Muscle Development and Promoting Topline

Muscle Development and Promoting Topline

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Muscle development and promoting topline.

What is topline and why does it matter? Good topline is something most horse owners strive to achieve. It showcases your horse at his very best. A horse also needs good topline and condition to protect his thoracic vertebrae when being ridden. If muscle development and promoting topline is your priority, then the right training and correct diet should be your focus.  This will develop the muscles in the neck, over the back and loins and the top of the rump.

How that muscle is distributed across the body is largely genetic. For example, a Quarter Horse has a higher proportion of fast twitch muscles which are bulkier than an Arab.  An Arab has more slow twitch muscles.  This is why their appearance is quite different with the quarter horse having well-developed gluteal (hind-quarter) muscles.

It’s a fact that some breeds maintain their topline easier than others.  A good example of this is ponies, native breeds, stockier cold-blood breeds, and even Arabs.  Others can drop quite quickly when they’re put out to spell or workload is reduced. A prime example of this would be thoroughbreds.

Other factors that can affect muscle tone and development are injury, nutrition, age and exercise. A horse that is malnourished will break down muscle to provide fuel for essential body processes. This is why starved horses lack muscle mass as well as fat coverage. Injury can also cause muscle wastage especially if the injury has caused a long-term change in a horse’s way of going.

In addition to this, as horses age, muscle tone declines, often due to a reduction in exercise intensity. Exercise itself has a major impact on muscle tone and topline because the use of that muscle helps develop its strength and function.

The Genetics Factor

Unfortunately, genetics and conformation will always remain the limiting factor.  Some horses’ conformation won’t change even with a high protein diet and an intense exercise programme.  Remember, the nice, rounded appearance we all get drawn to, particularly the horse’s topline, is comprised of muscle and subcutaneous fat. So it’s important to assess your horse’s overall body condition score as he may just need more calories in his diet.

Horse with great topline

Smarty. Standardbred owned by Tracey and Tony Mallia. Produced by Lauren Tritton of Tritton Racing, NY


Training for Topline

If you’re the owner of a performance or show horse, you’ll be focussing on muscle development and promoting topline.   Working a horse consistently in a way that’ll make him use his muscles correctly is one of the key requirements. We often hear the phrase ‘working the horse over his back’.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean endless hours of long and low lungeing.  Don’t forget you can also include things such as pole/cavalletti or hill work.  In fact, any work that gets a horse to engage his tummy muscles which in turn will lift his back.

If your horse is a pleasure horse in light to moderate work, it can take a while to regain/improve topline.  Every horse develops at a different rate, so remember, patience is a virtue. Quick fix practices aren’t going to be your solution in the long run. You may need some expert advice to help you in the right direction.

Nutrition for muscle development and promoting topline

The influence of correct nutrition is all about providing a balanced diet with good quality protein. Protein contains amino acids providing the suitable building blocks for muscle growth, so both protein quality and intake is important. Protein and amino acids have critical roles within the body. These include structural, enzymatic and hormonal roles; the immune system; nutrient transport across membranes and in the blood. Quite a comprehensive list!

 NB: there’s currently little evidence supporting feeding high protein supplements or single amino acids on top of an already balanced diet to enhance muscle or topline development.

Protein & the Importance of Amino Acids

Every day, your horse requires a specific amount of essential amino acids contained in the protein he eats.   Any protein consumed that’s either indigestible or in excess of requirements, gets excreted in droppings/urine and minimally through sweat.

Part of the muscle-building process is related to the type of protein we give our horses.  Why?  Because this provides the structure to muscle fibres.  The best protein sources will, therefore, be easily digested and include the full range of essential amino acids. Particularly an amino acid called lysine. This is known as the first limiting amino acid required for muscle development. So when you’re looking for protein content in your horse’s feed, you should check out the lysine content on the label.

Ideally, you need to feed enough protein to maintain condition and integrity of the entire system.  So, feeding your horse a diet that’s no higher than 12% total protein is a good benchmark to keep.  (NB:  Total protein refers to overall protein in the diet, not to anyone individual feedstuff as many people think!)

Topline comparisonWhen you think about it, a combination of muscle and condition can do so much for improving the appearance of any horse. Look at the example left. In the top photo, notice the angular appearance of the rump down to the tailhead, indicating muscle atrophy.  Some horses will also display ‘poverty lines’ running down the second thigh which can also indicate a lack of condition.  The bottom photo shows a more improved topline outline after just one week on Fibregenix Platinum Pro.

Protein Sources

Forages (hay, pasture, haylage etc)

These key components of a horse’s diet can be excellent sources of protein and amino acids.  However, forages can also be extremely variable in their nutrient content. The crude protein content of forages is highest when the plant is in a vegetative state of growth.  It’s at its lowest when the plant is in a late stage of maturity.

