Nutrition Basics for the Dressage Horse

Experts offer advice for feeding the competitive dressage horse throughout life.
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Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl

For Jeanne van der Veen, equine nutritionist for the Kent Nutrition Group, Inc., properly feeding a dressage horse throughout his life is as much an art as it is a science. She advocates “feeding a horse as an individual and in a manner that is as close as possible to what nature intended.”

For a young, growing horse this means providing the right balance of forage, protein, energy, minerals and vitamins to grow at a steady, moderate rate to promote healthy bone, muscle and tissue development; too fast or too slow jeopardizes this and the young horse may be susceptible to orthopedic disorders and be unable to stand up later to the rigors of work.

Knowing the nutrient content of the forage available to your horse is the first step to providing a balanced ration at every stage of his life, van der Veen says. Then it’s possible to determine what needs to be supplemented and in what amounts. “All nutrients work together and are equally important,” she says, “and, especially for a young horse, the ratio of minerals is just as important as the quantity.” 

As van der Veen notes, how the ration is served can be just as significant as what it contains. The horse is a forage eater by nature, and his digestive system is designed to process the steady and frequent intake of small meals consumed during 16 to 17 hours of grazing a day. That’s why she advises dividing a ration and feeding it as small meals offered throughout the day. She also encourages turning a horse out on pasture for as many hours a day as possible. “He’ll be outside, where he can move. And, as a herd animal, he’ll be happier if he is near or with other horses.” 

To gauge the suitability of a ration, “Know your horse,” van der Veen advises. “Know how he eats and when he eats. Know his temperament, how he behaves and whether he gains weight quickly or slowly. Think about any tendencies of his breed. All of these considerations affect the level of calories he should receive.

“Then watch his weight and his body condition,” van der Veen continues. “Assess how he looks. For example, the condition of his hair, skin and hooves often reflects whether he is receiving adequate protein and minerals.”

As a dressage horse matures and the demands of his work intensify, van der Veen says he requires nutrients for stamina and to fuel endurance work (aerobic performance) as well as to maintain muscle mass and body condition without putting on excess pounds. Energy from fiber, fat and some starches and sugars will fuel his effort, she explains. In addition, he’ll need protein for his muscles and vitamins and minerals both for his metabolism and to support his immune system as he experiences the inevitable stresses inherent in training, competition and travel.

Eventually, a horse’s condition, as well as his age, will provide evidence that he’s reached the rank of senior. He’s likely to experience a change in metabolism, van der Veen says, and show physical signs of aging, including weight loss and dental issues. In addition, his digestive system may become less efficient. Monitor body condition closely and feed more or less calories as needed, she advises. At this point in his life, it is likely that the senior horse will require a more nutrient-dense diet to compensate for the diminishing function of body systems. 

Measure For Measure

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl The horse is a forage eater by nature and his digestive system is designed to process the steady and frequent intake of small meals consumed during 16 to 17 hours of grazing a day. It is not in a horse’s best interest to spend most of his time in a stall, with limited turnout and meals served only one to  two times a day.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl The horse is a forage eater by nature and his digestive system is designed to process the steady and frequent intake of small meals consumed during 16 to 17 hours of grazing a day. It is not in a horse’s best interest to spend most of his time in a stall, with limited turnout and meals served only one to two times a day.

“Feeding a dressage horse a proper ration relies to a degree on common sense,” says Heather Layton, northeast territory manager for Cavalor Feeds. What’s needed is a basic understanding of the essential components of his diet and the role they play in his individual development and performance at different ages and intensities of work. Here are Layton’s recommendations for the levels of certain basic nutrients required by dressage horses at four distinct stages:

The growing horse is a youngster who hasn’t yet entered work or is just beginning to be ridden and trained, Layton explains. His workload is very light. In large part, his ration is being used to fuel his growth, and that makes the protein that it contains especially important.

