‘We are what we eat’ goes the saying, but that is also true of the food we give horses.

If you add in a physical challenge, the need to focus on the type, quantity and quality of food becomes more acute, particularly when preparing foals and yearlings for the sales. In an ideal world these young horses need to be physically fit, look good, appear bright and switched on, yet sensible and willing. Get the diet wrong and those aims are likely to be found under the column marked ‘not sold’.

Feed, and increasingly supplements, play a key role in the weeks or months of ‘prep’ which lead to a date with the auctioneer. Polly Bonnor, Director of Thoroughbred Nutrition for Kent-based Saracen Horse Feeds, says feeding for the sales “is more of an art than people realise,” and since a horse can change shape or condition in little more than a day, having a feed specialist to turn to can rescue a potentially damaging reduction in a horse’s value.

Can there be anything more dispiriting for a consignor or breeder than to find their foal or yearling goes on hunger strike when they arrive at the sales complex?

Louise Jones, an equine nutritionist for 20 years and now Head of Equine for feed manufacturers Connolly’s Red Mills, agrees that the food given to foals and yearlings is often more tailored than that for our children, but she points out: “We are not expecting our children to turn into elite athletes.”

She adds: “These horses are going to be on the track as young animals, so we are not only feeding them to look good at the sales, but also to provide those foundations for the athletic endeavour they will face in the future. For instance, bone health – it is critical that we get the nutrients right so young animals have those foundations to build on when they go into training.”

For those of us who grew up loving the smells of the feed room – the sweetness of molasses and the Hovis smell of oats and bran mash – a freshly-opened bag of feed is a pleasant trip down memory lane. You won’t find many chaff cutters or vats of simmering barley in contemporary feed rooms because manufacturers have condensed the best of yesteryear into easy-to-feed nuts or cereals that have all the old qualities and none of the labour. Horse owners simply have to settle on a supplier, but that presents a challenge in itself. Aren’t all manufacturers’ feeds the same, but in different packaging?

Saracen’s Polly Bonnor disagrees, saying: “We believe we are different because we feed to a body type, so we feed a yearling who is destined to be a sprinter very differently from one who will run over middle distances. One is a short, butty, easy-to-muscle type that could get fat if given the wrong type of feed, but if you try to feed the tall, rangy type in the same way as the sprinter you would struggle to build them up. We do the same with racehorses, so why not start the process before they go into training?”


Giving a layman’s guide to the nuances of feeding, Connolly’s Red Mills’ Louise Jones says: “There’s a massive range of feed on the market, but the majority of companies break them down into segments for end users.

“For example, feed for young stock will contain more quality protein and higher levels of vitamins and minerals than you would find in leisure horse feed.

“Companies will then segment further. For example, feeds designed for sales prep are typically higher in oil to give a nice coat condition and may also have higher levels of antioxidants to support the immune system. I would say to anybody who is prepping horses for the sales, give your feed company a ring because they will have the experts that can advise on individual circumstances and help you get the best from your youngstock.

“Good nutritionists will also analyse your forage. During prep time this means looking in particular at the digestibility, nutrient and mineral content of conserved forage such as hay and haylage. You need to know what’s in such forage in order to select the most suitable hard feed and supplements.”

“Feeding for the sales is more of an art than people realise”

While on forage, can’t foal vendors simply rely on mother’s milk and a good crop of grass to make the best start in life? Jones says: “Mares’ milk is obviously important, but at around three months old the nutritional value starts to decline.”

She adds: “High-quality grass is a good source of calories and protein, but we have done a lot of research into grass and know for example that it‘s short of copper – which relates to joint health – and zinc, which ties in with hoof health.”

Jones recommends that foals receive a suitable hard feed, saying: “For foals that are doing well a nutrient-rich balancer such as Grocare Balancer may be all that’s required, while for others needing a higher-calorie diet we would recommend Foal & Yearling Cooked Mix or Premier Yearling Cubes.”

When it comes to creep feeding, weaning or sales prep, why not ask the expert? Jones says: “Our entire team has a strong equine background and are backed up by nutritional specialists. We provide our customers with regular nutritional reviews, particularly during key periods such as youngstock prep.”