Cereal grains and grain by-product

As well as energy, they provide protein and amino acids as well.  Both total trace and small intestinal protein digestion are generally greater for grains than for forages. There may also be some differences between grain species in regard to the site or extent of protein digestion.

Seed Meals

When oil is extracted from the oil seeds of soybean, sunflower, canola etc, the remaining seed meal is a high protein product that’s very useful. Soybean meal, for instance, has an amino acid profile superior to most other seed meals with a protein content of 44-48%. Fibregenix balancers include soybean meal as part of the protein content.  Significantly, our customers have noted excellent increases/improvements in topline and muscle development in a relatively short time.

Signs of Protein /Amino acid Deficiency

This isn’t common in horses fed typical diets that provide adequate dietary energy.  But depending on the quality of that protein, one or more important individual amino acids may be deficient. Signs of dietary protein deficiency you need to look for include:

  • weight loss
  • decreased feed intake
  • poor hoof and coat quality
  • decreased rates of gain in growing horses
  • reduced milk production and lower rates of foal growth in lactating mares

Protein & Amino Acid Excess

Feeding protein above the required levels offers no benefits to the horse. Why?  Well for a start it’s metabolically expensive.  This is because excess nitrogen must be converted into urea for excretion resulting in environmental consequences  Secondly, excess protein conversion to urea requires substantial amounts of water excretion.  This is why adequate water intake is especially important when high levels of protein is fed.

Thirdly, exercise already results in a decrease in blood PH due to lactic acid production. If muscle PH drops too low and acidosis develops, muscle fatigue will occur.  Further reductions in blood PH from excessive protein intake could interfere with anaerobic energy production.  The result of this would also exacerbate the onset of fatigue. Additionally, if your horse has compromised liver or kidney function, excess amino acid intake may be hugely detrimental.

Protein and The Calcium Link to Tying Up

When your horse is under strenuous exercise, higher glucose levels are needed to fuel the muscles. Higher glucose levels also delay the onset of lactic acid build-up in the muscles and blood. Too much lactic acid causes the muscles to lose their ability to contract and relax properly. In this state, the muscles stay contracted – also known as “tying up”. 

According to research performed at Colorado State University and in Sweden, excess dietary protein decreases T4 thyroid hormone levels. Optimum T4 levels are necessary for horses to metabolize glucose (blood sugar) properly. Higher magnesium levels were found to increase the production of T4. Hence, magnesium is an essential mineral to relax the muscles after the contraction phase.  However, from a mineral balance perspective, magnesium can be depleted by too much calcium intake. High calcium levels are found in a commonly fed forage ie Lucerne, a well-documented a source of digestible protein. Therefore over- feeding lucerne is generally not recommended.

Dr Karen Hayes, D.V.M., who wrote Modern Horse Breeding, states:

“Under no circumstance should the amount of Lucerne in your horse’s diet ever exceed 40% (by weight). Any more than that and you are risking the perils of excess protein and excess calcium, both of which can do some unbelievable damage. If your horse’s ration consists of 100% alfalfa, he may look healthy, but that does not mean it isn’t taxing his system.”

Another interesting study showed that increased oestrogen depletes magnesium. Mares and fillies tend to tie up more frequently on high lucerne diets as oestrogen is increased during their heat cycles.


Muscle development and promoting topline is a combination of good training and diet. Horses can generally tolerate high levels of protein in the diet. Problem is, it’s a costly part of the diet and depending on the source, can have some detrimental effects on your horse.

Checking the protein intake in your diet is a relatively simple thing made even easier with a Fibregenix diet review. We’re here to take the stress out of your decision-making process so contact us now.

Reviewed February 2024




What is a Low-Starch Diet for Horses?

What is a Low-Starch Diet for Horses?

horse feeding

If you’ve ever wondered what is a low-starch diet for horses, and more importantly, should my horse be on one, then you’re not alone.  However, it isn’t ideal for all horses. Ultimately, it will depend on their caloric requirements, the work they’re in and existing health conditions..

Forages should of course be the basis of any diet and are 75-90% carbohydrates. Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and some fibre. These carbohydrates found in pasture and hay fall into two broad categories: nonstructural and structural.  So horses actually rely on carbohydrates as the largest portion of their diet.  Especially soluble and insoluble fibres that make up forage.

Carbs, sugars and starches in forage.

Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) in forages are simple sugars and fructans and can be readily digested or fermented by horses. They are produced in plants during warmer weather, and are higher in more immature forages. Pasture is usually lowest in NSCs in the early morning unless overnight temperatures are cold.  However, these carbohydrates can affect some disease processes, so you need to monitor how much your horse eats.

