How Your Rope Horse Feeding Program Can Solve Your In-Arena Problems
What and how you feed your rope horses can dramatically affect his in-arena performance.

Does your horse have a persistent cough? Hock soreness? Maybe a bellyache? You might be able to feed it out of your horse.

Testimonials are a dime a dozen for products that claim to ease ailments from arthritis to viruses to ulcers. Sifting through feeds and supplements to find what works for your horse can make your head spin, so it pays to figure out exactly which ingredients actually do the trick.

[READ MORE: The Best in the Business Break Down Their Feeding Programs]

[LEARN MORE: Supplements the Pros Use]

[READ MORE: Feeding for Weight Gain]

Good nutrition is the foundation of your horse’s health, and for performance horses, that means more than just pitching an armload of hay over the fence. If you know how much protein and which nutrients are in those flakes, you’ll already be further ahead than most ropers. And keep in mind that God intended horses to eat a variety of grasses, grazing frequently throughout the day and night.

The typically accepted hay ration for a horse is roughly 20 pounds per day with about 10-12 percent protein. But if your roping schedule is on the heavy side, you should safely be able to increase your horse’s hay ration to 24-28 pounds, preferably feeding three times a day.

If you live in the Southwest, you may want to provide your horse a selenium and vitamin E supplement to replace what could be missing in the hay. If your hay is grown where it’s sandy or dusty, consider feeding psyllium occasionally to clear the body and prevent sand colic and enteroliths (intestinal stones). The suggested dose is one cup daily for a few days each month.

Things get a little stickier on the grain end of your horse’s diet, depending on his individual needs. If your horse has any metabolic problems like Cushing’s disease, or has a tendency to “tie up,” you’ll need to avoid concentrated, processed feeds that can worsen the condition. The general rule of thumb is to offer no more than three pounds of grain per feeding, and no more than eight pounds in a day. Keep in mind that alfalfa usually has a higher energy content than grass hay, meaning less grain is needed with it, according to Harold Hintz, PhD, a professor at Cornell University.

For more details, there are some great Web sites out there on nutrition in feedstuffs. To learn what types of hay are best for foundered horses, visit, and to educate yourself about the dangers of sugars and non-soluble carbohydrates (NSCs) in your bag of feed or to order custom-made supplements, visit

Purina’s website has a feeding calculator and body-condition scoring chart to help you determine your horse’s needs, and Nutrena’s site has a “What Should I Feed My Horse?” page that does the same for grain based on your horse’s age and workload. In addition, you can find equine nutrition experts at most universities, or on staff at select feed companies.

Ulcers and Digestive Problems
We’ve given rope horses a different lifestyle than nature intended, and it takes a knowledgeable horse owner to mitigate the effects on their stomachs.

The nature of recreational roping or even roping for a living means horses are stalled, fed intermittently, hauled, and ridden hard-all of which puts extra demands on their digestive systems. Not only that, but our pastures, which may have grown 40 different species of grass-and nutrients-decades ago, have lost nutritional value today because of selective seeding and herbicides.

“To me, feeding horses just straight alfalfa would be like feeding your child only Happy Meals day in and day out, with no variety in nutrition or vitamins and minerals,” says Jessica Lynn, owner of a California-based feed supplement business.

Many experts agree the digestive system is the key to a horse’s total health, so this is one area in which your horse needs your understanding. It’s a fairly simple process. When the pH is altered in a horse’s system and he lacks the “good” bacteria needed to ferment what he eats, food remains undigested and can lead to colic, bloat, founder or even allergies.

It’s easy to see why a horse’s system gets off-kilter. Horses are getting bombarded with chemical de-wormers, vaccinations, pain relievers and antibiotics, which upset the natural balance of the stomach. On top of that, horses fed two or three times a day aren’t able to buffer their all-day production of stomach acid, which then eats into the lining of their guts. Consider, finally, that stress, parasites, viruses, and environmental changes can also bring on digestive issues, and you can see the problems coming like a freight train.

