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All of the horses are currently healthy, hairy and happy. And for that, I am grateful. Even old Dually (now 20 years old and retired from active duty) is occasionally spotted running and bucking in the field, such is the spirit in our herd of seven head.
It’s been a very cold and snowy winter here in the high mountains of Colorado, and in the past month we’ve lost quite a few training days simply due to cold temperatures. Once the temps are below zero or even single digits (Fahrenheit), working horses can become harmful. Super cold air can “scorch” their respiratory system and cause inflammation. Also, if a horse gets sweaty when it’s that cold, it’s nearly impossible to get him dry. I couldn’t stand the thought of one of my horses wet and shivering under the blanket at night. That’s a big reason why I use blankets with moisture-wicking lining and high-tech insulation. High-quality heavy-weight winter horse blankets are a big investment, but well worth it, because of the comfort our horses get.
Pepperoni, my now four-year-old AQHA gelding, is back to work full time and has settled into his training regimen well. I’m always astounded by the change in maturity level between a 3 and 4 year old. It’s almost as huge as the difference in a 2 year old and a 3 year old, in terms of training. His long layoff hasn’t affected his training much, we’ve picked up right where we left off—working on collection and extension in all gaits, shoulder-fore, haunches-in, leg yielding, pivots and canter departures. Pepper is a naturally big stopper and it’s something I’ve been avoiding in the last year, for two reasons: one, no need to drill on a skill he’s naturally good at it; and two, trying to keep stress off his hocks and stifles (those joints only have so many hard stops in them, so why waste them?).
Annie, my sweet little AQHA mare, is enjoying her status as my top horse—my fallback horse, our media star and my only finished bridle horse (I went from three bridle horses to one last year). She gets moderate exercise and lots of pampering daily. Her training is at the maintenance level, which means we don’t need to teach her new skills, just keep her fit and sharp. Mel rides her most days, bareback and bridle-less, so it’s more fun for everyone. Melissa (barn manager/assistant trainer/photographer), Megan (heads up my marketing team) and Rich (hubby) are all doing mounted shooting with their horses now, and Mel is also shooting off Annie (who seems particularly inclined to that sport, so why not add it to her resumé). Rich’s new horse has settled into the herd and worked his way almost to the top of the pecking order. He and Rich are working well together and Rich is slowly introducing him to gunfire. He’s a finished Reiner, so he will handle well as a shooting horse, once he accepts the noise.
So for now, the horses are all well, both physically and emotionally. I’m enjoying this time and hoping it will last forever (knowing full well the reality—they are delicate creatures!).
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I’m happy to report that after several cycles of injury/treatment/rehab and two months of stall rest and hand-walking, the Adventures of Pepperoni are back in full swing! Thankfully, we were able to start turning him out with the herd and riding again last week, because stall-rest and hand-walking was getting old for Pepper (and for those of us on the end of the lead trying to stay clear of his “airs above the ground”).
The good news is that he is now sound and healthy, and his under-saddle training is picking up right where we left off. Pepperoni is coming 4 years old now and his maturity is starting to kick in—less silliness, more coordination, more responsiveness. Time off doesn’t cause a horse to lose its training—it stays right where you left it. Poor handling and riding will un-train a horse fast (or train him something different) but leaving him alone does not. Sure, he may be a little fresh when you return to riding, but he knows exactly what he knew before the layoff.
Pepperoni is an unusual horse in many ways. He’s wicked smart and a lightning-fast learner. Be careful what you wish for. If you don’t make many mistakes, the smart horse excels in his training. But mistakes are often illuminated in a very smart horse. Pepper is exceptionally aware of his surroundings. Not in a distracted way—he’s very calm and focused and he’s always taking stock. He rarely displays fearful behavior; but he has an intense curiosity. These are traits bred into the cow horse, and while they may sound good when you read it on paper, do not be fooled. These are the very traits that cause some to say cow horses are “difficult” and “challenging.”
Pepper also has a very strong sense of right and wrong (some might call this bull-headed, but it is a trait I like). Most of the time we agree on what is right, but occasionally there is a dispute. At times, when he believes I am wrong and he is right, his red-headed temper flares. In those moments, I’ve learned to 1) check to see if I was wrong (it happens) and take responsibility, and 2) do not yield to a tantrum but do not throw gas on the flame.
Sometimes us riders find ourselves at odds with a horse and in those moments, it’s important that we prevail, lest the horse learn he can do whatever he wants. But it is never wise to start a fight with a horse, because it may be a fight you won’t win. At the end of the day, they are much larger, faster, more athletic and more lethal than humans.
