Q – I want to start going on all day rides; what should I bring for my horse to eat and drink?
A -Typically, when we discuss feeding athletic horses we can look at habitual (daily, regular) diet, pre-event feeding or, in the case of endurance rides, co-event feeding. Endurance riding, whether it is a 20-mile pleasure ride or a grueling 100-mile race, requires key nutrients be provided for the horse as he takes breaks during the ride.
Endurance rides are usually considered low intensity work – the horse mostly walks and trots, perhaps with short periods of cantering. But, just because the work is low-intensity, doesn’t mean it isn’t demanding, as the work duration and, therefore, total energy/calorie requirement is very high.
Low intensity work is mostly aerobic, meaning that the muscle will be burning primarily fat as he works, though carbohydrates (mostly from muscle and liver glycogen) play an important role in fat oxidation. In fact, one of the biggest factors causing fatigue during endurance rides is low muscle and liver glycogen concentrations, as those are only stored in limited amounts in the body (compared to relatively large stores of fat, even on a lean horses). One goal of co-event feeding during endurance rides, therefore, is to top up the carbohydrate stores, through feeds such as forage (hay), beet pulp and even grain.
Depending on the intensity of the ride or other stresses, the horse may not be inclined to eat, so often endurance riders try to entice their mounts with small frequent meals of highly palatable feeds, such as hay cubes, beet pulp, rice bran, concentrates (grain mixes) and molasses, perhaps with carrots or apples mixed in. These should be offered in small amounts, frequently.
Hay cubes, beet pulp and rice bran ensure the diet is high in fibre, so as to not disrupt the horse’s digestive tract. These feeds also have high water-holding capacity, so you can make a mash by adding water, thereby also increasing water intake, and helping to ward off dehydration.
In addition to water added to the feed, the horse should be offered fresh water to drink at any breaks, and given the opportunity to drink from any streams or lakes encountered on the ride. Because these horses aren’t working ‘hard’ (like racehorses, for example) there is no danger in offering them water whenever they will drink it. It is also a good idea to bring some water from home, just in case different tastes set your horse off and he refuses to drink.
Electrolyte supplementation is also very important to help replenish the electrolytes (primarily sodium, chloride and potassium) lost in equine sweat, particularly in the hot, humid summer. Electrolyte supplementation may also help encourage a horse to drink (as the thirst mechanism is related to sodium concentration in the blood, and if the horse has sweated extensively, his sodium levels may be reduced thereby decreasing his thirst response). If the horse refuses to drink, however, adding electrolytes may worsen his dehydration. If you do create the slurry described here, you can include the water and electrolytes all together with the feed.
In preparation for your ride, you should ensure the horse is used to what you plan to feed on the ride, so as to not disrupt his normal dietary habits. His daily diet will depend much on his overall workload and body condition, which will dictate how many calories he needs in a day. These needs can be met with good quality forage (ideally offered free choice) and a commercial concentrate to balance for other nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. Feeding regular electrolytes in the summer will help replace those lost on daily (shorter) rides. He should be fed to be a body condition score of 5 (1-9 scale), though most endurance horses are on the lean side (4). The horse should also have free access to water.
What to actually bring on your ride will ultimately depend on how long you intend to be out, to ensure his nutrient needs are met along the way. You might also consider scoping out your route to determine if there are sufficient watering spots along the way. Prior to departure for your ride, avoid feeding grain (try to feed it at least four to five hours prior), but offer free choice hay (and water) up until you venture out on your ride.