Feed for SPEED – How to Fuel Fast-Twitch Muscles for Faster Times!

Feed for SPEED - How to Fuel Fast-Twitch Muscles for Faster Times!

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If you enjoyed last weeks post about feeding based on the Glycemic Index, but immediately thought “Oh that’s all fine and dandy, but can a low GI feeding program REALLY fuel a timed-speed event athlete?” then you’re in good company.

I once had the same concerns.

Like you, I don’t just want to run barrels, I want to WIN! Today more than ever, it takes a very special animal to do that consistently – and diet is a HUGE part of that.

There are so many bases to cover and it can be overwhelming to be our horse’s equine nutritionist on top of everything else. It can be especially confusing once you actually start doing your homework and crunching the numbers.

There’s also a lot of misguided, contradictory, and outdated advice and information out there when it comes to fueling the equine athlete.

A good starting point to get your mind nice and limber, is to consider what has been (and in many cases, what still IS) practice in race horse stables – which is to feed as much as 15 lbs. or more of grain (oats) per day!

We’ve known for quite a while now that excess grains can contribute to digestive upset, ulcers and even colic because horses have difficulty digesting large quantities of carbohydrates without the risk of fermentive overload.

What much of the horse world doesn’t fully realize yet is that excess sugar also creates heat in the body, which can contribute to inflammation. Combine that with its negative effects on the immune system, as well as how it impacts our horses attitude (making them “hot”), and these are all more than enough reasons to challenge the status quo (even IF you don’t feed anywhere near 15 lbs.).

Grazing - good for the equine body, mind and soul.
Grazing – good for the equine body, mind and soul.

When my husband’s gelding, Frosty who was retired for nearly eight years suddenly “came sound,” I believe it was in large part due to eliminating oats from his diet. He’d only been eating a small amount once a day, but as I always say – the details matter.

Equine nutritionist Don Kapper stated in “Feed for Speed” (BHN August, 2008) that “Many people think cereal grain is a requirement in the horse’s diet but in reality a horse should only be fed grains if it needs it.”

Some of us still couldn’t imagine not feeding our barrel horses oats, but this is becoming less and less of a mainstream practice.

So how do you know what your horse needs? And how can be sure your barrel horse’s diet is giving him every opportunity to perform well in competition?

A good place to start is with a nutrient analysis of your horse’s hay and/or pasture compared to the nutrient requirements for horses suggested by the National Resource Council.

Until we take this step, reading feed bag labels is of no use unless we have an idea what nutrients are being provided by the main portion of our horse’s diet.

In the area of horsemanship AND horse health, I’m all for getting right to the root of things. Rather than mask symptoms of horse health problems, I believe it’s best to dedicate more focus to solutions, and especially prevention, at a base level.

This way, symptoms and/or problems have a way of resolving on their own (or being prevented entirely) and we end up with a much happier, healthier, and faster horse as a result.

When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is right, medicine is of no need.
– Ayuervedic Proverb

Although certain drugs and supplements have their place in the life and health of high-performing equine athletes, you’ve gotta wonder about the side effects of anti-inflammatories, the common practice of quickly jumping to intra-articular injections, and the many drugs and supplements marketed as “calming aids” for barrel horses, just to name a few. In more ways than one we tend to run around in circles – constantly treating symptoms while overlooking the cause.

When it comes to fueling a sprinter, the thought of going with a low sugar/starch feed may be still a far out idea for some. Whether you’re already on board and experiencing the benefits or not, it’s certainly wise to take the steps necessary to make sure your barrel horses truly have what it takes to stop the clock.

So let’s start by acknowledging that our concerns are indeed warranted. After all, we DO have to look at feeding the short distance sprinter different than those doing slower work for longer durations.

But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that our barrel horses must have what it takes for marathon-like training sessions and warm-ups as well, which don’t always involve sprinting or fast-twitch muscles. They also need to have a super-powered digestive and immune system to keep operating at an optimum level. On top of that, our barrel horses need to have their wits about them mentally and emotionally to handle the pressure and stresses and that come along with repetitive runs and life on rodeo road.

Powerful and FAST by design!
Powerful and FAST by design!

No matter how much energy our horse has to burn, it’s of no use if our horse is sick with ulcers, Vetted out due to colic, or sidelined with a virus.

To look at both sides of the coin and better understand our barrel horse’s nutritional needs, let’s take a look at exactly what happens when our horses exert themselves during exercise.

A well-conditioned barrel horse spends the majority of their time in aerobic (slow-twitch) exercise. When we kick things up a notch and make a run or our horses start breathing heavy, they’ve switched to anaerobic (fast-twitch) exercise which burns stored muscle glycogen.

Horses can make glycogen from glucose they get from eating forage, but they may require additional levels depending on their needs to “restock the stores” and be fresh for their next performance.

