Sport horse nutrition: Winning is in the details
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
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."