From Gatorade to those sophisticated-sounding concoctions sold in health-food stores, sports drinks for human athletes are everywhere. These drinks maintain the body’s hydration level and provide essential nutrients, like electrolytes and energy sources, which then boost endurance and strength during physical exertion — just what we want to do for our horses.
And they’re “drinks” for good reason: Delivering nutrients with water is the most efficient route of replacement. The carbohydrates and glucose in solid food, like candy, just aren’t as effective. Nutrients in water pass right through the stomach and into the small intestine for immediate absorption, even if the stomach already contains food. No waiting period.
Of course, you’re thinking you already give your horse a “sports drink” when you provide electrolytes in a separate bucket of water. But, what if there was a way to get more out of that bucket than just electrolyte replacement' What if you could truly boost performance, like some human sports drinks do'
Of course, the most important ingredient for any sports drink is water. Not only is it a vehicle for other ingredients, but also even a tiny amount of dehydration can affect performance. And, of course, electrolytes are an absolute must.
In addition, we want carbohydrates as dextrose/glucose or longer-chain sugars in the drink to provide energy. Fat is not the ideal energy source it is sometimes held up to be, although horses working at low intensities do use a lot of mobilized body fat. However, fat taken in during work won’t do you any immediate good.
For the muscles, we need amino acids, in particular branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which the muscles use up at a significant rate during exercise.
Various vitamins, trace minerals and metabolically important substances like lipoic acid, Co-Q 10 and carnitine are also sometimes in sports drinks, again in small amounts — actually often amounts too small to make a difference.
Last, but not least, is creatine. As in all mammals, the creatine phosphate system is an integral part of energy metabolism in a horse’s muscle, especially in the fast-twitch (speed) muscle fibers.
Creatine And Muscle Levels
Creatine supplementation increases muscle levels and improves athletic performance (primarily short term bursts of speed) in many species, but studies in horses fed creatine showed no change in blood or muscle levels.
When we tried creatine in a previous field trial (March 1999), our results also were less than convincing, although it’s bugged us ever since. Work in progress in the United Kingdom using a creatine assay specially selected for equine blood casts doubt on the common assumption that horses can’t absorb creatine. Therefore, creatine should work, but why didn’t it in our trials'
Several factors play into effective creatine supplementation, including dosage, whether the athlete is training actively, insulin level in the blood at the time the creatine is absorbed, and level of training. Our prime suspect in our first trials was poor absorption from the intestines.
Creatine is fragile and readily broken down into creatinine, a waste product. We suspect feeding creatine with a meal might not be the best method. However, delivering it in water would give it a non-stop route to the small intestine. Guaranteeing that blood insulin was up at the same time, by including simple carbohydrates, should help absorption.
That’s when the light went on for us: What about an equine sports drink that would deliver carbohydrates, creatine and BCAAs to the horse, in various combinations'
You Can Lead A Horse To Water
We designed four basic sports-drink mixtures:
1. A 7% solution of maltodextrins, a dissolved glycogen-loader/carbohydrates (plain carbs),
2. The 7 % solution with BCAAs only,
3. The 7% solution with creatine only, or
4. The 7% solution with creatine and BCAAs.
That was easy and fun. But convincing the horses a sports drink is a good idea is another matter. When we offered these solutions in a small bucket or bowl, most horses gave us a blank stare or sniffed at it and snorted the stuff all over the place. A few even nudged it away. Back to the drawing board.
After much experimentation, we hit upon using a few tablespoons of frozen grape-juice concentrate or a cup of carrot juice as flavoring agents. Three of the seven horses accepted this mixture — one mare liked her grape-juice drink so much she licked the bowl.
Since we wanted to see effects of administration both before and after exercise, the three horses who accepted the mix became the pre-exercise group. The other four received their supplements as a paste immediately after they consumed at least two liters of water when being cooled out after exercise, or mixed in the first two liters of water they were offered after work. Note: While carbohydrates and BCAAs are stable in water, creatine is not. Be sure to mix up the solution/paste immediately before giving it to the horse.
