Nutrition Tips for Traveling With Your Horse

With so many other things changing for the horse with travel, taking feed from home is a good way of removing a major stressor.

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Q. In the coming weeks my show season starts, and I will be traveling with my horse. When at shows we’ll be away from home a few days at a time—sometimes longer. How should I manage her diet during this time to reduce colic and ulcer risk?


A. While traveling for competition can be a lot of fun, it can also be quite stressful—not the least on your horse’s digestive tract. Good management and gradual dietary changes help maintain your horse’s digestive health at home. However, when we travel for shows sudden diet changes are often the reality.

The amounts and types of enzymes released in a horse’s small intestine mirror the types of nutrients in the diet. Similarly, the microbial population in the hindgut is specific for the types of nutrients arriving there. When the diet’s nutritional composition changes, these digestive tract environments need time to adapt.

Even hays of the same type can have widely different nutritional profiles that can cause digestive upset, especially in the hindgut, increasing colic risk. This is why veterinarians and nutritionists generally recommended making hay and concentrate feed changes slowly over a period of seven to 10 days.

Forage and Feed

I encourage my clients who travel with their horses to take their feed from home with them whenever possible. This helps ensure against digestive tract environment changes. With so many other things changing for the horse with travel, taking feed from home is a good way of removing a major stressor. Here are some additional feed-related tips:

  • When on the road, make sure to take enough feed with you. Calculate the amount of each item in your horse’s diet fed per day, multiply by the number of days you will be traveling, and pack accordingly. You do not want to run out early, so always err on the side of more than you think you’ll need.
  • Always take more hay than you would typically feed at home, because offering your horse additional forage while traveling is a good way to combat the potential risk of ulcers that occurs with travel. The more your horse chews, the more saliva she produces, which buffers stomach acid.
  • For horses that have access to grazing at home consider using slow feeders (such as a haynet) at shows to somewhat recreate grazing.
  • If going to humid climates be careful about packing daily grain in to Ziploc bags, because these can sweat and result in mold. It is often better to leave the grain in the original feed bag.
  • It might not be possible to always take your horse’s feed with you. When this happens, try to substitute with feed as close as possible to what you were feeding at home. For example, when possible replace timothy hay with timothy hay, or alfalfa with alfalfa, etc.
  • When shopping for substitute commercial feeds, look at your current feed’s label and find the ingredient list. Then compare to the ingredient list of the substitute feed. Try to pick a feed with similar ingredients that appear in roughly the same order on the feed tag. Compare the guaranteed analysis values to make sure the protein, fat, fiber, and other nutrient levels are similar to your horse’s current feed, as this will result in less dramatic digestive tract changes.
  • For clients who feed commercial feeds and who travel out of area frequently, I recommend using a national brand of feed at home, because these are typically more easily available across the country than feeds made by small local feed mills. However, be aware that a feed manufactured in California might not be exactly the same in New York due to differences in milling techniques, ingredient availability, and climate. 

Water

Water consumption is a vital piece of the traveling puzzle that’s often overlooked. Dehydration when traveling is a real risk and could result in impaction colic. Plus, dehydration significantly compromises performance and could cost you your winning edge. The various salts or dissolved solids in water differ by water source and change its taste and smell. If you are on well water at home and attend shows within urban areas, the show water will likely be chlorinated. These unfamiliar attributes can cause a horse to shy away from drinking.

Don’t forget to pack your salt block, a common mistake for those who rely on their salt block as their horse’s only source of supplemental salt!

Dr. Clair Thunes

There are a couple of tricks to help encourage your horse to drink:

  • The first is to make sure your horse is getting adequate salt each day, because the sodium helps stimulate thirst and the desire to drink. I recommend feeding 1 tablespoon of table salt per 500 pounds of body weight each day, as well as having block or loose salt available at all times at home and away. Don’t forget to pack your salt block, a common mistake for those who rely on their salt block as their horse’s only source of supplemental salt!
  • The second trick is to teach your horse to drink what I call “tainted water” at home. Add a small amount of apple juice or apple cider vinegar to your horse’s water to alter the taste. Then do the same thing at the show to mask any differences, making the show water taste the same as the water at home. Be sure when you introduce this that you always have plain water available in addition to the “tainted water.”

Digestive Aids

Frequent travel is one situation where I recommend feeding a digestive-tract-support supplement. I’m a fan of good prebiotics that contain Saccharomyces yeasts, as well as digestive tract conditioners that contain bentonite clays and other ingredients that coat the stomach to add a layer of protection.

Take-Home Message

Having a feeding management program at home that honors your horse’s digestive anatomy and physiology and then taking that program on the road with you is the best way to reduce stress on your horse’s digestive tract while traveling.

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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