Pepper is not argumentative, difficult or challenging to train. In fact, he is full of enthusiasm for the job—any job, eager to please and a joy to ride. But he is not a horse that will suffer fools and not a horse you want to fight with. Most of the time when he gets testy, there’s something I’ve done to contribute. I’ll admit that on occasion, I am the one that gets testy or impatient first, and his subsequent ire is justified. I can always count on Pepper to let me know when I’ve made a mistake. He makes me a better rider.
I’m super happy to be back on track with Pepperoni and I am hopeful that he will stay out of trouble for a while. He’s lost a lot of conditioning in the past few months, so we are in a rebuilding state now. We lose conditioning much faster than we gain it, so I expect that it will take 2-3 months to get him back into shape. Right now, our daily rides consist of a long walking warm-up, then 10 minutes of long-trot on a free-rein, followed by 5 minutes of collected trot in a “training frame,” followed by five minutes of canter on each lead. If he’s not completely gassed out by then, I’ll work on bending, shoulder-in and/or leg-yielding at the walk and trot.
By this time next month, I hope to be back to collection at the canter, departures and lead changes. But I am patient, and I have no deadlines looming. It’s all about the joy of training, about building a strong relationship and developing a high-level athletic partner. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Help the Timid Rider Conquer Goals
Teach riders to manage emotions and develop a plan to build confidence!
On one of my many visits to southern California, I was conducting a horsemanship clinic in the town of Norco, renowned for its horse-friendly lifestyle. On any given day in “Horsetown USA,” you’ll see horses being ridden on the dirt sidewalks along Main Street or parked at a tie rail in front of a shopping center, or even in line for the drive-up window at McDonald’s.
While there, I was invited to tour the Circle D Ranch, home to Disneyland’s herd of gorgeous draft horses. Having worked behind the scenes of the horse operation at Disney World, on the other side of the country, I was not surprised to find an immaculate, state-of-the-art horse facility, that was custom-built to suit the exceptionally high standards of Disney.
The ranch is home to 18 draft horses, who work 3-4 days a week in the theme park, some thirty miles away, where they are stabled in a similar barn while “on duty.” The horses come to the Norco ranch for rest and pampering on their 3-4 days off. Aside from the incredible horse flesh and the five-star facility, I was most impressed by the consistency with which the horses are handled. Strictly enforced, detailed policies and procedures are designed to make sure the horses get handled exactly the same way every day, by each of the many employees tasked with their care, both in the theme park and at the ranch.
From the way the horses are haltered and led, to how they are tied, to the order of the brushes used, to the process for turning them out or to their daily hand-walking– it was done exactly the same by every handler, in the same order, at the same time, in the same places. There’s almost no stress for these horses, because of the consistency. They always know what to expect and what is coming next. They never have to guess or question. There is great comfort in order and predictability.
Horses are prey animals and it’s easy for them to feel like victims in a chaotic world, when there is a lack of consistency or predictability. Small changes in a horse’s known environment can send him into a tailspin. For the same reasons, horses thrive on routines, law and order and consistency. It makes them feel safe and calm when they know what will happen next.
Horses always do better with consistent handling and regular routines. They learn patterns quickly and they love to be able to predict what is going to happen next. Most horse owners have learned the benefits of feeding and turning out horses in the same order, and how quickly you can train horses to a routine. Professional horse trainers tend to be very consistent and systematic in the way they ride and handle horses, and their horses are usually a reflection of that. But I often see a lack of consistency in novice horse owners, particularly when it comes to establishing boundaries, communicating clearly and displaying consistent leadership to the horse.
Draw a Line in the Sand
If a dog has poor manners and jumps on you, rubs against you, roots his nose under your arm so you’ll pet him or jumps in your lap uninvited, it may be obnoxious but it’s probably not going to kill you. When a horse has no boundaries and no manners, it’s downright dangerous and is a problem that will snowball. Remember, one way that horses establish dominance is to move the subordinate out of their space.
My horsemanship clinics typically start with groundwork. This is my opportunity to get a feel for the horse’s temperament, to evaluate the relationship between horse and handler and to refine (or establish) the horse’s ground manners. Since horses basically do what you’ve taught them to do (for better or for worse), it’s often the way that a horse is being handled that is leading to the problems.
Typically, in groundwork sessions I see a lot of inconsistency in boundaries or no boundaries at all. Sometimes the person stands too close to the horse, constantly in the horse’s personal space, and choking up on the lead. But when the horse gets irritated and starts throwing its head or nipping, it’s often wrongly concluded that the horse is the problem.
People are sometimes totally unaware of space and boundaries when it comes to horses. Just like a toddler, horses will push on you until they find the limit of their boundaries. If the person is unaware of her own personal space and has no boundaries, the horse will react to that by pushing until he’s slinging his head at you, dropping his shoulder into you and moving you out of his space. Even then, sometimes the person is unaware of their own boundaries.
