The racehorse is typically fed a high energy, low fibre diet.  This means that generally hay or haylage quantities are considerably less than given to non-racing horses and there is unlikely to be the addition of other fibres sources such as sugarbeet and chaff.

Nuts RGB090 webAs the provision of energy is absolutely vital the concentrate proportion of the diet has a high starch content. In the main this is still achieved by the feeding of cereals, namely oats although more trainers are turning to specialist cubes and pencils for the racehorse as these have important vitamins and minerals added.

In a day a horse in training will receive upwards of 7kgs of concentrates. Coupled with the general stresses associated with racing life and the lack of fibre, such diet can lay behind conditions such as ulcers and colic.


Changing the Diet

feed-4 webRegardless of the change to his lifestyle the now former racehorse still requires a diet that contains the right balance of nutrients not only to keep him healthy but to enable him to build new muscle for being a riding horse and possibly a competition horse.

The diet comprises fibre, protein, carbohydrates and fats along with vitamins, minerals and trace elements. All are important for health and well being.

You should follow the same rules of feeding of any horse so you take into account workload and temperament, and any presenting clinical issues, as well as the matter of increasing general bodyweight. The racehorse is an athlete so carries no excess fat just pure racing muscle. As this muscle drops away because the race training has ceased your horse can appear underweight until he begins to gain condition (bulk) from his new diet.

Typically your new horse will have no topline and a somewhat triangular shape to his hindquarters; he will look a bit “hippy” and there will be little cover to the ribs giving him the greyhound look, not to be confused with a true herring-gutted horse.

Good Feeding Guide

  • Feed good quality forage, ad lib if possible to promote weight gain, gut health and general well-being; trickle feeding mimics what nature intended so helps to keep your horse happy and healthy.
  • Split concentrate feeds into 2 but ideally 3 feeds per day.
  • Make all changes to the diet gradually, ideally over a period of at least a week. This will reduce the risk of digestive upset.
  • Think fibre as this is the most important nutrient over water. Fibre provides enough energy to meet the requirements of most general riding horses.
  • Calories for weight gain and calories for energy are the same so for weight gain increase the oil content of the diet – unless you also want more energy.
  • Micronised linseed is one of the best oil sources as it provide the Omegas 3, 6 and 9 in the correct ratios for the horse.
  • Remember the horse has a small stomach so limit hard feeds to around 2kg per feed.

Aids to Digestion

Various factors can influence a horse’s internal gut health so sometimes a little help is required to keep everything functioning as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Giving pre and probiotics can enhance the efficiency of the digestive process by maintaining a healthy population of gut flora, the millions of micro-organisms we term “friendly bacteria”. A prebiotic provides a food source for gut flora and also clean up any pathogenic types of bacteria whilst a probiotic is a yeast culture which actually contains live yeast cells which serve to keep the environment in the gut healthy for the friendly bacteria to work in. and are also involved in helping bacteria to digest fibre. YeaSacc1026 is one of the most popular yeast cultures.

You may need to experiment with the diet to get the right balance but there will be solutions to help your horse look the picture of health.

The thoroughbred has as much capacity to gain weight and carry condition as any other horse so if you consider your horse is a little leaner than you would like, then a simple adjustment to his diet is all that is required (unless there is an underlying clinical issue, a worm burden or an issue with dentition).



(Written by Fred and Rowena Cook, www.equinetraining.co.uk)

Feeding FAQs

Are former racehorses poor doers?

Whilst it cannot be denied that some horses do take a lot of effort to get them into great condition, it is not accurate to say that all thoroughbreds (ex-racehorses) are poor doers. If a thread was posted on the subject onto a website forum or social media site, there would be those who say their horse lives on fresh air whilst others would admit to struggling to keeping weight on their horse.  Some owners feed no more than sugar beet and something like Dengie Hi-Fi, whilst others are having to give feeds packed with calories in order to keep their horse in great shape.

The reason behind former racehorses getting labelled as poor doers probably lies behind the fact that for the horse fresh-out of training, without the work the musculature soon goes so, granted, you can be left with a horse that many would term as being underweight; they will be “hippy” and the ribs will be very visible. However this is usually just temporary whilst the horse’s digestive system adjusts to a different diet from an energy-packed one to one that promotes condition and riding horse musculature is built up.

Whilst there are feeding guidelines as to the levels of work a horse is doing -. light work would be hacking 3-4 times a week, a schooling session or two, and a low level competition a couple of times a month, medium/moderate work would be a horse that is having more intense schooling sessions on a daily basis such a high-level dressage horses or polo ponies whilst the horse that is classed as being in hard work would be a racehorse in training, a 3-day event horses, endurance horses etc. – it must also be remembered that various factors have to be taken into consideration when assessing a horse’s dietary requirements other than the amount of work it is doing such as whether it is predominantly stabled or turned out, of course it’s size, the physiology [metabolism] of the individual and temperament, a stressy horse tending not to be the best of weight-carriers.