You want your rope horse to build muscle and have loads of energy and stamina, and to do that, you turn to grain. But when horses that were designed to eat high-fiber, low-carb grasses are fed too much of today’s starchy, processed grains, their intestines take a serious hit in trying to break down added fillers, binders, preservatives, and genetically modified corn, soy, and alfalfa.

What to look for:
Poor appetite, picky eating habits, poor body condition with rough or dry hair coat, weight loss, low grade or nonspecific colic, soft manure, mental lethargy, back pain and/or a change in attitude or performance.

What your veterinarian can do:
The only sure way a vet can diagnose ulcers is by running an endoscope into a horse’s stomach, but this can be costly, requires an empty stomach, and may not get to other parts of the digestive system where ulceration could occur. Other diagnostic tools include testing fecal or gastric blood or using an abdominal ultrasound.

What to feed:
Over-the-counter ulcer remedies vary widely in effectiveness, and come in pelleted, gel or powder forms. Antacids typically use calcium, magnesium, and aluminum to buffer acid, while others use L-Glutamine to help absorb excess acid and repair damaged gut lining. In place of aluminum, some products use sodium with herbal tonics and vitamins, and one company adds probiotics and rice bran to its mineral remedy, along with electrolytes, as a way to help prevent impactions and acidity.

The FDA-approved UlcerGard uses omeprazole to suppress acid production in the stomach.

“UlcerGard is great,” says Terry Swanson, DVM, who worked at the acclaimed Littleton (Colo.) Large Animal Clinic. “Science has proven it really helps-if a horse has ulcers.”

Try to get a diagnosis first, because this is a drug that works by interfering with the natural process of the digestive system.

Probiotics and digestive enzymes-especially for ulcers or during periods of diarrhea, stress, disease, or antibiotic treatment-are safe and beneficial over the long term. You can also look into “prebiotics,” which contain no actual bacteria, but have ingredients that enhance the gut’s ability to support bacterial function.

Nutrena claims its SafeChoice pellets add fat and control starch to minimize the risks of high-starch diets. The product has as much energy from fat and digestible fiber as oats and is formulated with trace minerals, yeasts, and probiotics.

Freedom Health’s SUCCEED Digestive Conditioning Program was developed to help performance horses break down and absorb simple starches in processed grains. The product’s natural ingredients of oat oil and flour, dried yeasts and amino acids are said to promote better absorption, more efficient hindgut fermentation, and a healthier stomach lining. Steadier blood sugar levels should also mean a more even temperament in your horse.

“Horses do better when they feel good,” says acclaimed trainer Nick Zito, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby and SUCCEED endorser. “Attitude is a critical part of what it takes to be a winning horse. When horses are in pain and don’t feel well, their attitude suffers.”

Feeding a couple of cups of vinegar each day also has been shown to decrease the pH-and potential for stones-in the hindgut of ponies, according to Dr. Hintz. And juices like aloe vera reportedly have properties that soothe and heal ulcers (recommended administration is about 30 ml twice a day). Finally, colostrum, which contributes to overall gut and intestinal health, may also be helpful. Swanson cautions that there is little research backing most products intended to help with ulcers.

“There is only anecdotal evidence about aloe vera juice being beneficial,” Swanson says. “Somebody just had a good experience with it. And there probably won’t ever be science done on it because they’re selling enough of it. Why would they want to possibly prove it doesn’t work?”

Effective medicinal herbs for ulcers include fenugreek, ginger, licorice root, marshmallow, meadowsweet, chamomile flowers, peppermint/spearmint, slippery elm, and valerian. These should only be administered with the guidance of an expert, but you may recognize them in some supplements, too.

What to avoid:
Cutting back on alfalfa may help with the incidence of stones, but alfalfa can actually be good for ulcers, Swanson says. Avoid administering products like bute and Banamine, which can retard the healing of digestive tissue. And research the true effects of antacids in horses, watching out for products that list mostly fillers as ingredients. Finally, make sure your probiotics are dated and the bacterial count is guaranteed.

Joint Pain and Inflammation
Rope horses are likely to experience joint trauma from the simple act of starting, logging, taking a jerk, and stopping hard. If the same horse happens to be overweight or malnourished because he can’t absorb what he’s fed, joints will take that use even harder.