Carbs, sugars, and starches in your horse’s hard feed

Grain based hard feeds contain carbohydrates, including simple sugars and starch. Grains such as barley, maize and oats are high in NSCs, mostly starches. Starches are long chains of attached sugar molecules. These sugars get broken apart during the digestive process and the simple sugars (glucose) readily absorbed. Most horses can digest and absorb sugars and starches in the small intestine through a process called hydrolysis. From there, glucose in the bloodstream triggers the pancreas to release insulin.  Then the glucose molecules move into cells for storage as glycogen.  This is the fuel for the working muscles.

If there’s more starch in a single meal than the horse can digest, starch will enter the caecum, (the first part of the hindgut after the small intestine). Any undigested starch here is rapidly fermented creating lactic acid.  This lowers hindgut pH, killing the good bacteria that live there. The endotoxins released from microbial death can then contribute to both colic and laminitis.   

So, just how much starch is in a low-starch diet for horses?

 A “low-starch” feed usually contains less than 15% starch, but some feed companies might classify low-starch as any feed below 20%.  Compare this to a traditional hard feed with grains such as barley, maize and oats as its base.  These types of feed might be as much as 40-60% starch.  A “mid-level” starch content is usually between 20 and 25%. Whilst many horses are fed high starch feeds seemingly without problems, the key consideration that still remains for any horse is how much starch is fed in any one meal.

Ultimately, there is no single definition of a “low- starch” diet as both sugar and starch concentrations are important. Therefore, it’s better that feeds are referred to as ‘low-sugar and starch’ or ‘low nonstructural-carbohydrates (NSC).  NSC is a laboratory measure containing starch plus all water-soluble carbs (sugars and fructans). The recommendation for horses with metabolic issues therefore is not actually low-starch but low-Non-Structural Carbohydrates.  So, if f low starch/low NSC is a primary concern for your horse and it’s not quoted on your bag of feed, then contact the feed manufacturer directly to find out.

Starch Content of Common Feed Ingredients

Feed Ingredient  Starch %
Legume hay (besides lucerne) 1.56
Grass Hay 1.65
Lucerne Cubes 1.51
Oaten Hay 4.03
Mixed, Mostly Grass, Pasture 2.00
Grass Pasture 2.08
Beet Pulp, Dried, No Molasses 0.99
Maize, Whole Grain 69.44
Oats, Dried 43.96
Oat Hulls 14.90
Rice Bran 22.85
Wheat Bran 23.59
Soybeans, Dried 2.27
Soybean Hulls 1.20
Soybean Meal 1.65
Carrots, Wet 2.18
Lucerne Hay 2.50
Lucerne Pellets 2.08
Mill Run/Mix 26.20

Data collected from Equi-Analytical Laboratories

When should your horse have a low-starch diet?

For some horses with certain health conditions, vets and nutritionists might recommend a low-starch diet to help maintain blood glucose at a steady level. These are conditions that cause horses to become more sensitive to sugars and starches. This then means that owners will need to reduce these levels in both forages and concentrates. Individual horses have variable responses related to a variety of factors, including age, body condition, fitness, metabolic status, and disease status.

Obesity and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS)

These metabolic conditions are of major concern and there needs to be an overall reduction in calories consumed, not just from starches. Some breeds, especially pony breeds are “metabolically thrifty”, so they’re able to readily convert glucose into fat for storage. They will benefit from a lower-quality forage and no hard feed.  This is where a quality feed balancer supplement such as one from the Fibregenix range, is ideal.  It will  provide vitamins, minerals, protein, fatty acids and other essential nutrients to bridge nutritional gaps in forage.

Insulin dysregulation (ID)

Insulin dysregulation is considered a component of EMS.  In affected horses or ponies, insulin is not effective at transporting glucose from the bloodstream into cells, so both remain elevated. This can increase susceptibility to laminitis. Horses with this condition are extremely sensitive to starches. Ideally, they should be on as low a starch and, specifically, soluble-carbohydrate diet as possible.

Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, formerly Equine Cushing’s)

This  endocrine disease mostly affects horses or ponies over the age of 15. Some, but not all, PPID horses will require a lower-starch diet. PPID horses that are also insulin-dysregulated are the ones which will benefit.  However, some PPID horses are thin, non-insulin-dysregulated, and they need calories.  In such cases a more traditional NSC level is fine.

Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM)

Horses with this muscle disorder often have a normal glucose/ insulin metabolic process. They’re unable to use the form of glucose stored in their cells as energy and are also susceptible to tying-up (exertional rhabdomyolysis).  This is the breakdown or destruction of skeletal muscle cells associated with exercise.


Laminitis prone horses and ponies  should also have diets low in soluble carbohydrates and starch. Elevated levels of starch reaching the hindgut can lead to hindgut acidosis, killing off the good microbes. This releases endotoxins, which can negatively affect enzymes involved in maintaining the integrity of the laminae in the hoof leading to laminitis. Susceptible horses should not be allowed to graze immature or lush, rapidly growing pasture routinely found in spring and early autumn.

