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Grain and morning exercise

From: Vanessa

Dear Jessica,

I see my horse every day, but in order to spend at least an hour or two with him, I usually get to the barn around 6.30 am. He's (almost :) ) always awake, alert, and waiting for me - he even drops his head and opens his mouth for the bridle/cavesson! He's such a great guy.

Anyhow, my horse has net full of hay all night (usually not finished in the morning - if it is, I give him a flake to nosh while I'm getting him ready), and the barn horses get their grain around 8.30. Is it okay if we work before his grain-breakfast or should I give him his grain when I arrive and wait? I'm worried if I give it before we work, he'll get awful cramps and then he'll put up a fuss when the other horses get theirs and he doesn't get any. On the other hand, one of the feeders had a fit at me and said he neede to have his grain before work. If that's true, I can get there earlier or wait or whatever - I just want to do right by my horse.

It's hard to find reliable information about questions like these - every two people have three opinions. Thanks for being an objective, trustworthy 'voice of reason' - my horse and I (and I'm sure thousands of others) are truly grateful and inestimably better off having heard you.

Thanks, Vanessa and Pegasus

Hi Vanessa!

My first thought is that you should talk with your vet about your horse's diet and exercise routine. You didn't say how much grain your horse is being fed, but you should realize that a healthy mature horse in light work, and with full-time access to hay, water, and salt, may not need any grain at all. It's possible that grain isn't even a necessary part of your horse's daily diet - find out!

If your horse has free access to hay all night, he won't be desperately hungry in the morning, but he's also unlikely to be stuffed full. This means that he will be able to work without being distracted, and that he will also be able to work without challenging his digestive system.

The feeder who suggested that you should grain the horse and then ride it is mistaken: It is not good for horses to be given grain before a workout of any kind. Don't give your horse grain just before you ride - he really will need an hour or so to digest his hard feed. The reason isn't particularly complicated. Did your mother ever warn you that you shouldn't go in swimming just after finishing a meal? It's the same idea, based on the same physical reality. Humans who cramp while swimming can drown; horses that cramp can colic - and die. It's all to do with the interconnectedness of the systems of the body. The digestive system relies on the circulatory system - but the circulatory system has quite a few different things to do during the course of a day. A horse's bloodflow can't be everywhere at once. If that horse is digesting, the internal organs need that blood, and the horse shouldn't be put in a position where the blood will be diverted elsewhere. When a horse is exercising, the bloodflow is diverted away from the digestive system. That WILL get in the way of digestion, and grain left undigested can ferment. That's not something your horse's digestion is equipped to deal with, and it's dangerous.

It sounds as though you should be able to manage this fairly easily. Grain him after his workout - be sure that he has water and hay as well - and just be sensible in the way you work your horse. If you are going to ride him for an hour, use your good sense. Don't ride hard. If you make it your daily habit to ride lightly, then walk the horse for fifteen or twenty minutes at the end of the "working" part of the session, then untack and groom the horse for fifteen or twenty minutes, this will provide enough time for the horse to cool down. As he does so, and as his heart rate drops and his breathing slows, his blood flow also shifts comfortably back into "relaxed" mode. At that point, when the horse's digestion calls on the blood to do its job, it will be ready. A horse that has been ridden considerately, cooled down, walked and groomed before being reunited with its water bucket and haynet - a horse with its temperature, pulse, and respiration returned to their normal resting rate - is a horse that you ought to be able to feed safely.

Horses may be very interested in food after a workout - don't let your horse's enthusiasm for eating push you into feeding him concentrates before he is well and thoroughly cooled out! By the time his ears are cool, he can be given water, then hay - and finally his concentrates.

Your routine can work for you and your horse. It wouldn't work for all horses, simply because of their personalities and their feelings about food - and because of their feeding routines. Some horses get absolutely fanatical about their feed and their feeding times, and become frantic if there's any change at all. Horses that are fed twice daily, never grazed, and given no hay between feedings may tend to bolt their feed and/or get very agitated if they are taken away to be ridden when they are anticipating breakfast. But horses that have free access to forage all night, whether it's in the form of pasture or hay, are far less likely to gulp their feed - and far less likely to become distracted and upset if they are working whilst other horses are eating breakfast. Since your horse has free access to hay and water all night long, and since he is obviously happy to see you and cooperative about going for a ride in the morning, it sounds to me as though he is quite comfortable with this routine.


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