Feeding Stallions for Optimum Performance
Stallions, like any other horses, require a balanced diet and good diet management to stay healthy, in optimum condition, and at maximum performance levels. Depending on how busy the stallion is, he will most likely need to be fed a tailored, performance type diet during the breeding season.
The first thing to consider when feeding stallions is the individuals’ body condition. In stallions in particular, this is dependent on many factors, the most important of which are temperament and activity.
The stallion that just will not settle during the breeding season is likely to lose condition faster than the calmer types, and will need to be carrying a bit extra condition before the season starts. For older or more sedate type stallions, an exercise programme will improve general health and help both libido and fertility during the breeding season.
Based on evidence from human fertility studies, being too fat or too thin can affect libido and fertility. In humans, obesity has been shown to be associated with sluggish sperm and an increase in sperm defects. Likewise, underweight individuals have reduced fertility.
Stallions that are not covering several times per day will have less requirement for calories and protein. However, as seen in the sport horse industry, a stallion may collect only 3 times per week but cover many mares.
There is huge pressure on these horses to have highly robust semen that will remain fertile after chilling and freezing processes. So while the requirement for energy is decreased, the requirement for the vitamins and minerals is unchanged. In this situation, stud balancers are very useful as they provide high-spec micro nutrients without the calories.
Busy stallions have an increased need for both energy and protein. In order to help reduce the incidences of colic and laminitis in stallions, it is advisable to feed a diet that is low in starch – while still providing appropriate energy levels.
This type of diet can also have a dramatic effect on stallion temperament and improve manageability and temperament. Ensuring the stallion has ample supplies of B vitamins will also have a positive effect on temperament. Supplementing with a B vitamin supplement would be advisable for hard to manage or difficult stallions.
Stallions, in particular, benefit from having ad lib forage, hay or grass. This is for the usual reasons of gastro intestinal health – but also has the benefit of reducing boredom and hence the incidence of vices and self-mutilation.
While diet alone is unlikely to eliminate aggressive self-mutilation in stallions, effective diet management can reduce the problems. It is advised that stallions have constant access to forage – several small meals fed throughout the day rather than two big feeds, and chaff added to slow down eating and digestion.
Gastric ulcers can also increase the incidence of stereotypes/vices and self-mutilation. The diet plan tips above and the reduction of the starch in the diet can reduce the incidence of ulcers.
Aside from the wellbeing of the stallion, it is important to consider the effects of diet on semen quality. For stallions to be successful, they have to be fertile. Busy books in thoroughbred stallions and the use of chilling and freezing techniques in the sport horse industry means that semen quality needs to be excellent in modern-day breeding programmes.
Sperm have a relatively high lipid (fat) content. We are aware of the advantages of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the human diet – and similarly, this is true in horses. Omega 3 and omega 6 are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Nature provides peak omega 3 levels in grass from March through to May, coinciding with the breeding season.
Supplementing Omega 3 has been shown in some studies to have a positive effect on fertility markers. It may increase both daily sperm output and the number of normal sperm in the ejaculate. The most significant improvement was seen in post-thaw semen and in stallions which had suboptimal fertility rates.
Linseed is an excellent source of omega 3 and can be provided in the diet as ground, roasted or as an oil. Emulsified linseed oils, such as Karron Oil, are absorbed and utilised more effectively by the horse.
Oxidation is an essential chemical reaction that allows the sperm to fertilise the egg. However, if excessive oxidation occurs, then fertility is reduced. Semen contains a variety of built-in anti-oxidants. The studies on the effects of diet on fertility are based on evaluating semen characteristics rather than actual conception rates.
Studies comparing stallions with and without dietary anti-oxidants suggest that anti-oxidant requirements in stallions are higher than previously thought. Processing of semen in the non-thoroughbred industry increases the oxidative challenges that semen is exposed to. Vitamin E and Selenium are the main antioxidants in the diet, and may be aided by Vitamin C.
Supplementing with Vitamins E and C have shown increased daily sperm output, sperm concentration and progressive motility in humans and rats. In humans, low vitamin E is linked to low libido. Whether this is true or not in stallions is difficult to prove. Anecdotally, low Vitamin E levels in feed have been associated with stallions taking several attempts at a dummy or a mare and being slow to perform.
Vitamin E and selenium also have a significant role in muscle health and maintaining the muscles of the upper hind limb and the back that a stallion depends on in order to function.
As is usual in the bloodstock industry, the successful stallion will become busier as he gets older. With age comes an expected degree of wear and tear. Stallions with busy books have a significant workload on their hind limbs. The hind limb of the stallion is vital. Any degree of pain can result in the stallion being reluctant to mount a mare or a dummy.
Regardless of how good the semen is, the stallion does need to actually cover the mare. Unfortunately in horses with hind limb pain, they will attempt to mount repeatedly rather than engaging solidly on the first jump. This serves to increase the pressure on the problem area and exacerbate the problem.
Clever management so that mares are the easiest possible height or that the dummy is at the right level can help, (smaller is not always better), the surface in the covering shed also has a significant influence. Veterinary treatment may be required for management during the season. Adding glucosamine and joint supplements to the diet may also prolong hind limb soundness.
While there is some merit in adding some specific nutrients to the diet of problem stallions, there is no doubt whatsoever that a diet that is not balanced or is deficient in certain vitamins and minerals WILL cause problems with both performance and fertility.
For further information on feeding stallions, contact the RED MILLS nutrition team.