Thus the amount of concentrate needs to be reduced. A majority of the diet should include good quality forage in the form of hay or grass. Hay is a good source of fiber, which is important for a healthy, correctly functioning digestive system. Turn-out on grass is a good way to provide appropriate fiber and nutrients. Most racehorses have not been turned-out on grass so introduction to grass should be gradual. To prevent any adverse gastrointestinal issues, any diet change should be made over 2-3 weeks.
Q: How does an owner promote a healthy weight gain that accounts for a decrease in the horse’s activity, but does not create risk of disease related weight gain?
Healthy weight gain can be achieved by providing good quality hay, turn-out on grass and a low energy (starch) concentrate. Close monitoring of the horse’s body condition can help to evaluate the adequacy of the diet. The ideal body condition is defined as a well-defined topline with shoulders and neck that blend smoothly into the body. The ribs are not easily visualized but can be felt. The diet may need to be adjusted as the horse begins training or as cold weather approaches. Some ex-racehorses are thin, thus a high fat, higher protein concentrate is appropriate.
Q: When do supplements enter the picture? What are some of the best, all-purpose additives for an ex-racehorse?
High fat supplements may be added if the ex-racehorse needs to gain weight or is a poor doer. The easiest and most available form is vegetable oils (corn oil, soybean oil, rice bran oil), which are very caloric rich. Oils that provide omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (linseed oil) also will promote healthy skin, joints and immune function. Any horse with degenerative joint disease, arthritis or musculoskeletal injuries may benefit from a supplement that contains glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM. The addition of probiotics or prebiotics to the diet may help to keep the microorganisms healthy and flourishing so that the individual’s digestion works at optimal levels. Probiotics contain beneficial microorganisms whereas prebiotics are inert substances that stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Many feed companies are adding one or both of these supplements to feeds. Ex-racehorses oftentimes have poor feet, thus a supplement with agents to enhance hoof growth may be beneficial.