Gastric ulcers (EGUS)

Signs of this condition include poor performance, poor attitude, and mild colic. Horses prone to ulcers and hindgut acidosis benefit from a low-starch/high fibre diet. This is because chewing and consuming fibrous carbohydrates produces more saliva which in turn helps reduce acidity in the stomach.


Anxious or hyperactive horses may also benefit from less starch in their diets. Multiple studies (Bulmer et al., 2019; Destrez et al., 2015) have focussed on the diet’s effect on behaviour. But more recently, they’ve focussed on the “why” behind this. The latest studies have revealed that glucose is a sugar that easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. Elevated glucose levels are associated with increased dopamine production.  And this can lead to elevated awareness or hyperexcitability.

Should you change your horse to a low-starch diet?

If your horse doesn’t have any of the aforementioned conditions, then he probably doesn’t need a low-starch diet. In fact, performance horses benefit from a diet with readily available carbohydrates needed to replace the stored glycogen in working muscles.  Especially those that do anaerobic exercise (short bursts of high-intensity training) during work.   When muscle glycogen is low, the muscle adapts by slowing contraction rate and power to conserve fuel (glycogen). This is obviously not desirable in a competition horse. Similarly, hard keepers might not be good candidates for low-starch feeds either, unless you increase the fat content in the diet. These horses need more readily available calories than the fibrous ingredients often used in low- starch feeds.

Traditional hard feeds with grains such as barley, maize and oats as its base might be as much as 40-60% starch. A “mid-level” starch content is usually between 20 and 25%. Whilst many horses are fed high starch feeds seemingly without problems, the key consideration that still remains for any horse is how much starch is fed in any one meal.

When looking at starch levels, check the feeding rate as well as the % on the feed bag or label. There’s a misconception about the % on a feed bag or label being the same as the amount of starch received on a daily basis

Balancers, fortified fibre feeds, mueslis & pellets will all have different feeding rates for a 500kg horse. Therefore, to work out how much starch they are receiving it’s important to first understand the recommended feeding rate of the feed.

The table below shows ideal targets to follow when considering how much starch your horse should have.

% starch in your hard feed IDEAL TARGET
To avoid starch overload, rapid fermention in the h/gut 50-65% for sweet feeds, 45-75% for straight grains <2g/kg BW/meal
To avoid risk of gastric ulcer syndrome


For metabolic disorders such as IR, Cushings, laminitis etc



Example of Pelleted balancer v a standard hard feed for those at risk of gastric ulcers

It’s recommended starch should be limited to a maximum of 2g or less per 1kg of bodyweight per day. And 1g or less per 1kg of bodyweight per meal. So, a 600kg horse can have up to 1.2kgs of starch per day with no more than 600g per meal. 

If you’re feeding your 600kg Warmblood Fibregenix Pro balancer at the recommended feeding rate (100g/100kg bodyweight)  600g a day.  It has a starch level of 6% so your horse will be receiving 36g of starch from the balancer per day.

If you’re feeding your 600kg warmblood a hard feed at the recommended feeding rate (2.5kg a day)  If the starch level is 10.5%, your horse will be receiving 262.5 g of starch per day.

Let’s take a high starch performance feed with a starch level 26% fed at 2.5kg a day for a 600kg horse. This will provide 650g starch. This is still within the maximum recommended intake for those horses prone to gastric ulcers. However, we would recommend splitting this into multiple meals during the day so that it’s below 1g/1kg bodyweight per meal.

Making Changes To a Horse’s Diet Safely

Any changes MUST be slow and gradual so as not to upset the hindgut microflora. Gut microbes must have time to adjust to a new diet, so it’s generally accepted to make the complete transition over about two weeks.

For horses needing a low-starch concentrate, transition them the same way you would to any new diet. Start with a meal that is ¼ of the new feed and ¾ old feed and stay at this level for four days. Move up to ½ and ½ for another four days. Then switch to ¾ new feed and ¼ old feed for another four days. By the end of this period, you should be able to feed a full meal of the new feed. If you are concerned about NSC levels in forage, then limit pasture access when they’re elevated (e.g. during spring grass growth).  Soak hay before feeding. Just remember to discard the soak water, so the horse doesn’t drink it.​

What if a sudden change can’t be avoided?

Sometimes, the transition to a low-starch diet has to happen suddenly. For instance, after a metabolic event (e.g., laminitis) where the horse is moved from lush pasture to being yarded. Or begins to wear a grazing muzzle. In these cases, you don’t have days or weeks to make the change. So watch your horse carefully for signs of digestive disturbance such as diaorrhea. If signs develop (and if possible), back off the transition rate and make the conversion more slowly.

What if you have more than one horse and only one requires a low-starch diet? You might be tempted to think you could feed all the horses the same feed.  However, whilst it may make feeding more convenient, you still have to consider each individual horse’s needs and feed accordingly.

