Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Western Dressage

A couple of years ago, one of my friends went to a clinic on western dressage.  She was kind of excited about it because she liked the idea of working on dressage with her horse, but she rode in a western saddle and had no intention of switching over to a dressage saddle simply to do some basic dressage work with her horse.  At the time, I admit to thinking that western dressage was probably some kind of new way for quarter horses to gimp along in a pathetic, nose-to-the-ground, barely sound manner.  I'd shown in western pleasure and related classes at horse shows when I was a teenager and again when I was in my mid-twenties, and I eventually stopped because I couldn't stand the way the horses moved as well as some of the methods trainers used to get the horses to move that way.  So I didn't give the concept of western dressage another thought until recently.

I got this idea in my head that I wanted to do another local schooling show with Nimo.  Apparently the horror that was our last show had escaped my heat-fried brain, and I was under the impression that it would be fun.  (Why, oh why does my brain forget such important things!)  I've been feeling a bit ho hum about our dressage schooling and nothing perks me up and motivates me to practice like the fear of public humiliation, so I decided to enter a class in a little show that is part of a series held at the barn where I board.  But, in addition to being completely opposed to western showing, I've also become horrified by traditional dressage competitions over the past few years.  Of course, not everyone who competes ties her horse's mouth shut with a snug noseband or employs rollkur (i.e. hyperflexion aka low, deep, and round, which is now completely legal for the warm-up ring) or spurs her horse to the point of leaving blood, but the fact that so many top riders seem to do at least one of those things leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  And then there is my even more recently developed concern about the extended gaits (particularly the trot) not being that great for a horse's continued soundness.  Anyway, I've kind of sworn off the traditional dressage stuff and along with that, I've made the decision to sell my dressage saddle.  (That is probably worth a separate post, but the short version is that I like the saddle.  It fits Nimo and it fits me.  What I don't like is dressage and I have started to feel guilty whenever I use the dressage saddle.  Also, I can use the money I get from the saddle to buy a cart for Nimo...)

And that is when the idea of competing in western dressage occurred to me.  I did a little research and watched some YouTube videos and became reasonably assured that western dressage is actually a legitimate discipline that has so far escaped the long-reaching arm of the FEI and whose founders seem bound and determined to recognize the difference between a western horse expected to do a little work around the ranch or at least haul its rider around a few trails and a traditional dressage horse, whose movements should astound and amaze, but whose skills need not (and maybe even should not) surpass the way it looks in the arena.

If you happen to be interested in western dressage, there are a couple of books that you can get.  Well, actually, there are three, but I only got two of them because I was pretty sure the third was going to be superfluous, given that I already own about a million dressage books.  Anyway, the two I read are:

101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider by Jec Aristotle Ballou.  I have two other books by this author (101 Dressage Exercises and Equine Fitness) and I adore them both, so when I saw she had a book related to western dressage, I snapped it up.  This book doesn't have much information on competitions, but it does have a lot of good exercises if you're looking to spice up your schooling routine.

Cowboy Dressage: Riding, Training, and Competing with Kindness as the Goal and Guiding Principle by Jessica Black.  This book gives a bit of the history behind the western dressage movement, which was apparently initiated by a gentleman named Eitan Beth-Halachmy.  It is also a big shot across the bow of traditional dressage and its associated competitions.  You can see by the title that western dressage started in part as a rebound away from the cruelty that is becoming so apparent at the highest levels of competitive dressage. 

However, much like with "natural horsemanship," I think there is a real risk that simply doing things differently (different saddle, different patterns, different thought process for developing patterns) can lead people to believe it is better, when over time, it becomes just as corrupt or abusive as the system it was trying to get away from.  I think there is a danger any time there is a competition associated with the activity because the competition becomes the reason for doing the activity, rather than being a place to showcase a particular horse's skill that has been developed as a way to improve its own athleticism in a specific job.

