Feeding While Traveling by Horseback: It’s All About Balance

Christa describes equine nutrition challenges during her cross-country trip on horseback from Paris to Florence.

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Solstice gets an online nutrition consultation with Dr. Shannon Pratt-Phillips.
Solstice gets an online nutrition consultation with Dr. Shannon Pratt-Phillips. | Louisa Lesté-Lasserre
In the ideal scenario, traveling horses would eat grass along the trails and in the fields where we rest overnight. And they would be plump and healthy and happy.

But the reality is that scenario requires a good combination of all the right criteria: an ample availability of nutritious, nontoxic grass and other forage, good basic gastrointestinal and metabolic health, and good starting body condition. It also helps to have relatively easy keepers.

That’s not our case. I’ve got two 17-hand Warmbloods that can go through a barn full of hay and still hover just below where I want their body condition score to be. Sabrina has metabolic issues that cause insulin dysregulation from time to time. And both horses became slightly underweight after the drought this summer in Europe and some management issues at their boarding facility.

Nutritionist Consultations: Invaluable Feeding Advice for Healthy Travelers

To get the best feeding advice possible, I turned to two experts: Shannon Pratt-Phillips, PhD, a professor of equine nutrition at North Carolina State University’s Department of Animal Science, in Raleigh, and Emanuela Valle, DVM, PhD, ECVCN, head of the clinical nutrition counseling group in the University of Turin’s Department of Veterinary Science, in Italy.

Both nutritionists carried out incredibly thorough initial evaluations of Sabrina and Solstice over Zoom video calls. They paid close attention to their body condition from all angles and asked for a series of body measurements: girth line, belly, neck crest, shoulder-to-hip line, and height. They also asked for videos of the horses eating, so they could evaluate the way they selected and chewed their food. Finally, the nutritionists ordered blood chemistry profiles and took a close look at the results, mostly to assess liver and kidney function.

Pratt-Philips and Valle agreed that a forage-only diet, with a balancer, was our goal. This approach is not only better for the horses’ health and welfare but also much more convenient to carry on a horse-powered trip. Solstice and Sabrina would only need a small amount of balancer a day each if the forage was high-quality and their body condition good.

We all agreed, however, that the horses weren’t ready to forego concentrated feeds just yet. They needed extra calories to put weight on, as well as protein and amino acids to rebuild their muscle after the summer break and drought. They said it was perfectly fine to start low-level travel work (about 10 miles a day), provided I had a way to transport bags of feed.

And not just any feed. Sabrina’s metabolic issues meant finding a calorie-rich, low-sugar feed. Ideally, it should provide about 10 to 12% protein, with high fiber and high fat content, Pratt-Phillips said—which isn’t easy to find. A few brands offer such a product, but they’re available only by special order. I was surprised to discover how difficult it was to acquire this type of feed, given the number of working and performance horses that battle insulin dysregulation. But I finally managed to get a product that satisfied the nutritionists’ requirements.

Because the horses’ bloodwork also showed high creatinine—suggesting they’d sustained some muscle damage over the summer—Julie Guedj, DVM, at Bailly Equine Veterinarian Clinic, in Bailly-Romainvilliers, France, ordered them a daily selenium and vitamin E supplement. It came in a 5-pound tub that I divided into two bags for transport. Even so, it’s important to avoid oversupplementing selenium, so I must take into consideration the amount of selenium and vitamin E already present in the concentrated feed when I measure and administer the product, Valle said.

Nutrition Advice Highlights

Here’s some of the great nutritional advice I received from Pratt-Phillips and Valle:

  • Be particularly careful about hay quality, as the 2022 drought in Europe has led to certain hay harvests that are toxic to horses. Try to get first-cut meadow hay, Valle said. Alfalfa and second-cut grass hay are high in proteins, which can cause insulin spikes in laminitis-prone horses.
  • A prebiotic and/or probiotic might help prevent digestive upset from the frequent changes in forage along the way. Research on these products is inconclusive, Pratt-Phillips said, but they won’t hurt and might help with hindgut fermentation. They could at least provide one constant “core” in the horses’ food source, Valle added.
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae is an easy-to-find yeast supplement that increases the digestibility of dry matter and fiber, Valle said. It can also help with the frequent food changes.
  • Add about 1.5 tablespoons of basic table salt to the daily ration, Valle said. Increase the feed ration by 400 grams per horse after a hard day of travel, and rest the horses for 24 hours after, she said.
  • To help the horses gain weight during the trip while minimizing sugar intake, add beet pulp and as much vegetable oil as they’ll eat, Pratt-Phillips said. Beet pulp can help regulate liver enzymes—assistance my horses need, Valle added. Start them at 100 grams of beet pulp per day, soaked for a few hours, and gradually increase to 300 grams per day.
  • Monitoring manure can help me understand how the horses are coping with frequent changes in diet or new food sources, said Pratt-Phillips. Soft poop for more than a day might suggest they need a different kind of forage—and plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Three or four hours of travel without eating should not cause any problems for the horses’ stomachs, she said. But a grazing break every two hours or so would probably make them happy.
  • To keep carrying loads lighter, the nutritionists suggested having four or five days’ worth of feed rations shipped intermittently to planned stops.

Keeping My Advice Team Updated

Guedj, Pratt-Philips, and Valle have all asked for regular updates on the horses’ body condition and fitness to see if we need to adjust their nutritional requirements and work capacity. I’ll send them side and hind view photos and take new measurements.

If I could have handpicked the perfect trail horses for my journey, I would have had easy keepers with stomachs that can handle anything.

But that wasn’t the point of this trip. We’re traveling together as a team because we’re already a team, with all our strengths and weaknesses. That might mean it’s more complicated to get a healthy nutrition and work balance, managing feed bag orders and taking longer breaks as needed, but that’s fine. As long as the horses are happy and enjoying the trip, it’ll be worth it.


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Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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