Feeding for individual needs

What if you have more than one horse and only one requires a low-starch diet? Tempted to feed all the horses the same feed? Whilst it may make feeding more convenient, you still have to consider each individual horse’s needs.

5 Take-home messages

  • A low-starch diet might be a suitable option for your horse, but it depends on his health status.
  • Horses in good body condition, fit for their discipline, with high caloric demands can cope on a more traditional feed containing higher starch levels. Even so, care must still be taken with how much starch is fed in any one meal.
  • Before making any changes, talk to your vet or an equine nutritionist.
  • Find out how much starch is in your horse’s feed when the term “low starch” is used. This will ensure you are making decisions based on the best information available.
  • Always make any changes to the diet gradually so as not to upset the digestive microbes.

Reviewed and amended April 2021

Buying off the track thoroughbreds

Buying off the track thoroughbreds

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Buying Off Track Thoroughbreds

Here’s a quick guide to the process of buying Off Track Thoroughbreds.

Most racehorses are well-mannered and will have started being handled much more than non-TBs since foals.  So, on the whole it should be a pleasurable experience taking on an ex- racehorse.
Be realistic about your ability and experience

  • Do you have enough time, money, patience and experience to deal with the demands of a former racehorse? For instance, did you know most racehorses come off the track needing costly treatment for ulcers?
  • An ex-racehorse isn’t a novice ride and shouldn’t be seen as a cheap way for children to move onto horses.
  • If you decide to lunge in the first few days bear in mind they may go pretty fast! Yearlings do a fair bit of their sales preparation in canter to get them fit in their ‘wind’. This means that plonking a heavy GP saddle on them and expecting them to trot neatly is probably out of the question.
  • Thoroughbreds are a sensitive breed. For example, a cut that probably wouldn’t bother your stock horse may blow up on a thoroughbred, making them more expensive to own.

Understanding the former lifestyle of off-track thoroughbreds

  • They may not be used to conventional riding techniques.  A racehorse will be unfamiliar with long stirrups and a heavier saddle and is unlikely to understand seat and leg aids until they are retrained.
  • Jockeys are often given a leg up while the horse is walking. So an off-track thoroughbred is unlikely to stand still for you while you mount from a block.
  • Ex racehorses aren’t used to being exercised alone.  They’ll associate riding out in company with their former life on the gallops.
  • It’ll be used to being in a busy yard and might be overwhelmed by your individual attention.
  • Most will have been ridden in a loose ring snaffle. Whilst they should have had an annual teeth rasping, try and book your dentist in within the first month. This is because some may fall through the net if they’ve been between yards when the dentist has been round.  This won’t just help with bitting choices later on. It will also ensure your horse can fully chew and break down his feed and forage thereby aiding digestion.  This in turn will help you to see an improvement in his condition a little more quickly.

Management of Off Track Thoroughbreds

  • All-day turnout will be a new experience that should be introduced gradually.
  • Management regimes on racing yards tend to differ slightly as they are catering for larger numbers of horses where efficiency is key. Knowing about these different ways of handling your off track thoroughbred is good to know.  It will help you understand why something that seems simple to you, might upset or be difficult for him.
  • On a racing yard, horses will usually have had all four feet picked out from the near side, bringing the off hind inside the near hind to pick out. Therefore, continue this practice (as it is actually safer for you). Alternatively, be patient whilst retraining to pick out from the offside.
  • Racehorses are loved by their carers and will respond to affection and patience, especially fillies. If you buy a colt, it will have been stabled away from fillies. So, until you’ve had it gelded, for several months keep it away from the opposite sex.  This should be both within the stable yard and in the paddock until you can see his behaviour improve.
  • Racehorses usually have very good feet whilst growing up and whilst in training. It’s when they get older and heavier on their hooves, combined with feed changes from a racing diet that problems arise. So, while you gradually reduce the calorie content and quantity of the feed, consider adding a Fibregenix balancer  to support hoof growth.

Patience is the key

Most importantly, you must be willing to give your off-track thoroughbred plenty of time to adjust to its new lifestyle. Not every horse will readily adapt to new disciplines and most will always retain a racehorse mentality to some extent.

Where to look for an off the track thoroughbred

  1. Directly from its owner or trainer. You can buy one at the sales, or from a retrainer either by buying it or loaning it.
  2. Look up the horse’s record. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Look for gaps in the record that might indicate time off with an injury and how many times it raced. However, don’t count out a horse with a lengthy racing career. If it managed to stay sound for a long time, the chances are that it will continue to do so.
  3. Request to see it ridden and ride it yourself. Is it the type of horse you want? Will its conformation stand up to what you would like it to do? How does it behave in the stable and when being tacked up? Ask to ride it. It may not know much about flatwork, but is it willing to do what you ask? Does it move reasonably well?
  4. Find out about the horse’s temperament and personality. Ask about injuries and why it has retired from racing.
  5. Should you decide to buy it, make sure you get it vetted as you would with any horse.
  6. Don’t expect the horse to be given away, if it is, then you have to ask yourself why. If it’s likely to have a chance at succeeding in any kind of career, it’s worth a price, like any horse.

