Have you ever gotten to the barn after work, in a bad mood, having eaten nothing since lunch, then rushed to get on your horse and had a bad ride?

Have you ever known that you’re hungry or thirsty or both and decided that there was no time to eat or drink anything, so you got on your horse and had a bad ride?

Have you ever gotten up way before the crack of dawn to get to a horse show and decided you could do without eating and had a bad ride?

Now, of course, it’s always possible to have a bad ride, and you can’t blame everything on what you ate (or didn’t eat).  But riding on empty can turn a good ride into a bad ride, and a bad ride into a worse ride.

398px-Eat_sign_Portland_OregonYour body just doesn’t work as well when you’re hungry or dehydrated (even slightly). Mentally, you can become slow or foggy. Emotionally, it can be difficult to keep things in perspective.  And spiritually…well, it worked for Mahatma Gandhi, but chances are that starvation won’t work for you when you put on your jodhpurs.

Eat, drink and be merry.  It works for holiday parties and it works for riders in the saddle, all year long.

I know it works for me.  I eat often.  Not a lot but a lot of times a day (at least four).  I like to graze so much, I might be a reincarnated herbivore, a horse perhaps (those who live in the land of jodhpurs understand, I’m sure).

I feel best if I can eat 20 to 30 minutes before a ride.  Something light and nutritious, that will give me the fuel I need to be athletic, mentally alert and spiritually centered.  I know it sounds lofty, but that’s what food does for me. If you haven’t tried eating lightly, nutritiously and often, you might find it does the same for you.

Here are some of my favorites pre-ride snacks:

Fresh fruit.  There’s no fruit that I don’t enjoy, but an apple or a banana or a couple of clementines are grab-and-go foods.  I appreciate the fact that they come in their own containers (the peels) that keep them fresh all day.  I’ll happily eat a couple of pieces of fruit (ideally, one is a banana, which is the fruit that most resembles a piece of bread) before riding.  A Honeycrisp apple is so huge and satisfying that it’s a meal in itself.

Dried fruits.  There’s such a variety available.  Raisins, dates, figs, prunes, apricots, cranberries, cherries, even the exotic mango and pineapple slices or goji berries.

A handful of nuts.  Raw cashews, walnuts, pecans, or pistachios (already shelled and an indulgence).  I prefer a single variety to an assortment, which, over time, feels more like true variety to me.  I like my nuts plain, no salt added, unsmoked and not “dry roasted.”  Right now, where I live (and where, at the moment, I can walk on top of the snow), it’s cold enough to keep nuts fresh (frozen?) in the car.  The rest of the year, I store my nuts in the fridge.

Nut butter (peanut or almond, natural and unsweetened) on a few gluten-free crackers (because I’m allergic to wheat) or an apple. Another way to combine fruit and nuts is a raw bar, and I keep a bowl by the door, so I can always grab one on my way out.  I’ve loved Larabars for a long time (lemon and ginger are my favorites), but I bought my first Pure orange-cranberry bar a few weeks ago and I’m a convert.

Plain yogurt and fresh fruit or honey.  There are so many good natural yogurts available these days, with the increased popularity of “Greek” yogurt. I pack some goat yogurt with raw honey or berries in a jelly jar with a lid and put it in my little cooler with an ice pack.

An avocado!  With a slice of lime.  This snack is a little messier than most, but there are days when it’s worth it, when you need some long-lasting fuel to burn (think fat).  As an alternative, some smoked fish, or a can of sardines does the trick.  If I go for this kind of snack and I have to be on the road, I pack utensils and a small ziploc bag that I can throw everything into and deal with later, when I get home.

As a trainer and instructor, I’m a coach not just at horse shows but every time I’m in the ring with one of my students.  Sometimes, when one of my students is very emotional, I have to ask when she last ate.  When I hear an answer like, “I had a piece of pie for breakfast and I’ve had nothing since then,” and it’s six o’clock at night, I know why things aren’t going so well, or why she thinks they’re not.  All I can do at that point, short of bringing out my jar of almond butter and suggesting that we take a break, is to suggest that a snack before riding might help.

400px-Fakarava_-_Drink_Coco-Cola_-_20061106I encourage my students to pack healthy snacks for a horse show rather than wait in line for a hot dog and chips or Pad Thai (which still strikes me as an oddball choice for a horse show food truck, as much as I love the dish).

And skip the Gatorade.  Salt is good if you’ve really worked up a sweat, but sugar and food dyes are not.  For hydration, nothing beats water, unless it’s coconut water (which is an excellent match of electrolytes to what is naturally in our bloodstreams).  It’s hard to find a bad coconut water, but some are tastier than others.  Some, like Zico, are so light that they have almost no coconut taste. I prefer a stronger, sweeter coconut taste, and I found it when my local supermarket started carrying Nirvana.

The weird marshmallows known as Circus Peanuts

There will always be people who feed Circus Peanuts to their horses, but it seems to me that many of us feed our horses better than we feed ourselves.  Change that, and people and their horses may find themselves merrier, not just during the holidays, but every day.

What’s your solution for pre-riding hunger, athletic fuel, at the barn or a horse show?  Share your healthy suggestions!