I remember when I was interning for multiple different trainers, and each one had a different philosophy on how soon after eating a horse should work, when they needed electrolytes, and some other things pertaining to exercise and feed. Some were very particular about a horse’s feeding schedule in regards to it exercising…others I don’t think ever had the thought of the two affecting each other cross their minds. Some thought every single horse in the barn should get electrolytes…others wouldn’t think to “waste money” on such a thing. This always led me to being confused…so what are the rules I should be going by? I’m here today to break down how we should address nourishing our horses’ bodies while they are being competitive athletes.
First things first…water….the most important nutrient to your horse. We have all heard someone at some point say you should not allow your horse to drink after it works hard. What I have learned is that we need to use common sense here…if your horse really wants to drink after exercise and has had no colicky symptoms after drinking post workout in the past, then let the horse drink! This just needs to be done gradually. Little bits at a time to make certain there is not digestive upset. To be extra cautious, offer water that is not freezing cold. It should be comfortable enough for you to stick your hand into. A horse is most thirsty right after it finishes a workout…this is a perfectly acceptable time to let him drink, just not to guzzle water.
Next…electrolytes…do horses really need them?? That depends…Your horse loses minerals when it sweats. Minerals have to be replaced for rehydration, normal sweating, and other regular body functions to happen. It is wise to make sure your horse has a salt lick available in its stall or pasture and is receiving feed/quality forage that is of adequate mineral content. It should also be noted that if you are buying feed from a reputable feed company, your horse’s feed should have an adequate level of salt for most normal horses’ needs. If your horse doesn’t want to drink water for various reasons (change in work schedule, new environment, etc.), offering electrolytes could increase the thirst sensation in your horse and encourage more drinking. Electrolytes might become necessary when you are working horses hard in very hot environments. Think competitive eventers during mid-summer in Florida…not so much pleasure horses during winter time in Kentucky.
Now for their feeding schedules…this one used to really stress me out. I never really knew what the right answer was. Hopefully I can offer come clarity here. When a horse is digesting feed, blood is being drawn away from muscles and toward the digestive system. Therefore, limiting food before exercise is important so that the blood can go towards muscles while the horse is working to allow it to perform well. A good rule of thumb is to not feed several hours before the horse is to work. Depending upon the discipline, hay can possibly be fed before competing. For example, a pleasure horse at a show could handle hay before working better than a thoroughbred about to run at the track. After work, they should be allowed to cool down first before ingesting any food. Their breathing should be back to normal and they should not feel hot to the touch.
Whether you’re a pleasure rider or a competitive trainer and athlete, knowing how to allow your horse to compete safely and to its best ability is paramount. Follow these easy to remember rules and you shouldn’t have anything keeping your and your horse on the sidelines.