Changes in diet, transportation, high-level competition...all are known to take their toll on performance horses. Combine these three and you have the making of a disaster, unless proper preparations are made to combat these stresses. For the Olympic Games in Sydney, nearly every competitor traveled thousands of miles by van and by air to reach the competition venue. Australia has very strict import requirements, not only for horses, but for the feed that horses consume. Therefore, most of the competitors were faced with a feedtub that contained something that might not have tasted the same--or had the same ingredients--as what comes at mealtime at home. A worrisome situation for horse and handler.
Enter Kentucky Equine Research.
This Kentucky-based company is not in the feed manufacturing business, but in the equine nutrition consulting business. They are consultants to "team member" feed manufacturers around the globe. Because of that role, they were chosen in 1996 as the official feed suppliers to the equestrian events at the Atlanta Olympics. They played a similar role in Sydney this year, working as a consultant to the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and Salmon River, the Australian-based group who contracted to supply the equine feeds. Kentucky Equine Research (KER) opened a branch in Australia last year, which made the task of procuring appropriate Australian-grown feedstuffs and bedding much easier, although not simple.
A Modest Beginning
Joe Pagan, who holds a masters and a PhD in equine nutrition, is the founder and president of KER. The company, based in Versailles, Ky., had modest beginnings a dozen years ago. Pagan began his career as an equine nutritionist for a large feed company, but realized that the future of horse feeds was with regional manufacturing. Since few of those feed mills had trained, in-house equine nutritionists, Pagan saw a niche that needed his expertise.
He began KER along with his wife, Karen, working out of his home farm. Pagan started KER based on the premise that he would not only perform nutrition consulting based on his experience and what was known in published literature, but would conduct much-needed research. KER's stated goal is to, "Increase the horse industry's knowledge of equine nutrition and sports medicine and apply this knowledge to produce healthier, more athletic horses." That mission continues today, although on a much larger scale.
Today, KER has nearly 30 employees and consults for more than 45 feed manufacturers around the world. Included in his team are Stephen E. Duren, PhD, Kathleen Crandell, PhD, and Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, in the Kentucky office; and Peter Huntington, BVSc, MACVSc, with the KER Australasia division. (For more on KER's activities, see sidebar on page 58.)
Getting In The Games
Because his main business is as an equine nutrition consultant to feed manufacturers, becoming the feed supplier at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was not a goal for Pagan. The year before the Games, a company in Switzerland for which he consults contacted KER to ask what feeds would be available for competitors in Atlanta. Pagan dutifully began a series of phone calls to find the information for his team member. What he found was that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) had not selected anyone at that point to supply feed. They asked Pagan if he were interested.
While KER is not in the feed business, the many team manufacturers they represent could offer the high quality and variety of feedstuffs needed for the various equine competitors. So, instead of offering a bid on the price of what he could supply, Pagan got samples of feeds, grains, and hays and shipped them to ACOG. One of the members of that committee was a horseman who recognized the quality of the forages, grains, and concentrates, and KER found itself as the supplier to the Games.
But that was just the start. While this year's Olympics had Australian officials worrying about weed seeds coming in through feedstuffs and taking over the country, for the Atlanta Olympics the worry was piroplasmosis.
That disease is not found in this country (but is found in most other countries in the world), is carried by ticks that are closely related to ticks found in Georgia, and horses positive for the disease were going to be allowed to come into the country. Therefore, all hays had to be certified tick-free. No small task.
Fortunately, Pagan said, the best hays in the country are the irrigated varieties grown in Idaho and Washington state. Entomologists at those state universities wrote letters stating that those high plains are not normal habitats for the species of tick that could carry piroplasmosis.
"The Olympics is a short event, and we wanted the competitors to go away thinking that was the best feed they had ever used," said Pagan.
One problem with the hay, however, was proving that the properly cured timothy hay--which was a natural green in color--was not too high in protein (such as an alfalfa hay would be). Many competitors who had fed grass-type hays at home were used to a brown hay.
"We had to get the hay tested to prove it was 8 1/2% or 9% protein," said Pagan.