Reviewed February 2024

Feeding off the track thoroughbreds

Feeding off the track thoroughbreds

Feeding off the track thoroughbreds.

Many off the track thoroughbreds find new careers as riding and competition horses. When they first come to a new home, a new diet is one of the first major changes they face. So it’s important to ensure when feeding off the track thoroughbreds you pay attention to detail.

Ex-racehorses haven’t always come straight out of racing. Some of them may have stayed within the racing yard and either have been turned away or used for other duties.  Therefore, knowing how long your horse has been out of racing for is very useful.  To progress their transition away from racing you’ll then know what level of support they will need in their new environment.

Straight out of Training

A Thoroughbred straight out of training will have been used to a high energy, low fibre diet. He’ll have been consuming large amounts of concentrate feed and often only fed relatively small volumes of forage.  This means when coming off the track, he must become accustomed not only to his new home but also to quite different feeding practices.

Knowing what your off the track TB has been fed will help avoid risking any digestive upset when changing feeds. Ideally, any feed changes should be made over a 7 – 10 day period. The current feed should be mixed in gradually with the new feed that you’ve chosen for your horse. However, if you don’t know what he’s been fed on before, offer a range of feeds.  Perhaps a low starch muesli or a low starch pellet. Remember that some horses may have been on the same type of feed for years.  So they won’t know how to switch over from a pellet to a mueslis or vice versa.

The first hurdle to tackle nutritionally for any off the track TB is to reduce the amount of energy (calories) he gets.  In training, he may well have been fed in excess of 7kg of a high energy racehorse mix providing fast release energy. This is the last thing that’s needed at his new home! It’s important for any horse to have a balanced diet that meets its needs for energy, protein, fibre vitamins and minerals. The diet should also suit temperament, workload and age, and feeding off the track thoroughbreds is no exception.

Feeding Forage to Off the Track Thoroughbreds

A racehorse diet is lower in forage compared to that of a leisure or competition horse. Many trainers do offer lots of hay but it’s likely that the forage is offered in smaller quantities throughout the day. This is in contrast to being offered it all in one go which most horse owners are used to doing. It’s also a good idea to provide hay in a haynet as well as on the floor.  This is because they may have eaten their forage in the same way for years and not know how to diversify! Lots of yards feed over the door on the floor.  So giving your new horse a haynet could put him off eating as he wont know how to eat from it.

You can also offer the hay in a bucket or supplement the hay with buckets of chaff.  These can be placed around the stable to encourage him to browse. Remember to place at least some forage at the front of the stable by the door.  Your horse will want to look at his new surroundings and this is likely where he’ll be used to finding his forage.

Turnout on Grass

On arrival at your yard, you’ll no doubt be introducing your new horse to routine turnout.  This will not only mentally start to relax him, but will also gradually increase his forage ration. Many ex-racehorses won’t have been turned out for months or even years.  Some horses stay in training or go to ‘spelling’/pre-training yards out of racing season and remain in light exercise on the horse walker.  For this reason be careful when turning out for the first time.

For those turned away on good grass, a balancer, such as Fibregenix Lami Low-Cal, will bridge nutrient gaps in the pasture but with no associated calories.   Balancers provide a concentrated source of nutrients in a small volume which can be beneficial when feeding at pasture.  Just 500g per day is required for a 500kg horse at rest so Lami Low-Cal can easily be fed once a day.  Where grass quality isn’t good or the horse needs more condition, you can provide extra calories with a small amount of hard feed or beet pulp. When feeding off the track thoroughbreds you can also feed Fibregenix Prime Original conditioning balancer.

After bringing horses in after a long period of “downtime” in the paddock, adjustments to diet must be gradual.  Grass provides more calories, protein, vitamins and minerals than hay, so when substituting grass with hay, adjust the nutrient content accordingly of any other feed given.  A high-spec Fibregenix balancer provides a boost of quality nutrients whilst ensuring a healthy gut environment during the transition period

Safe Conditioning

Whatever your off the track racehorse is doing, if he needs condition, look for a high fibre conditioning feed eg beet pulp. This provides a concentrated source of non-heating calories and keeps meal sizes manageable.  It also ensures feed is utilised efficiently with a smaller risk of digestive upsets or “crabby” behaviour.  The specific yeast probiotic in Fibregenix Prime Original Conditioning balancer can double fibre digestibility and improve the calorie and nutrient yield of what’s being fed. This will increase condition without needing large amounts of hard feed. TIP: If your Thoroughbred is prone to being a bit fizzy, feed a pellet rather than a muesli. Pellet feeds contain less starch than a muesli mix of a similar nutrient specification.