It’s unfair to be in a horse’s face, kissing all over his muzzle, and standing up under his neck, but then get mad at him when he crowds you, nips at you or worse. To be effective (and safe) with horses, you need to be very clear of your own personal boundaries and diligently enforce the boundary.
My personal boundary is as far as I can reach around me with my arms outstretched. If the horse moves any part of his body into my space uninvited—even just his nose—I will correct it. If I’ve set a forward boundary of where the horse should be while I am leading him and he crosses the line, I will reinforce the boundary—100% of the time. A boundary is
only a boundary if it is consistently enforced. If you are clear on where the boundaries are and you consistently enforce it, the horse learns quickly.
Horses are very communicative animals—that’s a big part of why they became domesticated to begin with and why they have remained an integral part of human society for thousands of years. Although they have some communication through sound (audible signals), most of their communication is through postures, gestures and gazes. Yes, it can be subtle, but the information is there if we look for it.
Horses are more adept at reading people than people are at reading horses. As verbal communicators, we put far too much stock in the spoken word and often miss the subtleties of body language—both in our horses and in ourselves. Learning to be in command of your body language and use appropriate gestures, will help you send the right message to your horse.
For instance, when a horse is shying away from something or refusing to go in a certain direction, the rider often does the opposite of what they should do—staring at what the horse is spooking at or looking in the direction the horse wants to go. What you do with your eyes is very meaningful to the horse in these moments—your eyes will reveal your determination (or lack thereof), your intentions (where you want to go) and your confidence level. If you say one thing with the reins (go this way) then the opposite with your eyes, you’ve contradicted yourself.
When doing groundwork with horses, our goal is to move the horse out of our space, in order to reinforce who is in charge. Yet, time and time again, I see handlers approach the horse as if to move him off, but then withdraw if they think the horse is not going to budge. Often, the person is completely unaware that they are withdrawing or even stepping back—but the horse always sees it. Always. Even the smallest retreat will be detected. Being in command of your body language and sending intentional nonverbal signals to the horse will bring your communication to his level.
Perhaps the biggest area of miscommunication with the horse comes when we are riding. Complex cues for movements and guidance require skill from the rider, yet it’s usually the horse that’s blamed for a poor response. A horse can only perform to the level of the rider and when the horse is not performing well, it’s usually the rider that needs fixing.
Conflicting signals and inconsistent expectations are often to blame for a horse’s poor performance. Pulling back on the reins at the same time you want the horse to move more forward is super frustrating to horses and I see it in every clinic I teach. Pulling on two reins to turn is another frustrating example of miscommunication, often seen when people are riding two-handed. If I want to turn right, and I pull both reins to the right, my right hand is pulling his nose to the right, but my left hand is pulling his nose to the left, once it crosses the withers. How can he respond correctly to that?
Another example is when I do training demonstrations on canter leads at horse expos, most of the time the “lead problem” is fixed by simply clarifying the cue the rider gives. The horse doesn’t have a lead problem, the rider has a cueing problem. Clarifying your cues and using a consistent sequence in your cues will get you the response you want. You could teach a horse almost any cue, by consistently applying the cue and reinforcing it. But if the cue is a little bit different every time or if you fail to reinforce your cues consistently, the horse will fail to respond.
Think about the cues you give to your horse when you’re riding—cues to walk, trot, canter, stop or turn. What are the precise aids you use? In what sequence do you apply the aids? How is the trot cue different from the canter cue? How do you prepare a horse or warn him that a cue is coming? How does your body change when you are tense, upset, tired or nervous that may change the clarity of these cues? When you are clear and consistent in the way you cue your horse, your horse will respond like clockwork.
Following Your Lead
You don’t have to be around horses very long to figure out that you want to be the one in charge. It’s not a good idea to let a one-thousand-pound scared rabbit call the shots. Horses seek out leadership because it makes them feel safe and protected. But there is never a void of leadership in a horse herd. If the leader falls down on the job, either figuratively or literally, another horse will immediately step in to fill the void. You’re not the leader unless you act like the leader all the time.
A comment I often hear from horse owners is, “every day, I feel like I am starting over with my horse.” They do the groundwork exercises, designed to establish authority and control, and get a good response in the moment, but the authority does not stick. The next day, the horse is challenging their authority again. It’s not the horse that’s the problem—he’s just doing what horses do. It’s a lack of consistency in their leadership (and therefore a lack of leadership).