From kitchen to table, and mill to stable

Celebrity chefs may vie to unlock the secrets of the kitchen, yet most chefs pride themselves on having a few trade secrets which give their dishes an x-factor.

It seems feed manufacturers are no different, priding themselves on being able to offer customers the best ingredients cooked in state-of-the-art mills, while gaining an edge in the cooking process and after-care service.

Louise Jones of Connolly’s Red Mills says: “There are a lot of good feed companies out there, but the specialism comes in when you are building on basic requirements and thinking about optimal nutrition and specific ingredients that will help an animal.

“With our low-starch Horse Care range we include a care package to help support stomach health and hind gut health, immune function and hoof condition. Prepping a horse for sale is such a tight timeframe that you want to make sure you are crossing the Ts and dotting the Is to get there in the best health.”

“The specialism comes in when you are building on basic requirements”

Polly Bonnor believes a cross-Atlantic arrangement has given Saracen an edge, and says: “We teamed up 20 years ago with Kentucky Equine Research, a world leader in the advancement of breeding and athletic performance through nutrition.

“There are certain elements we ship from America that give us some patents other companies don’t have. The digestibility of the nutrient and how available it is to the horse is one example.

“As a member of [rock band] The Clash once said, ‘we’ve all got the same instruments, but it’s how we put the notes together to make our songs that count’. It’s the way we combine feed materials that makes it work for horses.”

Such an analogy can be brought closer to home says Catherine Rudenko, a nutritionist who advises Saracen. She says: “People say feed is simply oats or barley, but my comparison is Jamie Oliver’s cook book. Even with that book I don’t cook as well as him, and it’s the researchers and formulators behind the scenes whose skills at cooking a recipe makes the difference – and it does.”

So while feed manufacturers do not employ celebrity chefs, their staff range from experts in buying raw materials, converting it into feed, testing it for purity and then advising wholesalers and end-users alike.

Supplementing the feeding programme

It is probably fair to say that many foals and yearlings go through the sales preparation process on a relatively simple diet of good quality feed, water and hay or haylage. However, supplements give consignors other options when horses develop issues that can inhibit their performance, for instance going off their feed, showing signs of joint issues or presenting behavioural challenges. Even the most amenable colt or filly can have a bad day at the office, but unlike humans they can’t reach for a cigarette or glass of wine.

Cereal-free feed such as Re-Leve is an option says Polly Bonnor of Saracen, for it maintains a more-trainable temperament. This is key at the all-important inspection stage when points are deducted by prospective buyers if yearlings jig-jog or swing their heads and hindquarters around.

“Some horses stay on Re-Leve all the way through the prep stage,” says Bonnor.

Rudenko says: “In racing and even in sales prep horses need high-carbohydrate feed because of the workload, which is so different to that given to horses in the leisure riding world. If you reduce the starch level and raise the fat profile you can alter the horse’s system so they are less reactive.”

Feed and exercise can also be used to adjust the look and outline of a horse, says Bonnor, so, for example, a mature filly can retain an image of strength, keep her shape without ‘overmuscling’ and stay feminine. The aim with all sales prep horses is to make them look racy, but without putting strain on their joints.

Supplement specialist Foran Equine is a sister company to Connolly’s Red Mills, whose Head of Equine, Louise Jones, says: “Supplements play a big role during sales prep. For instance, if you have an anxious colt that’s going to stress in the sales environment you might consider a lower starch feed and a calming supplement like Nutri-Calm, or for an underdeveloped youngster, a hydrolysed protein supplement such as Muscle Prep can be immensely beneficial.”

Photo: Steven Cargill

Feed provides the foundations of the diet, says Jones, but adds: “Supplements enable you to tailor a diet to individual horses or address specific concerns.”

On that theme, Rudenko says: “There is no need to supplement from a nutrient point of view. Feed will provide vitamins, minerals, proteins and amino acids, which is your core nutrition. Supplements deal with environmental problems and help to change the horse’s physiological response. That could be related to digestive health, to physitis [the swelling around growth plates of bones in young horses], to coat quality. They are examples not of nutritional needs, but supplement needs.”