“High-quality protein is an essential building block for all body processes,” Layton explains, and she cites as examples the development of muscle, skin, hair, hooves and vision. That’s why, she says, “the protein level of a growing horse’s diet should be about 12 to 14 percent, an amount that can generally be supplied by the fiber in his diet—pasture and a good-quality legume hay like alfalfa—in an amount equivalent to 1 to 2 percent of his body weight.” (That translates to 1 to 2 pounds for every 100 pounds that he weighs and is the amount that all horses should consume every day.)

Layton notes that often the crude protein in a young horse’s diet isn’t able to supply sufficient amino acids—particularly lysine—for optimal skeletal and muscle growth. A commercial feed can help to make up for any shortfall as well as ensure the necessary quantity and balance of vitamins and minerals that have an essential and interrelated role in growth.

“Because a youngster at this stage isn’t doing a lot of work, he doesn’t require a lot of fat in his diet,” Layton continues. “Fat is used by the body to produce energy. I recommend 4 to 7 percent in the ration of a growing horse.” Likewise, she cautions against an excess of nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC)—sugars and starch—which are found primarily in grains and provide a concentrated form of energy. “Too much energy in a growing horse’s diet can make him excitable,” Layton says, and she advises that the amount not exceed 25 percent.

The mature horse in moderate work is one that is in regular training and competition at the lower to mid levels of dressage. According to Layton, he requires 10 to 12 percent protein in his diet to keep his body functioning properly and be able to progress in training to meet increased demands. His energy needs are met primarily through the fat and carbohydrates in his diet. Layton recommends 4 to 8 percent fat and an NSC of between 15 and 35 percent—how much depends in part on whether the horse is an easy or hard keeper. “A hard keeper will require more fat and NSC,” Layton says. “An easy keeper will require less so that he doesn’t put on excess weight.” The key, she says, is to feed for the energy the horse needs—and that means looking at him as an individual and assessing how he performs. His ration is likely sufficient for the endurance required of the lower to mid levels of dressage when he’s able to loosen during warm-up and begin to execute his movements, then go into the ring and proceed through a test in good order.

A seasoned campaigner at the upper levels of the sport, the mature horse in rigorous work requires a diet that fuels athletic effort, supports his body’s ability to recover from strenuous work and allows him to cope with the stress of shipping and the rigors of elite competition. “At minimum this horse requires 11 percent protein in his diet for muscle-building and recovery,” Layton explains. “He also needs 7 to 10 percent fat and 20 to 35 percent NSC in his ration.”

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Help your horse handle stress during show season and travel by providing a balanced feeding program that meets all of his nutrient requirements and maintains proper body condition and musculature.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Help your horse handle stress during show season and travel by providing a balanced feeding program that meets all of his nutrient requirements and maintains proper body condition and musculature.

At this stage, Layton continues, the profile of the omega fatty acids in his diet also increases in importance. There are two types, omega-3—which has anti-inflammatory properties—and omega- 6—which has the opposite effect. “I recommend that their ratio be as close to 1 to 1 as possible,” Layton says. “But that can be difficult because of the amount of omega-6 in commercial grain and certain oils commonly fed to horses. For instance, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in corn oil is 87 to 1.”

Layton recommends keeping a dressage horse’s body “in a state of health so it is easy to repair. And that means keeping the inflammatory response to a minimum.” Another consideration is to make sure that a horse, especially a hardworking one, is hydrated. “Potassium and sodium are lost through sweat,” Layton explains. “Electrolytes following work can replenish them.” And, of course, offer ample water.

A senior horse has likely reached and may be well into his teens. Depending on his physical condition, he may still be in training and competing. It’s also possible that he’s nearing the end of his career and facing retirement. His feed needs, says Layton, are similar to those of a young horse in terms of the 12 to 14 percent protein that his diet should contain. But it’s not because he needs that level of the nutrient to fuel growth. It’s necessary because his body is less efficient at processing the feed that he consumes. “Keep fat at 4 to 7 percent and NSC at 15 to 25 percent,” Layton advises. “And don’t keep him too lean because he may have a hard time putting on weight.”

