Most athletic horses are fed a high-starch diet despite the risk of health problems. Replacing starch concentrate with high-energy forage would alleviate these health problems, but could result in a shift in major substrates for muscle energy supply from glucose to short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) due to more hindgut fermentation of fibre. Dietary fat inclusion has previously been shown to promote aerobic energy supply during exercise, but the contribution of SCFA to exercise metabolism has received little attention. This study compared metabolic response with exercise and lactate threshold (VLa4) in horses fed a forage-only diet (F) and a more traditional high-starch, low-energy forage diet (forage-concentrate diet - FC). The hypothesis was that diet F would increase plasma acetate concentration and increase VLa4 compared with diet FC. Six Standardbred geldings in race training were used in a 29-day change-over experiment. Plasma acetate, non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA), lactate, glucose and insulin concentrations and venous pH were measured in samples collected before, during and after a treadmill exercise test (ET, day 25) and muscle glycogen concentrations before and after ET. Plasma acetate concentration was higher before and after exercise in horses on diet F compared with diet FC, and there was a tendency (P = 0.09) for increased VLa4 on diet F. Venous pH and plasma glucose concentrations during exercise were higher in horses on diet F than diet FC, as was plasma NEFA on the day after ET. Plasma insulin and muscle glycogen concentrations were lower for diet F, but glycogen utilisation was similar for the two diets. The results show that a high-energy, forage-only diet alters the metabolic response to exercise and, with the exception of lowered glycogen stores, appears to have positive rather than negative effects on performance traits.