Working with horses is all about energy. The right energy to navigate the course or perform the test. However, energy can also be a stumbling block. Your horse may be too lethargic, be too “fizzy” at the beginning of training, or not have enough energy to make it through to the end. All these scenarios have one common thread: an imbalance in energy. In this issue of Science Sunday, our experts will discuss and explain this problem! What is energy? How does one discern between energy, temperament, and condition? What role do diet and nutrition play? And, last of all, how to pep up a lethargic horse, and calm a fizzy one? Move up or down a gear! 

An extremely energetic horse is not automatically an extremely fit horse. This must be made clear. There is a distinction to be made between temperament (almost always “hot”) and energy level (extremely fit). Energy, temperament, and fitness are all closely related. Don’t mistake energy for endurance! The energy level is influenced by feed. Endurance is improved through training. Better management of a horse’s energy level requires basic knowledge about energy in general.

What is energy? 

It’s important to know what a horse needs energy for: 

  • For “maintenance”, i.e. normal daily activity.
  • For the ability to work.
  • For the ability to move with power. 

Energy is the result of burning energy sources (ATP), supplying energy to the horse’s body. In horses, there are two kinds of energy systems: aerobic and anaerobic energy. The biggest difference between these two systems is the presence (or absence) of oxygen. Oxygen is always present in aerobic activity; the horse can easily withstand this exertion. Anaerobic activity is short, high-power performance that the horse can’t maintain for long, as the muscles will otherwise produce lactic acid due to the lack of oxygen.

This is basic knowledge – as you can see in the illustration, these two types of combustion involve different nutrients. Fats, fibre, and carbohydrates provide energy for long, aerobic exertion. Anaerobic combustion is fuelled by carbohydrates only. This is simply because these nutrients deliver the fastest energy. Sugar and starch are also carbohydrates. In the illustration you can see how the energy of a horse corresponds with the duration of physical activity.

Energy involves balance 

A horse needs energy for general good health and performance, and it gets this energy from its feed. The amount of energy needed varies from horse to horse and naturally depends on the scope of training. If a horse takes in the same amount of energy as it consumes over a long period, it will maintain its weight and have sufficient energy for work. This is called energy balance. If the horse takes in more energy than it uses, it will gain weight. The equine body can convert feeds like roughage and concentrates to produce ATP, the fuel for muscles. This illustration shows how it works.

Roughage as base feed 

Roughage is the foundation of a horse’s feed. But how does it provide energy? Fibre and bacteria from roughage are broken down in the caecum and large intestine. This is called fermentation. It results in the release of fatty acids. This process takes between 30 and 48 hours. The fatty acids enter the blood, and the horse can use them as a source of energy. Roughage is a good energy source for prolonged physical exertion. Roughage is an important source of fibre and energy but does not supply enough of certain vitamins and minerals. Although not sources of energy, these nevertheless play an important role in burning energy. A deficiency or imbalance can lead to health problems over time. Vitamins and minerals literally transport energy, support energy metabolism, maintain balanced hydration, and prevent muscle cramps. That’s why it’s important to feed your horse a complementary feed with vitamins and minerals in addition to good roughage. 

Too much energy or too much temperament? 

What about horses that look energetic and have lots of temperament, but lack energy?  Horses that are energetic at the commencement of work but don’t have enough strength to complete it are lacking in energy. You can’t change a horse’s temperament, but you can adapt its feed to best suit its temperament. For example, feeding a horse that easily gets “hot” concentrates consisting of slow-release energy sources will help minimise this excitability. Giving the horse the wrong feed (or too much of it) can exacerbate this excitability or make the horse lethargic.

Move up a gear! 
You’d like to motivate a horse with a lethargic nature to perform his best during his training. You know that the horse is getting sufficient energy to perform the work demanded of him, and yet as his rider you’re noticing a certain lack of drive. The right feed will have an effect on this and can turn a lethargic or even phlegmatic horse into a bundle of energy. The horse must simply convert the provided energy sources into actual energy. Feeding your horse a product that provides peak energy will give your horse an energy peak during training. You can also give him a complementary feed that provides a mental energy boost. Additional vitamins and minerals are not necessary, as the horse has sufficient sources of energy and can convert these; it just needs to be encouraged to use its energy.

Move down a gear… 

The opposite of a lethargic horse is one that is a little too “hot”. First, find out if the horse simply has too energy on its own or it its feed is the culprit. “Hot” behaviour can be divided into two categories: 1. too much stress (a mental problem) and 2. too much energy (feed as needed).

Too much energy from feed is easier to fix than too much energy from stress. Overfeeding is a common issue today and can lead to other problems. If you feed your horse the amounts that it needs and can digest, you’ve already well on your way to solving the problem. Feeding your horse lots of roughage will give your horse satisfaction and prevent it from getting bored. Good energy sources for “temperamental” horses are feeds that are low in starch and sugar but high in fat and fibre. The latter components will ensure a slow energy release. 