Incorporating probiotics and prebiotics into the diet may help to bolster the decreased digestive function of a senior horse, Layton explains. She adds: “Probiotics are living organisms to repopulate those that normally reside in the equine gut and help to break down the fibrous portion of the diet. Prebiotics are feed for the probiotics.”

Sizing Up Success

Credit: Dusty Perin - DustyPerin.com The key to feeding the right amount of energy a horse needs means looking at him as an individual and assessing how he performs.

Credit: Dusty Perin - DustyPerin.com The key to feeding the right amount of energy a horse needs means looking at him as an individual and assessing how he performs.

The amount of feed and hay your horse requires each day will depend primarily on his size, activity level and his current body condition. What he weighs can be determined with a livestock scale or weight tape. Equally important, says Donald R. Kapper, director of nutrition and technical services for Progressive Nutrition, is being able to gauge the effectiveness of your horse’s diet by what you see when you look at him, what you feel when you run a hand over different parts of his body and how he performs.

“Calories and protein are two nutrients that can be visibly monitored and physically palpated to determine adequacy,” says Kapper, who also serves as the equine technical consultant for the Cargill Equine Enterprise Team. “All horses have the ability to store nutrients in different parts of the body. Calories fed in excess will be stored as fat,” he continues, “and the amount of fat a horse is carrying can be expressed as a body condition score [BCS].”

A number on a standardized scale, a BCS relies on visual assessment and palpation of four primary areas—the crest of the neck, behind the shoulder, over the ribs and around the tailhead. Each is given a score from 1 to 9, then the four scores are averaged to determine a horse’s overall BCS, which will range from 1, “emaciated and in poor condition,” to 9, “extremely fat and obese.”

“Between 5 and 6 is ideal for a dressage horse,” Kapper says. At a score of 5, a horse’s ribs can be easily felt, but not seen when he is standing still; they are visible when he walks or trots. In addition, the neck blends smoothly into the body. At a BCS of 6, fat has started to accumulate around the tailhead, and you can push fat ahead of your hand when you press over the horse’s ribs. 

To complement the BCS system, Kapper explains, Progressive Nutrition devised a muscle-development scoring system called the topline evaluation score (TES). It is designed to evaluate whether the crude protein in a horse’s diet contains sufficient amino acids for optimal muscle development. This development occurs all over the body, but is easiest to see along the topline. This is where the longissimus dorsi—the longest and largest muscle of the horse’s body—is located.

As Kapper notes, when amino acids are not balanced or are in short supply in the diet, “a horse has the ability to tear down his muscles for the amino acids needed for body maintenance. The results are atrophied muscles. The back is the first area where you can see this happening and the last area to develop or be rebuilt after adequate amino acids are added into the diet.”

To determine a TES, the condition of the muscles in four areas—the back, loin, croup and hindquarters—is evaluated. Then a grade of A through D is given. For a horse to earn an A, “the back muscles must blend smoothly from the vertebrae into the ribs and the loin should have no concaved areas beside the spinal processes—the bony projection atop each vertebra,” Kapper says. “There should also be no concavity between the hip bone and the croup or tailset. And the width of the stifle, when viewed from behind, should be wider than the width of the hipbones [point of hip].”

Kapper stresses the importance of maintaining a proper ratio of each amino acid to the calories in a performance horse’s diet. This can be a challenge for dressage horses, he says, especially those at the FEI levels who require a minimum of 11 percent crude protein in their total diet. “Over the past two years, the average crude protein we have analyzed in first-cutting grass hays on horse farms has been 6 percent,” Kapper reports. “We must add enough amino acids—crude protein—so the average of the hay and horse feed equals 11 percent. A performance-horse feed can supply more protein as well as calories or a diet balancer can provide the protein, minerals and vitamins without the extra calories if that’s what a horse requires.”