About half of the competitors brought in their own sweet feed or pellets, while KER supplied the hay and the remaining concentrates and grains for the teams. Interestingly, the Australian and New Zealand teams were quite successful at the games, and they used American feeds. All of the American three-day event horses--even though they were on their home turf--used KER's feeds.
The Atlanta experience was considered successful by all involved. Horses were brought in from all over the world, and the incidence of gastrointestinal upset was very low thanks in part to the quality and availability of good feedstuffs.
While the American process for selecting a feed supplier was rather short, the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) started their search for a supplier early. It required an extensive "tendering" form (translation, lots of paperwork) be filled out by feed manufacturers wanting to supply the Sydney equine events. The committee also asked for set pricing for the feeds and bedding materials.
"KER withdrew from the process," said Pagan, who was dismayed with the concern over price rather than quality. "We said we would be fair in the pricing, but we felt the necessity to get the best feed available whatever the cost. The teams pay for the feeds, and they were the ones wanting the best."
Australian-based Salmon River feed company was granted the contract to supply feedstuffs to the equestrian events at the Sydney Olympics. However, the company's main business was supplying feeds to overseas shipping of live animals (thousands of sheep from Australia to other countries). The company sought equine nutrition expertise, and ended up at KER's door. Salmon River hired KER as a consultant for this project.
"We're designing all the feeds, communicating with the teams, taking orders, and preparing the feeds made at a KER team member mill in Australia (Hy Gain Feeds)," explained Pagan. "Australia is our biggest country outside the U.S. for consulting work, so this worked out well."
KER's biggest customers in Australia are feed manufacturers who supply the Thoroughbred racing industry. "Hy Gain Feeds are the leader in feeds for the horse racing industry, and they'll make most of the recipes we want for the Olympics," said Pagan.
The challenges in supplying feed to the world's horses while they are in Australia was not simple. First, Australia doesn't allow any outside forages or haylage to be imported. Feed grains and concentrates can be imported, but they must be irradiated to kill any weed seeds. This means, for the most part, shipments of feed had to be made via cargo ship months before the games, then irradiated prior to being delivered to the quarantine facility at Horsley Park. A couple of the European feed companies did that for some European teams (about 70 of the 250 horses). The rest of the competitors dined on recipes designed and obtained by KER.
The second challenge faced by KER was forages. Very few horse people in Australia feed grass hay (such as timothy). Most either feed a legume such as alfalfa, or they feed chaff. (Oat and wheat are grown and cut prior to producing seed heads.) So, the question was, where could KER buy the grass hay most competitors wanted?
"Salmon River contracted with hay growers to grow hay specifically for the Olympics," said Pagan. "It had to be grown, baled, and stored the previous year because the Olympics are in the Australian winter-to-spring season. This was not as easy as it sounds, because the growers basically had to create a new crop that was sold on a one-time deal."
Just as with Atlanta, KER began to be bombarded with requests from feed companies around the world asking about the availability of feeds in Australia.
"There are 250 horses coming to the Olympics, and probably 200 different feeds are fed," said Pagan with a laugh. "While high-quality ingredients are available in Australia, there wasn't necessarily access to a wide variety of ingredients such as what is used in Europe. We couldn't make a custom feed for each horse, so we created a menu of feeds."
This menu contained the highest-quality ingredients based on sound nutritional research for the type of high-caliber horses needing to be fed at the Olympics. Then, to make matters easier on the health of the horses (and the minds of the riders and caretakers), these special recipes were made available to the feed manufacturers of all the Olympic horses. That allowed horses to be switched gradually to the type of feed they would be eating in Australia before they ever left home!
To make matters even easier for the teams, Pagan created a web site available only to Olympic finalists so they could view the grains and hay available, and select from the menu the type and amount wanted for each horse. That way, the feed rooms for each team could be totally ready when the horses arrived.
That was an important innovation, since most of the horses arrived almost at one time!
Australia agreed to pay for the transportation of all the equestrian competitors to the Games. To expedite matters, they had gathering stations where horses from various locations met and were flown on chartered aircraft to Australia.