But, for now, it appears that the concept of western dressage is to utilize gymnastic exercises to strengthen a horse's working ability while riding in a western saddle.  I will point out that there are different ways to compete in western dressage.  The discipline formally called "Western Dressage" is sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation as well as several breed associations, so for those who must compete for not only ribbons, but also points and year-end awards, Western Dressage works well.  Cowboy Dressage is considered a different discipline.  It has different tests and competitions (which are non-existent here in Virginia) and does not have a sanctioning organization (which is actually kind of cool).  Then, there is the North American Western Dressage organization, whose main purpose appears to be to coordinate virtual showing and coaching, although it also has its own set of dressage tests as well groundwork tests and ranch horse tests.  I really like the idea of virtual shows because for $25-30, you can set up (or use someone else's) a dressage arena (using low-budget items like cones and buckets with letters on them), film yourself at your leisure (during a specified time frame), and submit your test for actual scoring and placing (with real ribbons) in a show.  It takes a lot of the stress out of the process and really reduces the cost.  You don't have to be a member of NAWD or USEF or any breed association or western dressage association to compete and you get scored by a real, licensed judge, with comments and maybe even a ribbon.  (And for those who still want to do traditional dressage, NAWD has an arm called Dressage on a Dime that also hosts virtual shows and coaching.)

I ended up going the Western Dressage (WD) route because the schooling shows in my area allow the USEF western dressage tests and do not appear to allow Cowboy Dressage or NAWD tests.  One thing I discovered is that WD tests are structured a bit differently than traditional dressage tests.  For one thing, there are 4 tests in each level (as opposed to the 3 tests at each level for traditional dressage).  The Intro level is only walk/jog (trot) unlike traditional dressage, which has incorporated canter into its third test in the Intro category.  The WD tests are a bit more fluid in terms of requirements as you go through the levels.  For example, there is a huge difference between traditional dressage's First Level, Test 3 and Second Level, Test 1.  It is a jump that is difficult to make because no collection is required in First Level, but you go straight into collected trot and shoulder-in for Second Level.  WD tests, on the other hand, seem to focus on helping horse and rider move up the levels by incorporating smaller-level changes as the tests progress, although the levels are not too far from traditional dressage in terms of requirements.

Of course, you're probably wondering about tack and clothing.  As it turns out, many endurance saddles (and even Australian stock saddles) are completely appropriate for WD competitions (but not necessarily for Cowboy Dressage, which takes a much stricter approach to tack).  Your saddle does not need a horn or any fancy silver - it just needs western-style fenders.  For example, my Specialized Eurolight is built on a western-style tree, so the addition of western fenders (as distinct from the 1 1/2" leathers that I normally ride in) makes it fit the definition of a western saddle for the purposes of competing.  I probably pushed the envelope a bit farther, but I ended up choosing to add the western fenders to my baroque, treeless saddle.  (I recently acquired a Barefoot Madrid, and I love it so much that I never want to sit in a treed saddle again!  I keep meaning to post about it, but haven't gotten around to it yet.)

The other great thing is that bitless bridles (with the exception of mechanical hackamores) are OK for competition, so I could continue using what I already ride in.  Most bits are legal too, although there are limits on the height of the port and length of the shanks for curb bits, and any bit that is traditionally considered an English bit is not allowed (think Kimberwick and Pelham), but the mouthpiece styles that are allowed are quite broad (much more broad than traditional dressage), which is great for people who ride horses with specific issues or sensitivities.

In terms of clothing, you need pants (doesn't matter what kind), boots (doesn't matter what kind), and a long-sleeved shirt (doesn't matter what kind).  You can wear a helmet (doesn't have to be western in style) or you can wear a traditional western hat.  Things like chaps, gloves, ties, jewelry are allowed, but considered optional.

I mean, seriously, I've never seen so few restrictions.  I felt like a whole new world opened up.  I really believe that dressage can be done in pretty much any tack or clothing that is comfortable for the horse and rider and fits well, and I think WD gets about as close to that concept as is possible, given our insistence on identifying tack with a particular discipline.

