Wants To Move Into Distance Riding

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I have two Missouri Fox Trotter geldings and live in Colorado at an elevation of 6,500 feet. I ride my three-year-old two to three times a week for one to three hours. He’s 14.2 hands and 900 pounds. I ride the four-year-old one to five hours three to four times a week. He’s also 14.2, but weighs 1,000 pounds. Neither has any health problems, although we did have a bout of ringworm last spring and bug bites tend to swell on both of them. I’m interested in endurance riding and competitive trail riding when they get older.

They live in a grassy 1 1/2-acre paddock. I feed them two flakes each twice a day of grass hay in the summer when there is some grass in the paddock and three flakes grass hay plus one flake alfalfa-grass (60-40) hay in the winter.

I also give each of them one 13-oz. coffee can of Triple Crown Performance 14 per day. I also use Perfect Balance electrolytes when it’s hot and I ride longer. They also have a red and a white salt block.

Am I meeting their nutritional needs now, and what will I need to do when I go into long-distance riding' I’ve always heard too much alfalfa and too much sweet feed is not good for them.

-Cindy Meyer
Colorado

Horse Journal Responds:

The key to correct feeding is to have your various feed types balanced to meet nutritional needs and avoid both excesses and deficiencies. It’s true that alfalfa’s high calcium can be problematic for endurance horses, especially, but used properly it can actually complement grass hays (see our September 2001 article on minerals for performance horses) and the higher protein also counteracts the very low protein in many grass hays. There’s really not much difference between sweet feeds and grain of any type if the concern is about calories and rapidly digested carbohydrates.

The first step with any diet is to make sure there’s an adequate supply of calories and protein, then balance minerals and look for vitamin deficiencies.

Most, if not all, of the calories should come from plant sources rather than grain since these result in a slow, steady flow of energy rather than the highs and lows in blood sugar you get from grains. This is especially important for endurance horses that need to go all day.

On the plus side for grains is that they can be safely used to boost calorie intake when a horse’s level of work results in calorie needs that can’t be met by hay alone. The higher blood glucose after a grain feeding can also work in your favor with horses in heavy work by encouraging their muscles to store glycogen to be burned during exercise.

Grain is also an important part of the feeding strategy during rides for most horses, providing concentrated calories that are more easily digested than hays and creating less bulk in the intestines. Judicious amounts in frequent feedings — combined with a source of more slowly digested fiber like grass, hay or beet pulp — helps these hard-working horses keep going all day.

Before going into details, we should mention your skin problems may be related to inadequate or unbalanced intake of trace minerals. The hay analysis you sent didn’t list trace-mineral levels, and it might be a good idea to get this done. For example, disproportionately high manganese is common in many grass hays and will increase the need for copper and zinc, both important for skin and connective tissue. Selenium is also low in many hays, and exercise increases the horse’s need for it.

The diet you’re feeding is about right on the nose for calories, which is probably reflected in a good, but not fleshy/fat, body condition. Your current level of grain intake is fine — no need to either decrease or increase it for this work level, although when you get into more miles you will want to increase both the hay and the grain as needed to hold condition.

The protein intake is OK in the winter, but the level with grass hay only and more work is not sufficient. There are mineral problems, too, including insufficient phosphorus, selenium and probably iodine. There may be other trace mineral problems in the diet, but it’s difficult to know for sure without a complete hay analysis.

Using only the existing feeds, if you were to cut the grass hay in half and boosting Triple Crown 14 to five lbs./day to correct the protein and mineral problems. However, we would suggest you use Triple Crown12 protein pellet in the winter and Triple Crown 30 protein in the summer to meet these needs without going heavy on the grain. You can add these to the current ration.

The only areas that could still possibly use some boosting would be vitamin E and magnesium. Horses vary widely in how sensitive they are to dietary levels of these nutrients, though. Should you ever develop problems with muscular cramping or tying-up, boosting magnesium intake and adding a vitamin E supplement would be the things we would consider trying first.