By Mark DePaolo, DVM – Photographs courtesy DePaolo Equine
Competitive schedules heat up for many as we move into the spring and summer months. Many barrel racers will transition from running in Saturday jackpots to events lasting three days or more. Horses will be hauled thousands of miles in a short amount of time to participate in multiple events in the hopes of winning big paychecks.
While this is exciting for owners and trainers, the horses are exposed to added stress. Some horses handle the change of environments quite well, while others struggle to stay competitive when taken out of their normal routine at home.
The most common issues horses encounter are ulcers, colic, tying up, anxiety, muscle soreness, dehydration, and illness due to a compromised immune system. Contributing to these problems is the lack of consistent feed while on the road, temperature changes and lack of turnout.
The stress of hauling is unavoidable, but with a little planning you can be prepared to take the best possible care of your horse while competing. Prevention of potential problems is a much easier alternative than addressing a health crisis in an unfamiliar location with a veterinarian you don’t know after hours.
Water and electrolytes
Access to fresh water is the most critical element to health when hauling your horse. The average 1,000-pound horse will require a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons of water per day in order to function normally. Deficient water intake can lead to impaction colic, dehydration and tying up.
It is important to provide fresh water every day. Clean out water buckets each morning to remove any debris (hay, shavings, manure, insects) that may hinder the horse from drinking. At that time, also check to make sure there are manure piles and urine spots in the stall.
If your horse is fussy about drinking water while away from home, consider utilizing a water-flavoring agent at home before hitting the road. Start a few days before you leave, then when traveling the flavoring agent will mask any unfamiliar odd-tasting water. It is not uncommon for horses used to well water to turn up their noses at city water that has added chlorine.
On the road, make sure to stop every four to six hours to provide water. These scheduled stops will allow you to get your horses out of the trailer to walk around and drink. This will help with hydration, digestive tract function and gives muscles the chance to relax.
During the stress of hauling and competing, water alone may not be enough to supply needed electrolytes. Proper cellular function cannot happen without the correct balance of electrolytes. Horses deficient in electrolytes commonly display evidence of chronic fatigue, irritability and/or muscle soreness. Adding a powdered electrolyte supplement to feed or water or giving a tube of paste can help keep your horse feeling it’s best.
Sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium are the primary electrolyte minerals. The cheapest forms of these minerals are bound to chloride, which is NOT recommended for long-term use. Sodium chloride in particular can be harsh on the esophagus and digestive system. In addition, avoid products that contain unhealthy ingredients like soy, vegetable oil, sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, corn oil and corn syrup.
You need to also find a balance between eating and drinking. While it is recommended to keep hay in front of your horses in the trailer, if they aren’t drinking, you will need to cut back on forage and carbohydrate intake to avoid impaction colic.
Complete feeds (commonly referred to as ‘grain’) are often considered essential to provide the energy required by performance horses. Unfortunately, many of these feeds provide the type of quick burning energy you get from a candy sugar high, rather than a steady supply of energy from foods like rice bran, beet pulp and forages like alfalfa.
The best way to evaluate these feeds is by using the Glycemic Index. The GI will help you determine if a certain feed will elevate the blood sugar level creating an insulin spike once ingested. Looks for feeds with a value of 50 or lower to provide the best nutrition.
Avoid grains that contain molasses, corn, soy, by-products or middlings. These can be hard to digest, usually contain high amounts of herbicides, and may induce an allergic response from the immune system. In addition, high-sugar feeds cause increased levels of acid production during digestion and promote ulcer formation. They may also lead to immune compromise, hyperthyroidism and Cushing’s syndrome.
It’s important to notice when you read the feed bag label how much you are supposed to feed to achieve the daily requirement of vitamins and minerals. Some grains require you to feed as much as 10 pounds a day for horses in moderate to heavy work. It’s extremely difficult for the horse’s digestive system to process that large an amount of complex carbohydrates under stress.
As an alternative, consider a combination of alfalfa pellets and rice bran or beet pulp (without molasses). If you are feeding grass hay, then alfalfa pellets are a great choice because they have a low GI and provide a lot of fiber. If your horse needs additional fat to keep up with a busy hauling schedule, you can increase their rice bran intake or add olive oil as a top dress.
You will also need to provide a good quality complete daily vitamin and mineral supplement. Again, watch out for ingredients like soy, wheat, corn and molasses.
Providing high fiber hay, including in the trailer while hauling, will prevent periods of fasting. Feeding smaller meals more often is better for your horse than just twice a day. This ensures there is always food in the stomach to prevent unchecked acid from irritating the stomach lining. This will help avoid ulcers and a sore back.