Feed causes blood sugar levels to rise (eventually), but stress will do this as well. Spikes in blood sugar therefore might not be caused by feed, but by stress. If your horse then eats a high-sugar, high-starch feed, his blood sugar will rise to unhealthy levels. The right feed can prevent blood sugar spikes. Make sure your horse is getting a low supply of energy, enough exercise, and a high-fibre feed for slow-release energy. The energy system works at a higher level in horses that are mentally excited through stress or anxiety. This results in the horse having far too much energy, especially at the start of the work. Fortunately, there are nutrients that have positive effects on stress. Magnesium helps to regulate heart rate and blood pressure, as well as relax muscles. B vitamins are important for the nerves, whilst tryptophan promotes relaxation and is one of the building blocks of serotonin. Certain herbs like calendula, lavender, and barberry also help horses to relax.

Lethargy is also connected to temperament, and a temperamentally slow horse cannot be made into a hot one just by giving it high-energy feed. Such feeds won’t make it run faster, but will cause it to put on weight. Consideration of the right feed is a good start.

Feeding times  

Keep in mind that feeding times also influence energy peaks significantly. Nutrients are absorbed by the equine body in different ways. Horses have two different digestive processes: enzymatic digestion in the small intestine and fermentation in the large intestine. Enzymatic digestion involves the conversion of sugar and starch into glucose by enzymes. Feeds with energy from sugar and starch (like puffed cereals) provide fast energy and deliver an energy peak two to three hours after feeding. This is attributed to a rise in blood sugar, giving your horse a real energy boost.

Fermentation involves the conversion of fibre into volatile fatty acids by microbes. Feeds that are high in fat and fibre release energy gradually without peaks. This is the energy needed for prolonged physical exertion.

But when is the right time? Use a feed plan that consistently provides your horse with several small meals daily. The equine digestive system is built to break down food all day. Should the system come to a stop, the horse may suffer from colic, gastric ulcers, or other problems. Give your horse concentrates two to three hours before work. It can’t be repeated enough – the basis for all horse feed rations is roughage, i.e., forage. So feed your horse forage first, then concentrates. Concentrate feeds will elevate glucose levels in the blood and deliver the desired energy boost needed for work. You can increase your horse’s stamina through concentrates that are high in fat and fibre.  It will take six to eight weeks before you see results.

Our feed experts give advice on optimising your horse’s energy level!

Of course, the starting point for energy optimisation is a healthy horse that is free from infections or pains and has a healthy digestive system. There are two “quick fixes” for optimising your horse’s energy level.

The first is to feed him easily digestible energy sources (fats and fibre) for immediate improvement. Naturally, you can also give him feeds that contain sugar and starch for quick energy boosts. The second is to give him a complementary feed that delivers more power for short periods, for example for horses in multi-day events.

Easily digestible energy sources from concentrates

Cavalor Superforce is an ideal feed for power and explosive energy. Cavalor Superforce was specially developed to supplement the daily feed of horses that need extra energy for sport. Horses need starch and sugar from concentrate feed for the energy to deliver explosive power. Cavalor Superforce is a unique blend of balanced Omega fatty acids, high-quality vitamins and minerals, trace elements, and puffed cereals that the body can easily digest.

Does your horse have too much energy? Then consider Cavalor Fiberforce. This high-fibre muesli mix is made from long fibres and is low in sugar and starch. Its easily digestible fibres ensure a balanced gut function. More fibre means healthier digestion! It also provides slow-release energy for prolonged work.

Complementary feeds for an extra energy boost

Cavalor Kick Up is a feed supplement that delivers quick extra energy for short periods. It gives your horse a kick of extra energy. Feed your horse 50 ml of Cavalor Kick Up in the evening and morning before a competition. Its amino acids in combination with fast-energy sugars and yeast ensure a real energy explosion. Another energy booster is the aptly named Cavalor An Energy Boost. This feed contains electrolytes and amino acids to assist the healing process after hard work. An Energy Boost delivers sugar to the horse’s body for better absorption of electrolytes as well as the fast energy needed during exercise. We recommend a half tube before and a half tube after work.

Taking it easy 

For horses that have excess energy from stress, there’s also an assortment of products that can help. Cavalor Calm is a complementary feed that’s ideal for young, easily spooked horses. Its calming properties enhance the horse’s well-being. Cavalor Calm can be used daily. When administered over long periods of time, we advise that you add a break to the regimen every four weeks. This will keep the horse from getting habituated to the product. Cavalor Pianissimo is made specially for horses that are under stress or are difficult to ride. Cavalor Pianissimo contains all the nutritional components a sport horse needs for a balanced and complete diet.