Ask Equine Expert - Rider fitness seems

"Rider fitness seems to be a hot topic at the moment but is it really an issue at the lower levels?"

Is it really an issue at any level? Is probably more of an appropriate question! What we mean by ‘fitness’ probably needs clarification before we move on. The components of fitness can be classified loosely into strength, power, agility, balance, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance and co-ordination. Without a doubt, horse-riders will require some of these fitness components in order to perform. Equestrianism can be classified as a ‘travel sport’ and has been compared with other travel sports, such as motor sports and water events (e.g. sailing, yachting). There is, however, the distinguishing factor of the horse’s involvement – an animal with its own mind. This makes it much more difficult to truly evaluate the importance of ‘fitness’ in horse-riders.

We know from current scientific literature that as a horse and rider progress through the gaits (e.g. walk, trot, canter, gallop, jump efforts) there is more physical demand on the body. It is the faster gaits and jumping that require the rider to adopt a forwards position causing weight bearing to be through the riders legs – further increasing the ‘effort’ for riders. So it’s more likely that events, such as Show-Jumping, Eventing and Racing will exert more physiological demand on the rider than seated disciplines, such as Dressage. It’s thought that this increased demand is due to increased muscle activity of the torso and thigh muscles and is suggested that strength training of these areas for the disciplines requiring faster gaits and jumping may improve rider performance.

So then, should riders at any level attempt to improve the components of fitness? Well, in my opinion, yes! The effects of increased physical fitness and the ability to offset fatigue in athletes can improve technical ability, cognitive function, balance and skill and is well documented in scientific literature. In a sport where decision making, balance, skill execution and reaction times are considered important it seems wise for equestrian athletes to adopt a training regimen designed to offset fatigue.

It is also well-known that horse-riders are asymmetric and that this can affect the horse’s asymmetry too. An un-mounted training programme can potentially improve symmetry and effectiveness of aids of both yourself and your horse. Additionally, as riding is a non-weight bearing sport (like swimming and cycling), resistance-based training programmes can help with maintaining good bone density. Cross-training (training in different modes to improve performance) is a commonly adopted method in most other sports as is known to prevent overtraining, boredom, injuries and help people stick to exercise regimes.

As a skill-based sport, having enhanced components of fitness alone won’t necessarily make you the next Olympic Gold medal winning equestrian. However, in addition to developing the necessary skills, additional ‘fitness’ training will improve performance and I would encourage riders at all levels to incorporate some sort of un-mounted training as part of their ‘equestrian’ training.

Expert Answer by: Helen Warren

Ask Equine Expert - Can someone tell

"Can someone tell me the difference between haylage and silage and how they relate to hay?"

Haylage and silage are both products of conserved grass. That is to say, the grass has been cut, harvested and packed into either a large, wedge-shaped clamp or a bale wrapped in plastic. The aim of conservation is to preserve excess grass in the spring/summer so that there is forage in the winter – here both haylage and silage are the same as hay. Where they differ is the method used to conserve them. Hay is obviously grass that has been cut and left to dry and the amount of moisture remaining is very low (~15-10%). The drying process is designed to stop undesirable microbes growing in the hay. Haylage and silage are generally wetter products and their method of conservation is quite different from that of hay. The grass is not allowed to dry out for as long as hay so it is still wet when baled. The aim of packing it in a silage clamp or wrapping it in plastic is to create an environment with no oxygen as quickly as possible. This has the same effect as drying out the grass for hay. By removing as much oxygen as possible, the pH of the forage drops – this helps to stop any undesirable bacteria growing and ‘spoiling’ the forage.

The ultimate difference between haylage and silage is the moisture content at which the grass is harvested and packed/wrapped. This makes haylage somewhat drier than silage (~30 – 35% moisture compared with ~75 – 50% for silage) and also alters slightly the processes that occur while the forage is ensiling – the time it spends packed in the clamp or wrapped in the bale before it’s fed. There can be large differences in the nutrient levels found in silage but these variations are much smaller in haylage.

Expert Answer by: Helen Warren

Ask Equine Expert - I keep reading

"I keep reading that yeast supplements may be good for fibre digestion. Is there any truth behind this?"

