By Jyme Nichols, Director of Nutrition, Bluebonnet Feeds
For our horses, every day is leg day. If you’ve ever felt muscle pain the day or two following a high-intensity workout, then you know what we’re talking about. When it comes to preparing for and competing at a race, recovery becomes critical to your horse’s performance and wellbeing.
In fact, research has shown recovery with horses can occur within 24 to 48 hours, under normal conditions (depending on the exact exercise and conditioning of the horse). However, with heavy workloads, this can often extend to more than 5 days! It goes without saying that, if you’re running multiple times in a week, recovery is absolutely critical. Those tenths of a second could come down to how much muscle fatigue your horse is experiencing coming out of that final barrel.
There are many considerations for your horse’s recovery, both mental and physical. For this article, we will discuss physical recovery from strenuous exercise, with a focus on your horse’s muscles.
Here are six considerations to improve stamina and recovery.
1- General Conditioning
It’s obvious, but important. Be sure to train and condition your horse for the type of exercise you plan to do. A horse whose muscles are developed from trail riding or low-intensity competition is not physically prepared to run a barrel pattern. If your horse will be used in high-intensity events, you should increase training and conditioning over time to match.
Aside from development of the required strength, you want to teach a horse’s body to efficiently function during high-intensity workouts, so it takes longer for fatigue to set in. In other words, they’ll spend less time in anaerobic conditions and take longer to get tired.
2 – Efficient Use and Replenishment of Stored Energy
Let’s briefly review how energy is supplied to horses during exercise. The vast majority of energy comes from carbohydrates and fats, with just a little coming from proteins on occasion. An adequate supply of carbohydrates is required for all horses, but how the body chooses between these sources depends on the intensity of exercise.
Lower intensity workouts use a higher percentage of fat for energy (42%)1, when stored fat is oxidized. This is usually seen in sports requiring more endurance, such as trail riding, and can be categorized as aerobic exercise.
Fast-paced equine sports are more likely to fall into anaerobic exercise. Barrel racing fits perfectly in this category. During these high-intensity workouts, the horse is utilizing a significantly lower percentage of energy from fat (30%), with a larger majority coming from carbohydrates (70%). Muscles use stored carbohydrates, called glycogen, for energy.
Long story short, barrel horses need to 1) have enough glycogen stores; 2) be able to efficiently use them for energy; and 3) replenish those glycogen stores quickly.
Ironically, horses are slow to replenish glycogen stores (the carbohydrates muscles use for energy), taking as long as three days to recover. The faster these can replenish, the faster the recovery time, and likely an increase in sustainable energy.
If you’re looking to aid all three, look for feed or supplements that contain Chromium Propionate.
Chromium unlocks the body’s ability to better utilize glucose. It is shown to help increase the uptake of glucose by cells, leading to faster replenishment of stored energy in the muscles.
Be sure to select a product with: 1) An FDA-approved source of chromium; 2) Chromium Propionate in the ingredients list; and 3) Chromium in the guaranteed analysis (to assure effective levels).
3 – Hydration & Electrolytes
Speaking of stored energy in the form of glycogen, water is actually required for the muscles to store glycogen. If your horse is dehydrated, it could also slow down their muscle recovery.
Make sure your horse is staying hydrated by monitoring their water intake and checking for dry feces.
You can also try the pinch test. Gently pull your horse’s skin to see how fast it snaps back. The best test spots are on the point of the shoulder or upper eyelid. It should only take about one to two seconds to return to normal.
Provide constant access to water. Water should be offered regularly when traveling, and refreshed often. Be sure to also provide plenty of water after exercise. Water can be given immediately post-ride, either at free choice or in stages of cool-down. If you have questions or concerns about your horse’s water intake after an intense workout, we recommend consulting your vet on their specific needs.
A metabolic pH balancer, such as TurboMag BCAA, is excellent for encouraging water intake and keeping your horse’s cells hydrated.
Supplement with electrolytes, especially during times of increased intensity or heat. Electrolytes are essential minerals. They are required for necessary body functions, from nerves and muscles to the brain, and they must be acquired through the diet. Sweat is full of electrolytes, so the more your horse sweats, the more they lose.
For performance horses, this makes it very likely that supplementation of electrolytes will be required. Often, quality hay and grain will contain enough for their daily needs. However, it may not be enough to replace the electrolytes lost due to strenuous exercise, travel or hot weather. It’s also important to note that water should always be made available when electrolytes are given.
4 – Amino Acids & Proteins for Muscle Development/Repair
As muscle is broken down during exercise, amino acids are needed to create the proteins that repair and rebuild it. The faster your horse’s body can rebuild these muscles, the shorter the recovery time.
When it comes to building muscle, specific amino acids, in a very particular order, are required. If you’re missing certain amino acids, then repair stops.
Evaluate your horse’s diet to ensure they have adequate amounts of the following amino acids:
- Essential amino acids. These amino acids have to be acquired through the diet, as the body cannot produce them. There are many essential amino acids, but lysine is considered the most likely to be deficient in your horse’s diet. We recommend looking for a lysine guarantee in your grain, at the very least. Many good feeds will also include methionine and threonine, along with other amino acids.
- BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids). BCAAs are critical to muscle repair and development. It’s possible that supplementing BCAAs to horses following exercise might lead to muscle gain. This implies that BCAAs could help reduce muscle fatigue and lead to shorter recovery times.
5 – Omega-3s and Reducing Inflammation
Protecting the body from damage due to inflammation during times of high stress is also a huge contributor to performance. Omega-3 fatty acids help the body reduce inflammation naturally. They are also an essential nutrient, and must be consumed through the diet.
There are multiple forms of omega-3 fatty acids. If you are looking to help reduce joint and body pain in senior horses and performance horses, you may want to consider using ETA omega-3 fatty acids. ETA is highly effective at reducing systemic inflammation within the body. Look for marine-based sources, such as the New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel, to help reduce joint and body pain.
Also, because your horse’s diet contains plenty of omega-6s, you’ll want to focus on adding extra omega-3.
6 – Vitamin E & Vitamin C
Finally, consider supplementing with vitamin E and Vitamin C. With strenuous exercise, your horse’s body will be constantly turning stored sources into energy. This oxidation of glycogen and fats causes the formation of what are called free radicals, which are unstable and damage cell walls if not removed. Vitamin E and Vitamin C essentially neutralize these free radicals, preventing damage.
Ensure your horse’s normal feeding program meets their baseline vitamin E requirements. Providing extra vitamin E and Vitamin C after particularly intense workouts, such as a barrel race, might aid in recovery. Aim to supplement with a natural source of vitamin E in combination with Vitamin C for higher absorption and maximum benefits.
- Condition your horse’s body for the right type of exercise. If your horse competes at a high-intensity, be sure to build up workouts to match.
- If your horse needs help with stamina, fatigue and recovery, look for a feed or supplement with guaranteed levels of Chromium Propionate.
- Make sure your horse stays hydrated with constant access to water and supplement electrolytes during times of high-intensity exercise or hot weather.
- Check your grain for essential amino acids, and confirm those included in the guaranteed analysis. We recommend looking for at least a guaranteed level of Lysine. If you think your horse needs additional support with muscle development and repair, consider supplementing BCAAs following your rides.
- Provide Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Look for EPA, DHA or ETA forms, from a marine source, for the highest possible impact on reducing inflammation.
- Consider supplementing Vitamin E & Vitamin C to neutralize free radicals and prevent damage to the cells.
Want support deciding what’s most helpful for your horse?
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