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Understanding Energy Support for the Performance Horse

Marilyn Connor Palm Beach Equine Clinic Veterinarian

Dr. Marilyn Connor of Palm Beach Equine Clinic Discusses Balancing Your Horse’s Energy Sources for Performance

The modern equine athlete is asked to train and compete at far more demanding levels than horses in nature. Providing your horse with a diet that matches their metabolic needs, activity level, and training demands is key to success. To fuel our sport horses, we must first understand their nutrition and energy needs and give them the adequate support to succeed.

Physical Demands

Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Exercise

Palm Beach Equine Clinic is a major sponsor and partner of equestrian competitions across disciplines

Glucose is stored in the liver and muscle cells as Glycogen, or a complex carbohydrate. Glycogen is broken down into glucose to meet metabolic energy requirements and provides energy for short to medium duration physical activity. Additionally, fat can be broken down and converted into glucose through a longer and more complex process.

Exercise can be characterized into two general categories: anaerobic and aerobic. Anaerobic exercise is characterized by short bursts of maximal effort activity, while aerobic exercise includes low to moderate intensity activity that lasts for a longer duration.

Both anaerobic and aerobic exercise utilize glucose as the primary source of fuel. Anaerobic and aerobic exercise differ in their secondary source of energy utilized once circulating glucose is depleted. Anaerobic exercise utilizes glycogen stores after glucose is depleted, while aerobic exercise is fueled by fat sources.

No equestrian sport is entirely anaerobic or aerobic. Most disciplines will have periods that require anaerobic and aerobic energy metabolism. Racehorses and western performance horses work at high intensity, fast speeds for short periods of time, requiring the body to utilize anerobic metabolism to produce energy. Show jumping and polo horses primarily use aerobic exercise yet will switch to anaerobic metabolism to keep up with energy demands of their sport. Eventing and endurance racing horses rely primarily on aerobic metabolism to support their energy needs over long periods of activity.

To support your horse during any type of sport, they must have a balanced nutrition program that sets them up for success.

Forage First

Understanding Energy Support for the Performance Horse Palm Beach Equine Clinic forage first

“Providing high quality forage is always my top focus for any nutrition program, regardless of the horse’s breed, age, gender, metabolic needs or athletic activity,” says Dr. Connor.

Understanding Energy Support for the Performance Horse Palm Beach Equine Clinic grain

Horses are herbivores and evolved to survive by grazing on a steady supply of fresh grasses and plants. Research conducted on horses in nature shows that the average wild horse will spend 15 to 17 hours per day grazing and will travel 20 to 30 miles per day in their search for adequate food and water sources. To accommodate for the lifestyle of the modern sport horse, owners must provide high quality forage sources.

Fresh grass contains an optimal blend of key nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and fatty acids. Once grass is cut, dried and baled as hay, the nutritional benefits begin decreasing. A week after cutting, hay loses about 60% of its vitamin A, E, and Omega 3 fatty acid content. As a general rule, horses should consume 1 to 1.5% of their body weight in hay or forage per day, with some high performing equine athletes requiring 2 to 2.5% to meet their energy needs.

When hay and forage alone are not enough to support the intense metabolic needs of the equine athlete, grain, and concentrated feed become an important part of the nutritional plan.

Building Blocks of Energy Sources

Feeding your horse with the appropriate mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat is essential for fueling athletic performance.

Understanding Energy Support for the Performance Horse Palm Beach Equine Clinic
Dr. Connor recommends the Platinum Performance Wellness and Performance Formula supplement which is available through the Palm Beach Equine Clinic Pharmacy.
Dr. Connor recommends the Platinum Performance Wellness and Performance Formula supplement which is available through the Palm Beach Equine Clinic Pharmacy.

A horse whose training requires a high level of aerobic exercise, such as a dressage horse, should receive an adequate amount of fat and carbohydrates in their diet to fuel them through longer duration training sessions by providing extended, long-lasting energy sources. Racing and barrel horses, utilizing anaerobic exercise, require a higher percentage of carbohydrates in their diets to support them through maximal effort exercise for shorter periods of time.

Carbohydrates are sourced from forage, grains, and concentrated feeds. Forage sources provide a complex source of fibrous carbohydrates that require more time for the body to digest. Concentrated feeds and grains contain starchy carbohydrates that are easily digested and quickly converted into energy to fuel a horse through intense training. A well-balanced concentrated feed will also have an appropriate blend of fat, protein, and trace minerals.