So, with all these positive things, I signed up to ride a WD Basic Level (similar to Training Level in traditional dressage), Test 1.  I choose this test for three reasons.  First, I felt like entering a new discipline means I should start near the beginning, even though Nimo and I have competed in First Level traditional dressage before.  Second, given Nimo's propensity to completely avoid the section of the arena near the judge (which creates a few problems when trying to do things like steer or perform a circle), I wanted a test that had as much activity away from C as possible.  The Basic Level, Test 1 has all of the circles at the opposite end of the arena and very little happens near the judge.  Third, Nimo has been demonstrating some stiffness for awhile that I haven't been able to overcome.  I'll talk about it a little more later, but I wanted to choose something below our normal working level to make the test less stressful and easier for him.

The day of the show dawned bright and sunny (dear Mother Nature, why can't you send clouds if the temperature is going to be 90 degrees???).  An added bonus was that there was going to be a hot air balloon show nearby, which meant the possibility of dozens of hot air balloons hovering over the arena.  Apparently, a couple of years ago, the organizers had to stop the show and spend an hour shouting at hot air balloonists that they could not all congregate their balloons right over the arena and hover while watching the competition because it was upsetting the horses.  I had a run in with a hot air balloon the night before, when the lady piloting the balloon decided to hover over the arena while I was trying to work Nimo and then land nearby.  (I'm told that the balloons are difficult to land accurately, but I have no sympathy for the idiot who wandered over the arena while blasting the gas on and off.  Had my horse been of a different mindset, I could have been thrown due to her stupidity.  Luckily Nimo remained alert and distracted but not panicked during the whole ordeal, but nothing that anyone can say will convince me that this woman was not a horrifying human being who lacked basic consideration for other members of her species.)

Because my ride time was at 2:35, I got to spend many of my waking hours fretting about the heat and the balloons and wondering if I should just give it up and enjoy the air conditioning like normal people.  But a friend of mine had agreed to come to the show to take pictures of us and she put together a great snack/beverage bag for me (who knew I could get crew for a dressage show!), so I reluctantly dragged myself out to the barn and got my horse ready.

As luck would have it, I think it was too hot for the balloons, so none were in sight as I started my warm-up.  And it was a few degrees cooler than it had been for most of the summer (I guess 90 is really better than 95).  Plus, I'd opted to wear my Kerrits Hybrid Riding Shirt instead of a long-sleeved western-style shirt, so I felt a bit cooler (at least mentally) in short sleeves.  I did wear full chaps (the Hobby Horse Ultra Suede ones are super lightweight and I wore them over my favorite riding tights instead of jeans for comfort).  The chaps combined with the riding tights felt more comfortable to me than jeans in the heat and humidity and the chaps camouflaged my Ariat Terrain boots and half chaps (yes, I wore half chaps under my chaps, but I can't imagine riding without half chaps - I love the support of the Terrains for my foot and ankle combined with the support for my leg from the chaps).  It turned out that I didn't need to worry about my clothing because one lady showed in her white dressage breeches (I think she was competing another horse in regular dressage) and some people wore tank tops.  The judge didn't seem to be concerned in the slightest bit.

Heading to the warm-up area (photo by Leanne Edwards)
 As I warmed up, I asked my friend (who has an idiot-savant like gift for spotting lameness in horses - I've never seen anything like it, not even in vets) to watch Nimo for any gait asymmetry.  I first noticed a stiffness when we circled to the left in the arena (not so much out on the trails, though) back in January of this year.  I initially wrote it off as something that happens as you school your horse, because the stiffness usually doesn't last long and moves around as the horse learns different evasions to different techniques/movements.  Except that it didn't move around.  It stayed the same.  For months and months and months.  It didn't really seem to get any worse, except that I started noticing Nimo was having more trouble cantering, particularly on the left lead.  My dressage instructor didn't seem that concerned about it, but it has really been bothering me.  And during our warm-up, I couldn't deny the problem any longer.  Nimo was not only having trouble bending to the left, but he also had trouble bending to the right.  It was almost impossible for him to even pick up the canter on either lead, and I had to resort to using my whip a couple of times just to get a few strides of canter, which I really don't like to do.