If it is a daily battle to be in charge of your horse, you’re doing something that is eroding your own authority. Are you controlling the actions of the horse? Or are his actions dictating what you do? It’s a simple equation—action and reaction. If you are making an action, to which the horse is reacting, you are in charge. If the horse is making an action, to which you are reacting, the horse is in charge.
It amazes me how often I see handlers work hard in the arena, during the clinic, to establish good ground manners and authority over the horse, then throw it all away the moment the session is over and they leave the arena. Walking back to the barn they let the horse get in front and pull them to the barn or get impatient and start fidgeting and fussing. Rules of behavior must apply all the time and be enforced all the time, or they are not rules.
Little things can erode your authority or leadership with the horse– letting him grab the hay out of your arms when you feed him, hand feeding treats, letting him rip away from the halter when you turn him loose, stepping back when he moves into you. Being the leader to your horse is a full-time job.
Without question, horses will make us better at being humans, if we rise to the occasion and resist the temptation to blame the horse and instead look to ourselves. Consistency in defending your boundaries not only keeps you safer around the horse, but also helps the horse accept your authority. Achieving command of your body language and the subtle signals you constantly send to your horse, helps you communicate to the horse and may help you receive the subtle signals he’s sending you.
Nothing is more important to your horse than your consistency of leadership. Horses yearn for a strong and fair leader, but it’s not always easy to be the one at the top. As the leader, you’re not really allowed any down time. It’s a hard job—to be consistent in praise and reinforcement, to be consistent in your rules and expectations of behavior, to be consistent in your emotions and confidence, to be consistent in the way you communicate. It’s not an easy job, but the payoff is huge. When the horse puts all his faith in you and is willing to follow you anywhere, it’s a feeling like no other.
As the year ends, I’m resisting looking back and wondering where the days/weeks/months went, and instead I’m focused ahead on what the new year will bring. I’m a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, and I’m already busy crafting mine. I operate with multiple resolutions—personal betterment, professional goals, horsemanship, household, recreational—that way I am sure to accomplish some of them! Next month I’ll share my New Year’s resolutions with you—at least the ones I can share publicly.
2020 is shaping up to be a busy year for me, with horse expos in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Wisconsin. I’m also offering two new programs at the renowned C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado. In addition to the Women’s Wholeness Retreat that I co-teach with Barbra Schulte, we are offering a ground-breaking program—The Couples Riding Retreat—which will be led by Barbra and her husband Tom, and my husband Rich and me. We’re super excited about this vacation program for couples and already getting tremendous response.
Also new at C Lazy U for 2020, is the Horsemanship Immersion program– five days and four nights of immersive study of riding, horse behavior, conformation, training and health care, with a herd of 200 horses as our laboratory! The Ranch Riding Adventure program at C Lazy U is back by popular demand; I think there will be some openings in this program, for those of you who have patiently waited to get in. Your dream vacation awaits. www.juliegoodnight.com/clazyu Click Here – C Lazy U Ranch
I can’t wait to go back to the magical country of Ireland in September 2020, for a fabulous riding vacation sponsored by Connemara Equestrian Escapes. We had so much fun there in 2018, that I just had to go back. We’ve had so much interest in the Ireland trips, and space is quite limited, so I wanted to go back to Ireland and offer this ‘trip of a lifetime’ to more of you. With an intimate group of eight riders, we get to know each other well. In addition to spending our days in lessons and hacking through the Irish countryside and seaside, we’ll also enjoy cultural tours, dining at authentic Irish pubs and getting to know the local characters. Imagine yourself riding in Ireland! Click Here – Ride with Me in Ireland
For now, I plan to make the most of every day that’s left of 2019. Rich and I are getting a jumpstart on the ski season and the snow conditions are epic! Since I won’t have to get on an airplane in the immediate future, I’m able to get caught up on some back-burner projects and ride my own horses more. I’ll spend a few days teaching up at Colorado State University Equine this month, helping with the Legends of Ranching colt-starting classes. It’s always a treat for me to work with young horse professionals and help the colts progress through the program. And occasionally I become smitten with one of the Legends colts, and they end up in my barn after the Legends of Ranching Sale (Eddie and Pepperoni both came from this horse sale). Click Here – Legends of Ranch Riding
Don’t forget to think about your horse as you shop for Christmas gifts! We’ve got a lot of great items that your horse will love and that will make your horse life easier. I hope you enjoy some quality time with friends, family and horses over the holidays and don’t forget to think about your resolutions!
Enjoy the ride,
Since this time last month, I’ve been away from home for 25 days, in the normal course of my job attending clinics, expos, conferences and teaching at CSU Equine. Fall is a busy time of year for me. Needless to say, it hasn’t left me much time to work with my own horses. Fortunately, Melissa manages and rides my horses in my absence and helps keep them fit and pampered (and she occasionally stands in as my body double, LOL).
