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June 8, 2010

Eating Right On The Road Is Worth The Effort

Horse show food may be delicious, but you're better off skipping the salty, sugary fare and opting for a healthier meal to optimize your performance. Photo by Coree Reuter.

Showing horses in the United States often requires a whole lot of travel, sometimes over great distances. Without planning ahead, it’s all too easy to live on fast food and convenience store snacks—and these poor food choices may adversely affect your performance during competition.

Not only do you need energy to ride and care for your horse, but competition nerves can also wreak havoc with your digestion. A greasy burger and fries washed down with a super-sized sugary drink isn’t likely to improve your physical wellbeing or your riding. You don’t have to live off nuts and berries, but making healthy choices could improve your chances of performing at your best.

Equestrians Are Athletes Too

Flip on the television, open a magazine or walk down a city street and you’ll likely be bombarded with sexy images of sweaty, scantily-clad athletes advertising the latest sports drink. Volleyball, soccer and football are not the only sports that take a lot out of participants: Riders need to eat and drink well too.

“I think that every sport emphasizes that fitness and nutrition are important, and show jumpers and other riders are athletes,” said grand prix show jumper Brianne Goutal, 21, New York, N.Y. "You can’t perform well eating fast food, beef jerky or egg and cheese biscuits. Good health and good performances go hand in hand. I notice a huge difference in my energy level and ability when I eat right.”

Diana Lundy, 55, Cool, Calif., completed both the Western States 100-mile endurance run and the 100-mile Tevis Cup endurance ride in 2009. Lundy has been a vegetarian since age 18, but she includes milk and egg products in her diet for flexibility.

“I think it’s important to eat well. I know riders who skip breakfast when a ride starts early, but I think you need to eat something before you go out there,” said Lundy.

Because Lundy doesn’t stay on her horse during an entire endurance ride—she gets off and walks or runs alongside her mount—she finds that she needs to carry food with her.

“There are awesome supplements and sports drinks on the market, and I eat similarly for running and riding,” she said. “A lot of riders don’t care for themselves as well as runners do, but you have to take care of yourself to take good care of your horse.”

You Need To Lead People To Water Too

Caring for ourselves is something horse people often neglect. We go to great lengths to make sure our horses keep drinking, but it’s easy to forget to grab a water bottle for yourself. Staying hydrated is especially important during long days in the sun, whether you’re out on the trail or standing ringside.

Water is usually readily available, whether in bottles or from the tap, and many stores offer a variety of flavored waters, sports drinks and juice, if plain water doesn’t do it for you.

A cup of coffee might help you wake up as you hit the road with your truck and trailer at the crack of dawn, but don’t overdo it or you may be dehydrated and low on energy later in the day. The same goes for alcohol the night before you show—drink in moderation or not at all, and then you can crack open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate your success after the competition. 

For long hours on the trail Lundy wears a Camelbak hydration pack on her back while she rides.

“They’re comfy, and you can drink really easily,” she explained. “I fill that with plain water and also carry two water bottles, one with water and one with a sports drink. I throw in some prepackaged electrolyte powder, and I can fill my water bottle at the vet check and mix those up on the way. I usually drink at least one of them, even if it’s just to taste something other than plain water. It cuts the boredom a bit, and if it’s hot I think you need electrolytes. If it’s really hot, I sweat a lot, and I take S! Caps, which are electrolyte tabs that you take like a pill with water. Those are really good because you get everything you need. I usually stash those just to have them on hand—they’re great if you don’t have access to something like Gatorade.”

Make Food Plans Part Of Your Packing Routine

You wouldn’t dream of going to a competition without making a plan for what your horse will eat while he’s on the road, so make planning your own meals part of your packing routine.

“If I go some place and I’m staying in a hotel, eating out is pretty easy. I don’t change what I eat before a competition,” said Lundy. “I don’t eat fast food, and I’m big on pasta. If we travel in an RV, then I stock up on good quality food before we go. Sometimes endurance rides provide meals, but it’s easy with an RV because they have microwaves, and we can just zap stuff.

She continued, “Gu and energy bars don’t upset my stomach, and they are easy to pack. The bars actually taste good, and there are lots of flavors. I just keep a whole lot of them on hand and throw a bag of them in the truck when I go.”

Lundy loves easy, portable snacks. “Jelly Belly™ makes endurance jelly beans, and you can just pop them in your mouth while you ride,” she said. “They’re so easy to carry, and they’re good on a hot day because they don’t melt. The horse likes them, too! There are so many choices now, it’s pretty easy.”

Goutal is a self-described “health nut” who goes out of her way to eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains, avoiding corn starch, corn syrup and processed foods.

“I live in New York City, and when I travel from there I try to take a healthy lunch with me or pick up a salad,” she said. “At shows I look up where the healthy places are to eat in the area. I’m not crazy, I’ll eat whatever there is to eat, but I try to get salads and I opt for the oil and vinegar over the ranch dressing.”

Taking Matters Into Her Own Hands

In Wellington, Fla., Taylor Blauweiss noticed the need for healthy food for riders, so she started a business called Taylor Made Café. A former adult amateur jumper rider who earned recognition for winning the “Equestrian Idol” competition, she was working on the horse show circuit with her boyfriend doing jobs like running the in-gate.

In order to avoid overpriced, unhealthy horse show food she started packing healthy lunches for the two of them. Someone noticed the tasty wrap she was eating and offered to pay her to make additional food and bring it the next day, so she started packing a cooler full of wraps and selling them. Her business grew from those first homemade wraps.

“I’m obsessed with healthy ingredients—just eating a salad isn’t always a healthy choice because the dressing might be full of sugar,” she explained. “I read the labels and use bread that is made without high-fructose corn syrup and make my own dressings. I love the way certain foods taste on their own, and I combine foods to bring out the flavor with complimentary ingredients instead of adding a lot of salt.”

Healthy Options

Not everyone likes to haul a bunch of food around, but packing your own snacks can save money and time both on the road and at the show. It also will ensure that you have something healthy to eat if the only options are fast food chains, or the vendors only offer nachos and funnel cakes. Remember that even if you are limited to convenience store fare, many stores now offer energy bars, trail mix and even fresh fruit alongside the chips and candy.

“I hate fast food! If I eat it I feel so ill,” said eventer Jennie Brannigan, West Grove, Pa. Brannigan spends most weekends on the road with the crew from Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm, so she’s had a fair amount of experience figuring out a meal plan that doesn’t consist of empty calories.

“I can seriously eat, but I hate arriving at a show and having eaten junk—it makes me feel awful. I love rice cakes and fresh fruit—frozen grapes are like candy to me,” she said.

Since a home cooked meal isn’t always an option on the road, Brannigan, 22, has picked out some alternatives to junk food that she can find just about anywhere.

“I’ll get Special K cereal bars or Kashi bars for breakfast or a chicken Caesar salad wrap for lunch, and diet lemonade or iced tea to drink. I’m not the healthiest person in the world, but if I’m going to have fast food I’ll go to Subway and get a six-inch turkey sandwich on honey wheat bread with a lot of vegetables. That’s the only fast food I’ll eat,” she said.