Ashley Davis demonstrating eating nutritious foods while with her horse
A fresh salad topped with chicken is great fuel for a Western performance competitor – at home or at a show.

Rocket Fuel: Nutritious Foods on the Go

Boost your riding performance with the right nutritious foods at home and on the road.

Every day, at regular intervals, Western performance competitors feed their horses premium feed and forage to encourage optimum performance and health. But they regularly neglect their own nutrition – they order takeout at home, pick up fast food on the road or skip meals while they show.

Industry participants often do not fuel their bodies as carefully as they do their equine partners. Some may believe they have to vow to only eat lettuce the rest of their lives to eat well, but that is not the case. Taking advice from riding-savvy registered dietitians Ashley Davis, Kelsey Raml and Christine Sceets McWhorter can help riders tune up their eating habits and find the path to improved health and performance.

The right fuel

Not surprisingly, Davis said energy, strength and endurance stem from a healthy, well-balanced diet. Raml noted that nutrition is key to performance with any sport.

“Riding horses requires a strong core and legs. Proper nutrition can aid in these physical qualities needed for superior horsemanship,” Raml said. “Adequate protein for muscle growth and management is essential. Carbohydrates are needed for energy. Adequate low-fat dairy is needed for bone strength and, of course, plenty of fruits and vegetables help give us vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that aid in a healthy immune system and disease prevention.”

Alternatively, Davis explained that poor nutrition has a noticeable impact on stamina and focus, hindering a rider’s performance.

healthy snacks spread out on haybale
A rider should choose healthy snacks that combine carbohydrates and protein to boost their energy and regulate their blood sugar.

There’s more to adequate nutrition than what someone eats, though. Eating the right foods at regular intervals throughout the day is necessary to prevent overconsumption and higher caloric intake at the end of the day, McWhorter added.

“Skipping breakfast and forgetting about lunch sets us up for indulging excessively at dinner,” she said. “And at a show, you’ll get irritable. You won’t get the energy you need for peak performance.”

According to Raml, making poor food choices – such as selecting junk foods, eating in excess and getting dehydrated – won’t just affect a rider mentally; it can also bring them down physically.

“You may not have the energy needed to be successful with your riding endeavors, and these choices can also affect your weight, which could play a role positively or negatively in your performance,” Raml said.

Mandatory hydration

One of the most crucial parts of a rider’s diet is hydration. Raml said the standard recommended amount is at least eight glasses of water per day, which amounts to 64 ounces.

“If you’re sweating a lot or expending a lot of energy, then your need may be higher,” she added.

It’s important for riders to know and pay attention to the signs of dehydration. Urine color can be a good guide. If it’s a bold or darker yellow, it may be time to drink some more water.

Those who find it difficult to drink enough plain water to stay hydrated can benefit from healthy add-ins. And on hot days or during long shows, Davis advised the addition of sports drinks with 4-8 percent carbohydrates, and small amounts of sodium and potassium to replenish electrolytes.

“Make sure you drink fluids before, during and after riding,” Davis said. “Flavoring water with fresh fruit, juice or a flavored water mix can sometimes encourage you to drink more water.”

Strive for balance

Riders need a balance of nutrient proportions in their diet. These include lean meat proteins cooked healthfully; colorful vegetables, such as broccoli or asparagus; starches, such as rice, potato or bread; and fruit and dairy products, such as cheese or yogurt.

“[The average adult] needs 45-50 percent of your intake from carbohydrates, 15-20 percent of your intake from protein and 20-30 percent of your intake from healthy fats,” Davis explained.

person and horse drinking water together
It is essential for riders to drink water before, during and after riding, especially on hot days.

If math isn’t your specialty, “The Plate Method” can simplify mealtime. Focus on filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth of the plate with lean proteins and one-fourth of your plate with whole grain starches, along with three low-fat dairy servings per day.

Riders who exercise heavily may need to adjust those proportions to account for heavy lifting or extended cardiovascular activity. A registered dietitian can help develop a plan that’s right for each individual.

“I recommend eating four to six small meals and snacks throughout the day,” Raml said. “Snacks in between meals should include a balance of a healthy carbohydrate and a lean protein. This balance will give you a good energy source to fuel your body throughout the day, and keep energy and blood sugar levels stable.”

All three expert dietitians cautioned against fad diets, favoring well-proportioned meals instead.

“If you learn to focus your meals on lean meats, fruits, vegetables and complex starches, then you’ll meet all your nutritional needs without restricting yourself to a strict ‘diet,’” Davis said.

Don’t ban carbs

Contrary to some schools of thought, research has proven carbohydrates are not bad for people. In fact, Davis said the average adult’s body needs 100 grams of carbs per day for their brain to function.

“Really low-carb diets are not healthy for you and can cause your body to produce too much lactic acid,” Davis said. “You need healthy carbs and a proportionate amount of carbs.”

McWhorter recommended riders eat healthy carbs such as whole grains, versus white grains or refined products. Eliminating carbs for the sake of losing weight can work in the short term, she said, but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle. Riders may gain that weight back and more once they stop those types of diets.

Shifting gears

If a rider’s current diet is a free-for-all, they can make small changes to positively impact their health. Davis recommended starting by decreasing portion sizes and setting up each meal with one lean meat, one starchy vegetable, one side of non-starchy vegetable and one fruit or dairy product.

“It always helps to limit fried foods, processed foods and sweets,” she added.

the plate method of eating a nutritious foods diet
“The Plate Method” is a quick and easy solution to ensuring you get balanced nutrition from each meal.

Making these changes not only can help riders compete better, it also can prevent or reduce their chances of contracting certain diseases, including some types of diabetes, heart disease and others.

Because of the stigma around the word, McWhorter prefers not to use the term “diet” when discussing modifications.

“Diet makes you feel like it’s a short-term fix, when really it needs to be a lifestyle change to promote good health,” she rationalized.

Utilizing “The Plate Method” of portions allows a rider to enjoy items from all the food groups in proper proportions.

“Pasta is OK!” McWhorter said. “Just not a whole plate of it with breadsticks. Look for that lean protein and fresh vegetables, too.”

Meal trackers, like MyFitnessPal or other apps available for smartphones, are useful tools to help be more aware and accountable of eating habits.

“Increasing fruits and vegetables, eliminating junk foods, looking at your portion sizes and properly timing your meals and snacks are simple areas to start improving,” Raml said. 

This article was originally published in the Aug. 1, 2018, issue of Quarter Horse News.