A horse can’t go back to working aerobically until they’ve got their air back because aerobic exercise requires oxygen. Also, a horse won’t spring back and be ready for the next go-round if the glycogen stores in his body are depleted.

Although high glucose feeds do indeed provide energy for fast, power-oriented exercise, keep in mind that they don’t come without negative side effects I’ve mentioned above.

The good news is that with special “training,” barrel horses can use FAT as the primary source of steady energy when in aerobic (slow-twitch) exercise instead.

I say “training,” because even though fat is highly digestible and a good source of steady energy, it can take horses five to 12 weeks to adjust to fully utilizing fat as an energy source. It takes time for their bodies to change the enzymes within muscles in order to use fat more efficiently.

The benefit is that our horses will be able to go longer utilizing fat for energy in a workout, which spares the glycogen for when it’s needed most – such as in a run. When our horse’s body uses less glycogen, they will require less glucose in their feed which helps promote digestive health, a strong immune system, less inflammation, a calm & focused mental state, etc.

Also keep in mind that your horse’s body will use less glycogen when they’ve been properly and gradually conditioned over time, because this delays the transition from aerobic (oxygen burning) to anaerobic (glycogen burning) exercise.

Since we’re on the topic of how our horse’s muscles crank with power and speed, I bet you’re also curious about protein.

Healthy, strong (& gorgeous).
Healthy, strong (& gorgeous).

Ever wonder why so many amateur barrel horses don’t have the shiny, round, chiseled and muscular look of the pros? It has everything to do with diet and conditioning, and protein is a key factor. However, contrary to what WE have been conditioned to believe, while protein IS important for growing, building and repairing muscles, high-protein diets are not a good way to provide more energy.

Sufficient protein does indeed help our horses build topline and give them that round, muscular look. In addition, adequate protein (8-12%) is important for muscle conditioning by insuring a horse’s body does not get in a pinch and resort to tearing down their muscles to access amino acids stored there.

Excess protein exits the body through the urine and while not all experts agree, many believe that high levels over the long term can contribute to kidney problems. I personally steer clear of alfalfa-only diets, with the second reason being that it’s so nutrient dense that it leaves horses spending many hours of the day with an empty stomach (just as important as WHAT we feed, is HOW we feed it!), AND it’s ridiculously high in calcium.

If your curious to see how YOUR horse’s diet stacks up to what experts recommend, again be sure to have the main source of your horse’s diet (forage) nutrient tested, then look to your feed bag and prepare to do some math.

Start by calculating how many pounds of total feed your horse should receive per day, which will range between 1.5 – 2.5% of their body weight. For example, a 1000 lb. horse should eat 20-25 lbs. of total feed (forage + any “grain”) per day. If your horse has minimal exercise and is already an easy keeper, shoot for 1.5, and the other extreme (2.5%) for a slim horse or one getting moderate exercise.

When comparing nutrient percentages, average your total forage (% dry matter found on your feed analysis report) and any “grain” together. For example if your hay contains 8% protein, your grain mix would need to be at least 14% depending on how many pounds you feed per day.

To get all the numbers hammered out precisely, get the exact step by step process in The Next 50 Barrel Racing Exercises for Precision on the Pattern.

Forage is the foundation of horse health - be selective.
Forage is the foundation of horse health – be selective.

Once I’d taken a refreshed look at the fat in our feed, I realized that the levels in our hay (3%), pasture (2.3%), and feed (15%) were quite a bit lower than the 6-8% (no more than 15%) recommended for sprinting equine athletes.

My plan is to add more fat to our horse’s diet by increasing their daily ration of Renew Gold as I slowly condition them for their return to competition this summer. As is common with so many of the feed choices available to us, when it comes to feeding fat, there are drawbacks to many of the types of oils that have been fed to horses over the years. We especially want to avoid corn oil and most vegetable oils that are high in Omega-6 fatty acids which are known to produce inflammatory agents.

Remember that higher quality the forage, the less grain and supplementation will be necessary. It makes sense to shoot for the absolutely highest quality hay you can find. When buying hay, do NOT go on looks alone. Always ask for nutrient analysis results from your hay producer. Most professionals will have them, and if not – ask if you can collect and submit a sample yourself!

“We pay the Vet. to make our horses better. But we should really pay the farmer to keep them healthy.”

I’ll be keeping closer tabs on how many pounds of hay our horses are getting (I checked and a 4-6″ flake of our hay weights approx. 5 lbs.) and you can bet that when we need to search for a new hay source in Texas this year, that I’ll be doing my homework and asking for a nutrient profile report before I commit to buying.

Making sure our horse’s diet provides them with the energy they need when it matters most is critical, but just as (if now more) important is that they also have a diet that supports their all-around health, happiness and longevity.

I hope today’s article has given you new insights, structure, and resources to fuel barrel racing champions and be PRO active about nutrition – the very foundation of horse health!

Also enjoy these additional resources for support in feeding & fueling the barrel racing athlete:

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