Okay, I admit it. I don’t wait to ride my horse after I feed him. I figure that after I’ve groomed him, tacked him up and walked him for 10 minutes or so (part of my regular warm up routine), he’ll be fine. And I’ve never had a problem. In fact, with my ulcer-prone TB I never ride him on an empty stomach. If I come in between meals I always give him at least some hay before I work him.
Now, I didn’t always feel this way. There were times when I’d show up at the barn, find out the horses had been fed early and turned around and driven home because I didn’t have time to wait for the hour that I thought was necessary. I know some people who even wait two hours after feeding so that their horses can digest their meals.
The big concern voiced by people is that riding their horses too soon after eating may cause colic. It’s a similar theory that you should wait an hour after eating before going swimming. As a masters swimmer I can tell you that while I wouldn’t eat a huge meal before practice (because I’d feel lethargic), I’ve never gotten a cramp from eating and swimming and I feel a whole lot worse if I don‘t eat before I swim. I often don’t finish my snack until I’ve pulled up to the pool in my car which might be cutting it a little close.
I suspect that with horses you see a similar effect: If your horse doesn’t eat a large meal of grain or pellets (several pounds) and you don’t take off at a dead run when you first get on, you probably are not harming him. After all, endurance riders feed their horses during their rides with no ill effects and this is a discipline where proper nutrition is integral to competition success. Small meals that are forage-based provide the fuel needed without spiking blood sugar or diverting too much blood flow to the digestive system and help buffer the stomach acids that horses produce almost continuously.
If I fed my horse several pounds of grain or if he were still a race horse, a large meal before running would be a bad idea. For one thing, it fills the hind gut, adding enough weight to impact a horse’s performance. For another, horses that begin exercise with elevated insulin may fatigue quicker, because insulin prevents muscles from making the best use of nutrients needed to fuel muscle contraction. For performance horses it’s probably a good idea to wait the recommended four hours before competition as it will allow the horse to perform at its best.
As for my TB, since he eats mostly forage and his “job” no longer requires great speeds or endurance, I’ll keep on riding him after breakfast.