Feeding During an Endurance Ride By Dr. Peter Huntington and Scott O'Brien · June 4, 2012
The actual amount and type of feed your horse should get through the ride will depend on the length and difficulty of the ride as well as the result you hope to achieve. With shorter ride lengths (20 to 40 km or 12 to 25 miles) and speed restrictions on all riders, it is all about completing and training or educating your horse.
As long as your horse is fit enough and you have a good feeding program at home, you shouldn’t need much more than hay and electrolytes to get you through these rides. If you arrive the night before the ride, give your horse his dinner and some hay to see him through the night. If he’s a poor drinker you might include some electrolytes in this final meal (as long as he’ll eat his feed with the electrolytes added; otherwise give them in a syringe mixed with water, applesauce, or yogurt). In the morning, just make sure he has a little hay and fresh water before tacking up and riding off.
After the first leg in a split-leg ride, give some more hay or green forage and perhaps some electrolytes. Electrolytes are recommended if it is a hot day or if your horse has not yet had a drink in the first leg. The amount you give will depend on the temperature, how much your horse has drunk, and how much he has sweated.
If, by the end of the final leg, your horse has still not had a good drink, find a vet and discuss the use of any further electrolyte supplementation. Giving electrolytes to a significantly dehydrated horse can cause metabolic problems and should only be done under veterinary supervision.
Once the ride is finished and you have been through vetting, you can give the horse his normal breakfast. Over the next 24 hours you will need to feed a little more than the normal daily allowance to replenish energy reserves lost during the ride. Feed small meals (up to around 2 kg or 4.4 lb per meal) rather than large meals and space them out by about 4 to 6 hours. Further electrolyte supplementation is also useful for rehydrating the horse in preparation for the trip home.
The longer one-day rides of 80 km to 160 km (50 to 100 miles) can be quite competitive, and depending on how you want to ride them, your feeding management will be different.
If you plan to take it easy and trot along at a nice easy speed, then the indications for the shorter races still apply with only slight modifications. The importance of maintaining hydration and giving the horse ample opportunity to eat and drink along the trail is increased in longer distance rides.
During rest stops, allow access to wet and dry hay, though wet is better if they’ll eat it. Supplement with electrolytes after vetting (tackling your horse with a drench prior to vetting will raise heart rates in most horses so it’s wise to wait till you’re clear for the next leg) and add any other supplements you wish at that stage such as B-vitamin supplements for an energy lift, or antioxidant supplements for sore or tired muscles.
Follow-up after the ride is also more important with these longer rides, making sure to put back the energy that has been used during the ride through small regular hard feeds and ad lib hay with frequent access to green forage where available. Up to 150% of normal daily hard feed amounts can be safely fed in the days following a longer length ride as body stores are being restocked. It is good to start replacing stores of muscle glycogen used during the ride by offering grain or hard feed shortly after vetting through at the end of the ride.
If you are going to ride fast, you will need to manage your horse slightly differently and will certainly need to pay much closer attention to what is going on beneath you. As with shorter ride lengths, avoid feeding hard feed prior to start time, but if you are expecting hot weather or have a horse that doesn’t drink well, you might like to drench with electrolytes within an hour of start time to encourage the horse to drink during the first leg.
At the rest stops you should still feed hay, but you may also want to offer a small amount of grain (up to 500 g – 1 kg or 1 to 2 lb), especially in the longer rides. As the speed of a ride increases, the opportunities for the horse to eat and drink out on track are reduced, so getting something into their stomachs and maintaining energy levels through the ride needs a little more intensive management. Horses’ guts don’t function well if they have not eaten a reasonable amount for a period of more than 6 to 8 hours, so the longer distance riders need to ensure that every opportunity to get something into the horse is exploited.
It is best to wait until the horse’s heart rate has returned to resting level before feeding grain. Ensure, where possible, that coming into rest stops the heart rate is on its way down so that you will have enough time to feed and allow digestion to begin before you have to be off again. Many riders prefer to feed grain after vetting so as not to increase the heart rate before inspection. Hay or green forage should be offered immediately on arrival back off track. Many successful endurance riders feed a very wet slurry-type feed during rest stops based on pellets or bran with added carrots, apples, molasses, grain, and electrolytes (if the horse will readily eat electrolytes in the feed). Sometimes endurance horses will not eat a regular grain meal at rest stops, but will readily eat the slurry feed. This is a great way of getting electrolytes and water into the horse.
