PURINA: Demystifying Your Horse’s Nutritional Needs

Dr. Mary Beth Gordon and her horse, Ronbjerg’s Ma Ranelli, enjoying some connection and treats. Photo © Sophia Donahue

How cutting-edge science, research, and innovation set the brand’s feed and supplements apart

By Tyler Bui 

Equine nutrition is constantly evolving, and the number of nutritional products available to horse owners only continues to grow. While supplements and specialized feeds are common practice, do most people in the equine industry really know what they’re feeding their horses? 

From horses to cattle to companion animals, Purina Animal Nutrition is known for its wide range of feed options and supplements. Mary Beth Gordon, Ph.D, is the Senior Director of Equine Technical Innovation at Purina. She is a driving force behind the research and creation of these specialized products, and has been with the company for the past 17 years. 

Gordon began riding horses at age ten, and has extensive experience in the hunter/jumper, dressage, and eventing disciplines. She graduated from Delaware Valley University with a degree in Animal Science, but following graduation decided to pursue a career as an equine professional. After riding, training, and teaching for several years, Gordon went back to school and received her master’s degree in secondary science education. She later attended Rutgers University where she earned her Ph.D. in their Equine Nutrition and Exercise Physiology Program. 

Gordon’s goal was to become a university professor; however, one of her own professors encouraged her to look into a nutritionist role at Purina. Hesitantly, she decided to give it a shot. 

“It took one day at the research farm and I was sold, completely sold,” says Gordon. “Just being there for one day and seeing the capability and the commitment, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I got hired in 2005 with Purina and I said to myself I would stay for 10 years then start my own company. Well, it’s been 17 years, and I still love it.” 

“We have 1,200 acres in Gray Summit, Missouri,” she adds. “On the farm, there are 80 horses that we do our nutritional research with at Purina. We have broodmares, foals, growing horses, mature horses, senior horses, you name it.” 

A morning walk at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center

The horses at the research farm are all owned by Purina, with the majority being Quarter Horses, accompanied by a small group of off-track Thoroughbreds. 

“The reason we have mostly Quarter Horses is that we’ve been breeding there for over 50 years and we replace our own herd as they get older and we retire them,” says Gordon. “Owning all these horses gives us a very uniform group so we know their genetics, we know their breeding. It helps us with our scientific studies to have those controlled groups of horses.”

As the Senior Director of Equine Technical Innovation, Gordon oversees the equine research and Ph.D. technical teams. 

“We take care of all of the new product development, getting the products to market, the research that goes into it, and everything we need to do to help support that product,” says Gordon. “We take a massive amount of pride in our research and what we do. Purina has incredible breadth and depth of research, and our incredible facilities are the heart of everything that we do.” 

Ruby living her best life, participating in a palatability trial for a new feed

Within Gordon’s team of employees, the research group is led by Robert Jacobs, Ph.D., who serves as Equine Innovation Manager. His expertise includes equine nutrition and reproductive physiology. Jacobs works full-time at the research farm overseeing other researchers as well as the team that cares for the horses. For the technical group, Karen Davidson, Ph.D, is the Director, Nutritionist of Equine Technical Solutions. She is joined by three other Ph.Ds who support the sales force, do formulation work, conduct field trials, and educate horse owners and veterinarians about Purina products, while providing sound nutritional guidance and advice. 

“Nutrition has always fascinated me,” says Gordon. “I remember putting the grain into the cart as a kid, feeding it to the horses, and looking at it thinking, ‘What goes into all this stuff?’ I’ve always had a natural inclination to understand my own nutritional health – you name a way of eating and I’ve probably tried it. Nutrition intrigues me so much because while we know some things, nutritional science is actually a very young science. Depending on how you feed yourself, hydrate yourself, and exercise, and how you feed and hydrate and exercise your horse, it absolutely can make a huge difference in their life.”

