Can High Performance Horses Survive on Roughage Alone

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Can Performance Horses Survive on Roughage Alone?
Written by Equine Nutritional Therapist and Medical Herbalist Antoinette Foster Dip. Nut. © 2018
Reaching high levels in the competition arena depends on finding a perfect balance with nutrition.
I think it’s important that owners and trainers have a good understanding of nutrition, we don’t expect them to be experts because they are very educated horse owners and they can use their own life experience and knowledge to ascertain what the horse may or may not need. But horses require a certain level of energy, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals and in particular roughage to sustain the horse at a high-performance level.
We are understanding and appreciating, more now than ever, that roughage is extremely important for all horses. Many performance horses can be stabled for extended periods of time, this is not a healthy existence for a horse who has evolved to be a grazing animal. So, in the case of horses being stabled for extended periods is very important that owners and trainers ensure that they have access to plenty of roughage in the form of excellent quality hay literally 24/ 7.
Understanding how to manage the musculoskeletal system is also very important, as we know with high performance horses there is a great deal of wear and tear on horses mentally and physically. Along with a really well-balanced diet I often suggest that it is worthwhile to use a really good bodyworker, acupuncturist or other types of qualified therapists to maintain your horses muscles and joints. There are many products on the market that you can also use which will support the muscles and joints, but the most important aspect is to always ensure that you access professional advice. It makes no difference what age a performance horse is, there is always going to be pain involved in the training process.
Another aspect of managing a high-performance horse is to be very perceptive and can observe your horse so that you can note any physical or emotional changes. We know they can’t speak to us verbally, but they do have very powerful body language, and this is something that we need to learn and understand a bit more efficiently. The other aspect of managing your horse aside from nutrition, is to understand the advancements in science and keeping abreast with what is going on as far as managing a high-performance horse. Having a good relationship with your veterinarian is also very important, you need to be in a position where you can discuss your horse confidently.
Performance horses such as racehorses, high-level dressage horses, showjumpers and eventers require an elevated level of energy to perform their work. And we are all aware that a high level of horse feeds contains energy dense concentrates. Unfortunately, it has been proven over many years that these types of feeds have a negative impact on the stomach of the horse. These types of feeds can contribute to gastric ulcers and tend to lack roughage that can in the long-term restrict the horses gut health functioning normally.   
Roughage also encourages the normal chewing process and assists in stimulating the enzymatic action at the point of the mouth. Nutrition provides the basic building blocks on which our horses are built. How we feed our horses can affect reproduction, development in utero, the young foal, the developing athlete, competition horses and finally older horses Prevention is certainly better than cure!
In a world where everything is perfect even Thoroughbred racehorses could thrive on roughage alone. However, is it possible that roughage within the diet could support their elevated level of training? Recent Swedish research says this is possible and can also be extremely beneficial for the horse.  
During these studies, the most important aspect was to ensure that the hays and grass being fed contained a high level of energy. These are the comments made by Sara Ringmark, PhD, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry, in Uppsala.
It seems that this study has proven that a high energy content can be achieved by a roughage only diet. A high energy diet is essential for high performance horses and it may be worthwhile to have a regular nutritional analysis of the roughage you are feeding or request this information from the supplier of the hays or high roughage feeds.
If the roughage intake reaches the required energy levels than these performance horses should theoretically do exceptionally well. The performance level should be maintained and the condition of the horse also. Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that a forage-only diet is associated with lower levels of lactic acid, meaning the horses physically cope with the training regimen better than they would on a mixed diet with concentrates.
So, can horses at high performance levels be maintained just from a high roughage diet? Naturally the amount of roughage being provided will depend on the workload of the horse and the nutrient analysis. A high roughage diet for performance horses can also be supplemented with feeds such as alfalfa hay pellets. Alfalfa is a great feed for horses as it has an excellent nutrient analysis which includes an appropriate level of calcium and protein but is also quite low in NSC and starch so is quite beneficial to be fed. Maintaining an energy intake for performance horses is essential this can be achieved by feeding a diet that is quite simple with the addition of the occasional grain if necessary and oil. It is quite possible to reach the required energy levels, protein levels and fat content required to support the horse at this performance level.  It is important and essential to make sure that these types of horses are receiving the correct nutrient intake every day. The inclusion of a well-balanced supplement is ideal. A supplement should basically play a support role to a high roughage diet and should allow an adjustment to reach the correct nutritional intake that is required for ever horse. It seems that a high roughage diet does not prohibit muscle glycogen storage nor does it affect growth or the body condition of the horse. On the contrary a high roughage diet can promote a high health status. It may be of advantage to feed hays that have been cut early as the nutritional content is much higher.
Feeding high performance horses, a high level of roughage does not seem to fit the current mold of feeding traditions, however the horse has evolved to eat this type of diet and as I have mentioned on many occasions the anatomy and physiology of the horse has not changed.

Many of the standard processed feeds do not provide a normal source of roughage and some processed feeds are also quite high in starch so replacing these types of feeds with a roughage diet based on hays could be of enormous benefit. We already know that there has been an increase in digestive health conditions in horse’s due to the diverse types of feeding substances being fed. We also know that a high roughage diet may prevent the risk of these digestive health issues which also include ulcers.
Remember feeding a high roughage diet is not NEW news, it may just be the perfect health solution for most horses. There are even already some feeds in the market that have a genuine high roughage component. Our Hi Form Complete feeds is an excellent choice due to the high roughage content and produced in a certified organic mill gives the horse owner great confidence.