How are gastrointestinal issues affecting equestrians?

Image by romavor from Pixabay

How are gastrointestinal issues affecting equestrians? – Something feel off when out competing and you can’t put a finger on it? Then this article from Waikato Institute of Technology in New Zealand (and its following research) may be just for you!

We’ve all been there, tacked up, checked the girth, checked it again and something doesn’t feel right. It might be some hiccups, a touch of heartburn or a last-minute dash to the bathroom before the judge asks you to enter the ring. Or it might be afterwards, you’re stood washing your horse and you can’t help but belch, or you can’t stomach anything but a cup of tea or a few sips of water for several hours until you and your horse get home. As owners and riders, we are becoming increasingly aware of gastric upset in horses, but what about us too?

In academic settings, stomach issues and related sensations such as these are known as gastrointestinal symptoms or gastrointestinal distress. Common in most sports, in extreme cases they may be responsible for people dropping out of events. They do not appear to discriminate between males and females, or level of competitor but may be affected by our use of some products such as caffeine or antibiotics, as well as broader factors.

These may be nutritional, for instance, carbohydrate and fat intakes have been shown to be particularly important in running and triathlon, as has the environment, with heat and dehydration being particularly damaging to the gut. With last summer’s heat waves in the UK and the pace of global warming, we may start to face these issues more frequently. Similarly, how we move can affect how settled our stomachs are, with runners often showing higher symptoms compared to cyclists because of their need to bounce along the road, compared to sitting tight on a bike


Gastrointestinal issues affecting equestrian Athletes

Equestrians sit somewhere in the middle of these two sports, as we move smaller muscle groups in a controlled way to ask our horses to perform. All equestrian sports require riders to work through a variety of speeds and produce technical movements, primarily through our seats. This places obvious stress on the core and other muscles around the gut and areas where symptoms are felt. Taking this a step further, especially in higher level riders competing across multiple classes, a single rider will have multiple interactions with each of their horses and we must adapt our seat or posture to accommodate individual horses’ gaits. The potential for this to affect gut symptoms isn’t too farfetched, especially if you’re swapping between a 14’2 mare and a 16 hand gelding, but is unknown at the moment. Similarly, we might have discipline-specific demands to deal with that possibly further stress the gut and core muscles. For example, previous work from our group has shown Polo players may reach speeds in excess of 60km per hour, and accelerate and decelerate up to 400 times in a game, placing unique stresses upon an athlete’s core and gut. 

Most readers will be familiar with the impact performance psychology can have, whether it be when working with a challenging horse, learning a new skill, or digging deep over that last cross-country jump. Previous research has shown that equestrian athletes may experience feelings of anxiety when riding and that this often worsens in competition with riders showing higher scores for cognitive and somatic anxiety, and lower self-confidence. In other sports, similar mental states have been shown to increase the likelihood and or severity of gastrointestinal issues athletes experience during competition.

Getting involved

It’s for this reason, that we are hoping to assess how big and how severe an issue gastrointestinal complaints are for equestrian athletes when training and competing. Unlike other sports, we don’t yet have this data, so this is an opportunity to contribute to something that will benefit you and the wider equestrian community. We’ll be using two short surveys to gather this information and hope to have the results in early 2024 as we’re targeting athletes and events all over the world. We are hoping that by making the survey as accessible as possible, we can dig deeper and set up future work to address the potential causes of and solutions for gastrointestinal issues in equestrian athletes.

It’s hoped that through better understanding the size and scope of gut issues equestrian athletes face, often self-managing them, we can provide education and targeted nutrition or dietetic support where it is most needed, and then link back to areas where our understanding is more established such as psychology, or physiology.

If you’d like to take part in the surveys, please follow this link to the survey.


Feature image: Image by romavor from Pixabay.


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