There are lots of different opinions today when it comes to added energy sources for performance horses. Here is one to consider that I feel makes the most sense:
The horse evolved as a grazing herd animal. All of their nutritional needs were met by the ground that they stood upon, and if predation was light, and water plentiful they may not travel at a faster pace than a trot for most of their life. In ideal conditions, they thrived and their energy demands were easily met. I guess you could say that life was good.
When a domestic horse is asked to operate at a faster pace day in and day out, like you would see in a performance horse training program, more energy than that provided by forage alone may be required. For generations that additional energy was provided by high starch grains. I believe that it’s time that we rethink that practice.
Horses have been domesticated for about 3500 years, but, their digestive system evolved for 200,000 years before that. There was no place in nature where the evolving horse could consume large amounts of the high starch mature grain commonly used in most feed concentrates today. The enzyme that breaks down starches and sugars in the digestive system is amylase. Since horses did not historically consume significant amounts of starch at one time they did not need to produce amylase in large amounts, so they don’t. They do produce enough to process light starch loads, but larger amounts eaten at one time, say two pounds or more, easily overwhelm the digestive system’s ability break the starch down.
So what happens then? Grain passes through the stomach and small intestine undigested to ferment in the hind gut. This continues in a domino effect to alter the acidity of the hind gut, killing beneficial bacteria, which, in turn, limits the proper digestion of the best source of energy in the horse, it’s forage.
At this point digestive efficiency has gone out the window, or more plainly put, out the back of the horse. Hose down a fresh manure pile and see how much grain is washed out. I prefer to think of that grain as rented, not purchased.
Is there an effective way to provide additional energy that suits the horse better? I believe that there is. We have been advancing the principle of low starch, moderate vegetable fat supplementation for many years. The natural evolution of that principal has led us to add multiple natural vegetable fat, protein, and fiber sources along with yeast as a digestive aid in a low starch package that does not overwhelm the horses normal amylase production. The result is support with the “lightest footprint” in the entire system, and support, rather than disruption in the hind gut. A healthy beneficial bacteria population in the hind gut allows better utilization of of the hay or pasture, better production of water soluble vitamins, and less need for additional, potentially disruptive, sources of energy. In other words, a horse that functions the way 200,000 years of evolution says it should.