Are you using supplements to your advantage? Or do you send dollars down the drain? Learn how to get the most from the extras you provide in your horse’s diet.
By Kristin Pitzer
You’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” The same is true of equine athletes that are required to perform at a much higher level than their counterparts in the wild.
By putting horses under heavy workloads, keeping them in stalls, and not providing all-day grazing, we’ve forced performance horses to adjust to a different lifestyle than they’ve evolved to live. Therefore, they can require supplements to fill in where basic forage leaves holes.
Look at the Individual
You must consider your horse’s age, weight, and activity level to determine what nutrients he needs on a daily basis. The National Research Council (NRC) publishes information on nutrient requirements for horses based on how much work they perform, so you don’t have to figure that out on your own. Although it’s often said reining horses are under intense training, they’re actually considered by the NRC to have a moderate—not heavy—workload.
“Everybody’s perception of their own horse is different, so the National Research Council created a set of guidelines to get everybody on a more level playing field for making nutrition recommendations,” said Jyme Nichols, PhD, Director of Nutrition for Bluebonnet Feeds and Stride Animal Health. “Reining horses would fall more in that ‘moderate’ activity level. Racehorses would be more the ‘intense,’ and then endurance horses would be ‘extremely heavy’ work.”
Knowing your horse’s body condition score (BCS) is also necessary when feeding for performance, as it could mean the difference between adding more to his diet, easing off, or simply maintaining what he’s currently being given. According to the Henneke scale, which defines body condition in horses, a BCS of five is considered optimal.
“Most reiners probably aren’t going to love me for saying this, but the reining industry tends to keep its horses a little heavy,” Nichols said. “Oftentimes, I see reining horses that are sitting more at that seven-and-a-half body condition score. Eight is considered fat.
“That can actually lead to some really negative long-term health factors,” she added. “Number one, their body is carrying excess weight, which is really hard on bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments. And you can actually cause metabolic disorders by overfeeding them and keeping them in too good of body condition.”
Looking at each horse individually, versus feeding all horses in the barn the same, is crucial. One horse may need extra calories to maintain his weight during competition season; another horse might seem to just “get fat on air.” Setting up a strict nutrition schedule, oftentimes with the help of an equine nutritionist and vet, can be necessary to help a horse perform at his best.
“I feel like proper nutrition is pretty vital in any athletic endeavor, and that includes the equine performance events,” said NRHA Professional Bud Lyon of Tioga, Texas. “We ask a lot of our horses in the reining, and especially our younger horses that might need a little bit more repetition to learn and refine the maneuvers as opposed to some of the older horses that can live on more of a maintenance training program. It’s important to evaluate each horse as an individual.”
A balanced diet tailored to each horse is the cornerstone of feeding the horses in Lyon’s program. That means hay and feed account for a significant amount of his business expenses, but offering that standard of care is more important than sacrificing quality for lower feed bills.
In addition to treating each horse as an individual, owners and trainers also need to consider the area they live in. Some regions might be deficient in certain minerals that other locations have in plenty. Any poor performance issues that arise suddenly could indicate a deficiency. Jeremy Gates, an NRHA Professional based at Stony Ford Ranch in Campbell Hall, New York, said if he has a horse that isn’t looking right, the first thing he does is pull blood and send it for a vitamin and mineral panel. That test will determine if the horse is lacking in any key area.
“This part of the country is extremely deficient in vitamin E and selenium,” Gates said. “I actually have quite a few horses on vitamin E supplements. It’s extremely important in muscle function. You need to understand where you live and what that area is deficient in and look at that, because I’ve had some horses tie up that were PSSM-negative and shouldn’t be tying up. We pulled blood and found out that their vitamin E was so low, it was almost unreadable. We started them on vitamin E and never had a problem again.”
Support as Needed
Sometimes, even with a balanced diet and no mineral deficiencies, performance horses still need support for certain body processes during competition. Not every horse will benefit from the same supplement; much like diet, supplementation should be looked at on an individual basis.
Jessie Bengoa, senior marketing team member at the nutrition-focused animal health company Platinum Performance—which provides NRHA’s official equine oral joint supplement—said Platinum’s strategy has always been to treat each horse as trillions of cells—not just one 1,000-pound animal. She said taking a whole-body approach to wellness and paying attention to the little nuances that can contribute to a healthy and long career help reining horses reach their athletic potential.
“We really value the importance of prevention, not just therapeutic support, which always has a time and a place,” Bengoa said. “For example, joint care is pivotal in performance horses, but it’s not just caring for the joints once that horse is in aggressive training and competition. It’s really preparing to set that horse up for a career with a lot of longevity, success, and health.”