I asked my friend what she saw and she said his stride looked even at all gaits, but he was holding his tail slightly to the right.  She thought I might be over-reacting to the situation when I said I thought I should scratch him from the competition and suggested that I do the test and if Nimo had trouble bending or cantering to just let it happen and decide what to do after the test.

I admit that I do have a tendency to overthink things and create a bit more drama than necessary, but I was worried about Nimo.  I did decide to compete, but I vowed I would not use the whip to get him to canter or hold his canter because I was pretty sure that he had something physical going on.  As the previous competitor exited the ring, I started walking Nimo around the outside of the dressage ring to see if there was anything that was going to bother him visually.  He did surprisingly well with the judge's stand and a circuit around the outside yielded no significant concerns for Nimo (that might be a first).  We turned around and headed back the other direction, when the whistle sounded, indicating that we had 45 seconds to get to the entrance of the arena and start our test.  It was kind of an awkward place to be, but I asked Nimo to trot, which he did, and he even trotted right by the judge's stand with a bit of snorting.  To make our 45 second window, I had to really push him out at the trot, and as we turned to enter, I pulled him back a bit, so we didn't blast into the arena.

And the second his head crossed into the arena, he got race brain.  I don't know how else to describe it.  He shifted gears and powered up his trot and went down the center line as if we were just starting a 25-mile endurance ride.  That was a bit problematic because we were supposed to halt at X, which is halfway down the arena for those who are lucky enough to have never tortured themselves with dressage work.  The problem was that we had significant velocity, and I was sure only a parachute shooting out behind us would be able to slow us down.  As we flew past X at the speed of sound, I was desperately trying to convince Nimo that we needed to do a halt and salute.  He didn't believe me at first, but eventually consented to slow down and halt somewhere significantly past X.  All I can say is that the judge must not have realized what happened and thought we did what we did on purpose, because we got our first 9 (out of 10 points for that movement).  Her vantage point may not have allowed her to see that we missed X by many, many feet (my friend watching from the opposite side said it wasn't as obvious as I thought it was).

I barely had time to salute and pick up the reins before Nimo was off again (although thankfully no longer at Warp 10 speed).  We trotted to C and turned left to trot down the long-side of the arena.  This WD test had an interesting way of changing direction.  We trotted to B (in the middle of the long side), crossed the width of the arena and turned right at E.

Trotting across the arena from B to E (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We continued to trot down the long side of the arena toward A, where our first two circles would start.  This test has a nice way of handling the trot and canter circles.  You trot a 20 meter circle at A and then repeat the same circle in a canter, so the rider and horse have a chance to set the circle while trotting and then they just have to hold the bend for the canter circle.  It's an easier way to accomplish the canter circle.

Coming down the long side toward A (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our first canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Maybe because the set up for the canter is so nice in this test, Nimo actually picked up the canter without a problem, and held it for the entire 20-ish meter circle.  He was definitely leaning to the inside, though, and he absolutely made the circle a bit smaller than 20 meters.

But we survived.  The next part of the test was to cross the long diagonal of the arena while trotting.  In traditional dressage, First Level, long diagonals are for trot lengthenings, so as we turned to cross the arena, I could feel Nimo gear up for a lengthening (we haven't shown in almost 2 years and the horse still remembers!).  I spent the entire diagonal arguing with him about whether we were going to do a lengthening, so I was thankful to get to M, where we could walk.

Crossing the diagonal (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Because we were also approaching the judge's stand, Nimo took the opportunity to putz around at the walk and try to avoid going past it.  I was able to keep him on the rail, but it took some effort and the judge absolutely noticed the struggle (curse you, white gloves!) and took some points off, but I was actually pretty happy with the improvement.  At the last show, Nimo would not go anywhere near the rail in that section of the arena, so I figured we were doing pretty good.

After making it past the judge's stand, our next task was to do a free walk to X and then back to the same long side of the arena (basically a zig zag).  The judge thought we could have had more movement, but I was glad for the calm horse and the chance to breath for a minute before our next canter circle.

Free walk (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We started with a trot circle at A.

Trot circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Then, we did our canter circle.  Again, Nimo picked up the canter just fine and did a little better job on maintaining an actual 20 meter size.

Canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Sigh of relief!  Then, we trotted halfway down the arena, crossed the arena, kept trotting around past the judge (Nimo did OK!) and then crossed the diagonal again, where I once again had to convince Nimo that we were not doing a lengthening.

I have no idea what part of the test this is, but its a pretty good picture (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We finished up the test by heading up the center line (at a more moderate pace this time!), halting for approximately half a second and saluting before Nimo took off again.  In the picture below, my friend was off the center line, so we look at bit more crooked than we actually were, but you should be able to see that Nimo's tail is held slightly to the right.

Final halt and salute (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our overall score was a 63.870, which is a decent score, and earned us a second place finish in our division.  But we should have been able to do this test in our sleep.  The judge's comments centered around needing more bend and a more consistent pace (that was probably due to our repeated discussions about lengthenings, so doesn't bother me too much), which are appropriate comments.  A few months ago, we probably would have score in the mid- to high-70s on this test.  And while scores, points, and ribbons don't matter that much to me (I did the show as a motivational tool rather than to get a ribbon), my horse's physical condition does. 

I know if you look at the pictures, Nimo probably looks like he's doing OK, but he isn't.  Something is really bothering him, and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.  I'm glad I did the show, because it helped confirm that there really is something going on, and I'm also glad that whatever it is isn't enough to affect the evenness of his gait...yet.  (Although if you blow up the trot picture just above the halt picture just above, you can see that his right hind leg is going to land just before his left foreleg - maybe not a big deal, but worth noting.)  But I'm sure it will if I don't address it.

I do have a plan, and it's one that I've been working on for awhile (because the stiffness I felt has been bothering me for awhile).  I started taking the In-Hand Therapy Course offered by Science of Motion several months ago.  You can read quite a bit about the SOM theories on the website (which is very unusual for something like this - usually you have to buy the class to learn much), and the class delves into those theories quite a bit more deeply.  Essentially, the course focuses on the biomechanics of horses, as determined by scientific research as well as on-the-ground work by Jean Luc Cornille.  It is not a course for the undetermined or easily frustrated, but I am learning a lot.  One of the things I've learned is that Nimo likely carries himself asymmetrically through his spine (although you don't necessarily need this course to figure that out - most horses are asymmetrical to some degree or other - the benefit of the course is that you learn how to correct the asymmetry and better understand why certain commonly applied theories don't make a lot of sense). 

To begin addressing that asymmetry, I recently began working with an instructor who understands and knows how to apply the SOM theories to riding (and in-hand work).  I intend to suspend regular dressage lessons and any intensive conditioning work for the time being as we work through the issue(s).  I am hopeful that through changing my position and the way Nimo moves, I will be able to correct the stiffness that I'm feeling in Nimo. 

I'm also planning to get Nimo's chiropractor out for a visit to see if he can identify a specific adjustment that is needed.  I know chiropractic care for horses is controversial, but this is someone that I trust and have used before.  I also believe that one adjustment is probably only a temporary fix.  A more permanent solution can only be obtained through correcting the cause of the misalignment, which is often easier said than done.

I will still be keeping our 5-6 days a week riding schedule, and I will still be out on the trails each weekend unless I discover a medical reason not to do those things.  I think too often, we think a horse needs rest to address a physical problem, when a different kind of motion may actually work better.  Time will tell if my plan helps, and I will, of course, post my discoveries on the blog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Energy Requirements

Last week, I started a series of posts on analyzing Nimo's diet.  (You can read the first post here.)  You may remember that my primary resource is Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition, which you can read online for free here or purchase here.

I began my analysis by calculating two numbers and choosing a category to use for the formulas I'll be selecting for different requirements as I go through the book.  As a reminder, they are:

Nimo's weight: 680 kg
Nimo's work load: Very Heavy
Nimo's food amount/day: 8.73 kg DM (dry matter)

After making the calculations above, the next step is to look at energy requirements.

When we think of energy requirements for people, we typically think in terms of calories.  The calories we see on food labels are actually kilocalories (see http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/question670.htm), but kilocalories are probably too small a measurement to be practical for horses.  Instead, megacalories (Mcal) is the measurement used.  A Mcal is 1,000 kilocalories. 