Improper shoeing can add a whole new dimension, and so can the fact that, when one joint hurts, other joints compensate and do more of the work, according to David Davenport, DVM.

It may be important to determine which condition your horse is suffering from. Degenerative joint disease happens when cartilage begins eroding in hocks, stifles, knees, fetlocks, pasterns or coffin joints. Osteoarthritis is caused by trauma (abnormal force) to a normal joint, or by normal wear and tear on a genetically abnormal joint.

What to look for:
Pain, stiffness or swelling around a joint that lasts longer than two weeks, decreased performance, external bumps or swelling.

What your vet can do:
Diagnostics include flexion tests, radiographs, and nerve blocks. Treatment can include joint injections and newer technology such as stem-cell injections.

What to feed:
If you want to prevent joint problems in a young horse, pay attention to the levels of calcium and phosphorus he’s getting, and consider supplementing copper, zinc, and Vitamins A and D. Vitamin C also has been proven to help build healthy collagen and joint tissue.

It can take four to eight weeks for a supplement to help rebuild fluid and tissue in a horse’s joints, and up to six months for him to make a complete recovery. Injectible products like Adequan, Legend, and Hyaluronic Acid also work well, and may be considered along with supplements.

Herbs with anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, and that promote circulation, include yucca, Devil’s Claw, white willow bark, nettle, comfrey, boswellia serrata, burdock, Queen of the Meadow, celery seed, and sarsaparilla.

One of the most commonly used substances in joint supplements is one of several types of glucosamine, which helps maintain healthy cartilage and gives shape, elasticity, and rigidity to tendons and ligaments. Lynn says the most effective-albeit expensive-form is glucosamine sulfate. N-acetyl-glucosamine may not be as easily absorbed by the horse, she says, and glucosamine HCI may break down in liquids after a few days.

You’ll want also to look for MSM, a naturally occurring sulfur compound said to soften tissues, relieve arthritis, and increase blood circulation. The antioxidant ascorbic acid should aid in the formation of collagen and major components of cartilage. Another possible ingredient, hyaluronan, helps repair and maintain joints. Research is showing that glucosamine sulfate works best in conjunction with MSM and Vitamin C, along with hylaronic acid supplementation, Lynn says.

Chondroitin sulfate, also commonly found in joint supplements, occurs in three different forms and is proven effective in bone calcification, cartilage maintenance, controlling inflammation, and inhibiting the action of destructive enzymes. It also helps reduce the degradation of hyaluronic acid in the joint.

What to avoid:
It’s possible that the use of steroidal injections or painkillers can decrease the joint’s ability to use sulfur, which gives connective tissue its elastic strength. Also, watch out for products with ingredients meant only to mask or cover pain and inflammation instead of addressing the underlying problems causing the fluid around the joint or damage in the cartilage or joint itself. (This is where you decide whether you want your horse to feel better temporarily or overcome problems over the long term.)

Coughing and Respiratory Ailments
Here’s something to keep in mind when you load up to drive to a far-away roping: In a clinical trial conducted by Jonathon Foreman, DVM, MS, 70% of horses transported 320 miles developed a respiratory infection within 10 days of delivery. In fact, bacterial, parasitic, or viral infections commonly cause inflammatory airway diseases.

Here’s another nugget: Michigan State University veterinarian Edwin Robinson once said the amount of dust around a horse’s nose throughout a normal day is three times higher than dust levels allowed in factories. Allergies to mold and dust cause “heaves,” which is comparable to human asthma.

To help determine what you’re dealing with, consider that horses with mild heaves may not show any symptoms at rest, but will cough with activity. Horses with an infection of the respiratory tract may have similar symptoms, but infection usually results in fever, depression, and loss of appetite, which does not occur with heaves.

What to look for:
Increased breathing rate or effort, coughing, difficulty exhaling, thick or discolored discharge from the nostrils, gradual rise in temperature, and loss of appetite.