Any feeds you give during the ride and following the ride for recovery should be carbohydrate and fiber based. At this stage of the game, any oils and fats you were feeding at home have done their job and are tidily stored away, ready for action. The horse’s body stores masses of energy as fat in adipose tissue, but only a relatively small amount as carbohydrate or quick-release energy. It makes sense then that this is the type of energy that will burn out first without replacement. Grain and highly digestible fibers such as soy or lupin hulls are a great source of this quick-release energy and should make up the majority of feeds given at rides. Oil and high-fat supplements can be reintroduced on your return home to rebuild fat stores and body condition.
Electrolyte supplementation becomes a little more tricky when riding at speed over long distances and there are numerous strategies adopted by top riders to keep hydration levels up, no matter what the conditions. Generally if the horse has not drunk during the first leg, a smaller amount of electrolytes will be given at the rest stop than if he had. At this stage, electrolytes in moderation are quite safe to give to a horse that isn’t drinking, and will stimulate thirst for the following leg. In longer rides, if the horse continues to not drink through subsequent legs, electrolytes should be given with caution, preferably under the guidance of a vet.
The best time to give electrolytes in a concentrated form like a drench is after the horse has had a good drink. Concentrated electrolytes hitting an empty stomach can be irritating and can draw water into the gut from the body which is undesirable, especially in a dehydrated horse. Some riders mix up a drench and take it along with them, giving it approximately every two hours, or following a good drink at a watering spot. Horses that will accept electrolytes in their drinking water or in feed can be given them this way at the rest stops.
There are a multitude of supplements guaranteeing prevention of tying-up, extra energy, and all sorts of metabolically wonderful concoctions which you may find attractive as additions to your ride management program. Be wary of anything that promises too much: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Supplements such as antioxidants (vitamin E, selenium, and to a certain extent vitamin C) may be beneficial to prevent muscular oxidation and damage around rides. Supplementation for three to four days prior to and following the ride as well as on ride day itself may help to protect the muscles of otherwise fit and healthy horses from excessive damage. These supplements will not prevent tying-up or muscle soreness in horses that are not well trained or well managed through the ride.
Supplements including concentrated B vitamins can help some horses in that they stimulate appetite, and in some cases produce a perceived natural energy lift. These are often included in inter-leg rest stop drenches, especially towards the end of a multi-leg ride.
On completion of the ride the horse will be tired and dehydrated, so replenishing body reserves with extra feeds as outlined above. Added electrolytes are important for 24 to 48 hours post ride.
Marathon rides usually consist of two daily legs of around 40 km (25 miles) followed by an overnight rest for up to four or five days. They are challenging but fun, and allow a much greater degree of recovery for horse (and rider) between legs than do the 80 to 160 km (50 to 100 miles) one-day rides.
Through these rides a horse can actually adapt to the workload and become progressively fitter physically as they go through each day. They do take a large toll on energy reserves, though, and hydration is paramount to getting through the entire ride safely.
There is a great degree of flexibility in start times and rest times, so you can choose how long to rest your horse overnight and after the first leg each day.
Feeding can be fairly similar to the normal routine at home. Feed five hours prior to setting out each day (apart from the first day when you may feed the night before and then not again until after the first leg). If you choose a long rest stop between legs each day (two hours or so), then you can feed up to a kilo (2.2 lb) of hard feed (grain) between legs along with some hay. Feed again after the second leg each day, and again in the evening. The total amount of hard feed you give each day will be about 150% of what would normally be fed at home plus as much hay overnight as the horse can eat and small amounts of hay during the day as time allows.
Supplement with electrolytes as described for the straight-through rides, taking notice of weather conditions and how well your horse is drinking to govern amounts that are required.
The types of supplements mentioned in the straight-through rides will also be of benefit during marathons. Antioxidants and B-vitamin supplements daily can assist as horses get more tired and sore, and ulcer management in susceptible horses can extend your chances of making it to completion or even the best-conditioned parade.
With these rides, it is easier to maintain body reserves through the ride than with other rides, but nevertheless the horse will still finish with some depletion and so will need extra feeding over the following days to replenish these reserves.