Changes in routine are inevitable when travelling to training sessions and competitions and the resultant stresses can take their toll on the horse’s digestive health with potential subsequent loss of performance. The aim is to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum even for the seasoned campaigner who seems to take competing in his stride.
Fibre for Health
Any working or performance horse must consume an absolute minimum of the equivalent of 1.5% of his body weight in forage per day, although ad lib access is preferable. This not only satisfies the horse’s physiological need to chew and ensures a steady flow of fibre through the digestive system but also, in allowing natural trickle feeding, the saliva produced as a result of chewing helps buffer (partially neutralize) the stomach acids which are constantly produced.
The longer a horse’s stomach is empty, the greater the chance of the digestive acids causing damage to the stomach lining resulting in gastric ulcers. Modern research and diagnostics are revealing that a high proportion of horses do suffer from gastric ulcers with many displaying only subtle symptoms which hamper performance. Restricting the horse’s access to forage (hay or haylage) at any time on a competition day or when travelling, should therefore be avoided unless the horse will be working at high intensities less than an hour after arrival.
With good-doers it may be necessary to select lower calorie forages and feed in a small holed haynet, to make a smaller ration last longer, but this is imminently preferable to the horse suffering long spells without forage. Ideally haylage or soaked hay should be fed in the lorry or trailer to reduce the amount of circulating dust spores in what is a confined, and often not perfectly ventilated, space. Horses on long journeys, particularly those which involve flying and sailing, are prone to respiratory problems due to the inability to eat from the floor and drain their airways so keeping dust down is all the more important.
Stress and excitement result in the release of adrenaline which, among other things, speeds up the passage of food through the digestive system resulting in more, often loose, droppings. Apart from making a mess, this causes an increased loss of bacteria from the hindgut which can result in an imbalance that could allow pathogenic species to proliferate.
Whilst things should right themselves once the excitement has passed, regular “flushing out” of bacteria could ultimately take its toll with potential for digestive upsets, crabby behaviour and weight loss due to a reduction in gut efficiency. It is therefore worth considering feeding a prebiotic supplement, either on an ongoing basis or before, during and after competition days, as this will help the good gut bacteria flourish at the expense of the bad ones.
So the aim on competition days, as on any other, is to keep the potential for rising stress levels to a minimum. If routine dictates that the horse gets a compound feed before travelling, he should ideally have 1 – 1½ hours to digest it before travelling. A horse that becomes excited as soon as he senses it is competition day is best left to finish his feed before the lorry is moved or his mane is plaited. He will digest his feed much more efficiently if he is relaxed and calm and he should ideally eat all his feed to prepare him for the day ahead.
Water should always be available to the horse before travelling and administering an electrolyte supplement may be worthwhile as, whilst the body cannot store electrolytes, ensuring he is not starting the day with a deficit can help maintain hydration levels and delay fatigue. Indeed, travelling can easily lead to dehydration with the potential for horses to lose up to 0.5% of their bodyweight (2.5kg for a 500kg horse) as sweat per hour.
Offering water regularly on longer journeys is therefore essential with small drinks preferably being allowed throughout a competition day to help avoid dehydration. These can contain electrolytes, if the horse is used to consuming them that way, but fresh water should also be available should he be put off by an electrolyte solution. Giving electrolytes in water or wet sloppy feed, with fresh water always available, is most effective within one hour of the horse stopping sweating and will help the horse rehydrate, aiding recovery.
If the timetable at the competition allows, there is no reason why a horse should not receive a small routine mid-day compound feed, providing he has the time to digest it before any strenuous work or the journey home, whilst access to forage should also be allowed as much as possible. All this will help keep the horse’s digestive system working as close to normal as possible and help maintain performance levels and avoid upsets.
On returning home, normal routine should also be maintained; feeding a bran or other mash, in anticipation of a horse’s day off, is the kind of sudden change to his diet that his gut bacteria will not appreciate. Depending on the quantity and type of feeds used, the hard feed can be reduced by up to a half but don’t forget that, after a tough competition, the horse needs to replace nutritional reserves so recovery may take longer if rations are significantly reduced.