In addition to looking for different effects from the mixtures, we wanted to see if sports drinks pre-exercise would influence attitude and performance and if there was any obvious value to using them after exercise.
The seven Standardbred racehorses in our trial were all at a tough stage in training — making the transition into serious speed/anaerobic work at, or close to, race speeds. This is a difficult time metabolically for many horses, and it’s not unusual to find that, while they may have progressed effortlessly prior to this time, they “hang up” at a speed and have trouble making further progress. All seven horses were “hitting the wall.”
To qualify for the trial, the horses must have had three consecutive speed training sessions or races where they were unable to meet their next milestone in terms of improving in speed. All were screened for lameness and respiratory problems.
Plain Carbs: Before we looked at combinations, we needed to know what effect the plain carbohydrate drink would have. We knew that glycogen-loading protocols and a high-carbohydrate feeding 1.5 to two hours prior to racing/training can have a dramatic effect. We had never checked for effects of a single carbohydrate boost without prior loading, though. The results were positive.
All the horses receiving a pretraining or racing carbohydrate drink (50 to 70 grams/liter, two liters), given 30 to 60 minutes before work, showed obviously alert attitudes and an eagerness to perform. After receiving these pre-exercise supplements daily for seven to 10 days, their ability to maintain speed and finish more strongly was also evident, with times for a mile dropping an average of one second over the best time for the previous three training sessions.
Carbs Plus BCAAs: We next tried combining the carbohydrate with 20 grams BCAAs. Two horses performed exactly as they had with the carbohydrate only. One was worse.
Creatine And Carbs: We next added 40 grams of creatine monohydrate to the carbohydrate mixture. After a week of this carb-and-creatine drink before exercise, two of the three horses were more aggressive about wanting to race and pulling more than usual during training. They were described as finishing with more ease. Times improved almost another full second over the initial improvement with carbohydrates alone. The third horse showed no change in attitude or strength when fini shing but also improved his time almost another full second.
Note: This is now almost two seconds over their best efforts for the three training sessions prior to starting sports drinks.
The trainers stated the creatine mix made a noticeable difference in eagerness and how well the horses performed. However, it was difficult to differentiate whether the additional improvement in time was related to the horse’s training and/or to additional carbohydrate being supplied versus the creatine.
In an attempt to get a better handle on creatine vs. carb effects, we selected two other racehorses considered to be racing at their potential. For their next two races, they received either a five-day creatine-loading protocol alone (80 grams per day for five days, split 50:50 with half given 30 minutes prior to the morning feeding and the other half immediately after finishing the day’s exercise and on race day half as usual in the morning, half three to four hours before racing) or the same creatine program plus 70 grams of a glycogen-loading product at the same time intervals.
In both horses, creatine alone produced no changes in attitude or performance, while the creatine with glycogen-loader resulted in a dramatic improvement. One of the horses improved his race time by four seconds on the creatine-and-glycogen combo, and his time for the last quarter of the race by two seconds, despite less-than-stellar track conditions. The other’s time improved 1.5 seconds, all of it in the last quarter of the race. The horses were then only lightly exercised for two weeks, with one training session at 85% of race speed after the first week.
For the third race, both received glycogen-loading only, no creatine. The horse that had improved four seconds showed only a three-second improvement this time, while the one that had improved 1.5 seconds improved by a full two seconds. However, the drivers of both horses, who were not aware of the trial, commented the horses were unusually eager and strong for the races when they had received creatine.
An energy boost before performance is one thing, but equally important was quickly replenishing hard-working muscles. Human athletes know carbohydrate sources taken after hard work enhance the rebuilding of glycogen stores. They also favor the conversion of growth hormone into its active anabolic form, IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), and help in the prevention of muscle soreness.
