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Hydration, management and recovery of the performance horse.


A large part of the life of any performance horse is spent traveling to and from competitions, and paying close attention to detail during transit can optimise the chance of a successful result at a show or event. Horses can lose 2-3kg in bodyweight per hour when being transported, as a result of increased physiological uptake of fluids and salts. Therefore, hydration is key!

-If possible, allow the horse access to water at all times. Otherwise, offer water very regularly. Not all water is equal, so it can be very useful to teach horses to drink water with organic apple juice or organic apple cider vinegar in it. Take care to purchase either addition from a reputable brand.

-Horses should travel with forage to maximise digestive function during transit. This helps to keep the stomach and gut working, and aids in preventing a build up of acid within the stomach itself-the forage acts as a sort of ‘carpet’ across the top of the stomach acid, and the saliva produced creates a natural buffer that assists in protecting the stomach.

-To aid hydration, consider using a high fibre bran mash. There are many pre soak mashes available on the market-it is generally best to use one that is also a complete feed, and that is part of the feed brand already in use. This minimises the change to the gut of the horse. Horses will generally willingly drink a mash that has been made into a soup, and this is invaluable when it comes to managing hydration on the move.

-Try not to get too far out of routine in terms of normal feed times. However, for horses traveling long distances, consider lowering the overall feed intake and also feeding smaller amounts more frequently.

-Try to use the same bedding in the lorry as is used in the stable at home. This can help to encourage the horse to urinate during transit.

-Use tape to mark the water levels on buckets to observe intake, and be quick to respond if a horse is not taking in sufficient fluids. Some horses require intervention despite best efforts, and intravenous fluids may need to be administered.

-Electrolytes must only be given to a horse that has access to water and is readily taking in fluids. Replenishing electrolyte levels is vitally important for optimal physiological function-however, if given to a horse that cannot achieve sufficient hydration, electrolyte use may increase the risk of dehydration.

Traveling horses over land can be challenging in its own right, but flying horses presents even greater challenges. Loading horses into crates and then transferring those crates to an airplane can be hugely stressful for both horses and handlers alike. The horses are generally well protected with boots or bandages, and some will also wear hoods or earplugs to reduce both visual and aural stressors. The use of calmers in stressful situations such as travelling can also be helpful, and using an L-Tryptophan based product can be very effective. L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body uses during the production of serotonin. Serotonin in turn helps to regulate mood, and promote a more neutral emotional state.

Management and recovery.

Being stabled away from home becomes quite normal for many horses, and for the most part the horses do cope quite well. Given that horses are out of their ‘home’ routine and environment, it is generally recommended that they are taken out of their stables at least every four hours during the day. Hand walking, hand grazing or free lungeing are all excellent ways of maintaining gut mobility, and of keeping the horses mentally and physiologically stimulated. In warmer weather or in hotter climates, many riders use a quite prolonged amount of walking as their initial warm up, and as their cool down. Rather than getting stuck into a lengthy or heavy schooling session or a demanding warm up, it can be better overall to use plenty of walk intervals during exercise to optimize performance and recovery.

Looking at the areas of the overall management of the performance horse, the post-cross country cool down and also recovery, here are some invaluable tips and advice-

  • Immediately after the cross country phase, dropping the horse’s heart rate and body temperature as well as slowing the rate of respiration, is the main focus. Getting the horse stripped off and washed down-whilst keeping it walking-begins the process. At International competitions, a vet will also be observing and monitoring each horse. From here, icing and claying will begin. Rehydration is vitally important, although it is advised that horses do not receive electrolytes until they have fully recovered and are taking in or being administered with fluids. This can be up to three hours post exertion.

  • Antioxidants are as important as electrolytes in recovery management. The physical chemical reactions created by strenuous exertion create oxidative stress, by virtue of an altered physiological balance of antioxidants and free radicals. This imbalance creates an excess of free radicals, which in turn causes an inflammatory response within the athlete. Oxidative stress can contribute to conditions such as Exertional Rhabdomyolys (aka Tying up), Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (aka ‘bursting’ or ‘bleeding’), damage to the airway or Sore Muscle Syndrome, amongst others. Using supplements with a high vitamin E content can be hugely beneficial, as the vitamin E ‘mops up’ excess free radicals. This helps to stabilize or re establish a more regular balance of antioxidants and free radicals, and promote optimal recovery for the athlete.

  • Using a Ubiquinol Co Q 10 supplement year round can be an excellent help to the performance horse. It is a ‘super antioxidant’, and also aids cellular and metabolic energy-vital for recovery from exertion, and also from injury. Horses are naturally low in Co Q 10, due to their high grain diet.

  • Many riders struggle with finding the best work-feed ratio when it comes to managing fitness levels and individual temperaments. If you are unable to feed a horse the recommended amount for any reason, then you must supplement with a balancer. Optimal levels of vitamins, minerals, protein and amino acids are vitally important for any horse expected to perform well during strenuous activity. For horses that are prone to carrying weight, a low calorie balancer can work very well. Additional energy sources such as fibre and oil can help to provide slow release energy through the diet.

  • When planning your competitive schedule, it can be extremely useful to incorporate having a forage test done for each new batch of hay or haylage that is ready for use. A forage test will look at the standard nutritional content, as well as minerals, antagonists and hygiene. For horses that are under-performing, a simple forage test can provide clues and answers. Supplementing for imbalances created by the forage being used can be transformative for performance horses.

Written by Christa Dillon, with sincere thanks to Kirsty McCann.

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