Whether you are a competitor on the Olympic team or an amateur participating in local horse shows, the break between competitions is an important time to reboot your horse’s internal system. Proper management during this off-season will better prepare your horse for the following year, and improve overall performance and well-being.
Equestrians, especially those competing at higher levels, often travel nationwide, or even internationally, to compete at different shows. The mental and physical stress of repeated bouts of transportation, new environments, intensive workouts, high energy feeds, and little pasture turnout eventually takes its toll on the horse. At the end of the competition season, horses are prone to “burn outs”, and have increased risk of injury or illness. Minor health issues that were “managed” but not be completely resolved throughout the season, will now need full attention before the condition worsens.
Both professionals and amateurs should be aware of the importance of appropriate feed and management strategies, giving the horse some necessary “time off” to keep the animal both mentally and physically healthy.
First and foremost, feed that was necessary to fuel your horse during arena routines or while racing toward that finish line, are now no longer needed. Changing feed and feed quantity to meet the horse’s, now lowered, energy requirement is often forgotten. Because horses are natural herbivores, dealing with the digestion of large amounts of energy dense concentrates, such as grain, puts tremendous stress on the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract and associated organs. When using high quality feed during regular athletic events or training, the extra nutrients are typically needed and utilized appropriately in accordance with the animal’s energy requirements. However, during times of lower energy expenditure, such as the off-season, an overload of nutrients can disturb the delicate intestinal environment, and cause serious health problems, such as colic or, in severe cases, metabolic disorders.
In order for the digestive system to reboot and restore its natural balance, feeding a lower energy, high fiber feed (e.g. Cavalor FiberForce and Cavalor Strucomix original) is essential. Because the horse has evolved to thrive on the digestion of fiber with the help of a diverse microbial hindgut population, the main portion of your horse’s feed should always consist of forage. Preferably this would be provided through pasture turnout or good quality hay, if grass is not available. Grazing not only supplies nutrients to vital microorganisms in the large intestine, thereby supporting overall health and immunity, but also encourages natural feeding behavior, keeping the horse mentally happy. Horses that may have developed GI issues, such as diarrhea or gastric ulcers, during times of stress and/or intensive work schedules will greatly benefit from a high forage diet to restore optimal gut function. GI supplements (Cavalor Digest, Cavalor Vitaflor 365, Cavalor emergency 911) can be used to further promote a healthy hindgut environment.
While forage and a good quality ration balancer will be sufficient for most horses during the off-season, others might need a little extra nutritional support. Horses that have a harder time maintaining weight will benefit from a higher energy diet, in particular with energy expenditure increasing to stay warm during colder weather. For these horses, highly digestible fiber sources, such as beet pulp or mashes, might fulfil some extra nutrient requirements. Additionally, concentrates with a higher fat and fiber content, in combination with good quality protein, (Cavalor Strucomix Senior, Cavalor FiberForce, Cavalor WholeGain) are also a good way of maintaining or adding healthy weight.
To retain a certain fitness level, some horses remain in training, although typically at a lower intensity. For these horses, a feed such as Cavalor Pianissimo will be beneficial in providing necessary nutrients to supplement training without raising the horse’s energy levels.
The off-season often spans winter months, accompanied by lower temperatures and less pasture availability. Although energy dense concentrates should be avoided as there is no more need to supplement high intensity exercise, it is still essential to provide adequate nutrition to maintain body condition during colder months. In addition to good quality hay, warm, nutritious mashes are usually well appreciated by most horses, in particular after a winter workout (Cavalor Mash&Mix).
Different physiological systems work closely together to keep the horse’s body functioning properly under various physical and environmental conditions. In addition to the impact on the GI tract, a high workload accompanied by large amounts of concentrates and stress, impose a significant challenge on important organs such as the liver and kidneys. These “detox” organs are vital for digesting, metabolizing and excreting both nutrients and medications or supplements fed to the horse.
During periods of heavy exercise, harmful oxidative waste products, such as lactic acid and free radicals, are generated as by-products of metabolism. However, at high concentrations, these metabolites can cause damage to cells, and can potentially cause muscle damage and fatigue during extended bouts of exercise. Anti-oxidants are essential players in counteracting the negative effects of these free radicals, and maintaining normal tissue function. Alongside nutritional anti-oxidants, such as vitamins E and C, and selenium, the liver and kidneys detoxify the body and produce some of the vital enzymes (e.g. glutathione) necessary to mediate these processes. Consequently, when these organs become overloaded, metabolic waste products accumulate, causing significant health issues, and decreasing performance.
Giving your horse a break from energy dense feeds and non-vital medications or supplements will allow the body to reboot itself and organs to regenerate. However, supporting and restoring liver function with short time supplementation of beneficial anti-oxidants and other ingredients such as essential amino acids (e.g. lysine, threonine) can improve recovery in the off-season (e.g. Cavalor Hepato liq).
Winning competitions would not be possible without an optimally functioning musculoskeletal system. Unfortunately, muscle, joint, and hoof problems can easily put a horse out of work.
Pasture turnout ensures that tired muscles stay loose after months of intense work, stall housing, and long hours of transportation.
To maintain hard-earned muscle mass and condition, it may be beneficial to keep horses in light work during the off-season. The horse’s feed should be balanced accordingly, ensuring nutritional requirements for the new exercise regime are met. Feeds or ration balancers with anti-oxidants, vitamins, and proper ratios of essential amino acids can help recovery of tired muscles and support further muscle development. Because capacity to build muscle declines with age, older sport horses will benefit from feeds with higher quality protein to maintain muscle mass.
Top performance can only happen through a combination of both physical and mental training and development. Taking care of the horse’s body is the easy part but as any competitive rider knows, allowing the mind to rest and recharge plays an equally large impact on future performance.
Allowing natural, social, and feeding behavior through pasture turnout and interaction with other horses when possible, will greatly benefit your horse’s mental state. Additional mental stimuli can be introduced by alternating regular training sessions with other types of exercise such as trail riding or groundwork. This will keep your horse’s brain alert, and likely enhance willingness to work on more difficult exercises when asked.
In conclusion, the off-season should be an opportunity for rest, recovery and the rebooting of the body and mind of our equine athletes. It is important to provide optimal nutritional support to the gastrointestinal tract and its associated organs by ensuring the rations match your horse’s lowered energy requirement. Preferably, these rations should be higher in fiber and low in concentrates while still providing necessary nutrients to maintain body condition during colder temperatures, or for horses with special needs. Natural feeding behavior and light exercise, will keep the horse mentally and physically fit.
Use this time appropriately to deal with any specific problems your horse may have encountered throughout the training/competitive season through proper management and veterinary advice, if needed. This will promote overall mental and physical well-being, and ensure the horse is in optimal condition for the next succesful show season.