We’re all familiar with the expression to “eat like a horse,” but what does a horse eat? Wild horses roamed grasslands and grazed on grass, brush, and weeds for up to 17 hours a day, but the modern racehorse lives in a stall for most of the day and eats cured hay and commercial feeds. Racehorses need energy for optimal performance, and they need about 35,000 calories a day. The components that make up a high performance racehorse diet include protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and clean water. Also, like us, horses enjoy their favorite snacks and treats, and some even like a Guinness stout.

Racehorses are fed two or three meals of grain a day, in the early morning, around lunchtime, and late afternoon or evening, and they have access to hay around the clock. Fiber or roughage is the foundation of a horse’s diet, and most racehorses are fed a combination of grass hay, like timothy, supplemented with a smaller portion of high protein alfalfa. Horses have a long digestive tract and naturally want to graze all day, so having hay available 24 hours a day helps keep them occupied and helps protect them from developing gastric ulcers. Racehorses need more than forage for energy, and grains provide the necessary carbohydrates.

Manufactured feeds are specially formulated for each stage of a horse’s life. Young growing horses need higher protein than a mature horse, and lactating mares need high protein for milk production.  Racehorses need about 12-14% protein and require added fat for stamina along with vitamins and minerals essential for optimal performance. According to Bob Brandt of Brandt’s Mill in Lebanon, PA, “energy is derived from a high fat and high fiber mixture of oats, corn, barley, molasses, and vitamins. We partner with Kentucky Equine Research, a world leader in equine research and nutrition, to formulate our feed, and we are dedicated to developing only equine feed. We sell a 12.5% feed for horses formulated with the protein, and vitamins and minerals necessary for a high performance horse.” Horses need the vitamins A,B,C,D,E, and K along with the major minerals calcium and phosphorous plus trace minerals that include sodium, iron, zinc, and selenium  which most commercial feeds provide in proper quantities.

Harness horses train harder and longer distances than thoroughbreds and usually race more frequently and for more years, and as a result, they require added fat for stamina and energy. Because of their small stomachs and slow digestion, horses shouldn’t eat more than 5 lbs. of grain per meal, so instead of additional grain, many trainers add corn, vegetable, or canola oil to their horses’ feed for added fat. Some also add beet pulp which is another source of fiber that provides energy.

Two other essentials for a healthy horse are water and salt. Probably the most important substance for a horse is clean water, and racehorses should have access to water 24 hours a day to prevent dehydration. Salt is another important mineral, and every horse should have a salt block available in their stall.

Though not essential to their diet, horses seem to enjoy snacks and treats. Some are healthier than others like specially formulated horse cookies, or carrots, or apples, but horses like peppermints and doughnuts too. When Pennsylvania’s favorite Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones was in training at Parx, he had a constant supply of carrots. Now, retired from racing and currently breeding mares, he enjoys peppermints and horse cookies too. Some famous horses like liquid refreshments, even alcohol.

A well known fact was that the brilliant race mare Zenyatta enjoyed a pint of Guiness stout after a workout or race. She either lapped it up out of a bowl or ate it on her feed. In Ireland, many trainers feed Guiness to their horses to stimulate their appetites.

Like any athlete, nutrition affects performance, and a diet of high quality hay, grain and water is essential for a winning racehorse.

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