Many owners come to me looking for a feed that will provide more energy without more calories and this common conundrum is one which often causes confusion. So once and for all, let us lay the myths to rest and uncover the truth. Is there a difference between energy and calories and is it really possible to feed more of one without the other?
The simple answer on both counts is no! Whilst people often tend to use the term ‘energy’ when referring to work or behaviour and ‘calories’ when referring to the horse’s weight, they are not two separate entities (think ‘tomayto/ tomahto’!). Put simply, energy is extracted from nutrients and the amount you feed affects the horse’s weight. Feed too little and he will lose weight, feed too much and he will gain weight. The horse’s energy requirements take into account the energy he requires to simply stay alive and the energy needed to work (which is often over estimated). Regardless of whether a feed is classified as ‘heating or non-heating’, ‘low calorie or high calorie’, feeding more energy than the horse needs/ burns is more than likely to result in excess weight gain.
In many cases, lethargy or a lack of ‘sparkle/ oomph’ is not diet related and therefore simply changing or increasing feed is unlikely to be the solution. Instead, ask yourself if your horse’s weight, temperament or fitness could be responsible. Decreasing weight and/ or increasing fitness, is sometimes all it takes to improve the horse’s natural energy levels. However for sudden, severe and/ or uncharacteristic lethargy, seek veterinary advice to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
Changing the type (rather than the quantity) of energy fed may result in a more energetic performance, but this method only works in some and horses and even then, is not without its pitfalls. High starch, cereal based feeds are not suitable for laminitics and may also encourage more rapid weight gain compared to fibre and oil based feeds. Considering their potentially increased risk laminitis, it could be argued that such feeds may not ideal for any pony, native or good-doer.
As an alternative to changing your feed, you may have considered an ‘energy supplement’ and for some horses, this can prove an effective way of encouraging a more energetic and focussed performance. However, it is often wise to avoid the iron based/ high iron supplements. Horses are rarely deficient iron and in fact, there is not scientific reason to suggest that oversupplying iron will improve energy levels. Iron is also one of the few minerals which can be harmful if over fed.
Despite what you may have been told (or what we might sometimes wish for), energy and calories are exactly the same thing. If your horse is in good or overweight condition, it's not advisable to increase the amount of energy you feed him, regardless of his ridden performance or enthusiasm.