The key to formulating a well-balanced total diet, Kapper reiterates, is to determine the nutrient content of your forage (hay and pasture), know what the nutritional needs are for your horse, then supply a horse feed or diet balancer that will provide the difference. That’s where forage analysis is so valuable, Kapper continues. It eliminates the guesswork and the over- or underfeeding of a dressage horse.” He advises horse owners to reach out to an equine nutritional consultant for assistance in attaining a forage sample and analysis. 


From Office to Arena

Credit: Icon Studios Kelly Vineyard and The Roman Knows competing at Prix St. Georges

Credit: Icon Studios Kelly Vineyard and The Roman Knows competing at Prix St. Georges

For Kelly Vineyard, MS, PhD, a research equine nutritionist for Purina Animal Nutrition, feeding horses is far more than a vocation. It’s a way of life. Her professional expertise includes work in omega-3 fatty acids, immune function and performance-horse nutrition, a topic that’s especially pertinent because she is a horse-owning dressage enthusiast who has been riding most of her life.

“I became interested in dressage when I was in the eighth grade,” she recalls. “I liked the precision and the fact that there’s always something new to learn. I’m still learning even today,” she says, though her time in the saddle has been somewhat curtailed by the arrival of a baby son several months ago.

In addition, her dressage horse, The Roman Knows, an off-the-track Thoroughbred, is now 20 and retired from dressage competition. But he shows no sign of lameness and has no weight or energy issues, so Vineyard has plans to take her much-loved equine companion to clinics once she can spend more time riding.

“He’s a super horse, the horse of a lifetime,” she says. “I bought him when he was a 14-year-old schoolmaster. At first, I didn’t know what to expect. Then we began to work here in Florida with my dear friend and coach Erin Brinkman.” Together, both horse and rider blossomed. They moved through the levels from First to Prix St. Georges, and Vineyard earned her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze and silver medals with him.

Along the way her feeding goals for Roman focused on building a ration that would help to keep the mature Thoroughbred strong, supple and expressive. “I was riding him four to five days a week,” Vineyard says. “He has a great work ethic and knew all the movements. Our training focused on making them beautiful and correct.” To fuel the athletic efforts of the horse she describes as a hard keeper, Vineyard fed high-quality hay and a high-fat concentrate paired with the occasional addition of a high-energy grain mix when she wanted a little more energy and expression in the show ring.

Vineyard stresses the importance of using high-quality forage as the basis for any horse’s diet. In addition, she advises choosing commercial concentrates with care and, most importantly, feeding the recommended amount according to the directions on the label. “A product that’s underfed can’t supply the full measure of the nutrients it contains,” she says, and that may lead to deficits in the diet. Adding a supplement is often a horse owner’s response, Vineyard explains, but none may be necessary if the concentrate is fed at the appropriate amount.


Answers for FAQs

Ask equine nutritionist Martin Adams, PhD, how to best feed a dressage horse, and his answer is simply “correctly.” As horse-feed manager for Southern States, he knows that his response is often easier said than accomplished because of what owners do and don’t know about their horses, equine nutrition and the variety of feedstuffs and commercial products that are available.

In Adams’ experience, those who own dressage horses, “are well-educated and well-intentioned. They love their horses and their sport, and they want to get things right,” he says. Yet he has noticed a tendency to overfeed—a problem not limited to dressage horses—primarily “because round looks nice.”

Adams notes that most dressage horses are from sport-horse and warmblood breeds characterized as “easy keepers”; they have a relatively slow metabolism. In addition, it’s not unusual for a dressage horse who competes to spend more time in a stall and trailer than at pasture—in other words, out of his natural habitat—and that, of course, affects what and how he should be fed. Many times Adams recommends a balancer pellet—a complete feed that is a concentrated source of amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It is fed at a low rate each day (.1 percent of a horse’s body weight—about 1 pound for an average 1,000-pounds horse) to compensate for nutrient deficiencies without adding excessive calories or starch to the diet.

Adams recommends seeking equine dietary advice from the abundant resources available—an equine nutritionist, your veterinarian and especially the company from which you buy your feed—as well as published reference works and online tools. He notes that owning and riding a dressage horse call for a significant investment of energy and time. “There’s so much for a horse owner to know—bitting, saddling, conditioning,” Adams says. “It’s impossible to be an expert in everything, so why not take advantage of the help that’s available?”