Despite there being so many feeding helplines, advice on feeding is something we are routinely asked to provide – usually in relation to a horse not carrying enough condition. New owners do seem to be increasingly aware of the need to provide more fibre in the diet but not the need for the right calories in order for that all-important weight to be gained – as well as quality protein for building new muscle (topline). Whilst fibre is a very good, and is indeed underestimated, for promoting weight gain some horses do need a bit of extra help especially during the early transitional period.

Understandably owners are mindful of not wanting to feed anything that is going to fizz up their horse and herein lies the confusion about calories as they provide both energy and promote weight gain. Cereals, which were traditionally fed to provide energy [fuel] but can create excitable behaviour in some horses; also when fed at high levels there is an increased risk of acidosis in the hind gut. However, oils are energy [calorie]-dense but do not have the heating effect of grains and are ideal for getting condition on the lean horse. Remember though when feeding higher levels of oil, the requirement for Vitamin E increases to facilitate efficient utilisation of the oil. Adding large gulgs of liquid oil, especially those not formulated for horses, to the feed can put some horses off eating so oil is best added to the diet in the form of cooked linseed, rice bran or similar, or incorporated in a mix or fibre-feed (such as Dengie Alfa A).

Please remember: If your horse is underweight, it is important to ensure that a worm count is done, his teeth are checked and gastric ulcers are ruled out. Pain/discomfort and stress are also contributory factors in a horse not gaining weight. In certain instances you may need to discuss weight loss/lack of weight gain with your veterinary surgeon.

Why is fibre a vital component of the diet?

Fibre is a very good but often over-looked energy source. It provides slow-releasing energy ie hind gut digestion so is non-heating.

It is a vital component of the diet as it is so important for the health and function of the digestive system. Nature designed the horse as a fibre digester and so it does this extremely efficiently. Fibre combats acidity in the gut so lack of fibre is seen as a primary cause of ulcers.

Ideally a horse should never have less that 1% of its bodyweight in forage each day. So if a thoroughbred weighs 500kg then it should certainly have no less than 5kg of hay/haylage per 24 hours. Preferably though, as a trickle feeder, a horse should have ad hoc access to forage. Such provision will also satisfy a horse’s natural desire to chew!

Munching on fibre acts like an internal boiler as the process generates heat, and hence why in cold weather increased amounts of forage are recommended.

The better quality of forage you can feed (soft and leafy) the less concentrates you will need to feed.

Forage is not the only source of fibre; sugarbeet is another excellent source as is chaff and the fibre feeds you can buy readily prepared with added vitamins and minerals.  Alfalfa is an excellent source of fibre if your horse can tolerate it and is a great acid-bugger. It is also a very good source of quality protein.

What is the role of protein in the diet?

Proteins are often referred to as the building blocks (amino acids) of the diet as they are responsible for building strong muscles, tendons and ligaments and replenishing damaged and old cells.

Their role is much greater than just this as they are present in every cell of the body with highly specialized functions controlling biochemical reactions, aiding the immune system and regulating the metabolism and hormones, all to ensure the body works properly.

Apart from alfalfa, linseed, soya meal, rice bran, peas and beans are very good protein sources.

What is the role of carbohydrates in the diet?

Essentially the digestion of sugars and starches (and fibre) provides energy that is utilised for bodily functions (maintenance) and to execute exercise. Carbohydrates are digested at different rates, the energy provided by starch feeds is termed “quick release” as it is readily broken down into glucose by enzymes in the small intestine. It is then transported around the body and stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen ready to be used by the horse.

The racehorse obviously has a high requirement for this energy source as indeed do any horses that need to do fast work. The stored glycogen is the primary energy source the muscles use for this type of work but for the horse working at much quieter levels the muscles use a combination of fats and glycogen. The difference between the two being is that the former is anaerobic whilst the latter is anaerobic (without and with oxygen).

Are fats and oils a good source of energy?

Fats and oils are an excellent source of energy providing up to 2.25 times more than cereals but without the heating effect so are what is termed “slow release energy” feedstuffs and are digested very easily by the horse.

They also boost the calorific value of the diet thus promoting condition and weight gain. However increased amounts of oil in the diet increases the need for anti-oxidants as more free radicals are produced during the metabolic process. It is preferable to feed oils as linseed or in a pelleted form rather straight if possible.

Where can I get more specific help on my horse’s diet?

The RoR Helpline can help and advise with regards to your horse’s diet – T: 01488 648998, E: helpline@ror.org.uk .  Also most feed companies provide a free helpline service.