The process of sales preparation, particularly for yearlings, inevitably means stepping up their exercise and the amount of feed they consume. This can lead to hind gut issues, which is where a supplement that acts as a hind gut buffer has a role.

EquiShure is a commonly used acid buffer from Saracen, while Synovate supports joint health through the preparation process. As Bonnor says: “The aim is to help the horse feel comfortable and maintain their stride length so they walk well, look well and sell well.”

With yearling sales taking place in September and October horses start their preparation in July or August, and even in northern Europe that can mean exercise in hot weather. Adding an electrolyte to a horse’s feed helps prevent dehydration.

Restore SR is Saracen’s electrolyte, and Rudenko says: “Electrolytes are the supplement, but you can also feed beet pulp and mashes such as Recovery Mash. If horses are stressed through travelling or being at the sales, and don’t drink properly they can look whippety and tucked up.

“Getting your horse used to having beet pulp or mash in a feed will help them keep their frame at the sales.”

Size matters – ask any feed company

Foals and yearlings tend to arrive at sales via one of two routes – those who were prepped at the stud where they were born and those who join specialist consignors for six to eight weeks (occasionally longer) of fine tuning.

The result is that some yearlings go under the auctioneer’s hammer having eaten just one brand of feed, while others will have switched at the start of preparation. Polly Bonnor of Saracen says that can influence the advice they give clients.

When it comes to feed quantity, she says: “What type of exercise will the yearling be given? Some will just go on a walker, most will be lunged, others will be hand-walked across the downs, around fields or along lanes.

“Secondly, are they homebreds [being prepped by their breeders] or have they come in exclusively to spend six to eight weeks being prepped? If a homebred yearling has been in a good nutritional environment all the way we’re working on a rising plain of nutrition, but if a horse comes in solely for prep a consignor may have to feed at a higher rate.”

Other factors abound, such as the very warm, dry weather Britain experienced in April and May this year, following a very wet winter and frosts in March which affected grass growth.

Farriery – it’s all about foot fall

Most of us will have experienced the misery of sore feet at some time, if only through wearing new shoes that blistered heels and toes.

It takes little imagination to transfer that to the feet of horses, and while they are spared strappy high heels and flip- flops they can suffer soreness in a variety of ways. Add in the inspections feet are given at a bloodstock sale and neat, symmetrical, healthy-looking hooves are a key element.

“Thoroughbred feet are more delicate than those of native breeds,” says Newmarket- based farrier Dr. Simon Curtis, an Honorary Associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. “The hoof wall is about ten per cent thinner and lighter than those of a similar-sized horse.

“The hoof is at the end of the pendulum, and more energy is expended flinging something heavy in front of you – no one set out to breed thinner-hooved horses, but that is the consequence of breeding this extraordinary athlete.”

Good farriery and good feed are a necessity for the young thoroughbred’s feet, while diligent stable management has a place, too, and there are also supplements that can aid the consignor’s path to the sales ring.

Curtis says: “Top professional stud farms call upon their farriers when foals are one month old, and then every month. Feet at that age are growing fast, and can grow out of shape fast. If there is a perceived problem the front feet may be checked at two weeks and then every two weeks. Trim early and trim often is now the norm and is extending to young horses in other disciplines.

“The horse is the only animal that stands on one digit, one toe, and all the force goes through that. Weight is never evenly distributed, and that can push a hoof out of shape. The farrier’s job is to keep the foot evenly and symmetrically shaped, which helps the loading up through the limb. At the sales there will be some nit-picking, but the vast majority of horses have extremely good conformation.”

Farriers cannot correct an off-set knee, although they may be able to improve a mild case, and they can improve a bend in the bone or the joint, says Curtis, who adds: “When a foal is young and developing and the growth plates are active we can have a big effect. For instance, a horse who is back at the knee can be improved by trimming the heels so they are further back to give more support.”

Farrier Simon Curtis

If farriers can keep good hooves healthy and attractive, and help with issues that may arise, what about feed, supplements and other hoof-care products as part of a uniform approach?

Curtis says: “Thoroughbreds are fed so well they rarely suffer from a lack of nutrition, and while there are supplements that are designed to maintain healthy feet, and you will find the occasional yearling at the sales with a crack in a hoof, it’s not common.