Protein is an important part of the equine diet and is found in fresh grass, dried forage, and concentrated feeds in varying amounts. Protein is made of amino acids, which are the building blocks for growth, development, repair, and maintenance of body tissues. The modern equine athlete requires a substantial amount of dietary protein to support muscle growth and ongoing tissue repair.

Fat is a key component in most equine concentrated feeds and may be supplemented by adding flax seeds, flax oil, rice bran, and corn oil. These fat sources will provide slow burning calories for sustained energy release. Fat can be especially useful for supplementing a horse’s diet when they are a “hard keeper” or if they have an underlying metabolic condition that requires dietary carbohydrates to be limited.

It is important to remember that not all fats are created equal; as some fat sources can decrease or increase inflammation in the body. Flax seed and flax seed oil are rich in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and can be an excellent source of energy. Corn oil is commonly used to add calories and fat; however, it is a less desirable supplement due to its higher percentage of omega 6 fatty acids, which contribute to inflammation. Concentrated feeds will have varying levels of added fats depending on the type of horse it is designed to feed.

Balancing Your Horse’s Energy Sources for Performance

Whatever equestrian discipline is your passion, your horse will need to be fueled by a balanced nutritional plan.

Understanding Energy Support for the Performance Horse Palm Beach Equine Clinic polo

“Feeding instructions provided on grains and concentrated feed products are designed by nutritional companies as guidelines; they are not rules and should be adjusted based on total sources of nutrition,” said Dr. Connor.

Establishing the proper balance of forage, starchy carbohydrates, fat sources, vitamins, and minerals will be different for each unique horse and the demands placed upon them.

Understanding the nutritional demands of your horse can be very simple or very intricate, depending on your unique equine athlete. When designing a feeding program, it is important take into consideration your horse’s athletic discipline, performance level, metabolic needs, stage of life, and any underlying medical conditions. Furthermore, your horse’s nutritional needs will vary over time and as they age, so it is important to periodically assess your horse’s body condition and consult with a knowledgeable veterinarian.

Speak with Dr. Marilyn Connor of Palm Beach Equine Clinic about your horse’s unique nutritional needs to ensure your horse is fully supported and on track to reach your competitive goals.

Schedule a Nutritional Consultation with Dr. Connor

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Palm Beach Equine Clinic Helps Keep Horses of Vinceremos in Top Form

Feature in the March 2019 issue of Wellington The Magazine


The horses at the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center perform miracles every day. Whether by carrying a person coping with a physical disability to a sense of independence, providing comfort to a soul suffering from emotional trauma or teaching a child beyond the confines of a classroom, the Vinceremos horses are heroes. But they aren’t the only ones wearing capes. A local group of dedicated and passionate equine veterinarians share in the magic.

The veterinarians of the Palm Beach Equine Clinic (PBEC), based in the heart of Wellington, have been caring for horses in South Florida for decades. Founded by Dr. Paul Wollenman in 1981, PBEC has grown to include a staff of 40 veterinarians, with five boarded specialists and the most state-of-the-art facility in the country. Situated in the winter equestrian capital of the world, Palm Beach Equine Clinic treats the top-performing show jumping, dressage, polo and racing athletes throughout the year.

Official Veterinarians of Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center

Dr. Janet Greenfield Davis Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center
Dr. Janet Greenfield-Davis is one of the primary treating veterinarians for Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center.

In addition, the clinic is a saving grace for the horses of Vinceremos. The 23 specially selected horses stay true to the nonprofit’s mission of conquering disability and hardship in people of all ages. Founded in 1982, Vinceremos, based in Loxahatchee Groves, serves people from all stations in life with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities through the power of equine therapy. The treatments they offer include therapeutic riding and carriage driving, hippotherapy, equine-assisted learning and equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Palm Beach Equine Clinic does its part by keeping the horses healthy and happy with pro-bono veterinary care.

“We have the people and, most importantly, the horses, of South Florida to thank for the success that PBEC has enjoyed over the years,” said Palm Beach Equine Clinic President Dr. Scott Swerdlin, who spearheaded the clinic’s involvement with Vinceremos in 2011. “It is our honor to give back to that community through our work with Vinceremos. The whole team is dedicated to each and every horse we treat, as well as to the riders who love them.”

Healing Together

While their commitment to the nonprofit is extensive, it’s not about the hours spent or the cost of time and supplies. Swerdlin and his team focus on a bigger goal; healing horses so they can heal people. “There’s no greater reward than seeing how the horses of Vinceremos benefit their riders,” he said. “You see the riders light up and how excited they are to be on those horses.”

