Independent equine nutritionist Dr. Clair Thunes of Summit Equine Nutrition works with all breeds of horses pursuing all disciplines, but she admits to a soft spot for eventers. Her varied riding background includes campaigning up to the Preliminary level, so she has first-hand familiarity with the sport's demand on horses. Perhaps more significantly, designing an effective diet for eventing competitors presents a particularly delicious challenge.
Often hot blooded by nature, event horses need a cool head for dressage on day-one, plenty of stamina for cross-country on day-two, and gas in the tank for day-three's show jumping. These generalities are coupled with the myriad challenges each individual horse presents. Tendencies toward ulcers, dehydration and weight gain or loss are just a few of those.
Clair began working with top California eventer Alexandra "Allie" Slusher at the end of last year. With Last Call, or "Fergie," and another horse, Pierre, Allie was shortlisted for the Pan Am Games. She now has her sights set on the Rolex Kentucky Four Star with Fergie next spring and a bid for a 2012 Olympic berth. Although Fergie was earning great results, the mare occasionally tied up and Allie wanted her to have more stamina. In addition, Allie had been giving her IV fluids before and after cross-country to prevent dehydration, which was expensive for Allie and stressful for Fergie.
As she does with all her clients, Clair first determined the mare's body condition score and weight and then did a thorough analysis of Fergie's diet. Whenever possible, a hay analysis is performed to generate the exact quantities of various nutrients enabling Clair to be very specific. After inputting all the feed and supplement info into a nutritional software program, Clair saw that Fergie needed a better mineral balance in her diet. Among other tweaks, Clair recommended adding more salt to Fergie's diet to encourage her to drink more water.
The results have been terrific. Fergie feels fitter and happier in every phase, Allie reports, and she's switched to using IV fluids only after cross-country, rather than before and after. That's a big benefit to the budget and Fergie's well-being.
Clair's contributions have also helped 22-year-old Livingstone, a 2004 Olympian with Hawley Bennett, whose finicky eating habits made it hard to keep weight on.
"The changes we make in a diet don't always produce a better result in competition," says Clair. "A lot of the horses I work with are already doing very well. But it's clear to their riders that they have more stamina, a better quality of energy and their horse is happier and in better health."
When they eat is often as important as what they eat for eventers, Clair notes. "A lot of people were trained that you don't feed a horse hay before strenuous exercise. But there is research that suggests that allowing horses access to pasture grazing or a small amount of hay prior to intense exercise will not affect free fatty acid availability or glucose and insulin response the way feeding grain might, and forage will likely improve the horse's hydration status compared to those whose food is withheld before competition."
"That's because the hay sits in the large intestine and holds water," she continues. "It's sort of like a reservoir the horses are able to draw on for water and electrolytes. It does add a little extra weight to the horse and horses in this study showed a slight increase in their heart rate, but I'll take that trade-off."
Horses that receive a little hay before a hard morning workout will also have a lower risk of ulcers. "It takes about six hours for a horse's stomach to empty. If your horse has an early morning cross-country, he's far more likely to get an ulcer working on an empty stomach."
Getting any horse's diet just right is an everyday endeavor that requires some experimentation and lots of back and forthing between Clair and her clients. For an international rider like Allie, that often results in cross-country phone calls. "It happens often that the feed we have on the West Coast is not available on the East Coast," Clair relays. She'll suggest feeds and supplements that enable horses in that situation to continue getting the nutrients they need, even if it comes in different forms.
Clair's clients are never stuck in a feed store perplexed by product labels. "I get a lot of calls saying, 'Hey, I'm in the store looking at supplements and reading the label. What should I buy?'"
Clair's expertise is the result of many years of study and practical experience. A PhD in Nutrition and an MS in Animal Science from UC Davis, and a BSc Honors in Animal Science from Edinburgh University are among her academic credentials. She's an active member in several professional organizations that help her stay abreast of the latest research in equine nutrition. Her status as a Kentucky Equine Research "champion" gives her access to top nutritionists, researchers and veterinarians. As an independent consultant, Clair is not tied to any one company's specific products, which gives her the satisfaction of knowing she's suggesting the best for each horse.
Ideally, Clair gets to visit each of her charges in person, but that is not required. Based in the Sacramento area, she has lots of clients throughout North America with whom she works by phone and e-mail correspondence. She welcomes inquiries from owners of any breed of horse in any kind of work, from Olympic bound to backyard buddy. Whether they need a radical diet do-over or a small tweak, Clair thrives on the challenge of using nutrition to make each horse healthier and happier. "I'm giving their owners the peace of mind that their horse's diet is where it needs to be."
For more information on Dr. Clair Thunes and Summit Equine Nutrition, visit www.sumit-equine.com or call 916-248-8987.