Here is how Adams answers three questions often posed to him by dressage horse owners.


How can I feed my horse for more energy?

Begin by assessing his body condition. A 5 for Moderate or 6 for Moderately Fleshy will indicate that he has adequate energy reserves for strenuous activity. Then turn your attention to the muscles of his topline: back, loin, croup and hindquarters. Their development depends on exercise as well as sufficient protein and amino acids in the diet. Ideally, the topline muscles will be well rounded and blend smoothly into the ribs.

Now consider that a dressage horse does mainly aerobic work. His stamina may flag or he may fatigue if:

• he exhausts the store of glycogen in his muscles that is a source of energy or

• excessive sweat loss causes him to overheat or depletes his electrolytes. 

Switching to a feed with more fat or adding a fat supplement increases stamina and spares the glycogen stores; the more muscle glycogen, the longer the horse can exercise.

In addition, add an electrolyte supplement to your horse’s ration whenever you are working an hour or more a day and the combination of temperature and humidity exceeds 104 (for example, a temperature of 70 degrees plus 40 percent humidity equals 110). Adding 1 to 2 ounces of salt or 2 to 4 ounces of electrolytes a day to your horse’s diet during training and show season is usually sufficient to keep him drinking enough to offset water loss through sweating and maintain good performance.

On show days use a B12 supplement to increase your horse’s energy level. If he’s working especially hard, a supplement that provides 1,000 IU of vitamin E and 1 mg of selenium will provide antioxidants necessary for muscle-tissue repair.


What can I feed to help my horse handle stress during show season and travel?

Start by providing a balanced feeding program that meets all of your horse’s nutrient requirements and maintains proper body condition and musculature. Beyond that, there are several feed additives to consider:

Yeast culture improves coat condition, lowers blood lactate in exercising horses, increases fiber digestion and improves the digestibility of several major minerals. Live yeast has shown many of these same benefits in addition to the ability to bind lactic acid in the hindgut (large intestine). Lactic acid is formed as the body breaks down carbohydrates to use for energy during times when oxygen levels are low. 

Probiotics—microorganisms—improve fiber digestion, maintain appetite and are a source of B vitamins. A few studies have shown some benefit for their use during times of stress and travel.

Omega-3 fatty acids perhaps are best known for their ability to lower the level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in a person’s blood. They are found in fish oil, flaxseed, soy oil and rice bran. In the horse they improve the hair coat. They also reduce the inflammatory processes, which can facilitate joint function for increased stride length, bolster the immune system to decrease the recovery time of muscle tissue after exercise and change the composition of red blood cells to allow faster blood flow during exercise.

Mycotoxin binders attach to plant-based toxins that can have detrimental effects in the horse and may be present in harmful amounts in hay and pasture.

Mannanoligosaccharides (MOS) have been shown to improve immune function and reduce the amount of disease-causing bacteria in a horse’s digestive system.

Organic or proteinated trace minerals, such as copper, zinc, manganese and selenium, are more readily absorbed than their inorganic forms. Organic selenium, also known as selenium yeast, has been shown to provide high blood levels in exercising horses. It functions as an antioxidant and plays an important role in repairing active muscle tissue and maintaining immune function.

How can I feed my horse for less energy?

Horses can be nervous or excitable for many reasons. Research shows that the sugar/starch content of feed can have an effect. To reduce or prevent excitability, provide feed that contains 20 percent nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) at a rate of no more than 0.5 percent of body weight per meal. That means no more than 5 pounds for an average 1,000-pound horse.

Fat in the diet has also been shown to calm behavior. So in addition to selecting a low NSC feed, look for a fat level of 10 percent or more or add fat with a supplement. Pay attention, too, to magnesium and thiamin (B1). Deficiencies can produce symptoms of anxiety, excitability and muscle soreness in the horse.

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