It’s not recommended to change what you are feeding while you are away from home. Changes feeds can disrupt both the good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract, which can lead to diarrhea, ulcers and even colic. If you are gone for such a long period of time you cannot take enough feed with you, research ahead of time where you can buy the most similar products to what you are currently feeding.
Hauling long distances to races oftentimes creates enough stress to begin acid production. Add to it multiple days of competition plus a change in environment and you have the perfect storm to create ulcerated tissue. In as little as five days, an overly acidic stomach can result in mild to severe lesions of the stomach lining and throughout the digestive tract. A study published in the March 2005 issue of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science notes that as many as 90 percent of performance horses have some kind of ulcer.
While some horses are extremely stoic and do not show symptoms of digestive distress, the main behaviors you should watch for are:
• Loss of appetite; picky or slow eaters
• Weight loss
• Recurrent colic
• Overly sensitive to leg pressure
• Excessive tail swishing
• Poor hair coat
• Decreased performance
• Failure to train up to expectations
• Behavioral changes
• Chronically sore back
• Teeth grinding
If you notice a change in your horse that includes any of the above behaviors, you need to palpate your horse for ulcers. (The steps in this process were outlined in detail in the December issue of Barrel Horse News and via www.depaoloequineconcepts.com).
For sensitive horses, or those known to have gastric ulcer issues, veterinarians often advocate the use of an omeprazole product a few days before hauling or a competition. The drug’s acid reducing and neutralizing traits enable owners to minimize the risk of stress-induced ulcers associated with increased work regimens, stressful new environments and extensive hauling.
Ulcers and hindgut acidosis are best managed through a good diet and digestive health supplements. Most of these products contain natural ingredients designed to soothe, reduce inflammation and promote a healthy pH balance. Look for products that have aloe vera, slippery elm bark, marshmallow root, pre-biotics and pro-biotics, which are combined to support the digestive tract.
For minor cases of digestive discomfort or for those young horses getting hauled to simply gain experience without the stress of competition, a supplement alone can be very effective. Once again, make sure the product does not include ingredients like soy, grains, processed grain by-products nor the toxic metal aluminum or Bentonite type clays, which contain aluminum.
Seventy percent of the immune system is contained in the digestive tract. The immune system is the key to optimum health. It protects your horse from the diseases that can commonly spread when so many horses are in such close proximity at large events.
The stress of hauling and new environments can weaken the immune system, so it is critical to understand what is normal for your horse. Taking their temperature is often a great way to evaluate how your horse is feeling. The standard rectal temperature range falls between 99-101°F or 37.2-38.3°C. Find out what the typical temperature for your horse is at home so you know what is uncharacteristic when traveling. Be sure to get a temperature reading once you arrive at your race destination.
It is prudent to make sure your horse has been adequately vaccinated in the past with the core vaccines. It is not recommended to vaccinate within the 21 days prior to major stress like hauling, competition, change of stabling environment and surgery (including castration). The immune system is busy trying to mount an antibody response to the vaccine(s), so it will be ill equipped to handle actual infection. It is also crucial to not over-vaccinate, as this can deplete the immune system as well.
For young futurity horses and those that get very rattled by travel, a beneficial nutritional supplement is L-Lysine. It is key to calcium absorption, building muscle protein, boosting the immune system and supporting the body’s production of hormones, enzymes and antibodies. This proactive approach will help when your horse is exposed to infectious illnesses while under stress.
It is also difficult to handle an inflammatory, high grain diet as well as the invasion of viruses, bacteria and protozoa all at the same time, so make sure your feed program is an asset to the body.
Diet will also affect horses with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM), which has been identified as the most common cause of tying up in Quarter Horses. Tying up is also known as “exertional rhabdomyolysis” or ER.
PSSM causes muscles to accumulate unusable carbohydrates, leading to exercise intolerance. Acute, severe episodes of tying up may include difficulty moving, a strange cramped-out stance with a tucked-up abdomen and muscle twitching in the flank and hindquarters. Moderate to severe sweating may occur during these episodes.
Inadequate nutrition, especially diets consisting of high levels of concentrates (grains) and insufficient bio-available electrolytes, is often the single largest contributor to tying up. Sporadic ER may also be the result of muscle trauma, overexertion due to lack of proper condition, or exhaustion.
Research also suggests that female horses over the age of 2 are more susceptible to developing ER. Episodes are more likely to occur during estrus or “heat”. The correlation between heat and ER is not fully understood, but studies have shown that treating mares with synthetic hormones like progesterone (Regu-mate®) tends to lessen the number and intensity of ER episodes experienced.
