How do I feed my horse before I go for a ride?
So let’s take this at the simplest of terms - it’s a normal ride for your horse, not Olympic level XC or the Tevis Cup. You’re just going for a ride, no big deal. There are two super simple things to think of as to how it relates to your horse’s health - ulcers and energy.
Taking a big picture look at your horse’s digestive system, and his stomach in particular. The horse’s stomach is constantly secreting stomach acid. For digestion! But also for eating away at the stomach and causing ulcers. If a horse is allowed to eat freely, the acid is always being produced and used for digestion. However, some horses today are fed meals, and even with a slow feeder still have hour upon hours of not eating. The stomach acid then is free to “do what it wants” - and in some case, cause ulcers. The bottom half of your horse’s stomach is what excretes acid - along with bicarbonate to protect the lining from the acid. BUT - the top half of the stomach is largely unprotected.
Forage is an ideal feed before some exercise.
So when your horse exercises on an empty stomach, he literally is swirling and sloshing the acid around, letting it splash up against the unprotected areas of the stomach’s upper half. Enter ulcers.
Now - if your horse eats hay before exercise, he’s going to form a layer of hay that literally creates a barrier against his stomach acid from splashing around. Super convenient, right? And, he’s a lot less likely to be snarky and snatchy if he feels good because he ate some hay.
If your horse has alfalfa in his diet, the ideal time to feed it is before a ride. The added calcium and protein in alfalfa has been shown to be a buffer against ulcers as well. Many barns don’t serve alfalfa or alfalfa blends, but you can get it in pellet or cube form and offer it as you do chores and get ready to ride.
Alfalfa cubes. Delish.
So then you have the dilemma about feeding grain before a ride. Ideally, you are feeding hay first anyway, then “grains” AKA fortified feeds and concentrated feeds. (Grain is just easier to type). These foods are dense, and can cause a spike in blood sugar, which causes an increase in insulin production and release by your horse. This increase occurs typically about two hours after feeding, and begins to return to normal at about 4-5 hours after feeding.
What is suspected to happen is that if you ride within one to four hours after a “grain” meal, your horse could have a sudden drop in blood sugar, which may result in decreased performance. Five hours after a “grain” meal, levels should return to normal. But the problem is that there’s not a lot of research about this. And really, unless you are working at an Olympic level as an eventer doing gallop sets, or an endurance rider headed out for 25 miles, this is very likely a non issue.
A fortified feed.
If you horse is in extremely strenuous work, an Equine Nutritionist and your Veterinarian can help you determine a good plan for feeding on training days and feeding on competition days. For most of us that have to work our riding around jobs, chores, obligations and the like, it’s often best to keep it simple. Make sure your horse’s stomach has hay in it before you head out!!