Sport horse nutrition: Winning is in the details

Sport horse nutrition: Winning is in the details

A new study in top equine athletes brings nutritional deficiencies into the spotlight
Nov 01, 2010

Photo 1: Riders weigh their endurance horses with portable scales to monitor hydration status preparedness before a competition and to track loss and recovery during and after rides. This generates a wealth of information.
Riders competing at an elite level must pay attention to all manner of details (Photo 1). They are usually fastidious about their tack and equipment, to the point of being obsessive. It has to be the correct saddle and saddle pad combination. The helmet must fit comfortably and securely, the boots can only be of a certain style and manufacture, and only certain riding gloves will do. Their horses must be groomed and turned out correctly.

Trainers at this level fall into an obsessive, micromanaging role with workouts and preparation as well. Racehorses and Olympic competition horses (e.g., those that compete in dressage, show jumping, eventing and endurance) are ridden to meticulous schedules, sometimes with each session written out in advance and commented on afterward, as a means of achieving optimal athletic performance.

And yet, with all this attention to detail, new research shows that often neither riders nor trainers are as aware of the nutritional management needs of their elite equine athletes as they might think they are. Sure, dietary choices, feeding schedules and supplement use may be discussed and decided on, but the reality seems to be that most elite riders and trainers "forfeit the intimate knowledge of their horse's feeding to their staff," says Elizabeth Owens, equine business manager of Ridley AgriProducts and the consulting nutritionist to the Australian Equestrian Team.

Falling short in nutritional oversight

Photo 2: A typical busy stable feed room illustrates all the choices facing riders and trainers. Usually the barn employees help feed the horses and are responsible for doing so correctly and for knowing which horses are eating well or not.
Most trainers oversee many equine athletes, all in various stages of development and often in different locations. Upper-level riders are generally working numerous horses and often adding in teaching or clinics to their duties. "This necessitates the employment of staff to supervise the daily management of their horses," says Owens (Photo 2).

She conducted a two-year study that consisted of an extensive evaluation of the feeding and work practices of members of Australia's equestrian team. While she found some interesting practical information of importance to upper-level equine competitors, the most striking finding in her work was the often uninformed attitude toward nutrition displayed by even elite riders and managers.

"During this study," says Owens, "I discovered instances in which riders were ignorant of their horses' level of feed intake or rejection and were unaware that certain ingredients were being excluded from the diet, due either to lack of availability or grooms who simply forgot to include that ingredient."

Australia continues to dominate international three-day eventing competitions, having won an Olympic Team Gold medal at the last three Olympics. Yet it is this same success that makes it harder, in Owens' opinion, to make changes and advances in the nutritional care of elite sport horses. "Ingrained, inappropriate feeding practices persist even among elite competitors," says Owens.

But when you are winning, it can be difficult to get riders and trainers to make changes—even changes for the better. "Quite often," she says, "the lack of a problem is the greatest hindrance to improving feeding practices and nutrition of sport horses."