Employee Mike Jerina, checking in on some horses at the Equine Research Facility in Missouri. Photo © Sophia Donahue

In today’s market, there is an endless amount of feed and supplements to choose from. But how do you know what actually works? While a product may include ingredients beneficial for horses, the quantity and quality of those ingredients, and the lifestyle of the horse, are all factors that must be carefully considered for the product to truly make a difference. Gordon created a concept called the “Test R.I.D.E.” as a way to evaluate feed and supplements. 

“R.I.D.E. stands for research, ingredients, dose and efficacy,” says Gordon. “It’s become one of our core philosophies at Purina because it’s a great way to build a supplement. It’s a great way to build a feed. It’s really our job as nutritionists to try to get the right feed for the right purpose and instruct you to feed it at the right amount.”

No day is the same at Purina’s research farm—at any given time, there are multiple research projects at various stages of testing. In 2021, two products were launched as part of Purina’s Omega Match® Line after four years of research by Gordon’s team. 

“People love Omega-3 Fatty Acids—I was looking into where horses get Omega-3 Fatty Acids in nature, and a lot of people don’t realize the number one source of Omega-3s in a horse’s diet is from fresh pasture,” says Gordon. “When a horse is out eating grass 24/7, they’ll take in over 150 grams of Omega-3s per day. But a lot of times, Omega supplements only have 10 grams or 20 grams in it.”

Gordon was determined to develop a product to provide horses with more Omega-3 fatty acids to rival the amount they would be getting from 24/7 turnout. She began creating feed in her own kitchen, using ground timothy pellets and flaxseed.  

“We took it to the research farm, put it in our formulation system, and built it out. We took a group of horses in individual stalls and dry lots and fed them the Omega Match product. After, we took blood samples and measurements over a series of several weeks and looked at how the Omega-3 fatty acid values in their blood. We compared it to horses that are out eating pasture and found that we could match them,” says Gordon. 

After years of careful research, the Omega Match® Line has been perfected to provide horses with an optimal amount of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. 

A project that is currently being researched at the farm is their Microbiome Project, known as MQ™ and any horse owner is able to participate in the project and contribute to the Purina database as they learn more about horses’ gut health.

“In and around your body, you have bacteria, especially in your gut, that breaks down your food, helping to support your immune system, and providing nutrients to your body and horse’s body. In the horse’s gut, they have billions of bacteria that are these good bugs,” says Gordon. “You can affect the microbiome by what you feed the animal or if it gets antibiotics.”

Carefully measuring out the Omega MatchTM Ration Balancer at feeding time. Photo © Sophia Donahue

“One of the things with horses is that when they eat, it has to get through about 70-plus feet of small intestine,” she adds. “Then you get to the cecum where the majority of all these bugs are. Is that little scoop of probiotics that you gave getting all the way down to the digestive tract where it needs to be? We’ve been doing that research now for several years. We sequence your horse’s microbiome so we know the bugs that are there, then we do all kinds of research to figure out what feed will affect the microbiome to support the horse’s health. It’s a very long process, but we hope to have our first product in market within the next few years.”

Looking ahead, Gordon and her team aim to continue to develop the most innovative and effective products for equine nutrition. She says that research is so imperative given that equine nutrition is a young science, and that the nutritional requirements for horses are not as clear cut as other species. 

“I would like a way for nutrition to be simplified for horse owners,” says Gordon. “While we have to think about the horse as Mother Nature intended, we also have this modern sporthorse that we’re trying to feed like an athlete. How do I stay true to the horse’s nature, but then how do I feed them like an athlete and get the best of both worlds?” 

In the feed industry, Purina’s research team truly stands out. With the latest tech-
nology, the carefully selected herd, and top scientists, they are able to provide top of the line nutrition to nourish horses with feed tailored to their genetics, age, and lifestyle.

“It’s our commitment to research every single day. It’s the people that come to that farm every day, feed those horses, foal out our mares in the middle of the night, and they all have the same passion that I do,” says Gordon. “It’s the research but it’s also the innovative mindset. We’re all horse people ourselves, it’s who we are. It’s what we do. And that’s really what sets us apart.”  

Want to participate in the Microbiome Project?

Purina has received over 4,000 samples and is looking for more. Sign up to receive a kit at:

*This story was originally published in the July 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!