For such a large animal, horses are incredibly sensitive to any slight disruption of routine. A late feeding here and there or a simple change in grain can lead to a whole host of gastrointestinal issues. When horses spend weeks on the road showing in new environments and potentially eating different hay and grain, they’re primed to develop health issues or exacerbate existing ones such as ulcers, colic and tying up.
“We all are aware of the potential perils associated with rapid alterations in the horse’s diet or pattern of feeding. Such changes can precipitate digestive upsets and colic,” said veterinarian Duncan Peters, DVM, of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky.
The Importance Of Routine
The most important thing you can do for your horse’s well-being while he’s away from home is to stick as closely as possible to his regular feeding schedule.
“It’s important to keep the same regimen going, whether you’re on the road or at home,” said Peters. “Similar feed, similar bedding—keeping it the home away from home is very important.
“Even the treats are important! If you feed more carrots at home, feed them at shows too,” Peters continued.
Lynn Taylor, Ph.D, owner of Equine Nutritional Consulting, and associate professor of equine science at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., also stressed that it’s important to remember that changing feed abruptly increases the risk of colic.
Kate Considine, who owns hunter/jumper show barn Willow Brook Stables and travels throughout the country from her home base of Lake View Terrace, Calif., makes it a point to find comparable feed and hay wherever she takes her stable in order to minimize stress on her horses.
“Normally, feed stores carry the same products,” she said. “If you give them a heads up, they can get what you need.”
For example, when traveling on the East Coast, Considine often finds the hay to be much richer than what is available in California. Because of this, she seeks out a dry timothy hay, which is more similar to what her horses eat at home.
She also emphasized the importance of doing research prior to leaving for the show and starting the search for similar products early.
“The key is getting in touch with the resources in the area you’re going to and doing your homework early. If you wait until you get there you’re too late,” she said.
Even after finding similar products, it’s still necessary to maintain a feeding program that closely resembles your home program. However, the added stress of competition may require increased calories to maintain your horse’s weight.
“Shows or events that occur on successive days are particularly challenging,” said Taylor. “Recovery at the end of each of day is critical, so that the next day’s energy output can be maximized.
“The challenge is to provide the calories without risking tying up, founder or digestive upset,” she continued.
The Right Feed For Your Horse’s Needs
In an ideal situation, most of a horse’s calories and protein should come from forage such as hay or grass. However, this is frequently difficult for the performance horse, particularly one consistently on the road. Good pasture can be non-existent on the show grounds, and most horses in heavy work require the additional calories and nutrients provided by grains and formulated feeds.
Taylor recommended a diet supplemented by fat or fermentable sources of fiber for horses on the go. She said this was preferable to adding pounds of grain, which often contains large amounts of sugar or starch. Fortunately, there are many performance feeds that contain this type of fiber, along with fat—both of which add caloric density but not pounds.
Adding fat to a horse’s diet is fairly simple and is one of the few things that won’t necessarily be complicated by travel or competition. Taylor recommended corn oil as an inexpensive, palatable option for most horses. Considine agreed; all of her horses receive corn oil in their feed at night.
“Other options include soybean or coca soya oil blends, as well as other vegetable oils, or rice bran, which is in powder form,” Taylor said. “Owners can start with a few tablespoons of oil per meal and work up to one cup of oil with each meal.”
On the road, the total grain fed each day should be divided into multiple meals—much like a human athlete—as opposed to one or two. Feeding three or four meals is preferable, according to Taylor, as it helps keep the digestive system’s motility up.
Feeding a late night “snack” of good hay can also help. The additional hay helps retain water in the digestive tract, lowering the risk of dehydration and colic.
You Can Lead A Horse To Water…
While attention to feeding and routine is important to your horse’s health on the road, it’s even more crucial that your horse stay hydrated. An average horse should consume nearly 10 gallons of water daily, and this need increases substantially for horses in heavy work.
After long periods of traveling, horses are frequently dehydrated. Additionally, show horses will continue to lose water and nutrients if they sweat during competition. Therefore, replenishing the nutrients and electrolytes while on the road can be an uphill battle. But failure to do so will result in increased risk of digestive upset or colic.
Even though it seems like the solution is simply to provide more water, just getting horses to drink at all can be a challenge.
“Many horses are picky about drinking water away from home,” said Taylor.
There are ways to work around a horse that is opposed to drinking different water, however.
“Owners can address this by hauling their own water with them when possible in a plastic or metal tank, or by mixing in electrolytes or other flavorings at home and away, so that the horse is familiar with the smell and taste of any water source and will hopefully keep their water intake at a normal level at a competition,” Taylor said.
Prior to the competition, it can be helpful to offer water to horses at home during breaks in training sessions. Doing so can help the horse become comfortable with drinking during competitions. This is especially important for horses whose competition events last for extended period, such as event horses or endurance competitors.
Water consumption is also important because it can also affect a horse’s feed intake. If a horse stops drinking, it’s likely to stop eating as well. Dehydration can also impair a horse’s performance and significantly slow recovery time.
To Supplement Or Not To Supplement
Supplementation is another thing to consider when hitting the road with your herd.
As stressed before, it is important not to change too many things while traveling or at a show, but it’s also crucial to recognize that adding too many new things on the road can be detrimental to a horse’s health.
“Some horses may require additional calories or supplements due to stress when traveling or showing,” said Taylor.
Considine eliminates the need for changing any of her supplementation schedules by feeding her horses electrolyte supplements both at home and on the road. Like many other competition horses, horses in Considine’s stable also receive anti-ulcer medication on the road.
If additional supplements are necessary for whatever reason, Taylor cautions that the word “natural” does not mean that a supplement is safe for every horse.
Feeding On The Road Check List
- Feed similar hay and grain
- Feed multiple smaller meals, as opposed to fewer bigger meals
- Watch water intake closely; encourage drinking
- Supplement with additional electrolytes, if needed