An Athlete Inside & Out: Nutrition For​​ Equine Athletes

Have you ever stopped to think about what you are feeding your horse? With so many different choices of feed, supplements, and forage on the market it can be hard to really understand the complexity of what your horse gets nutrition wise. Horses are just as much an athlete as their riders, and with unbalanced feed programs, they cannot perform at their best.

The horse’s diet should be developed around six basic nutrient categories: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. Factors such as body mass, age, workload, and metabolic efficiency influence the importance of each of these categories as well. When creating a feed program for a new horse or looking more into an existing feed program, it is essential to recognize the six basic nutrient categories that need to be satisfied.

Carbohydrates come in two forms, structural and non-structural. Structural carbohydrates come from roughage like hay and grass. The way that the horse’s digestive tract is designed makes it easy for them to digest the roughage to use it as their main energy source. Because of this, it’s vital to feed good quality hay. Making sure that the hay is free of mold and dust as well as properly matured are all factors in proper hay selection. Non-structural carbs are easily digestible sugars and starches found in grains. They provide a more concentrated form of energy then structural carbs. Grains should be used to supplement a good forage program. To evaluate your horse’s feed makeup, try checking out the feed tag of the grain bag. If you don’t handle the feed, most grain companies have the information on their websites!

Proteins are a nutrient that is often misunderstood by most people. They are broken down in the small intestines and then restructured to make-up muscle, hoof, and hair. Higher amounts of protein don’t lead to higher energy levels as many people think. Proteins are responsible for growth and maintenance. Growing horses typically need between 12 and 18 percent crude protein in their diet and matured horses get a lower percentage, about 8 to 12 percent, depending on workload. Horses with intense workloads need a higher protein level to assist in muscular regeneration. Forage is also another source of protein. Good quality legume hay can contain 18 to 22 percent crude protein and quality grass hays can have 10 to 16 percent crude protein. You can find the crude protein levels on the feed tag or the website of your grain as well.

Fats are a great source of easily digestible energy. Many feeds are now supplemented with a fat, typically a sort of stabilized oil. Feeds of that nature have anywhere between a 6 to 12 percent fat level. Some brands do not add fats to their feed and those contain 2 to 4 percent fat. If a higher fat level is desired, add a type of oil like corn or a specific fat supplement. But, it is important to be sure that all other nutrient needs are being met.

Vitamins are crazy important to allow your horse’s systems to work to the best of their ability. There are two different types of vitamins: the water-soluble group, B-complex vitamins, and the fat-soluble group, vitamins A, E, D, and K. It is important to know that the horse’s body synthesizes many of its necessary vitamins and don’t always need supplementation. Deficiencies or excess amounts can lead to health problems so making sure what amounts are in your feed are crucial when making a nutrition program. Minerals are also just as important as vitamins. Commercial grains are fortified with most essential minerals but it is still important to check what the levels are in your feed.

Of course, water is just as essential as food. Making sure your horse has an adequate amount of fresh, clean water is vital. Dumping buckets and cleaning them out with a specific bucket cleaner or even just a scrubby brush are great ways to keep algae and gross stuff out of your horse’s water. If it’s hot outside but your horse isn’t a fan of drinking water, give them some electrolytes or loose salt encourage drinking.


I am an advocate for proper equine nutrition. There are so, so many benefits to making sure that your horse is getting the most out of their food. When I look at a nutrition plan for any horse I follow 3 simple rules:

  1. Quality Over Quantity- Just throwing large amounts of grain at a horse isn’t the correct way to ‘fatten a horse up’. Adding more of certain nutrients is the key. It is just as harmful to feed too much grain as it is to feed too little
  2. Every Horse Is Different- Every single horse has different needs. A plan that works for one, isn’t guaranteed to work for every single other horse you put on it.
  3. Not All Grains Are Created Equal- Every grain has a different make-up of nutrients. Making sure a wide variety of grains that serve different purposes in the feed room is a great idea
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make them shine from the inside out! a strong, shiny coat doesn’t come with only grooming and products, proper nutrition is key!

Every month, I slave over Carina’s nutrition plan to make sure that her diet is always perfect. My tried and true brands, that have never let me down are Tribute Equine Nutrition & Buckeye Nutrition. Both brands own all of their production plants so there is very little chance of contaminants being found in the feed. This also means that you know where they come from. Carina gets Tribute Kalm n’ EZ Pelleted as her main source of nutrients. As a performance horse, she needs a high concentration of fiber at 20% and starches at 13.5%. The fiber helps to keep her digestive tract in good condition while also providing a slow burning energy source. Starches come in for a concentrated energy source.


With the amount of work she was in, I found that she was having some muscle soreness after every ride, even with cold & massage therapy and supplements for recovery. Even though her grain had a good percentage of protein, I felt it was time to add a protein supplement. Buckeye Nutrition produces a wonderful ration balancer & protein supplement, Gro N’ Win. With a protein level of 32 percent, I saw a noticeable difference very quickly. She wasn’t nearly as sore as before and she started to mold muscle into her topline and become the princess beefcake that she is today.


As an older horse (13 means she is a teenager now, lord help me) means that has had a lot of miles in the upper-level jumper classes, it was very important that I have a joint supplement into Carina’s diet. Not just as a preventative measure, but also to keep her as comfortable as possible. I personally have found that Finish Line Horse ProductsFluid Action HA Liquid works the best for Carina. Though she loves food, powdered supplements are not her forte. Going with a liquid option was best for her and adding a pump to the bottle makes it easy to feed too! The supplement contains Hyaluronic Acid (HA) to support healthy joint function by lubricating joints and helping to maintain structural integrity. Happy pony = happy life!



I encourage every owner, rider, hobbyist, whoever, to take the time to look into equine nutrition. I never knew the impact it made until I was fully immersed in the top level of performance horse nutrition by my trainer, Lauren Knopp. By changing my perspective, it opened up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities. There is no need to go and take classes to be an equine nutritionist, but basic knowledge and make a world a difference.

I hope y’all enjoyed this article about equine nutrition! If you ever have any questions feel free to DM on instagram @equestrian.syd!

Until Next Time Preps,

Sydney & The Ponies