Back to Basics: Optimising the diet ahead of supplementation

Briony Witherow
MSc RNutr. FHEA

Before adding specific supplements to the diet, it is essential to look at the base diet (that’s the forage and any concentrate feed) and ensure its balanced.

This should be the first step before considering more specific supplementation.

When assessing the diet alongside typical forage analysis, the most common elements required to complete or enhance the ration are salt and additional protein sources (the latter often required to compensate for poor forage). While these are not traditionally thought of as ‘supplements’, they should be considered before any other supplements are added.

Salt is a common addition to the diet and, for the working horse, salt may be required at increased levels depending on how much they sweat, and an electrolyte supplement needed for those in harder work. If this is not addressed, the diet is simply not balanced which can lead to problems with energy levels, recovery, and performance.

Additional protein sources are often needed when levels in forage are low. In these instances, the hard feed or forage ration can be changed or adjusted: adding alfalfa for example. As protein is a key constituent in hoof horn, a deficiency in the base diet can result in problems with horn growth.

Starting with a balanced diet is critical before any specific supplementation is decided upon. Many key reasons for supplementation – health, behaviour, or performance – can be resolved or at least simplified by starting with a balanced diet. For example, a horse can be lacklustre when not on an appropriate diet for his workload and size, and loose droppings can occur due to a rapid dietary change or problems with dentition. Likewise, behavioural or performance related issues can be exacerbated by a diet high in starch and sugar. Equally, a horse with joint problems may benefit from weight loss if he is overweight, more so than the immediate introduction of a supplement. While the supplement may be helpful, it is likely to be considerably more so if the correct foundations are laid first.

Take Home Points

  • Before supplementation always consider the base ration and the balance of this.
  • This may resolve or simplify the initial problem, and if not, may enhance the efficacy of any subsequent supplementation.
  • If assessment of the ration reveals that the demands for energy, macro or micronutrients are suboptimal, this will help justify additional supplementation to meet these needs.
  • Targeted supplementation can then be used to address clinical, performance or health issues specific to that individual horse.

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