But, there is another layer to figuring out a horse's energy requirements, and that layer is a concept called "digestible energy" (DE).  Technically,
The apparent digestible energy (DE) content of a ration is calculated by subtracting the gross energy in the feces from the gross energy (intake energy) consumed by an animal.  The term "apparent" is used because some of the material excreted in the feces does not originate from the feed but from cells sloughed from the gastrointestinal tract and digestive secretions.  The true DE of a feed may be calculated if fecal endogenous losses are known.  Endogenous fecal energy losses are not routinely determined in studies with horses and thus most DE values represent apparent DE, not true DE.  (see Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition, p. 3)
Clear as mud, right?  And determining DE can be complicated by the chemical composition of a particular feed as well the digestibility of what is in the feed.  Plus, calculating the DE of a feed can only determined with real accuracy through a feeding trial for horses (different species will get different levels of DE from the same feed!).  Nutrient Requirements does offer some formulas that can be used to estimate the DE of a particular feed on p. 4, and I may be coming back to those at a later date because the feeds that I use do not provide DE on the feed label.

To start with, though, I just want to figure out how many Mcal Nimo needs each day, with the understanding that a Mcal is not just a Mcal, every horse is different, horses heavier than 600 kg may need a different formula for estimating energy requirements, the environment the horse lives and works in may change caloric needs, and the degree of difficulty of exercise each day may vary depending on footing, intensity of work, weight of the rider and tack, and temperature, so the calories needed will vary too.  For the sake of developing a baseline, I will be using this formula for horses in Very Heavy work from p. 26:

DE (Mcal/d) = (0.0363 x BW(kg)) x 1.9

Essentially, this formula calculates how many Mcal Nimo needs each day, based on his body weight in kilograms and given that he is working at the Very Heavy level.

The result is:  DE = 0.0363 x 680 x 1.9 = 46.9 Mcal

Now you might think that if Nimo is getting 46.9 Mcal every day, he should be in good shape.  As it turns out, not so much.  Certain things like the ratio of calcium to phosphorus can cause problems like weight loss if it isn't appropriate, no matter how many calories Nimo is eating.  In fact, deficiencies in protein or any number of vitamins and minerals can lead to serious physical symptoms no matter how much Nimo eats. 

Of course, the simplest way to figure out if Nimo is getting enough to eat is to look at him.  Nutrient Requirements doesn't go into body condition in this section of the book, but I think the vast majority of horse owners are aware of body condition scoring, where a horse is scored from 1 (emaciated and death is imminent) to 10 (put this horse on a diet now!!!).  Endurance horses typically score in the 3-5 range (at least based on what I've seen), and my preference is for Nimo to be at a 5.

Earlier this year, a vet scored Nimo as a 4 at the Cheshire CTR in May.  That kind of bothered me, not because the vet was necessarily wrong, but because I really do want to make sure Nimo is getting enough to eat and Friesians are not known for their super model slimness.  At the time, I was suspicious that Nimo was not getting enough to eat, not because the barn wasn't providing enough food but because the grass in his field was nonexistent due to overstocking and Nimo just didn't seem to want hay when he kept seeing grass growing on the other side of the fence.  The barn has since changed its management of the fields, and Nimo does have decent access to grass now, which made a nearly instant change in his weight and attitude. 

Here is how he looked last night:

The lighting isn't that great, but hopefully you can see that he's in pretty good shape:)
I'll come right out and say that I'm happy with his weight now.  Interestingly enough, when he was a bit thinner, tons of people felt compelled to tell me that he needed to eat more.  Now, at a body condition score of at most 1 point higher, a bunch of people have felt compelled to say things like, "Wow! He's not missing any meals, is he?"  I'm not sure if it is the body conscious society that we live in that compels us to constantly be looking at weight or if some people have even fewer verbal filters than I do (even I know not to comment on weight unless directly asked and then only if it is about an animal), but the constant comments about Nimo's weight are bizarre.  Anyway, I think that body condition does impact performance, and I think that carrying around as little weight as possible while still being healthy, well-nourished, and fit for the job would be a good goal.  Which is pretty much why I'm taking the time to do this analysis.