Pepperoni is still confined with no-turnout, lest he get wound-up, running hog-wild, and re-injure something. It’s probably just as well because we’ve had a lot of snow, ice and single-digit temps in the last few weeks and the footing is sketchy at best. He gets 30-40 minutes of hand-walking in the indoor arena every day and for the most part, he has settled into his new reality. He’s a little froggy at times when he gets bored with walking and airs-above-the-ground seem more appropriate. Fortunately, those episodes are short -lived and he is happy to get back to walking. In a few days Pepper gets his next checkup from Dr. Potter, Elite Equine, and we hope he is cleared for riding.
Annie, Dually and our newest herd-mate, Casper, are all fat and happy and hairing up for the winter. Rich and Casper are still getting acquainted and Rich is introducing him to gunshots (in preparation for mounted shooting). I haven’t even had a chance to ride Casper yet, since I’ve been gone so much. I hope to rectify that soon.
Annie remains my go-to finished horse and she is a sweet ride, as always. Often I only have time to ride one horse a day and I usually opt for the youngster (I’m a glutton for punishment), so Mel keeps Annie tuned-up for me. Dually doesn’t do much these days, but keep the herd in-line and occasionally pose for photos. He’s earned his retirement and he’s enjoying it fully.
I rode my horses a lot less than I’d hoped last month, since I was on the road more than home. We were not able to take the horses up to C Lazy U for the Ranch Riding Adventure, due to an outbreak of Strangles at the ranch and because of an outbreak of contagious disease elsewhere around Colorado (vesticular stomatitis). All indications were that it was a good time to leave the horses home. I really missed having my horses there, but I also have a great horse at the ranch that I enjoy riding. So, it just was not worth the risk to our herd’s heath.
Speaking of health, we’ve had our ups and downs around the barn, recently. My three-year-old, Pepperoni, is proving himself to be a high-maintenance horse. No sooner did we get his S-I joint feeling better and his back strong enough to start riding again, than he developed some minor soreness in his suspensory ligaments (possibly from some exuberant bucking in the round pen). Right now, he is on stall rest, with 30 minutes of hand-walking daily. That can be a bit of a wild walk with a young horse that’s full of himself! People often ask me how to deal with this type of situation (hand walking an injured horse that is wound up), so I thought this might be a good time to make a video on the subject.
The other horses are great. My little mare Annie continues to be my go-to horse, since she’s the best trained and most sound horse I have. At 14.0 hands and quick as a rabbit, she’s a blast to ride. Although guilty as charged, as far as being a mare, we’ve managed to train her away from most of her “mare-ish” behaviors. She’s a horse I can put almost anyone on, at least temporarily, and she’ll take care of them. If it’s a novice rider, she’ll eventually figure out she can get away with stuff but at least for a while, she’ll be a good mount. I don’t do that very often, but it’s nice to know that I can.
Dually, one of the best horses I’ve ever had, is fully retired now. He’s got one crooked knee that has serious arthritic changes, and it is now bone-on-bone. He runs around and carries on out in the pasture, but riding isn’t really an option anymore. We’ve done years’ worth and thousands of dollars’ worth of advanced medical treatments, which bought me a few more good years with him, but now it is clearly time for him to rest on his laurels. We still get him out occasionally, to model in front of the cameras, and it makes him feel important. He still occupies the best stall in the barn and gets all the preferential treatment, so in his mind (and in my heart), he’s still #1.
Rich’s new horse, Casper, is clearly becoming the dream-horse he thought he was when he bought him last month in Montana. He’s settled in nicely to our herd and Rich is really enjoying riding and getting to know him. It takes a long time to get to know a horse, especially one with a lot of training (a lot of buttons you must find). This horse is kind, steady and has a solid work ethic. Over the winter, weather permitting, Rich will start hauling him about, maybe to a reining show or two, since that is his primary training. His goal is to start mounted shooting off this horse, but he will take his time to introduce him to that sport. It’s best to stick with what the horse knows while you get in-sync with him, before venturing off on a new path.
Winter is rapidly approaching up here in the high mountains of Colorado, so the riding season is winding down. We’ve already had our first frost (which was late this year) and the pasture is changing slowly from green to brown. Thankfully, we have a toasty indoor arena to keep us going through the winter and I am hoping that over the coming few months, I can get Pepper back into shape so that we can start him on cows later this winter.