The most recent research into post-exercise supplementation also discloses an important role for BCAAs in the preservation and building of muscle mass as well as prevention of muscle damage as evidenced by increased blood levels of muscle enzymes after exercise and soreness. We’ve seen this muscle-preserving and soreness-preventing effect with tying-up products. It’s also been found in people that the effects of carbohydrate and BCAAs are additive to an extent.
Most recommendations regarding creatine supplements in humans call for eating it several times a day. However, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that muscles exercised first take up more creatine than those that aren’t, and ingestion of creatine at the same time as carbohydrates improves the levels of both in the muscle compared to taking either one alone. Sounds good, but we wanted to see how it translated in a real-life barn.
The horses in our post-exercise-supplement group ranged in age from three to eight. All had a history of at least one past episode of prolonged muscle soreness or tying-up and were prone to stiffness, elevated muscle tone and soreness on muscle palpation for a few days following speed training. However, muscle enzymes at the time of supplementation, while in active training, were confirmed to be normal.
One horse received post-exercise carbohydrates only, one carbs and creatine, one carbs and BCAAs, one carbs and BCAAs and creatine, and one with only Turbo III. A two-year-old filly was put on Equi-Pro. She had no history of exercise-related, training or muscle pain/stiffness problems but was having trouble maintaining her muscle mass and weight, so her trainer took things slowly with her for fear of overfacing her. Supplementation was given after work, during cooling out.
All the horses showed brightened attitudes, no muscle soreness or stiffness, and were eager to perform. They had no difficulty meeting their next training milestone for drop in time and had no evidence of a dull attitude or loss of appetite after heavy work, which had been common before the supplementation.
The trainers concluded unanimously that the supplementation had benefited them. The horses on carbs and BCAAs (with or without creatine) also showed a visible improvement in muscle definition. The filly on Equi-Pro was easily able to maintain her weight and muscle mass with no other change in her diet.
Pulling The Results Together
For horses willing to drink them, pre-exercise sports drinks with about 7% carbohydrate as maltodextrins (70 grams/liter) provide an energy boost that translates into an eager and willing attitude. With regular use, after seven to 10 days, the horses improved in their ability to maintain speed, similar to the effects seen with a glycogen-loading protocol. This also occurred when the sports drinks were supplied immediately after exercise.
BCAAs appear to have a negative effect on speed, at least when given pre-exercise, and to dampen the “up” attitude from the carbohydrate. Plus, studies show that BCAAs markedly depress anaerobic-energy generation, which is an integral part of speed work. Of course, if you just need to put more bottom/strength in your horse, this could work to your advantage.
Long-term (seven to 10 days plus) use of carbohydrates with BCAAs alone, or with BCAAs plus creatine, given in close association to work, improved muscle definition. In our trials using anabolic alternatives to steroids (see August 2000), we got the same results, but it took higher dosages and a longer time period with BCAAs alone.
The jury’s still out on creatine, although we feel it shows more promise than before when given with carbohydrates and water on an “empty” stomach. Our trainers consistently reported horses were more eager to perform and felt stronger than with carbohydrates alone. Unfortunately, however, this didn’t translate into any clear advantage in speed over carbohydrates alone.
Regular use of “sports drinks” can benefit horses in heavy training or on intensive competition schedules. Use the drink before exercise/competition to give the horse an energy boost and brighter attitude. Horses that have trouble meeting their goals for speed, distance or just tire in the middle of a long show day can benefit from offering cooling-out water with a sports-drink mixture of either carbohydrate alone or carbohydrate with BCAAs or creatine to help them replete their muscular energy stores more efficiently. The same approach worked well for horses with lackluster performance and muscle pain, and trouble holding muscular bulk.
We found no ineffective products in our trial. The “combo” products, Equi-Pro and Turbo III, were convenient but more expensive than mixing individual products. All our glycogen loaders got the job done, with a slight nod for price going to Uckele’s Carb-O-Load. For the most economical sports-drink mixture, we’d combine Carb-O-Load with Uckele’s pure creatine and/or the Peak Performance BCAA Complex.