What your vet can do:
Endoscopes or chest ultrasounds can be effective or, to diagnose heaves, vets can use a bronchioalveolar lavage test or tracheal wash, along with respirometry (measuring the force of a horse’s breathing).

Non-curative, short-term treatments for heaves symptoms include anti-inflammatory corticosteroids like Albuterol or Clenbuterol (bronchodilators available as inhalers or pills), which open constricted airways, and antihistamines.

What to feed:
For horses with airway diseases, feeding hay cubes, pellets and complete feeds can reduce dust, as can wetting hay prior to feeding. Also consider feeding off the ground and not in feeders, which keep dust particles close.

If your horse is trying to recover from a respiratory infection, consider supplements that boost his immune system and/or fight bacteria. Dried, chopped garlic cloves reportedly have beneficial effects on the digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems. Other herbs can help clear mucus, expel irritating particles, and soothe inflammation and spasms in the respiratory tract, including lemon peel, oregano leaves, licorice root, coltsfoot leaves, and elder flowers. Spirulina is a micro-algae that may ease seasonal allergies and breathing problems, and could also help resolve ulcers, stimulate the immune system, and promote tissue repair.

DMG, or N-Dimethylglycine, is a naturally occurring substance believed to play a role in respiration and muscle function. Performance-horse owners in many disciplines use it in feed. Look for more pure DMG per ounce and less fillers on the ingredients label.

What to avoid:
Take care to help horses avoid potential allergens, especially moldy hay and straw or dusty bedding. Keep “heavey” horses out of barns as much as possible and out in the sunshine, unless their allergen is in the grass.

Nervous Energy and Anxiety
An old-timer might tell you the best way to deal with an on-the-muscle or hyper horse would be to ride him to the roping. There’s very little that several miles-or several hours-worth of sweat can’t cure. But without the time or inclination to use “fatigue training” in your treatment of this condition, there are other things you can look into.

Lately, some horse owners and trainers have been injecting fluphenazine, which is a long-acting “calming” substance. But this substance can actually cause nervous-system side effects like sweating and pawing-a Parkinson-like syndrome that can be dangerous, says Bob Judd, DVM.

People also commonly use acepromazine maleate (ace), which works as a depressant by decreasing dopamine levels. But this drug can also change a horse’s heart and respiratory rates and temperature, says Barbara Forney, VMD. Its other drawbacks are that it’s virtually useless if administered after a horse is already excited, and its tranquilizing effect can be overcome unexpectedly the same way. What’s more, individual horses respond differently to it, so you never know how much to use.

What to feed:
Deficiencies in B vitamins, particularly thiamine, can result in anxiety because the substance is important in how the body metabolizes carbohydrates and uses energy. Also, folic acid may reduce the high levels of homocystenine associated with anxiety in a horse. Magnesium is a mineral that eases anxiety and helps to reduce stress levels via the central nervous system.

An amino acid called 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is the intermediate step between tryptophan and the important brain chemical seratonin, which is generally known to decrease anxiety. I-tyrosine and I-phenylalanine are added to 5-HTP to maintain healthy seratonin levels in the blood stream while increasing seratonin levels in the central nervous system, therefore minimizing any side effects.

Many calming supplements come in gel or paste and powder form. Herbal blends to help calm nervous horses could include valerian root, chamomile, hops, passion flower, and scullcap, especially when added to magnesium and calcium in a base of B complex vitamins. An all-natural, herb-free calming product might contain B vitamins and magnesium, but no L-tryptophan.

Finally, ginseng extract can be effective, along with other ingredients that help combat adrenal exhaustion and help in free-radical scavenging.

What to avoid:
Keep in mind there’s little research confirming that tryptophan works on horses, says researcher Grimmett Sillence, MN. In addition, a few studies have shown that low doses of it actually cause mild excitement, whereas high doses can reduce endurance capacity and may become toxic in the hindgut.

Also, be careful if you’re considering chemical treatment for excitability.

“Drugs need a prescription for a reason,” says Judd. “They have to be used in the correct situation at the correct dosage and there are potential side effects to all drugs.” TRJ

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