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Fuelled by Fibre


Most horse owners appreciate the essential role fibre plays in the leisure horse’s diet, as forage and fibre-based bucket feeds. But fibre also makes an excellent basis for performance horse’s rations and the research is starting to prove it.

Consider these facts…

  • The latest studies suggest the incidence of laminitis is 3%.
  • Concentrate intake of between 2.5-5kg per day increases the risk of colic by 4.77 times – research by Tinker et al.
  • Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) affects about 90% of racehorses in training – from the International Equine Colic Research Symposium.

The common linke between the problems described above is that they are all associated with the ways we feed and manage our horses. Reports like this have helped to increase awareness of the importance of feeding plenty of fibre and reducing reliance on cereal-based feeds – even for competition and sport horses.

If you still need convincing that fibre could supply your horse with enough energy for competing, you might be interested to learn that research carried out in Sweden a couple of years ago demonstrated that horses in training maintained their performance levels and body weight on forage-only rations – in this case, haylage. The study used Standardbreds, who were exercised at high intensity a couple of times a week and carried out low-intensity work on the other days. The researchers suggested that there might even be a potential benefit in reducing the risk of dehydration, because the horses fed high-fibre diets retained more fluid in the digestive system, which remains available to help maintain hydration when the horse is working.

Energy for performance

Clearly, the ability of a high-fibre feed to supply enough energy for a horse in work is determinded by how much energy the feed contains. That, and how efficiently the horse can extract the energy from it. Sugar beet is a high-fibre feed that is low in sugar (less than 5% if no molasses is added) because the sugar has been extracted for use in human foods. The remaining pulp contains highly digestible fibre with a digestible fibre (DE) value between 11MJ and 12MJ DE/kg – a cool mix contains 10MJ DE/kg, so this shows that fibre can provide quite a lot of energy. Dengie Alfa-Beet is a blend of alfalfa and unmolassesd sugar beet providing ‘slow releasing’ energy in the form of highly digestible fibre.

In trials carried out at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER), sugar beet was found to increase the digestibility of other forages that it was fed with because it has what can probably most simply be described as a ‘prebiotic’ effect.

By providing the microbial population in the gut with an extremely digestible food source, the sugar beet increases the number fo fibre-digesting microbes that are then better able to digest other, less digestible forages. Adding sugar beet is, therefore, a great way to increase energy supply without having to resort to using cereals.

Balancing the ration

Plants contain lots of naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals that usually have a high bioavailabilty – the horse can absorb them more easily than those from inorganic sources. The mineral levels in plants largely reflect the mineral levels in the soil they are grown in. For example, soils in the UK are much lower in selenium than you would find in the USA, so the plant material that we feed to horses also tends to be low in selenium.

Many fibre feeds are ‘straights’ – single plant feedstuffs like alfalfa or sugar beet – and, although they contain plenty of useful minerals, they aren’t balanced. This means that a balancer or supplement, such as Dengie Performance+ Balancer or Dengie Performance Vits & Mins should be fed alongside the fibre to provide a balanced ration.

If you are competing regularly at high levels or working your horse hard, a balancer or supplement formulated for performance might be required. Most horses and ponies used for riding club – level competitions, however, will be fine on a product formulated for light work.

Endurance riders – early fibre adopters

Endurance is a discipline where high-fibre diets, often with oil, are commonplace. This is because the horse is required to work at relatively low intensities for prolonged periods. Most of the time, the horse is working aerobically, which simply means there is enough oxygen to break down the fatty acids (energy source) produced from fibre and oil, and clear waste products generated by this process.

Using high-fibre and oil diets provides lots of energy because oil, in particular, is very energy-dense. Feeds that combine alfalfa and oil, such as Dengie Alfa-A Oil or Dengie Alfa-A Molasses Free are ideal for the endurance horse, and adding soaked sugar beet is the ideal way to provide more energy and help maintain good hydration.

Fuelling fast work

The energy released from fibre can be utilised straightaway by the horse if he’s working at low intensities or stored as fat for use later.

Importantly, some of the energy produced from fibre can be converted to glucose in the liver, so horses on high-forage diets are able to create glucose from fibre, albeit rather inefficiently.

Glucose is basically seen as the energy source required for faster work because it can be utilised anaerbically (in the absence of oxygen). In practice, if horses have been prepared properly and have a good level of fitness, it is only when they reach higher levels of competition that they are likely to be workng anaerobically.

Even for high-level competition horses, it is important to consider the temperament and natural athleticism of the individual horse, because these factors can also influence the type and amount of dietary energy required. For example, many event horses can make the time cross-country, even at four-star level, with no problem at all and the biggest challenge is often keeping them calm enough to perform a good dressage test. This is where fibre and oil diets can be really useful because they provide slow-release energy and plenty of it. Dengie Alfa-A Oil, for example supplies 12.5MJ/ kg DE, which is comparable to a competition mix, but provides 10 times less starch.

Tempting fussy feeders

There are other reasons why sports and performance horses are fed cereal-based feeds, but they can be overcome. Very fit horses often have reduced appetites, which can be caused by gastric ulcers or just simply because they don’t want to eat much.

Fibre is very lightweight, so a larger volume needs to be consumed to supply enough energy, which is usually one of the benefits of fibre because it provides more chew time. But for a horse with a limited appetite, this can be a challenge. Using palatable fibre sources that contain added herbs can help to increase or at least maintain intake as fitness levels increase.

Dengie Healthy Tummy is a nutritionally complete fibre feed containing the latest ingredients known to promote gut health including alfalfa, herbs and ADM Protexin In-Feed Formula.

Fit For It

Dengie supported rider, Brook Howells talks about feeding 16.1hh, seven-year-old Templebrook Boy, aka Corey

“Currently, we’re competing at BE100, and recently competed at the Badminton Grassroots Championships in May and hope to step up to Novice.” says Brook.

“Corey is a very fit event horse who has fantastic energy across country and presence in the dressage arena, but is still very easy to do and laid-back. Because of my work commitments, he only gets ridden three or four times a week, but he has the same calm and workmanlike attitude whether he has been out a lot or just chilling in the field for a week.

“His daily Dengie diet of six large Stubbs scoops of Alfa-A Original and three coffee mugs of Performance+ Balancer, plus ab-lib haylage, gives him enough energy to perform at his best and look fantastic without affecting his temperament. What more could I ask?”

Click here to read Brook’s blog.