Fuel Your Performance With Proper Nutrition

Learn how optimizing your diet with nutrition and supplements can help you achieve your riding goals.

By Kelly Altschwager, With Alexis Bennett; Photos by Nichole Chirico

woman carrying bag and drink to horse trailer
Focus on the content of your diet for optimal performance in the gym and in the saddle, as well as to help your body to recover.

When it comes to nutrition, you and your horse are similar. You both require proper fuel to perform. While you can occasionally push through fatigue and hunger at a show or during a long day at the barn, your body will eventually hit its limit. Additionally, you can’t expect to perform your best if you’re focused on your stomach and hunger or find yourself crashing from the quick (and likely less nutritious) meal you had on the road. 

Similar to your horse’s diet, it’s best if the majority of your fuel comes from real food. But sometimes supplements are necessary to help you achieve your goals. Here, I’ll give you a basic guideline for your overall nutrition, as well as explain how and what kind of supplements, when added appropriately, can enhance your performance.

Focus on Your Intake

Fueling yourself properly allows you to have the energy and strength to perform in the arena and at the gym. Ideally, you should work out to support your riding. You strength-train and work on your endurance and flexibility with the goal of improving your horsemanship. All of this places demands on your body that require nutrition, water, stretching, and rest to help you recover. And, recovery allows you to improve your performance. 

Your daily nutrition should include a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Together, these three elements allow you to recover so you can do more and see improvements. Not eating enough causes your body to look for other fuel sources, such as your muscle, to keep you going. Eat too much, and you could gain weight, which can inhibit the flexibility and athleticism necessary to take your riding to the next level. 

Your nutrition should match your goals. The Nutrient Breakdown box below will help you get started. Work with a nutritionist if you have specific goals; it’s like hiring a riding coach for your diet.

Nutrient Breakdown

If you’re just starting to focus on fueling your riding performance, here’s a basic guideline and explanation of the three main nutrients that’ll set you in the right direction. Check food labels or use on an online nutrition guide to find grams per serving in your food sources.

Protein is responsible for muscle repair and is found in foods like eggs, chicken, and Greek yogurt. A basic guideline to follow is that for every pound of body weight, you should consume one gram of protein. 

Carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread, are your energy. For every pound of body weight, 0.7 grams of carbohydrates are recommended. 

Fat is the most nutrient-dense food source and is found in peanut butter, oils, cheese, and avocado. This nutrient is often found in horse supplements for weight gain or hard keepers. For you, fat is needed for brain function as well as for absorption of vitamins and minerals. 

Add Supplements

You should strive to get most of your nutrients from quality whole foods; however, this isn’t always possible. If you have trouble meeting your nutrition needs on the road or on a particularly busy day, a protein bar or shake might be necessary. If you’re trying to fit riding or your workout into the late evening or early morning, a boost of energy from a pre-workout supplement can give you motivation and focus.

When adding supplements, pay a little extra for high-quality products. You wouldn’t skimp when it comes to your horse, and likewise, you should avoid choosing subpar options for yourself to save a few dollars. Finally, read the label. If you can’t read most of the ingredients, or the list of ingredients is long, put it back and find something more wholesome. 

stack of supplement and vitamin containers
Choose supplements that help you reach your daily nutrient goals. You don’t likely need anything beyond protein, a multivitamin (including vitamin D if needed), pre-workout, and creatine.

If you choose one supplement, make it a multivitamin that provides vitamins and minerals lacking in most diets. Protein powder, pre-workouts, and creatine are also three common supplements that get results. If you struggle to get enough protein in your diet, a protein shake or bar can help you meet your daily intake target. Both options also give you sustained energy to get through a long day on the road or at a show, and they’re quick to consume. Again, read the ingredient list. If you have a dairy allergy, choose a whey-protein alternative, such as pea or soy protein. 

When you’re trying to squeeze a workout or ride into an already-busy day, pre-workout or coffee can give you a boost of energy and help you focus. Unlike coffee, pre-workouts also often have BCAAs (broken-chain amino acids) and beta-alanine—not just caffeine. BCAAs help you absorb the protein you’re eating, and beta-alanine improves endurance so you can ride or workout longer or with more intensity. 

Creatine, sometimes found in a pre-workout, is also found naturally in meat, such as beef and fish. If you’re low in creatine, supplementing with creatine by itself or in a pre-workout can help with muscle recovery. Before you take creatine, have your blood work done to determine if a supplement is necessary. 

Don’t forget that, just like your horse, you’re an individual. Your food needs and nutrient balance are different than those of your barn mates, spouse, and friends. If you aren’t seeing the results you want and have tried different products or mixed up your nutrient intake, it might be time to consider working with a professional nutritionist who will be able to tailor a program to help you achieve your performance goals, both in the gym and with your horse in the arena. 


Kelly Altschwager

Kelly Altschwager, Wellington, Colorado, is an ACE-certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist; PiYo instructor; fitness expert at Fitness1 Club Wellington; and owns and operates Western Workouts, a personal-training service geared toward helping the busy horseperson. Learn more at  westernworkouts.com.