The best way to support a horse with ER-tendencies is to feed a high fat, low carbohydrate diet and to provide appropriate exercise. Common feeds such as oats and sweet feed can negatively impact horses that suffer from ER episodes due to the high amounts of simple sugar. Feeding higher levels of fat sources such as rice bran or olive oil will provide the horse with alternate forms of energy in order to avoid using simple sugars as energy within the diet.
Managing electrolyte levels is essential when dealing with horses that suffer from ER episodes. They cause the horses’ muscles to stop functioning properly as a result of sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium levels becoming imbalanced. After an ER episode, it is crucial to provide a high quality electrolyte supplement for about two weeks.
Among other factors that can affect equine performance, a change in weather or temperature while traveling is often overlooked. A significant drop or rise in temperature can negatively impact a horse’s ability to perform. Before traveling, look at future weather patterns to note significant changes.
If you are hauling to an event with warmer temperatures, carefully monitor your horse’s water intake before and after traveling. During hot weather, provide adequate cool downs after exercise and consider placing a fan in front of the stall.
When traveling to an event with colder temperatures, be sure to take an appropriate weight sheet or blanket to maintain adequate body temperature at night. Consider packing a wool cooler to keep your horse warm before and after exercise.
Colder weather can make horses hesitant to both eat and drink, which means monitoring your horse’s feed and water consumption is very important. Horses are often hesitant to drink out of an icy or frozen water source, and you may need to break a layer of ice in order to get them to drink.
The unfamiliar and stressful environment of a barrel race can cause horses to become moody, aggressive or anxious. This makes it difficult for both horse and rider to focus. Supplementation is often used to help competitive horses become more emotionally balanced at events.
Boosting serotonin levels to promote feelings of wellbeing can often have calming effects on horses. Vitamin D3 and the amino acid L-Tryptophan can help to produce more serotonin in the body. Glutamic Acid encourages the body to soak up excess adrenaline and support calm and relaxed behavior. Magnesium is also used as a calming mineral by veterinarians to encourage an even temperament.
For moody horses, especially mares, progesterone is often used to reduce irritability and aggression. Progesterone facilitates thyroid hormone action and acts as a natural anti-depressant. Tyrosine is an amino acid that encourages an even temperament. B vitamins can help to prevent mood swings by balancing cortisol (the bodies’ primary stress hormone) levels.
It is hard to avoid the stresses of hauling with a competitive barrel horse. They are finely tuned athletes that are asked to travel frequently and compete multiple times at one event. Your best option is to plan ahead and limit the amount of stress as much as possible.
When hauling long distances, stay overnight at a fairgrounds that will let you turn the horses out in the arena for a while, if not all night. Make sure to bed your trailer and stalls deep with shavings. Do your best to maintain a consistent feed source and monitor water consumption, especially during travel.
Once you get settled in at the event, hand-walk your horse for 15-20 minutes. Rather than go right to training on your first ride, let your horse long trot for a while. Spend a lot of time walking out after your run as well – as Jordon Briggs told me, “Walk them out just as long as you warmed them up.”
Taking good care of your equine athlete while on the road will allow you the best opportunity to achieve your goals….and paychecks.
About Mark DePaolo, DVM
Mark DePaolo, DVM earned his veterinary degrees from Oregon State University and Washington State University in 1994. After working at two mixed practice clinics, Dr. DePaolo decided to specialize in holistic equine healthcare. He furthered his education by learning equine chiropractic and acupuncture in order to open his own practice, All Star Equine. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Acupuncture program in 2000.
Experience, innovation and a holistic approach to equine wellbeing have enabled Dr. DePaolo to become a leader in preventative and integrative veterinary medicine. A commitment to exceptional personalized care partnered with a genuine passion for providing a complete health care program drive his businesses.
In 2005, Dr. DePaolo’s passion in holistic equine health spurred him to create a new venture, DePaolo Equine Concepts, Inc. He recognized the need to combine both Western and Eastern approaches to medicine in order to create the best medicine. Dr. DePaolo is constantly striving to create new methods to address the many problematic issues people experience with their horses.
Looking to broaden the awareness of holistic equine medicine, Dr. DePaolo moved to Horse Country U.S.A. in the summer of 2011. Using Pilot Point, Texas as his base of operations for both All Star Equine and DePaolo Equine Concepts, he strives to build long term relationships with clients based on integrity, willingness to help each client understand their horses’ specific concerns, and using “common sense” approaches to equine health.
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