All About Energy

The one thing that every competition rider wants is controllable energy from their horse. Too much energy and the rider is exhausted trying to contain the horse, too little and the horse may not even finish the competition. Finding the balance is quite simply the key to success so it is no wonder that manufacturers use terms like “sparkle without fizz” and “non-heating” to entice riders into buying their feeds. But what does all the jargon mean?

Energy - What is it?  
Energy is not a nutrient – it is just changed from one form to another and in the case of exercise it is changed from a chemical form in the food to kinetic energy (contraction of muscles) when the horse works. In food, energy is trapped in bonds between molecules which is released when the food is digested and the bonds are broken. The conversion of energy from food into a form the horse can utilise for work is termed metabolism. There are lots of different metabolic pathways that the horse can utilise to produce energy.  These are  are influenced by factors such as the form in which energy is provided  in the diet and the intensity of the work the horse is doing, but the overall end product of metabolism is ATP (adenosine triphosphate) - the source of energy that the body utilises. The horse does store some ATP in its muscles but only sufficient to support a few seconds of exercise. After that is used up he has to source energy elsewhere.

Where does energy come from?
There are four energy sources that the horse can use: fibre, fat, carbohydrates and protein. If the horse is fed more protein than it requires for building and repairing tissues then it can use it as an energy source. This, however, is not an efficient process as it requires the horse to take in more water (not ideal when a performance horse already has significantly increased water requirements) and results in the increased production of urea.  This can have an adverse effect before it is excreted with the obvious threat to the respiratory system from ammonia once urine is exposed to air.

The energy sources that we are primarily concerned with are, therefore, fibre, fats and carbohydrates.

Fibre is said to be a slow-release energy source which is largely because the structure of fibre is complex and it takes longer for the bonds between the molecules to be broken. The horse relies on a population of micro-organisms that interact with one another to break down fibre. There are different types of fibre, some of which are more easily broken down than others and this greatly affects their value to the horse. Lignin is an indigestible material that plants use to give themselves greater structure and support. As a grass plant grows taller it is more vulnerable to blowing over or being trampled on.  To try and prevent this it builds a stronger structure incorporating the lignin. Because lignin is indigestible, the more lignin the fibre contains the less use it is to the horse, which is why fibres such as straw and hay provide less energy than sugar beet or soya-hulls – so called “super” fibres.

For horses that are prone to being over-excitable, high fibre concentrate feeds such as Baileys No 2 Working Horse & Pony Cubes are generally the most useful. However, fibre isn’t the only non-heating energy source available, oil also provides energy without blowing a horse’s mind.

The Benefits of Oil
The natural diet of the horse doesn’t contain very much oil but the horse is actually able to utilise it relatively efficiently. Oil contains lots of calories – about 2.25 times more than carbohydrates provide – which is advantageous for the horse as it means that only a small volume is required to provide lots of calories. Research has shown that feeding too much feed at one time increases the rate of passage of the feed through the digestive tract.  This in turn increases the risk of digestive upsets, so keeping volumes  low is much better for the health of the horse.  

Oil is an energy source that can be utilised when the horse is working at low intensities.  If conditioned to use oil, then it spares the stores of glycogen (which comes from cereals) for high intensity work.  This is referred to as a ‘glycgoen sparing effect’ and is useful for improving stamina.

When a horse is working at low intensities he is said to be working aerobically - there is sufficient oxygen available to break down energy.  However, at high intensities, the horse moves into anaerobic respiration (without oxygen) and can only use glucose or glycogen to produce ATP.  There are considerable differences between the efficiency of aerobic and anaerobic respiration. For example anaerobic respiration provides energy rapidly but only for a limited amount of time. It also only produces 3 molecules of ATP per molecule of glycogen or 2 ATP from 1 molecule of glucose whereas aerobic pathways produce about 13 times more ATP.

Why Use Cereals
Although cereals are responsible for many of the nutrition related diseases and problems that afflict our horses, it is usually because they have been misused. It is possible to make the analogy with alcohol – while some people develop a problem with it if they misuse it, others can enjoy it quite happily when it is consumed in moderation.

Although there is no doubting that the horse survives on forage in its natural environment, it isn’t expected to jump fences or perform dressage. Most horse owners would also be horrified if their horses lost as much weight and condition as feral ponies lose in the winter months. It is also important to consider that native breeds to this country are usually no bigger than 14-15hh and are usually much more efficient at utilising forage than the Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods that many of us ride today. So although the basis of every horse’s ration should be forage, it is usually necessary to add cereals to the diet to enable them to perform the job we want them to do.

Using Cereals Safely  
There are simple ways to reduce the risk of the problems associated with cereals occurring. The basic rules of feeding are a good place to start, with feeding little and often probably the most important.  When you select a feed for your horse always check that it includes cereals that have been cooked as this improves their digestibility. Just as you wouldn’t eat raw potatoes or pasta, the horse shouldn’t be eating raw cereals. Oats are difficult to cook because of their high fibre content but the energy they contain is more readily available anyway.  In comparsion, other cereals such as wheat, barley and maize should all be cooked.

There are several cooking techniques that can be used including micronisation and extrusion. Research has shown that micronisation is the most effective cooking technique as it increases the amount of starch absorbed in the small intestine more than other cooking techniques. This is beneficial in that it helps to stop too much starch reaching the sensitive hind gut which can result in colic or laminitis.

Ask any chef the secret to producing good food and they will all highlight the importance of top quality ingredients which, combined with knowing how to cook those ingredients at the correct temperature for the right amount of time, is the difference between junk food and cordon bleu cuisine. And, it’s just the same for horse feed. Baileys have spent many years establishing optimum cooking times and temperatures for the ingredients they use to ensure that the finished feed is both palatable and highly digestible.

If you are uncertain what to feed your horse then please contact Baileys for some friendly and practical advice from our four resident Nutritionists by calling the team on 01371 850 247 (option 2) or filling in our Ask The Experts form for personal advice. We are able to discuss your horse’s requirements and produce individual feeding programmes in the comfort of your own yard, all completely free of charge and with no obligation.  

Choose products that provide slow release and/or non-heating energy like No.6 All-Round Endurance Mix.  The advanced formula is high in fibre and oil and it is popular across the disciplines, not just long distance riders.  Alternatively, you could add a concentrated oil source like Baileys Outshine to your existing ration to provide additional energy in a non-heating form without vastly increasing the volume fed.

If your horse needs more sparkle then you probably need to try an oat-based ration such as No.9 All-Round Competition Mix. Alternatively if your horse is a good doer you could try a low calorie balancer such as Performance Balancer and add straight oats which gives you the flexibility to adjust the level of energy whilst maintaining a balanced diet.