Conditioning for Excitable Types

Oil is a useful addition to the diet if you need slow-release, non-heating energy. It provides 2¼ times as many calories as cereals.  However, not all horses can tolerate high levels of oil in their diet so be careful when feeding. Introduce slowly. If the manure starts to look greasy or greyish in colour, it can indicate your horse isn’t digesting it properly.  In this case, back off the amount you’re feeding and re-introduce again more slowly. Oil can be fed alongside beet pulp, forage and a Fibregenix balancer. This keeps the diet cereal free, which is important where there may be ongoing ulcer issues. A common occurrence in the ex-racehorse.

Why Forage for Digestive Health?

Research suggests that 90% of horses in training suffer from gastric ulcers. This is due to the low fibre, high starch diets they receive during training.  So it’s even more important to ensure that an off the track racehorse is returned to a high forage diet ASAP.  Forage is important in any horse’s diet as they’ve evolved to consume large amounts eaten over an 18-hour period.  The physical bulk of fibre is also vital for maintaining regular bowel movement. Furthermore, it helps push out any excess gas that may be accumulating in the gut, which can become distended when it builds up. Excess gas can lead to considerable pain and often results in colic symptoms.

Fibre is also important for counteracting acidity throughout the digestive tract.  Fibre takes longer to chew than grain-based hard feeds. When the horse chews, the resulting saliva produced helps neutralise the acidity of the stomach contents. Long periods of chewing helps avoid gastric ulceration to the upper region of the stomach which is vulnerable to ulcers.

Fibre is fermented and broken down by bacteria in the hindgut. The breakdown of fibre produces acids that are much weaker than those from the breakdown of starch (cereals).  This results in a hindgut environment that is far more hospitable to the bacterial population. Therefore, with bacteria being particularly important to overall health, it’s vital to maintain fibre levels.

Healthy Mind

Forage helps keep the gut and mind healthy.  Always provide your horse with plenty of forage either in the stable or paddock to prevent boredom and relieve stress.  Remember that all horses are herd animals, so try and provide company to prevent anxiety and stress.

Previous thinking was that boredom was the main reason horses receiving very little forage started to develop stereotype behaviour. However, recent research suggests some stereotyped behaviour is a response to increased acidity in the digestive tract.  If a horse isn’t receiving much forage, his chew time will be reduced and the gut may remain very acidic.  Therefore, the importance of forage can never be under-estimated. Feeding more forage and keeping the volume of concentrates down, will reduce the risk of digestive upsets occurring.

Creating a healthy gut

If your Thoroughbred has come from a retraining/rehabilitation centre, the gut should be healthy and already adapted to the feeding regime.  However, moving to a new home or adapting from life in racing can still take its toll on the digestive system.  When stressed, beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract can become disrupted resulting in an unhealthy gut and loose droppings (scouring).  Feeding a prebiotic should mean that harmful bacteria aren’t able to take advantage of the compromised condition of the digestive tract.  The two specific prebiotics in Fibregenix Platinum Pro and Lami Low-Cal can help to reduce the incidence of scouring caused by the stress response or bacterial infections.

Probiotics and prebiotics help enhance the health of the bacterial population. These are particularly beneficial when the digestive tract is under stress.  Prebiotics work by providing ‘good’ bacteria with a food source and maintain a healthy environment for them to reproduce.   ‘Bad’ bacteria are then expelled by competitive exclusion as they then have no room to develop.  By maintaining the natural bacterial balance of the gut,  efficient feed utilisation is promoted. This is highly beneficial for the ‘poor doer’ and for overall good health.

A Successful Transition

Take home message:

Remember that Thoroughbreds can be fussy feeders. So attention to detail and a little care in the early stages will pay dividends.  They may take a few days or weeks to get used to their new diet, so be patient.

Whilst you need to reduce energy intake, it’s still important that the nutrient levels aren’t compromised.  Offering a handful of basic pellets and chaff just won’t be enough.  A typical Thoroughbred, weighing 500kg at rest or in light work will need at least 2% of his body weight daily in dry matter intake. Most of it should be forage plus initially, some hard feed. There’s no reason why your ex-racehorse shouldn’t thrive where the ratio of forage to hard feed is a healthy balance.  Once settled into their new life, most Thoroughbreds simply need treating like any other individual horse. Some even become laid back good-doers!

Reviewed and amended March 2023

Mycotoxins – a serious danger to your horse’s health


Mycotoxins are a worldwide microscopic menace and are a serious danger to your horse’s health…

Myco is the Greek word for fungus.  Whilst toxins simply means poisons which are produced in various types of fungi.


Autumn is usually the prime time for mycotoxin growth essentially because rainfall becomes more prevalent coupled with cooler conditions.  However, mycotoxins can occur at any time of the year when conditions favour fungal growth. Here, in Western Australia, the winter months have been significantly wetter than previous years interspersed with mild, warm weather conditions. These conditions have resulted in vets recently reporting a significant increase in cases of rye grass staggers.

