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Don’t Overlook Diet’s Role On A Horse’s Well-Being And Performance

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Paulick Report - Letter to the Editor - July 10th,2023

I feel compelled to comment on the observations John Ed Anthony of Shortleaf Stables Inc. published in the Paulick Report June 22. My own time frame of observing modern U.S. Thoroughbred racing parallels that of Mr. Anthony and my view from the “backstretch” as an equine veterinarian has fueled a career fascination on the critical impact of nutrition on peak performance on the racetrack. It is my opinion that modern nutritional feeding practices play a significant role in the decline of racetrack appearances and performance.

Newly qualified from University College, Dublin, as a veterinarian in1968, I was fortunate to intern with the famed veterinarian Dr. William O. Reed. Six months at Belmont Park in New York followed by six months (the breeding season) at Tartan Farm in Ocala, FL was a formidable learning experience attending to, among others, the stallion Dr. Fager (winner of four championships in 1968, including Horse of the Year).

This time exposed me to the pinnacle of equine care & oversight for peak performance. My abiding memory is of meticulous care of the horses with particular attention to the quality of hay and oats being used. Indeed, Tartan Farm used bottled Saratoga water for their racehorses. During the late 1960s, the U.S. Jockey Club stats noted that racehorses averaged 12 starts per year – a far cry from today's horses racing in the U.S. who average less than six. Unfortunately, this significant reduction in “starts per year” is not just a U.S.-based problem, but a phenomenon noted worldwide.

The link between modern feeding practices and compromised performance since the 1960s has been curated off an understanding of “what was different” then, as well as a career of observations, clinical practice and scientific review. Fact is, the equine diet of the 1960s was lower in starch and high in fiber. It consisted of oats, minerals, and flaxseed as the “norm.” Hay was the preferred forage.

Today's trainers rely on pre - mixed grain feeds that are higher in starch (ref: Sarah Ralston/Rutgers University – Excess starch causes hind gut acidosis which can lead to fractures), supplemental minerals of questionable efficacy (ref: Krook & Maylin/Cornell University “Racehorses at risk” – excessive calcium in modern diets cause osteochondrosis /osteopetrosis & the assertion that bone pathology rather than racetrack surfaces are the cause of fractures), and use of soya bean rather than flaxseed as a protein source.

This change in diet has led to a significant decrease in the omega-3's available to stabled horses and also has a considerable impact on prostaglandin-E production (whose function to prevent “auto-digestion” from the adverse effects of the hydrochloric acid produced during digestion) thus reducing mucus production in the stomach. In short, stabled racehorses today mostly lack the nutritional protection afforded a previous generation of horses. Indeed, the impact has been noted clinically in the widespread increase in equine gastric issues (ref: University of Saskatchewan finding of gastric ulcers in 75% of stabled racehorses at Marquis Downs) and as stated by Anthony “racing fans are missing about half of what they once enjoyed in racing.”

In the last 25 years, I have factored the above issues into my own equine practice dealing with racehorses, show jumpers, show horses & dressage horses. My recent case study, published in The Irish Field (12-03-2022) “Ground breaking gut solution” ( ) highlights that evidenced-based results of nutritional change are apparent in weeks rather than months or years and I continue to be astounded by the synergy of “diet” on well-being & performance.

Dr. Richard McCormick, M.V.B., Dip. Eq.Sc., M.R.C.V.S. Licensed Veterinarian (Ireland & UK, Kentucky, USA) Dunboyne, Co.Meath, Ireland

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