There is a lot of literature on this topic for a few species of animal. The use of yeast in diets for horses has been popular for a number of decades but, while there are general benefits to the use of yeast, it is important to consider that not all yeasts are the same – absolute effects and efficacy will vary with product. The majority of yeasts will be Saccharomyces cerevisae, however, there are many different strains within this species. Differences between strains can result in differences in how effective products are. The majority of yeast supplements aim help fibre-degrading bacteria breakdown forage resulting in more energy for the horse from the same amount of forage. They also help to keep the hindgut environment free from oxygen by mopping some of it up. The thing to remember is that not all yeasts are the same – some strains have been cultured specifically for their effect on fibre degradation. Therefore, it is best to choose a yeast supplement that has a proven mode of action and sound, supporting scientific data behind it.

Expert Answer by: Helen Warren

Ask Equine Expert - My vet

"My vet has advised that I get my hay analysed. What should I be analysing it for?"

There are many things for which you can get your hay analysed. It really depends on why your vet has advised you to have this done. The most usual reason is to have it analysed for its nutritional content. This means that you can have a much better idea of the contribution your hay is making to your horses daily nutritional requirements. It also means you can use it to work out how much hay you should be feeding, based on your horses daily nutrient requirements.

This type of analysis will give you an idea of the moisture level, energy, protein, fat and carbohydrates in your hay. The carbohydrate portion can be further broken down into fibre, as well as starch and sugars. The protein fraction can also be broken down into the essential amino acids, such as lysine, to give an idea of the quality of the protein in the forage. Vitamins and minerals can also be included in more detailed analyses. This information, together with your horse’s body weight and workload, can be used to balance his daily ration. Methods used to determine nutrient content are usually wet chemistry (labour intensive but an absolute measure of the nutrient you are investigating) and NIRS (Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy – rapid with many samples analysed at a time but can be less accurate than wet chemistry).

Other types of analyses include screening for mycotoxin contamination. This is often more expensive than nutrient analysis and there are many different techniques used to carry it out. The more advanced the technique, the more accurate and detailed the results. It is always worth finding out what methodology laboratories use in order to be able to interpret the results correctly. A good lab will always help with this interpretation. Remember that any forage will vary from bale to bale, batch to batch, so your analysis for one sample may not represent an analysis for another. It is often useful to look at average results for the season – many labs can help with this information.

Expert Answer by: Helen Warren

Ask Equine Expert - I've been told

"I’ve been told that supplementing selenium can be a good thing but I’ve also read that horses have died from selenium toxicity. What is selenium used for in the horse and can I supplement it safely?"

Selenium (Se) is a component of around 25 proteins, including glutathione peroxidise. These selenoproteins have major roles in metabolism and rely on the availability of Se in the body and/or diet. Selenium also plays a role in the immune system, gene expression, thyroid metabolism and male fertility. Therefore, adequate Se status in the horse is vital for optimum health and performance. Many areas of Europe have soils that are classed as Se-deficient (especially Scandinavia) and it is common place to fortify feed with inorganic Se, usually as sodium selenite (NaSe). However, inorganic Se, as well as other minerals is poorly absorbed by the digestive tract and not readily stored in the body, resulting in very low, if any, Se reserves. In contrast, Se absorbed from organic sources, such as selenium yeast, can be incorporated into either selenoenzymes or general proteins in the body as storage for future use. This enables the animal to build Se reserves for times of stress, such as foaling, illness and high intensity exercise. Exercise may be of particular importance with regards to Exertional Rhabdomyolysis (Tying-up, Azoturia).

Many studies have shown greater incorporation of Se from an organic source into body tissues compared with NaSe. This is because organic Se is the form that the mammalian body has evolved to use. The body recognises this form and it is absorbed and incorporated into the body much more effectively. With regards to the issue of toxicity, NaSe is actually toxic to mammals over certain levels and, as such, European law states maximum supplementation of 0.5mg/kg in complete feeds. The toxicity of NaSe is in contrast to organic selenium as selenium yeast, for example no toxic level (as measured by LD50) has been found for Sel-Plex® (Alltech Inc., Nicholasville, KY). Horses are very sensitive to Se levels and develop signs of toxicity more quickly than other animals, such as cows, for example, therefore, organic selenium seems to offer a safer way of supplementing optimum levels of selenium.

Expert Answer by: Helen Warren