Even though I like the way he looks, I still want to make sure I'm looking at more than just the amount he's eating and the way he looks.  So, the next thing to do is to figure out how much Nimo needs of different nutrients and then analyze what he is eating to see if his diet is even in the ballpark. 

Before we get to vitamins and minerals, though, I want to spend the next three posts going through the main sources of energy:  carbohydrates, fat, and protein.  Horses need a combination of these sources, but it can be hard to know what the optimum combination is, and that is what I'll be trying to figure out during those posts:) 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Introduction

I've been meaning to do a series of posts analyzing Nimo's diet and discussing nutrition, but every time I tried to write the posts, I realized that it is a very complicated subject, and I doubted that I could even begin to do it justice.  However, I really need to do an analysis of what Nimo is eating.  I think it is particularly important for performance horses to have not just good, but excellent, nutrition, but I've also come to the conclusion that even pasture buddies need to have owners who pay attention to what they eat.  Equine nutrition is no longer as simple as "throw the horse out in the pasture and if his weight looks good, everything must be fine."   I've been experimenting with a lot of different types of feeds and supplements, and I feel like I'm starting to narrow down what I think is working, at least for now.  But I also have a couple of concerns that I'd like to examine more closely and scientifically.  So the next step is to figure out if what I think is going on is related to reality or just made up in my head.  You get to follow along with me while I work through the process!:)

The first step is consulting Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition to find out what the basic nutrition requirements are specifically for Nimo.  If you have never read this book and you have a horse, my strong advice is to read it.  It is the source for almost every other equine nutrition book out there (at least the ones for lay people), and it has 341 pages of information on pretty much everything to do with feeding your horse.  If the price tag is too much for you, you can read it online for free here:  http://www.nap.edu/read/11653/chapter/1.  I also find the information published by Kentucky Equine Research (KER) to be helpful and sometimes more up-to-date than what is in Nutrient Requirements (which was published in 2007).  KER does manufacture and sell feed and supplements, so I'm not sure the research could be considered truly independent, but it seems legitimate to me and the company seems to be well-respected for its feed formulations here in Virginia.  KER's published research can be viewed here:  https://ker.com/published/.  And a lot of universities with strong agriculture programs will publish staff papers online, often through their extension programs, so that can be another good source of information.  Plus, there are the veterinary journals, but I haven't had the time or money to do a lot of searching in those as of yet.

For the purposes of this series of posts, I will be relying heavily on Nutrient Requirements, although I will try to add in other sources as well.  I hope to provide enough information so you can follow along with me, if you like.  (Or even better, double-check my work to make sure I haven't made a mistake!)

To start off, I need to make some determinations about things like Nimo's weight, his work level, and the total volume of food that he eats.  The reason is because the way nutrient requirements are determined is through formulas that typically involve one or more of those parameters.  I'm definitely going to be estimating all three numbers and obviously if my estimates are significantly off, it will affect the accuracy of the results.  (Problem number 1 with trying to figure out what to feed your horse!)

Nimo's Weight
Ideally I would drive Nimo to one of the area equine hospitals and ask if I could borrow a scale.  (Note that I have seen "horse-size" scales at some endurance rides, but surprise, surprise, they look much too small to accommodate Nimo's not insubstantial size!)  However, most people don't have access to a scale, so I opted to try one of the weight calculators available.  There are some formulas out there, too, but for the sake of brevity, I used this online calculator:  http://www.thehorse.com/articles/31852/adult-horse-weight-calculator.  Two measurements are needed to use the calculator:  the circumference of the girth area (as measured just behind the point of elbow and over the withers about one inch from their highest point) and the length of the horse from the point of shoulder to the point of buttocks.  The website has a short video to walk you through the measuring process, but I can see some room for error, which could definitely affect the results.  When I plugged Nimo's numbers (82" girth and 71" length) into the online calculator, I got 1447 lbs.  The calculator does note that it may not be as accurate for tall horses (is 17 hands tall?) and larger-boned horses, though, so I decided to bump the number up to an even 1500 lbs, or 680 kg (because all of the nutrient requirement formulas use weight in kg).

