A typical feed sponsorship relationship is usually a fairly simple one. A feed company provides a certain amount of free horse feed to a professional rider in exchange for that rider to wear the company logo at events. This arrangement usually works well for both parties, as the rider’s feed bill goes down and the company gains some extra exposure. However, at Purina Animal Nutrition, things are done a little differently. We have found that there is much to be learned from our sponsored riders (and hopefully, vice versa) if we stay closely involved in their horses’ nutrition programs.
I have been fortunate enough to have been working with Chris Hickey and Hilltop Farm since 2009. Consulting with them on their nutrition program has been extremely rewarding for me, not only as a Ph.D. nutritionist, but also as an amateur dressage rider who has long admired the quality of their program. Hilltop Farm is recognized as one of the top warmblood breeding operations in the U.S., and part of their success can be attributed to the way they raise their foals to reach their optimum genetic potential. I look forward to receiving regular requests from Natalie DiBerardinis, Hilltop’s general manager, or Melissa Burke, director of raising services at Hilltop, to consult on a particular mare or foal’s nutrition program. Every horse is an individual, and they understand that tailoring each horse’s feeding program to their specific needs is essential. Whether it be the unfortunate case of an orphan foal that has lost its appetite to an overweight broodmare that needs to trim down a bit, I enjoy being available to provide them with nutritional guidance any time that they need it. Every month, the Mill of Bel Air (Hilltop’s local Purina feed dealer) brings their digital scale to the farm so we can weigh foals and track growth rates so that we can stay on top of any potential issues that may arise. This gives us the information we need to make regular adjustments to the feeding program, keeping the young growing horses on an optimal growth curve. Horses in the performance barn are also weighed regularly, as having an accurate body-weight is important when designing an individualized feeding program.
As much fun as it can be, providing nutritional consultations to individual farms is not the primary focus of my job. As a research equine nutritionist, my main job responsibility at Purina is to develop innovative horse feed products that produce results. This process starts at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, where we test products in a controlled environment on our own research horses. Once a product has been thoroughly tested at the farm, we then take it to a “field trial,” where we ask riders to incorporate the new feed or supplement into their daily program and report back what they observe. Chris has been very instrumental in this field trial process for several new Purina products that have come out in recent years. Before we went to market with the Hydration Hay® Blocks, we gave Chris several bales to feed his horses while trailering to Lamplight in Chicago and to the 70-Day Stallion testing in Oklahoma. Chris told us that “Hydration Hay® Blocks were a way for me to hang a bucket, free choice, and they're eating and getting enough hydration at the same time.” The peace of mind that Hydration Hay® Blocks gave him was important for us to understand when bringing it to market.
Right now, I am very excited about a brand new amino acid supplement that is about to hit the market in March 2014 (and is already available in select markets, including FL and TX). This supplement has been many years in the making, and part of its genesis can be traced directly back to Chris and his lovely horse Douglas Hilltop, whom he is currently competing with at Grand Prix. Just after Douglas was imported in 2009, Chris asked me to help develop his feeding program. The importation process had taken a toll on Douglas, and he needed to develop some more muscle so that he could continue training and start competing. I recommended that he begin supplementing with Purina® WellSolve® Well-Gel® feed, a high-potency powdered feed product we sell only to veterinarians, intended to be mixed with water and fed to sick horses. This product has a very specific, high-quality amino acid profile that I knew from experience could also benefit performance horses. Douglas responded extremely well to supplementation, and eventually Chris realized he did not ever want to take him off of it! In fact, we put several of Chris’s horses on Well-Gel® feed and observed similar results. The problem was that Douglas could sometimes be a picky eater, and he wasn’t crazy about the powdered form. This prompted me to “go back to the drawing board,” so to speak, and design a more palatable supplement that contained all the great ingredients of Well-Gel® feed while supplying a nutritional profile more appropriate for the performance horse. We tested this product in exercising horses at the Purina Animal Research Center, confirming its many muscle- and exercise-related benefits. Then we sent it to field trial locations all across the U.S., and it all came to fruition as the new targeted amino acid supplement called Purina® SuperSport™ supplement! I am so grateful that Chris was willing to work with me, as I found his feedback to be crucial during the research and development process. Because of his willingness to try something new with Douglas, hopefully many other performance horses will benefit from this new formula that has been shown to improve fitness, speed recovery time following exercise, and to support muscle development in horses.
The partnership between Chris/Hilltop Farm and Purina has been a success on all fronts. Chris says, “I’m really proud of the way my horses look, and I've fed Purina® products for many years. So when I was approached to become an ambassador for Purina – that made me very happy.” And what makes me happy is to collaborate with riders like Chris, who know what success looks like and how they want their horses to look and feel to achieve that success. I look forward to continuing to work with Chris and Hilltop for many years to come.