Swerdlin is proud of the clinic’s work with Vinceremos. “I continually remind my team that it is a privilege to treat the caliber of horses we have in Wellington and that should compel us to give back to the community,” he said. “The response from Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarians has been overwhelming. The entire team has volunteered to be involved.”

From routine treatments and services, such as vaccinations and health exams, to emergency care, Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarians are available to Vinceremos night and day. Last summer, such emergency care was called on, and one Vinceremos horse got a second chance at life thanks to a group of devoted veterinarians.

Clark Kent

Vinceremos favorite Clark Kent — a sturdy black mount with an eye as kind as they come — suffered an injury to his right front leg. The laceration extended into his tendon sheath, which is a layer of membrane around a tendon on the back of the lower leg. What could have been a simple cut on the surface was much more serious.

Initially treated on-site at Vinceremos by Dr. Marilyn Connor, Clark Kent was then transported to PBEC for surgery to repair the injury. The case turned into a team effort and involved the work of surgeons Dr. Weston Davis and Dr. Michael Myhre, as well as Dr. Janet Greenfield.

After surgery and a recovery period at PBEC’s onsite equine hospital, Clark Kent returned to Vinceremos to recover. He was back to his therapy work by fall, giving riders a sense of independence and confidence with his skills on the lunge line and his forward way of moving.

Clark Kent Vinceremos Palm Beach Equine Clinic Veterinarians

“This treatment was no easy feat, but the veterinarians and staff of Palm Beach Equine Clinic took a tragedy and turned it into a miracle. Clark Kent was surrounded by extraordinary veterinarians and technicians throughout his care,” Vinceremos Director of Development Susan Guinan said. “The diligence of this team makes miracles happen every day. We are so appreciative of Palm Beach Equine Clinic and their team of veterinarians. They give so much support to Vinceremos and the horses here. They keep them in top shape so we can impact our community in such a special way through equine therapy.”

Rewarding for Horses and Humans

For Connor, it’s cases like Clark Kent’s that convinced her to pursue veterinary medicine. Growing up around horses, she spent time volunteering with a therapeutic riding program before attending veterinary school at Texas A&M.

“It was a very rewarding experience to be able to give back to a cause that is important to me. And even more so now that I can do that in a different capacity as a veterinarian,” said Connor.

She can often be found checking on the horses of Vinceremos while on the job. “Being able to help horses as special as the ones at Vinceremos and the people who love them is what ultimately made me realize I wanted to be an equine veterinarian,” Connor said.

To find out more about the Palm Beach Equine Clinic, call (561) 793-1599.

Meet PBEC Veterinarian Dr. Marilyn Connor

Palm Beach Equine Clinic Veterinarian Dr. Marilyn Connor
Dr. Marilyn Connor. Photo by Erin Gilmore

For some, becoming an equine veterinarian was always their calling. But, for Palm Beach Equine Clinic’s own Dr. Marilyn Connor, a diverse education and a healthy serving of life experience gave her options. Originally hailing from just north of Dallas, TX, Dr. Connor grew up around horses, but initially set her sights on going to medical school to study human medicine. Her undergraduate studies started at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, before she transferred back to her home state of Texas to graduate in 2006 with honors from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical science and minors in chemistry and business.

After conducting a Master’s level research project on the effects of social stress on an animal model of multiple sclerosis, Dr. Connor broadened her horizons and moved to New York. While in New York, Dr. Connor spent three years as a research analyst and junior stock trader at a New York-based hedge fund.  On her weekends, Dr. Connor volunteered at a therapeutic riding program in Brooklyn, NY, where she taught riding lessons to children, adults, and veterans.  It was during her time volunteering at the therapeutic riding program, that Dr. Connor realized she wanted a career where she was able to help both people and animals. Ultimately, this passion lead her back to Texas where she attended four years of veterinary school at Texas A&M University.

Here’s the rest of Dr. Connor’s story

What led you to an internship at PBEC?

