As a horse owner, you’re mindful of your horse’s health. You ride to keep him in shape, schedule routine visits with the vet and farrier to ensure that his overall health is in order, and you provide food and supplements to give his body the nutrients it needs. As a rider, the only way to keep yourself fit to enjoy your horse and a long life of riding, is to practice the same diligence when it comes to your own care. This includes regular exercise as well as balancing your nutrition. This doesn’t mean you only have to eat “health” foods to be healthy. It’s about balance. Sometimes you give your horse a treat that’s outside of his normal diet. But, you also know that he can’t sustain himself on treats alone. And, neither can you.
I’ll share some nutrition basics as an introduction to healthy eating and some tips to help you be successful away from home. With this advice, and thoughtful programming of Saddle Strong, you’ll be prepared to make simple lifestyle changes to improve your health and wellness.
This is your body’s building block. Protein repairs and builds tissue, such as muscles, bones, cartilage, skin, blood, and organs. If you injury yourself, scrape your arm, or are sore after a tough workout, protein is what helps you recover. It also plays an important role in your body’s ability to stay chemically balanced. So, if you don’t get enough of it, it can even impact your mood.
Aim to eat protein at each meal. It doesn’t all have to come from a meat source either. Vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, and other foods sources like beans and nuts also have protein, though they’re not a primary source. Lean proteins (non-fatty sources) include eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, and lean cuts of beef and pork.
This is your body’s primary source of energy. Carbohydrates are also responsible for healthy brain, kidney, muscle, and other bodily function. Fiber, for example helps you to digest foods; it also keeps you full.
Not all carbs are created equally though. Just like your horse, your body needs nutrient-dense foods even if the treats taste better. Fuel your body with complex carbohydrates, and save simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and refined starches (e.g. white bread and pastries) for treats. Complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to break down because they have more micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Complex carbohydrates include vegetables, whole-grain bread and pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, and most fruits. Strive to include complex carbohydrates at each meal. Simple carbohydrates, while not bad in moderation, digest quickly so leave you feeling hungry a lot sooner. They taste great and provide quick bursts of energy, but don’t provide the fuel your body needs for a long trail ride or day at the show.
Fat is an essential part of your diet that helps absorb certain nutrients, provides energy, and regulates body temperature. Just like with carbohydrates, there are preferred fats.
Saturated fat, that’s found in potato chips, donuts, and non-lean animal fats. This is what causes plaque in arteries, which restricts blood flow and the delivery of nutrients to the rest of your body. Over time this causes negative health conditions, such as heart disease and high-blood pressure. In the short-term this means that your body has to work extra to do it’s job, which means you don’t have the energy to do what you enjoy: ride your horse. While a little is okay, just like simple carbohydrates, the key is moderation.
Unsaturated fats are the fats that provide all the benefits previously mentioned. These include monounsaturated fats, which are found in cooking oils, such as olive, canola, and sesame oil. And, polyunsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, and seeds. Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats reduce LDL levels and your risk of stroke and heart disease. Consumed with vegetables, these two fats also improve your body’s ability to absorb the vitamins and minerals you need.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Water
A horse can get by on lesser feed and still do his job, but it doesn’t mean you should feed him the lesser feed. So, too, you as a rider can make it through your day on junk food, but it doesn’t mean you’ll perform your best. You won’t have the energy to make it through a long day, your brain will be foggy, and you’ll experience the aches and pains that come from not having the micronutrients you need—hello, bloat and constipation without fiber.
Choose a variety of foods from each of the three core nutrient areas. And, do so with balance and moderation. Meaning you shouldn’t just focus on one area, like protein, and neglect the other two macronutrients (carbs and fats). As you eat a balanced diet, you also ensure that you get the vitamins and minerals you need, such as iron and calcium. A simple rule to follow is: when in doubt, eat whole foods. If it comes in a wrapper, it likely doesn’t have all the nutrients you need.
Remember the importance of hydration, too. It helps maintain a healthy metabolism, keeps your skin fresh looking and hydrated, and manages hunger. Pack a water bottle with you everywhere you go to ensure that you drink enough throughout the day. Drink the recommended amount of water per day (64 ounces), and drink even more if you sweat or are out in the sun.
Travel to shows and events, and trail trips make it difficult to make healthy food choices. Prepare ahead of time so you don’t have to make decisions when you’re hungry, stressed, tired, or in a pinch. Pre-cut vegetables and fruits that you can keep in a cooler and eat while you’re on the go. Single-serving nuts and jerky provide a healthy dose of fats on the road. Protein sources, such as hard-boiled eggs, turkey, chicken, and tuna travel well and can be heated up later.
Bring foods that you know you’ll want to eat. If you won’t be able to heat up your chicken and steamed broccoli, don’t bring it unless you’ll eat it cold. Instead, pack pre-made sandwiches and fruit. Healthy eating doesn’t need to make you miserable. If you don’t like raw broccoli, choose bell peppers, sugar snap peas, or carrots instead. Opt for options that you enjoy, and do the best you can each day. If you’re on the road and stop at a restaurant, choose an option with vegetables and lean proteins. Salads are great, but they can pack a lot of fat if you use the entire dressing serving. Ask for dressing on the side and use only what you need. Or, order something else like a sandwich or grilled meat platter with healthy fats and carbohydrates. If the servings are huge, practice portion control and ask for a to-go box to split your meal before you start to eat.
Remember, just as your horse’s skill, condition, and overall health is a long-term effort, so is your health and wellness journey. Start small and be consistent and you’ll slowly make progress toward your horse-related goals.
Saddle Strong: The 6-Week Rider Fitness Program contains more helpful health tips, plus daily workouts and stretch routines. It’s online and the workouts can be done at your own pace and place.