Bengoa stressed that joint care starts when horses are young, as they enter the training stage of their careers. Putting those horses on a joint supplement can give them the tools they need to handle minor injuries that happen through daily riding.
“Horses are always going to get injured, unfortunately, despite our best efforts,” Bengoa said. “Prevention is a key piece of the puzzle. Really, equine nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to focus on anti-inflammatory versus pro-inflammatory.”
Gates said the horses in his program are regularly on joint supplements, although it’s somewhat owner-dependent. His younger horses might be on a complete care package, and then he works with his vet if they need something more tailored to their physiology as they increase their level of training.
“All the supplements can get expensive, so it’s not just a barn rule that everybody gets a joint supplement,” Gates said. “You have to work with your owner, too, to see what’s possible.”
For performance horses that are hauled to shows regularly, gastrointestinal supplementation might be used to lower the chance of ulcers. Because the vagus nerve connects the gut to the brain, any stress will affect the horse’s gastrointestinal system. Anxious horses may also experience indigestion, which can decrease their performance at shows.
Lyon tries to keep his horses’ routines as regular as possible when on the road to prevent ulcers from gaining a foothold. He also offers them free access to hay, which decreases boredom and encourages production of acid-buffering saliva.
“I don’t know that you can ever completely take the stress out of that environment for these horses, but it certainly goes a long way if you can maintain some semblance of consistency,” Lyon said.
Nichols added that providing pre- and probiotics is one of the best things an owner can do to support a horse’s mental and digestive health, especially for a horse that’s traveling extensively. When deciding which products to purchase, though, not all are created equally, and labels can be challenging to read. Though the label might give the name of the probiotic and the amount of colony-forming units (or CFUs) guaranteed per gram, it usually doesn’t reveal the specific strain.
“To put it in perspective, here’s a scenario relating my last name to a probiotic,” Nichols said. “Pretend you’re going to an equine nutrition seminar. When you arrive, the program only lists the speaker as ‘Nichols.’ But you don’t know which Nichols you’re getting. You’re hoping for Dr. Jyme Nichols, but you don’t have a clue whether you’re getting me, my husband, or my 3-year-old daughter. That’s the way it works with probiotics.”
This discrepancy is why some people have positive experiences with probiotics, while others might not see any difference—those particular supplements may have been made with different probiotic strains, even though they have the same wording on the label. Working with a nutritionist can assure owners they choose a probiotic that’s been proven to support a healthy population of good bacteria in the gut, thus minimizing problems caused by stress.
A horse might not have a complicated biological need, but when adding in the stress and impact that goes along with training and competition, equine athletes can benefit from additional support.
The right forage and grain are key, but supplements that can help prevent ulcers and minimize injuries, or even produce a shiny, healthy coat, are still helpful. Monitoring each horse on an individual basis is the best way to know how to prepare a horse for a successful career in the reining pen.
Joint Care 101
Reining horses often need joint support due to the demands placed on them by different maneuvers. There’s an array of supplements involved in joint care, and while their names sound complicated, those products can positively impact a horse’s performance by targeting different parts of the internal structures that make up his body.
“Advanced nutrition starts at the cellular level by influencing the biological health of the entire horse,” Bengoa said. “Using nutrition in both a preventive capacity and also as part of a treatment plan, has been shown to promote health, performance, and longevity in the horse, especially in performance athletes.”
The following items are joint supplement components, provided by Bengoa.
- Avocado/soy unsaponifiables (ASU) are derived from a specific lipid portion of avocados and soy and have the ability to both stimulate cartilage synthesis and inhibit cartilage degradation. ASU also have other anti-inflammatory benefits. Research on horses with osteoarthritis has shown that ASU supplementation can significantly reduce the severity of articular cartilage degradation.
- Glucosamine sulfate is an amino-sugar that’s a building block for glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) that are part of the extracellular matrix of cartilage and other connective tissues. Research suggests glucosamine increases production of GAGs and therefore helps form new or maintain existing cartilage. Glucosamine has also been shown to inhibit free radicals and key enzymes that degrade cartilage.
- Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a non-sulfated glycosaminoglycan naturally found in connective, epithelial, and neural tissues. It’s a major component of the synovial fluid that surrounds joints and aids in reducing friction between articulating cartilage that can occur during movement. In doing so, HA helps maintain healthy joint function.
- Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) are long, unbranched polysaccharides that are highly polar and attract water, making them critically useful in the body as lubricants and shock absorbers. GAGs form an important component of connective tissues and are key to healthy joint function.
- Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a sulfur-containing compound and product of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). Often advocated for alleviating joint pain, MSM plays a significant role in joint support by providing a bioavailable sulfur source that’s a key component in most glycosaminoglycans, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. Animal studies have shown MSM to help maintain healthy skin, coat, and hoof quality, because it’s necessary to form the reinforcing bonds between strands of collagen. MSM has been shown to protect against both inflammation and oxidative stress in the horse.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, indicating that they aren’t produced by the body at all or in sufficient amounts and therefore must be consumed in the diet. Omega-3s are important for cellular health and can help support healthy levels of inflammation in the body, as well as help maintain joint health, cognitive function, and multiple other aspects of wellness.
- Free radicals are unstable molecules that lack an electron in their outer orbital. Free radicals are produced naturally through various physiological functions (e.g., immune and reproduction processes). Free radicals are also produced during oxidative metabolism and energy production and increase substantially during exercise. In an attempt to fill the outer orbit, free radicals “steal” electrons from other molecules, which results in damage to cell membranes, proteins, and DNA. Ultimately, such tissues as cartilage, muscle, liver, kidneys, and heart can be compromised.
Start With Forage
While supplements are often essential, the right diet starts at the bottom of the horse’s food pyramid. The horse is a natural grazer, and his digestive system was made to process high-quality forage. One of the most common types of hay for reining horses is alfalfa, which is high in protein and low in starch.
“I really like to lean on diets that are based on dehydrated alfalfa meal,” Nichols said. “That’s a really good feed base because it has a nice amino acid profile, which is super-important for performance horses.”
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, make up everything from skin and hair to cells—the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nervous system, eye membranes, etc. While ruminants, like cattle, can produce their own amino acids from nitrogen, horses need to be fed quality amino acids.
“Alfalfa has a better amino acid profile than grass, so that’s your starting point,” Nichols said. “Then you select a concentrate to support the forage.”
Grass hays, or even alfalfa/grass blends, can also provide a good source of nutrition. No matter what type of forage you feed, it’s important to get your hay tested on a regular basis.
“I think the most underappreciated thing in the equine world is getting your hay tested,” Nichols said. “You cannot look at hay and decide whether it’s good quality or not. Time and time again, I have seen hay bales that looked beautiful—green, fine stemmed, really good—but it tests terrible.”
Hay harvested from the same field can vary from year to year, and even from cutting to cutting. Hay quality can also fluctuate depending on the region it was grown in. The best way to determine quality is to check when the hay was harvested. It should be cut at an early, immature state, rather than being allowed to grow and increase in lignin, which makes the stalk rigid—and harder for your horse to digest. As hay grows, the level of neutral detergent fiber (NDF) increases, making it less digestible. This can cause “hay bellies,” poor toplines, and decreased muscle definition. No matter how good your hay is, though, it can’t make up for the calorie expenditure today’s reining horses burn. Therefore, the addition of grains to your horse’s rations is necessary.
“When you’re talking about performance horses, there’s a point where they need more calories than what roughage alone can supply,” Nichols said. “That’s where you start to lean on bringing a concentrate in. You may need extra amino acids; you may need a little extra protein; you may need more straight calories. You’re certainly going to need more vitamins and trace minerals. The forage can only go so far.”
Online programs allow you to plug in your horse’s weight and energy level, and a formula will output what he needs to consume on a daily basis. That way, you can leave diet formulation to the experts instead of trying to figure out how much grain your horses should be eating.
“From a consumer standpoint, we get hung up on percentages of everything,” Nichols said. “Like, what percent protein does my horse need? Horses don’t have a requirement for a percent of anything. They have a requirement for a certain number of grams or milligrams of each nutrient. It can get a little bit complex, which is why it’s really handy for someone like Bluebonnet Feeds to offer a fortified feed.”
Nichols advocates for feeds that are lower in starch and sugar, or non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). High NSC feeds—50% or higher—can cause a horse to tie up or lead to digestive issues, and horses that are genetically predisposed to metabolic conditions need NSC percentages of 12% or less. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking “low-carbohydrate” means the same for horses as it does for people.
“Forage is carbohydrates. To say you aren’t going to feed any carbohydrates to your horse doesn’t even make sense,” Nichols said. “Instead, limit the amount of starch and sugar by avoiding sweet feeds, corn, molasses, and oats. Those cereal grains are going to be really starchy and sugary.”