Work Level
Nutrient Requirements describes several work categories on p. 26 in Table 1-10, and I decided that Very Heavy is probably the best fit for Nimo based on the descriptions.  The Very Heavy category includes work that involves a mean heart rate of 110-150 bpm along with 6-12 hours a week of work.  Nimo is not always working that much, but right now, I'm riding 5-6 days a week with 4-5 days at 1-1.5 hours and 1 day at 2-3 hours.  The work involves dressage schooling during the week with a little hacking around the farm and endurance conditioning, including a lot of trotting and climbing, on the weekend.  The heat and humidity also add to the intensity of the work.

Weight of Food
Some of the formulas used in Nutrient Requirements use the total amount fed to the horse each day in terms of kg of dry matter (DM).  What that means is you can't just weigh the amount of food you feed; instead, you have to weigh the food (or estimate consumption for things like hay and pasture) and then convert that weight into dry matter.  Dry matter is basically the weight of the food after all moisture has been removed.  It allows all types of feeds to be compared equally, but it can be a bit tricky to calculate.

To come up with a reasonable estimate, the first thing I did was weigh the amount of concentrated food that Nimo gets each day.  (Note that while he does get a few supplements, the amounts are quite small and it didn't seem worth it to include them in this process.)  He gets:

Beet Pulp: 2.25 lbs
Oats: 3.5 lbs
Triple Crown Growth (textured feed): 4.125 lbs
Total concentrates =  9.875 lbs

Then I assumed that Nimo is eating about 2% of his body weight each day (typically horses eat between 1.5 and 3%), which is 30 lbs.  I subtracted the total concentrates from that amount to get 20.125 lbs.  From there, I decided to split that amount into hay and grass because Nimo spends about half his time in his stall eating hay and about half his time out in the pasture eating grass.  To make things slightly easier, I decided to use 10 lbs for hay and 10.125 pounds for grass.

So here's where we are in terms of total amount of food eaten each day:

Beet Pulp: 2.25 lbs
Oats: 3.5 lbs
TC Growth: 4.125 lbs
Hay: 10 lbs
Grass: 10.125 lbs

Now we have to convert all of those amounts to dry matter.  I found a couple of sources to help me estimate the dry matter of each type of food because I didn't want to spend my time using one of the assorted methods out there to actually evaporate the water myself.  If you are so inclined, though, check out this article for how to do it:  http://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.cfm?number=SB58

For beet pulp, I found this article that describes how beet pulp is made and it states that the shreds are dried to 10% moisture, which means beet pulp is 90% dry matter.  So 2.25 x .90 = 2.025 lbs.

For oats, I found this article that lists oats as 90% dry matter (along with some other grains, if you happen to feed something other than oats).  So 3.5 x .90 = 3.15 lbs.

For TC Growth, I couldn't get any number off the feed bag or the Triple Crown website, but I did find this article that mentioned wet corn has a DM value of 74%.  I'm not really sure if wet corn and textured feed are quite the same in moisture content, but it seemed like a reasonable starting point. So 4.125 x .74 = 3.0525 lbs.

For the hay, I found this article that said hay is typically about 90% dry matter.  So 10 x .90 = 9 lbs.

And finally for the grass, I used the same article as for the hay.  The article stated that grass is typically 20% dry matter, so 10.125 x .20 = 2.025 lbs.

Now, I need to add up all of the DM values and convert the total to kg:

DM (kg) = 2.025 + 3.15 + 3.0525 + 9 + 2.025 = 19.2525 lbs x .45359237 = 8.73 kg

And finally, I have the three numbers that I need for calculating nutrient requirements!

Nimo's weight = 680 kg
Nimo's work level - Very Heavy
Nimo's food on a DM basis = 8.73 kg

That's it for today, but my next post will discuss energy requirements.  And if you notice any errors in my calculations or process, please let me know:)