“I do recommend Hoof Hardener [from Keratex] although I once said to the founder of the business that it wasn’t a good promotional name because people associate hard with brittle. It [Hoof Hardener] chemically recombines the keratin and is very good on brittle hooves. It’s good for preventing foals getting footsore, and when I’ve rasped hooves that have been treated with Keratex they sound different. Lanolin-based hoof oils will control moisture loss.

“A problem that is developing in yearling preparation is the use of [mechanical] walkers which are rarely cleaned spotlessly and means horses are walking around in their own urine and faeces. Uric acid will dissolve hoof, as a result of which thrush [bacterial infection of the frog] has become a problem. Silver Feet [a barrier protection and hoof balm] is a product I have used that works.”

Does walking yearlings during sales prep cause hoof problems? Curtis says: “The perfect pattern is five weeks before the sales shoe them in front, one week before the sale carry out the final shoeing. Yearlings’ hooves are growing faster than adult horses, and this way you have quite a bit of hoof to work with to get them spot-on for the sale.

“Any more than that is unnecessary, but in dry summer when the ground is hard you want to avoid hooves cracking out. Hind feet don’t carry as much weight, but some people like yearlings shod behind at the five-week stage.”

The ability to stick shoes to hooves, has been a useful innovation for farriers, says Curtis, and while glues have improved in their efficiency they can restrict movement of the hoof wall. Glue can therefore be a useful ally, rather than a replacement for nails. Copper nails, which are anti-microbial, are an alternative to traditional steel nails.

Other innovations include hoof putty, which can plug a small puncture hole, and products which can patch broken hoof horn. Accidents happen, and while perfect feet look good buyers at a sale will forgive a patched hoof.

Consignor tips

“Keep it simple when it comes to feeding,” says Hillwood Stud’s Charlie Vigors, who with his wife Tracy is a leading consignor of yearlings based in Wiltshire.

He buys from Saracen, and says: “We feed each horse individually, using a cube with all the key ingredients. We might add some speedy beet [Rapid Beet] or oil if we feel that would help certain horses – beet is useful if a horse runs up a bit light – plus chaff which we buy from Dengie.

“We try not to over-face them. It’s no good piling food into a horse because that way you suppress their appetite. How would you feel if you were given a Sunday roast with all the trimmings, followed by another one a few hours later?”

Lincolnshire-based Bumble Mitchell is another fan of simplicity, and says: “We have fed Dodson & Horrell Stud Cubes for years and our horses have always done well on it. Oil keeps things moving in their gut, and we feed the yearlings small amounts of Suregrow while they are out at grass in the summer.

“We use a supplement called V-Biotic [now rebranded as Everyday Vitamin & Mineral] that we buy from Equine America and which tops up everything we need. The yearlings get it all year round, and come in from grass for the final preparation looking really well.”

Bumble preps and sells foals and yearlings, and says: “We use Keratex Hoof Hardener on the foals’ feet. Foals work much harder than yearlings at the sales because more people want to inspect them. They are not wearing shoes and can get foot sore, but Keratex seems to work.”

Thumbs up to NAF

Few jumps trainers had a more gratifying win last season than Christian Williams, the Welshman who in his fourth season landed Chepstow’s Welsh National with Potters Corner.

Glamorgan-based Williams feeds Dodson & Horrell racehorse and conditioning cubes, plus a range of supplements which are sourced from his yard sponsor NAF Equine. He is working with jumpers of racing age rather than pre-sale youngstock, but his views are worth hearing.

“We use NAF’s Raceon range, including Gastro Form, a pellet for ulcers which means we scope horses less often, Clean Wind, which reduces snotty noses and coughs, and Rapid Recovery, which picks them up after a race, especially if they have had a long journey,” he says. “Our strike-rate at Fakenham, which is seven hours in a lorry from here, indicates it works.

“One of our horses, Uno Mas, was second at Doncaster and then won at Catterick the next day having been fed Rapid Recovery overnight.”

From calming supplements to joint health, and skin and hoof products, NAF’s range has something for most foal or yearling consignors.