Furthermore, any time grass is actively growing and producing bright green foliage, there’s an added risk for grass staggers (tetany).  This is a result of a surge in potassium and NSC (grass fructan) levels …

annual ryegrass

annual ryegrass seed head

Some mycotoxins live inside the plant (endophytes). For example, Perennial rye grass contains the endophyte, Neotyphodium lolii, which produces the harmful mycotoxin Lolitrem B. Another mycotoxin affecting rye grass and fescue grass species is Ergovaline – a vaso-constrictor.

Others can be found externally on the plant in the form of a ‘gall’ or growth. For example,  Annual rye grass, can develop a highly poisonous bacteria form on the seed heads, also causing staggers symptoms. Significantly, even when cut for hay, the toxin can remain for years during storage.

Causes of Annual Ryegrass Toxicity in Horses

  • Parasites eg the nematode Anguina funesta, which carries the bacterium Rathayibacter toxicus into the ryegrass seed heads
  • The horse ingests contaminated ryegrass while foraging
  • The horse is fed hay or grain that has contaminated ryegrass
  • Hay is prepared in contaminated machinery, then fed to the horse
  • The central nervous system is affected by corynetoxin produced by Rathayibacter toxicus

Symptoms of Annual Ryegrass Toxicity in Horses – what makes them a danger to your horse’s health?

After the toxic ryegrass is ingested by the horse, it can take 4-5 days before clinical signs develop.  However, some horses can show symptoms very quickly, often overnight.

Symptoms may include:

  • A lack of coordination
  • Falling
  • Convulsions
  • Stiff legs to the point of looking lame
  • Tremors
  • Pregnant mares may abort their foal
  • The horse becomes anxious, is spooked easily
  • Dragging of hind limbs or stepping short
  • Drooling
  • Muscle twitching
  • A wide-based stance
  • Exercise or excitement may trigger reoccurrence of the symptoms
  • Staggering
  • Weakness
  • Death

Mycotoxins can also be prevalent in the surrounding soil. Particularly in the low PH soil typical in Australia and in any decaying matter.  In fact, there are hundreds of different mycotoxins in and around all pasture types. Moisture in the air plus warmth means ideal conditions for them to thrive and develop. You may have noticed mushrooms or other fungal growth popping up in your paddocks or muck heap during this weather.  And when these are growing well, the endophytes within ryegrass are also likely to be doing well.


Mouldy grain

mould growing on grain

It’s been estimated by he WHO that some 25% of the world’s grains have some form of mycotoxin contamination.

The most studied of these is aflatoxins derived from Aspergillus moulds.  These are prevalent in grain that’s under drought and insect stress, with prolonged periods of hot weather. Aflatoxin is a cancer promoter and an immunosuppressant and has a huge impact on livestock.

There are two main groups of fungi producing mycotoxins that are a serious danger to your horse’s health. They are the field fungus Fusarium, which produces the toxins fumonisin, zearalenone and T2. Additionally, there is also the storage fungus Aspergillus, which produces the toxins aflatoxin and ochratoxin. Fumonisins are a group of toxins most prevalent when cool wet weather at crop maturity follows early season drought stress. Studies show that horses are highly susceptible to liver damage and to the brain disease leukoencephalomalacia at fumonisin levels above 10 ppm.


tying up

One of the major causes of poor performance in horses are respiratory infections.  Eg recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) (similar to asthma in humans), and exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH).  Fungi and mycotoxins are now recognised as a major cause of these conditions, both by ingestion and inhalation. Fungal spores can originate from forage, bedding and feed and can even grow in baled hay with high moisture content.  In turn, these fungal spores can produce a series of mycotoxins as secondary metabolites. The most notable fungi being Aspergillus and Fusarium. If you’re keen to read more on this topic plus the interesting study accompanying it, please go to the link below….

Source: Buckley, T., Creighton, A. & Fogarty, U. Analysis of Canadian and Irish forage, oats and commercially available equine concentrate feed for pathogenic fungi and mycotoxins. Ir Vet J 60, 231 (2007).

Take Home message

Mycotoxins are the invisible danger to your horse’s health because they don’t show up in blood tests.

Never feed mouldy hay or feed.

Ryegrass staggers is only fatal in the most severe of cases. Most horses will be well within one or two weeks, once the toxic feed source has been removed from their diet.

Feeding a mycotoxin binder can speed up recovery.

Purchasing rye grass hay, whether Perennial or Annual, even if combined with other grass or cereal hays? Always check whether the hay has been certified as endophyte free or RGT tested.  Any hay grower worth their salt will go to the extra expense of having their hay tested.

Beware of cheap hay being advertised for sale.  The seller may not be aware of the source or may not be aware of the potential risks to the end consumer ie your horse.