In veterinary medicine, unlike human medicine, it is optional to complete an internship after graduation before going into practice. It’s estimated that by completing an equine internship, because of the high caseload and number of hours worked, you gain anywhere from three to five years of experience.  Because I was a non-traditional vet student, with a career before I started vet school, I really wanted to jumpstart my career so I could become an experienced veterinarian quickly.  I felt that completing an internship was a good investment of my time, so I could get those additional hours of mentorship and become a excellent veterinarian. I considered many of the best practices in the country, mostly in California and Colorado, when searching for an internship.  I met Dr. Swerdlin at an American Association of Equine Practitioners conference in Las Vegas two years ago and he invited me to come to Palm Beach Equine Clinic for a visit. I fell in love with the practice and the people, and felt the internship offered a good balance of autonomy to act as a doctor while still providing mentorship for a young veterinarian. One thing that’s unique about PBEC is that we have a full staff of technicians day and night so I knew, as an intern, I would be able to rest in the evenings so I could focus my time on learning and becoming a good veterinarian.  In some practices, interns are expected to act as a doctor during the day, but at night they are required to come to the hospital to feed horses, cleaning stalls, or administer simple medications which could be done by a technician. Another big motivation for me was that we have so many doctors to collaborate with. During the peak of season, there are roughly 40 doctors here to learn and gain experience from. I was also impressed with the very diverse case load that comes into PBEC. Those are some of the reasons I joined PBEC as an intern in July 2017.

Dr. Marilyn Connor speaking at a Lunch & Learn during the 2018 Winter Equestrian Festival. Photo by Jump Media
Dr. Marilyn Connor speaking at a Lunch & Learn during the 2018 Winter Equestrian Festival. Photo by Jump Media.

What is your experience with horses outside of being a veterinarian?

I like to say that I was riding horses since before I was born. My mom had horses and she rode while she was pregnant with me. When I was eight I got my first horse and rode western; mostly trails, pleasure, and a little bit of barrels, until I was twelve. Then I switched over to English riding and showed in both the Hunter and Jumper divisions until I was 18 and left for college. I didn’t have the means to bring a horse with me to school, so there was a period of about two years when I was only riding when I would come home.

During my sophomore year of college, I got a job at a barn exercising and training first and second-level dressage horses.  Later in college, I had a friend who did competitive endurance racing and she had some spare horses that she needed ridden in competition so I did that and it’s something that I stayed with until today. As you can see, I have just about done it all when it comes to riding.  I also have trained young horses and taught riding lessons since I was about 15 years old.  After college, I spent some time teaching at a therapeutic riding center and this was one of the things that ultimately made me realize I wanted to be an equine veterinarian so that I could help both horses and the people that love them.

What is your typical day like at PBEC?

One of the things I love about being a veterinarian, is that no two days are the same! Most days, I come into the hospital first thing in the morning to, physical examinations and treatments on my hospitalized patients that are staying at PBEC.  On some days, I manage anesthesia for the surgeries taking place at the clinic, so I must make sure the patient is physically healthy enough to handle anesthesia and undergo surgery.  I then administer a combination of medications to induce and maintain them under general anesthesia for the surgery. I monitor them throughout the procedure and stay with them until they have fully recovered after surgery and are able to stand up and walk back to their stall.  I am happy to report I will be staying on at Palm Beach Equine as an associate, so I am working on developing my client base within the clinic.  now I make farm calls to see my patients and I also seeing many of the call-in appointments for routine veterinary care as well as daytime emergencies such as when people discover their horse has an injury or is sick. I have taken continuing education courses that are specific on dentistry, so I also see patients that require dental care such as having their teeth floated.  I am also certified in veterinary chiropractic, so that’s another service that I bring to the clinic.

What’s your favorite kind of case to work on?

I like so many things about my job, but I really like helping my clients to maximize the health of their horses through nutrition, wellness care, and preventative medicine.  I also like working with lameness in horses; diagnosing orthopedic conditions and treating them with a combination of traditional joint injections, regenerative medicine, rehabilitation, and alternative medicine. It’s very rewarding to help my equine patients to be able to do their job at a high level and stay sound.  I also enjoy working with clients to understand things they can do to prevent their horse from needing those kind of interventions later on in life.

I do a lot of the veterinary care for the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center, which PBEC supports.  It is very rewarding to be able to give back to a cause that is important to me, but now in a different capacity as a veterinarian.

What do you enjoy most about working for PBEC?

One thing I enjoy about working at PBEC is that we are well-equipped with the most advanced technology and equipment rarely offered outside of a university setting.  We have an amazing hospital facility, top quality surgeons, the latest in regenerative medicine, and the most advanced diagnostic tools including radiography, MRI, nuclear scintigraphy and our new Computed Tomography (CT) machine, which very few practices have.  As a doctor, it is amazing to have every tool at my disposal, so I can provide the best quality veterinary care for my patients.  But I think my favorite thing about working at PBEC and what really makes us unique as a practice is that we have an exceptional team of doctors with different backgrounds and slightly different skill sets.  While every doctor essentially operates autonomously within the practice, it is still one big team. I have so many doctors I can call day or night if I am stumped on a case or need assurance that the treatment plan is appropriate. At PBEC we always collaborate to provide the best quality care for our patients.

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