Back away from the bacon and egg roll! We all know that one of showing’s guilty pleasures is horse show food; normally heavy on refined carbs, fat, and salt. And sugar, if you’re the kind who chugs a coke or Gatorade right after your class (for the dehydration, obviously).
But speak to any serious athlete, and they’ll tell you that nutrition forms a major part of their preparation for any big event. While equestrians tend to micromanage every aspect of their horse’s diet, we often don’t extend this to our own nutrition.
And while I’ll never turn down a good sandwich or bacon roll when I’m rocking my white breeches (why are refined carbs just better at horse shows than at home?), I wanted to find out what we should be eating at a horse show. After all, we expect our horses to be athletes for us on competition days. Why shouldn’t we be athletes for them?
Dietician and equestrian Kerryn Pretorius gave some pointers as to how exactly you should be fueling up on show day, including when and what to eat for optimal performance.
The Basics of Good Nutrition
Regardless of whether you’re riding at GP or trotting around a crossrail class, good nutrition remains the same for everyone. Obviously, if you have intolerances or dietary restrictions then your specific food choices will change to accommodate that.
However, the basic principles still apply: you should eat a sufficient amount of calories to fuel your exercise, stick to foods which are nutrient-dense as far as possible, and be sure to get enough of all the major food groups.
Pretorius says that there are a few main guidelines to keep in mind when thinking about nutrition basics for riders:
- Focus on whole, nourishing, unprocessed foods
- Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source during exercise, and are also rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Including a carbohydrate source rich in dietary fiber such as wholegrain toast, oats, or sweet potatoes helps to reduce hunger and improve satiety
- Protein also helps to keep you fuller for longer due to delaying the release of glucose from the stomach into the bloodstream
- Healthy fats such as avocado, olives, or natural peanut butter delay stomach emptying which also keeps you fuller for longer and stabilizes blood sugar levels.
- ¼ of your plate should be carbohydrates, ¼ protein, and ½ vegetables
- Your approximate “macros” (read more on this here) over a day should be 40-50% carbs and fat, 40% protein, and 10-20% vegetables and fruit. A mobile app like MyFitnessPal will track this for you automatically by logging your food throughout the day
What Should Riders Be Eating At Shows?
For athletes riding multiple horses, it’s important to pay attention to your fluid levels as well as energy levels. Pretorius says that the main focus should be on easily digested foods and sufficient hydration.
If you’re juggling rides, you’ll have to get clever about when and what you eat. Some people are more affected by their food choices than others, and might not be able to ride effectively soon after eating or drinking too much. Others may feel these effects far less. This is a very personal thing and needs to be figured out through trial and error.
Personally, I can never eat until after I ride. It’s always been a difficult thing to balance because on a non-competing day, I ride at 6am and then eat (a lot, admittedly) the rest of the day. But if I eat or drink too much before I get in the saddle, I can’t sit the trot for more than two seconds without getting a stitch.
On the flip side, if I don’t eat, I often get dizzy. If it’s a hot day, then lightheadedness and fainting is a real concern for me. Not the way I want to salute the judges at X!
I’ve come to a sort-of compromise in that I’ll get up very early on show day, have a piece of toast and peanut butter, and bring some diluted cordial or juice so I can hydrate and keep my blood sugar up. Then after I’m done, it’s time to eat properly.
However, what works for you will be different to what works for the next person. What we do know though, is that equestrians need to take their nutrition as seriously as other athletes. And I bet you’ve never seen a tennis player or runner munching on chips and sandwiches mid-event.
Good Show Day Food Options
Here are some Pretorius-approved meal and snack choices for show day. Mix and match them as you like depending on your preferences and on show day schedules.
For instance, if you know that once you get started you won’t have a two-hour gap during the day, stick to a bigger meal earlier on and then snack on the easily digestible 100kcal options a few times during the day. If you know that there’s some time for you to eat while you watch other competitors, you could go for three or four of the 300kcal options throughout the day instead.
One hour or less before competition: approximately 100 kcal
One of these choices:
- Fresh fruit such as a banana or orange slices
- Half a sports or energy bar
- Half a plain bagel or English Muffin
- Crackers such as saltines
- 200 – 350 ml of a sports drink
Two to three hours before competition: approximately 300 – 400kcal
One of these choices:
- ½ turkey sandwich on white bread with baked chips / lentil chips
- ½ bagel with low sugar jam and 1 banana
- 2 pancakes with lite or sugar free syrup and berries
- 950 ml of a sports drink with a scoop of protein powder
- 1 low sugar smoothie with berries, banana and 1 scoop soy or whey protein
- 1 sports energy bar, 1 cup sports drink, 1 cup water
3 – 4 hours before competition – approximately 700 kcals
One of these choices:
- Scrambled egg whites with white toast and low sugar jam and 1 banana
- 1 bagel with fat free or low fat cream / cottage cheese, low sugar jam and 1 banana
- Fairly large turkey sandwich on sourdough bread with lettuce, tomato and mustard
- 90g chicken breast with a baked potato or 3 baby potatoes and water
- 2 cups plain pasta
- Protein shake (providing 25g protein), 1 sports bar, 1 banana and water.
So, there we have it! The news that we should be putting down the chips and sugary snacks might not be exactly what we wanted to hear….but it’s probably what we needed to hear.
And as tempting as it is to give in to bad choices on show day, remember that the way you fuel your body might just have an impact on your performance in the ring. And the idea of that ribbon is – surely – more appealing than the idea of the donut?
Let us know in the comments what your favorite healthy show day meals and snacks are.