Pagan said that from Aug. 21-26, more than 200 horses were to arrive at the quarantine station. "Once they arrived, they were taken to the Olympic venue, which acts as the country's quarantine station. All the horses' feed and hay had to stay on the plane, and that is a critical time after traveling more than 24 hours into foreign surroundings and to be put on completely new grub! All the feedstuffs are high-quality, but they are different. Our plan was to lessen the shock to their systems."
The American three-day event team headed to Australia early (the first of August), and were quarantined at a separate location before heading to the Olympic venue. During their quarantine in the United States, they were switched to the KER rations available in Australia and had arranged for KER feeds and forages to be available at their destination in Australia prior to the Olympics.
Pagan was scheduled to be in Australia from mid-August (to be in place before the first shipments of horses arrived) until the Games were over on Oct. 1.
Equestrian teams happy with the quality of feeds in Atlanta are pleased with KER's participation in the Sydney event, which ensured them a high standard and proper nutrition for the strenuous task at hand.
The Business of Nutrition
Consulting to feed manufacturers is the main focus of Kentucky Equine Research, but it isn’t the company’s only job. Most feed mills needed recommendations from KER on supplements, because their horse-owning clients wanted that type of information. Joe Pagan, president of KER, decided that instead of recommending someone else’s supplements—which might or might not have research-based formulas—KER would supply some of those supplements.
“We try not to do things that compete with the feed manufacturers,” said Pagan. “We created electrolyte and foot supplements that are available through the ‘team’ member manufacturers for whom we do consulting work.”
Pagan also has a facility that conducts feed and sports medicine research projects. This research is done to support the feed industry. Included in some of the research currently underway is a project to look at fat in a horse’s diet.
Much research has been done on feeding fat, and it is known that there is a period of time needed before the horse’s body converts to using fat as its main energy source, but there is very little information on how long a horse has to be fed fat before that happens.
“We’re using very sophisticated technology to see how long a horse has to eat fat before he becomes efficient at using fat,” explained Pagan. “We’re using indirect calorimetry that involves putting a face mask on a horse while he is exercised on a treadmill and measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide. We can tell whether he is burning fat or carbohydrates. We also use a stable non-radioactive isotope infused in the horse to further differentiate blood glucose or muscle glycogen use. These tests allow us to see what fuel the horse’s body is burning during exercise. We also can measure how quickly a horse’s muscle adapts to using the fuel.
“This will allow us to tell horse owners how long a horse in training must eat fat before his muscles are fully able to utilize it.”
There are other questions that have been put to KER to which answers are being sought. These range from developing new feed flavors to a study of different forms of minerals to see which is most available to a horse when fed.
An important project recently completed was determining an electrolyte solution to be used on horses after strenuous exercise to allow rehydration and replenish the horse’s body.
“Most private nutrition research companies don’t publish this type of information; they keep it as proprietary information,” said Pagan. “We’re different because most of our research is published in scientific journals.”
In fact, KER was the fourth-most published institution at the Equine Nutrition and Physiology Society (ENPS) throughout the last decade (following Texas A&M University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the University of Kentucky). At the most recent International Conference on Equine Exercise Physiology (ICEEP) held in 1998 in Japan, KER scientists contributed nearly 40% of the papers presented in the nutrition of the performance horse section.
KER also publishes a quarterly magazine called EquiNews for customers of their team of feed manufacturers. The group also publishes WEVR (World Equine Veterinary Review), which is designed for equine practitioners to summarize all aspects of equine research being conducted throughout the world.
Pagan calls KER a centralized “think tank” for equine nutrition. The information generated is disseminated through team member feed manufacturers and by branded products (such as the supplements).“We don’t consult with horse owners or farm owners, although we do take on special projects like the Olympics,” said Pagan. “We might conduct special services for a farm, but only through that farm’s feed mill.” That makes KER an even more valuable asset to those team members. (For more information about KER and its products and services, visit www.ker.com.
About the Author
Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.