Contact for additional information and images:
Jenny Beverage 208.740.4964
Troxel Helmets becomes Official Helmet of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association
Mt Hope, Ohio- Troxel helmets is excited to announce a new three year partnership with the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) as their Official Helmet. With over 4 million helmets in the field and a safety record second to none, Troxel continues to partner with forward thinking organizations to help break the stigma regarding helmet use in western riding disciplines.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with the WPRA as their Official Helmet. It’s an honor to have Troxel be part of such an iconic women’s association that understands the long term value of increasing rider safety in order to continue to grow the sport into the future,” said Jenny Beverage, Troxel Brand Manager.
To further encourage helmet use among members, Troxel and the WPRA will be offering a new $500 added money Helmet Incentive during the 2019 WPRA World Finals on October 24-27 in Waco, TX. “This is our first time offering an incentive like this at the WPRA World Finals. We are so pleased to be able to promote rider safety with Troxel at such a large event and reward our contestants for participating,” said Doreen Wintermute, WPRA President/CEO.
It’s been over four years now since Troxel Athlete and WPRA member Fallon Taylor stormed into the Thomas and Mack Arena at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas wearing a helmet. History was made as Fallon Taylor won the 2014 Barrel Racing World Championship, all while wearing a helmet. “When you ride a bike, motorcycle, go snowboarding or do other wild things, people don’t look at you like you are crazy for wearing a helmet. We ride 1200 pound animals on hard ground…think about it, it doesn’t seem all that crazy to wear one!” exclaims WPRA member Fallon Taylor.
Troxel is proud to keep paving the way with their athletes and the WPRA in the world of rodeo, to encourage riders to proudly wear a helmet.
About Troxel Helmets
Troxel is the world’s leading provider of ASTM / SEI certified equestrian helmets for competitive, schooling and recreational riding. Established in 1898, Troxel is recognized for its innovative design and research leadership in helmetry. Based in Mt. Hope, Ohio Troxel has provided over four million helmets to the equestrian market. See the extensive line of Troxel helmet styles, fit and safety education at www.troxelhelmets.com.
About Woman’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA)
World Championship Barrel Racing is brought to you by The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association which was formed in 1948 when thirty-eight cowgirls came together to create an organization dedicated to the promotion and advancement of women in the sport of rodeo. The WPRA features barrel racing and roping events as well as a junior and futurity/derby division. The WPRA is the oldest women’s sports association in the country and the only one governed entirely by women. www.wpra.com
Whole Food Options to Boost Protein Quality
By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.
Protein is not a popular subject. Most “nutrition-talk” revolves around carbohydrates – sugar and starch, to be specific, because they impact metabolic conditions that are a very real concern for many horse owners. We also talk about fat – types of fat, essential fatty acids, omega 3s, you know the terms – because horses require a daily supply of essential fatty acids and they also benefit from fat to fulfill high energy needs for weight gain and exercise.
But protein? Just check the “percent crude protein” and figure it’s enough, right? Not necessarily. There’s a lot more to it than that. To guide you, let’s start by looking at what happens to the protein in your forages and feeds, when your horse eats it.
Proteins in the feed are digested down to amino acids. There are 22 individual amino acids – “building blocks” your horse’s cells put together to create new proteins. There are literally hundreds of proteins in his body, all of which rely on not only enough total protein, but enough amino acid variability.
Forages have protein, but their variability is limited; they have lots of some amino acids and not much of others. If a single type of grass as hay or pasture is the only protein source in your horse’s diet, the pool of amino acids available to your horse’s body will be deficient in several amino acids, making it difficult for him to stay healthy.
Think of it like a beaded necklace
Imagine a bowl full of red, blue, yellow and green beads. You want to make a long necklace with a very specific color pattern. As you progress in stringing this necklace, you notice that you’ve run out of yellow beads. Uh oh… now you cannot make the necklace you planned. You either get more yellow beads, or you end up with a bracelet instead of a necklace!
Protein molecules are like long, beaded chains of amino acids, in a very specific order, depending on where the protein is located. Muscle protein looks different than joint proteins. Hemoglobin in red blood cells, looks different that digestive enzymes. The DNA within each tissue’s cells dictates the order of amino acids needed to produce that specific protein. If there are enough amino acids available, the protein can be created. If not, then that tissue goes without.
And what about all those unused amino acids – those red, blue and green beads? Can’t they be saved for later in the hope that you’ll feed more “yellow beads?” Unfortunately, no. Instead, they get destroyed and cannot be used for protein synthesis. They can be used for energy, glucose production, or stored as fat, but that doesn’t meet your horse’s protein need
What about wild horses?
Horses in a wild setting travel for miles each day, grazing on a vast assortment of feedstuffs – grasses, legumes, flowers, fruits, berries, seeds, leaves, edible weeds, shrubs, and bark, offering a mixture of nutrients, including proteins. Can we duplicate this in a domesticated setting? Not usually, unless you have many acres of untouched land. Therefore, our goal should be to improve the horse’s protein quality of the diet by offering more protein-rich feeds.
