Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Understanding The Diet Of Thoroughbreds On and Off Track - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Understanding The Diet Of Thoroughbreds On and Off Track

Feeding horses at Arapahoe Park

If the expression “you are what you eat” holds true, then understanding what Thoroughbreds eat, particularly the diets that are necessary for their success both on and off the racetrack, will give us better insights into how we can relate to them and what their responses are to what we ask them to do.

Given that most Thoroughbreds attempt a racing career before embarking on another sport, let's start with the racetrack. A quick glance of a horse race compared to a show jump course, dressage test, or barrel race pattern suggests that racing is a relatively simple and straightforward activity. Run fast. And, if it's racing in the United States, run fast in a left-handed direction.

That's not the case.

“The Thoroughbred is such a unique individual,” Kent Thompson, the co-owner and managing partner of the Louisville, Ky.-based feed company Excel Equine said. “It can sprint four or five furlongs, but then you're asking that same exact breed to go out there and run a mile and a half. Two totally different types of exercise for performance.”

Even a horse that's exclusively a sprinter will occasionally train over longer distances, and route horses will do speed work.

With this understanding of the Thoroughbred breed, combined with an education that includes a Ph.D in animal science from the University of Kentucky and an ability to translate his knowledge into layman's terms understandable on a racetrack backside, Thompson and partner David Williams have grown Excel Equine from its founding in 2014 to feeding approximately 60 percent of the horses at their hometown track of Churchill Downs.

A lot of complex training goes into being successful on the track, similar to, for example, excelling at track and field or swimming in the Olympics. Both of those sports could theoretically also be reduced to “run fast in a left-handed direction” or “swim fast down and back.” Since racehorses are elite athletes, they require the nutrition of an elite athlete.

“It's not a hay-and-oats kind of situation anymore,” Thompson said. “There are some things you can do with something as simple as calories coming from fat or vitamins. Just because you've been doing it for years, it's a sport that's driven by so much tradition, and that includes nutrition. There are some things that you may want to consider doing differently.”

Thompson explains how faster-burning sources of energy like oats and corn can combine with slower-burning sources of energy like fiber and fat to meet the complex nutritional needs of racehorses.

“What you really look at is to provide them with various sources of energy to support that wide range of exercise levels we ask them to do,” Thompson said.

When horses finish their racing careers and embark on the next chapters of their lives, they require a different diet to match what they're being asked to do.

“They're still a performance horse, still have to meet some performance levels, but it's not that sort of high-performance exertion levels that a racehorse has,” Thompson said.

Thompson recommends adjusting a horse's diet slowly over 30 to 45 days. Cutting back grain and introducing turnout gradually. Feeding grain from typically three times a day on the track to two times a day off the track. From about 14 pounds on the track to about 10 pounds off the track.

“Let's pull some of those carbohydrate calories out and replace them with fat calories,” Thompson said. “It changes some of the circulating levels in a horse's body, and those hormones can be behavior-related.”

He also recommends treating retired racehorses for ulcers in light of the change in environment and work load they will experience. One way to do that, he says, is through alfalfa, which can act as a buffering agent thorough its fiber and calcium content.

As much as science goes into all of this, there's also an element of human, or equine, nature that goes into feeding horses because whatever you put in front of a horse, the horse gets to choose whether or not to eat it.

“The horse has to eat the feed,” Thompson said. “The fresher the feed, typically the better the horse eats it. And I would say our feed is more than likely the freshest feed on a racetrack, like at Churchill Downs for example. The cleaner the tub, that's what the trainer wants to see.”

I'd like to finish this column on a personal note and say how much of a pleasure it was to speak to Kent Thompson at Excel Equine. Their support has given me the opportunity to share stories about my adventures with OTTBs and to explore topics about the breed that are crucial to the success of the many equine sports industries in which the Thoroughbred features so prominently. It's been a fascinating source of personal growth to simultaneously be a voice for the breed to others while also learning about how enchantingly complicated these horses are.

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