How do we know if we are creating a high-quality protein?
We need to pay attention to the amino acid profile of the entire diet. Of the 22 different amino acids, your horse’s body is only able to make 12. The remaining ten are considered essential, meaning the body cannot produce them, or cannot produce them in adequate quantity. Therefore, they must be in the diet. The 10 essential amino acids (EAAs) are methionine, arginine, threonine, tryptophan, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, valine, and phenylalanine.
We do not know the specific requirements of each EAA for horses. The only one that has been evaluated is lysine, because it is considered “limiting.” This simply means that the amount of proteins produced will be limited by the level of lysine. If lysine is low, it’s like not having enough yellow beads (going back to our beaded necklace analogy).
There are two other limiting amino acids: methionine and threonine. Exactly how much the horse requires is unknown, but we do have an idea of the levels relative to the lysine content. The general thinking among equine nutritionists is that there should be 2 to 3 times more lysine than methionine, and threonine content should be about the same as lysine.
Most animal proteins are higher in quality than those found in plants. This means that they contain more than enough amino acid building blocks to build tissues for vital organs as well as peripheral, non-vital tissues. But horses do not naturally consume animal protein sources, so we have to get a little creative by mixing several plant protein sources so that they ultimately reflect the amino acid profile of an animal source.
Most grasses have a similar amino acid profile. Cool season grasses, such as timothy, brome, orchardgrass, rye, fescue, and Kentucky bluegrass, tend to have more amino acids than warm season grasses, such as the popular Bermuda and Teff. To improve the protein quality, you can add a legume such as alfalfa (lucerne), clover, and perennial peanut grass (grown in some southern areas of the US).
Consider adding whole foods to the mix
Adding alfalfa to grasses will certainly help, but many horse owners choose to avoid it. Or even if you do include it, the EAA content may not be sufficient for your particular horse. For example, feeding 18 lbs of grass hay plus 4 lbs of alfalfa may meet the EAA need of an average horse on light activity, but it may not if the horse has any compromised health issues.
Adding whole foods to your horse’s diet will not only improve the overall protein quality, but can add valuable vitamins, antioxidants, trace minerals, and fatty acids that your horse might not otherwise consume. Here are some examples:
1) Dehulled soybean meal. This is the most commonly added protein source to commercial products. Economical and rich in protein (47%), it is easy to see why it is used to boost the protein content of many feeds and ration balancers. But there are several potential problems with soy:
- Its fat content is high in linoleic acid (an omega 6 essential fatty acid) and low in alpha linolenic acid (an omega 3 essential fatty acid). High amounts of linoleic acid in the diet can increase inflammation.
- Its high phytoestrogen content could possibly impact horses’ behavior
- It is goitrogenic, meaning it has the potential to damage the thyroid gland, making it important to monitor iodine intake.
- Many horses are allergic to soy, exhibiting respiratory and skin issues.
- Unless organic, almost all soy grown in the US is genetically modified to withstand being sprayed with the herbicide, RoundUp (Bayer). Glyphosate, its active ingredient has been implicated in potentially damaging the microbiome and interfering with mineral absorption.
2) Hemp seeds. High in protein (32%), they contain two main proteins: albumin and edestin. Both have significant amounts of all EAAs. Some other aspects of hempseeds:
- They have both essential fatty acids, linoleic and alpha linolenic acid (ALA), as well as a special fatty acid known as gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA belongs to the omega 6 family, but unlike the omega 6 found in soybean oil, it reduces inflammation rather than promoting it.
- They are easy to digest, and highly palatable (great for the picky eater).
- Can be found as a hempseed meal (with some of the fat reduced to make it appropriate for an overweight horse), or as the whole hemp seed fines, which include the ground up fibrous coating.
3) Flax seeds. With 18% protein, they make a good choice to include in the diet (make sure they are ground). But their real claim to fame is their essential fatty acid content which duplicates those naturally found in fresh, healthy pasture grasses. (Remember, the word, “essential” means that they cannot be made by the body and must be in the diet.) Adding flax will therefore, serve two benefits: provides necessary essential fatty acids, and offers a source of protein to boost overall protein quality in the diet.
4) Chia seeds. They are comparable to flax seeds in their protein content and nearly identical to flax in their essential fatty acid content. In fact, you can feed either ground flax seeds, or chia seeds, depending on your budget and your horse’s preference.
5) Split peas and pea protein isolate. Peas that are dried and split are a tasty way to add protein and crunch to the diet. They can be fed raw, but it is good to soften them a bit by soaking them in warm water for a few minutes. Though the protein content is high (24%), it doesn’t compare to the protein content of pea protein isolate, with 75% protein. I recommend adding pea protein isolate to the diet for horses who require extra protein due to aging, growth, intense exercise needs, pregnancy, and lactation.
6) Coconut (copra) meal. A good source of protein (20%), it is low in sugar/starch, and high in fat, from coconut oil, making it a good choice for a horse who is underweight or is heavily exercised. Keep in mind that the fatty acid content of coconut oil does not include essential fatty acids, necessitating supplementation from an additional fat source (such as flax or chia).
7) Pumpkin seeds. A tasty treat, supplying 34% protein, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, including a high amount of magnesium. They can be fed raw, hulled, or with the shells on. When fed raw, they contain active digestive enzymes that are helpful for gastrointestinal tract.
8) Whey. Whey is a protein found in milk and is highly concentrated (80% protein). Because it is animal, and not plant, it is of very high quality. It can contain some lactose, and adult horses are lactose intolerant; therefore, they may develop loose manure.
9) Other feedstuffs:
- Beet pulp is not concentrated in protein (only about 7%) but it is a worthwhile way to add a similar amount of calories as oats, without the concurrent insulin response that starch creates. It is a nice carrier feed for supplements. However, most beets grown in the US are genetically modified (GMO), so it is best to choose a non-GMO source.
- Black oil sunflower seeds offer a similar level of protein as pumpkin seeds. However, they are very high in linoleic acid (omega 6) with virtually no omega 3s. Consequently, they can cause inflammation when fed in high amounts.
Please note: Whenever you add a new feed to your horse’s diet, it is important to starting slowly, taking two or three weeks to allow the hindgut microbial population to adjust.
Since each whole food has a difference density, the information below provides the volume measure equivalent to 4 ounces by weight of each product along with the protein grams.
- Ground Hemp seeds: 1/2 cup; 30 grams of protein
- Ground Flax seeds: 1 cup; 18 grams of protein
- Chia seeds: 1/2 cup; 16 grams of protein
- Split peas: 1 cup; 24 grams of protein
- Pea protein isolate: 1/2 cup; 75 grams of protein
- Copra meal: 1/2 cup; 20 grams of protein
- Pumpkin seeds: 3/4 cup; 34 grams of protein
- Whey: 1 cup; 73 grams of protein
How much protein does your horse require?
According to the National Research Council, protein requirements vary based on mature size, activity level, age of growing horses, and breeding status. On average, a 1100 lb (500 kg) adult horse at maintenance, will require a minimum of 630 grams of crude protein per day. As exercise increases, values can increase to approximately 1000 grams/day. Growing horses require more, and pregnancy and lactation can double the maintenance requirement.
But, and this is important… these values do not take into consideration that the amino acids in forages are not highly absorbed. The level of absorption is referred to as its biological value (BV). The BV of pasture grasses and hays ranges from 45 to 80 percent.
That means that the NRC numbers may need to be increased by 20 to 55% to get a clear estimate of how much your horse is realistically absorbing. Here are some points to consider:
- The higher the fiber, the lower the BV. If the NDF (neutral detergent fiber) value on your hay analysis report is much over 60% on a dry matter basis, the hay contains a large amount of fiber. In general, the more immature and softer the hay, the higher the BV.
- Healthy, growing pasture grasses are higher in BV than they are during non-growing seasons.
- If your horse is on ulcer medication (e.g., omeprazole, ranitidine, sucralfate), protein digestion and absorption will be diminished.
- Inflammatory substances in the diet will diminish the protein’s BV. These can include vegetable oil/soybean oil, pesticides/herbicides, molasses, and high starch diets.
For your horse’s diet to contain quality protein, consider how many protein sources you are feeding. Adding one or more whole foods to hay and/or pasture will accomplish this goal. This will boost the essential amino acid content, allowing for every tissue in the body to get what it needs to thrive. Variety is key!
 Getty, J.M. 2018. Four directions amino acids can take – The importance of feeding several protein sources. http://gettyequinenutrition.biz/Library/theimportanceoffeedingseveralprote
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices. Dr. Getty’s goal is to empower the horseperson with the confidence and knowledge to provide the best nutrition for his or her horse’s needs.
Dr. Getty’s fundamental resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available in paperback as well as in hardcover and Kindle versions. All except the Kindle version are available at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com— buy the book there and have it inscribed by the author. Print and Kindle versions are also available at Amazon (www.Amazon.com); find print versions at other online retail bookstores. The seven individual volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered “Spotlight on Equine Nutrition” series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts for equestrians!
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