“We’re All Horse People.” How Purina’s Specialized Research Benefits Horses Everywhere

Feeding time at Hilltop Farm

By Tyler Bui

It takes a village to create and maintain the equine athletes in equestrian sports. There are so many factors that play a role in the development of an animal, but proper nutrition is one of the crucial—if sometimes overlooked—keys to success.

Purina Animal Nutrition is one of the nation’s top providers of animal feed and supplements, and their company recognizes the importance of maintaining true relationships with their customers, no matter how large or small the operation may be. Purina values partnerships and collaborations with horse owners to further their research and development of equine nutrition, always looking to unlock the greatest potential of each animal. 

Hilltop Farm is owned by Jane MacElree and located in northern Maryland. The farm offers stallion services, mare management, and world-class training at their 400-acre facility that’s home to over 75 horses. Natalie DiBerardinis, Managing Director and Michael Bragdell, Training Director, are two of the farm’s leaders. Michael is also a Purina Ambassador. Together, they work with Purina to not only develop the best feeding program for their horses, but to also contribute to the research and creation of future Purina feeds and supplements. 

Taking stock of the Purina feed in the grain room. Photo © Stacy Lynne Photography

Robert Jacobs, Ph.D., is Purina’s Equine Innovation Manager. In his role, he oversees the research and new product development that is conducted at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, a state-of-the-art nutritional research farm outside of St. Louis, MO. In addition to managing the horse care for over 80 horses, he is in constant communication with Purina’s technical team, marketing group, supply chain team, and production plants as they work to develop new research trials, analyze data, and formulate new products. 

“It’s really about helping horses. We often hear from horse owners about how our products have helped their horses,” says Jacobs. “That is so incredibly rewarding because the reach of Purina changes the lives of a million horses in the blink of an eye—that’s such a powerful thing.”

DiBernadinis and Jacobs checking on two of the horses at Hilltop Farm. Photo © Stacy Lynne Photography

“I Always Wanted to Understand Horses”

Jacobs knew he wanted to pursue a career with animals from a young age, but thought his options were limited to becoming a veterinarian. It wasn’t until he was completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida that he realized there were career options in the equine industry other than in the veterinary field. 

“I always wanted to understand horses. The horse lives in this really interesting place as they are managed as livestock animals but they are generally treated like pets, so I got into equine research with some phenomenal professors who were willing to mentor me,” says Jacobs. “The ability to impact a person’s life through dealing with the horse was always something that was really interesting to me as well, and is something that I appreciate.”

Jacobs made the decision to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Florida in equine reproductive physiology. Following graduation, he completed his PhD. at Virginia Tech, again focusing heavily on reproductive physiology—specifically how nutrition impacts reproduction.

Unbeknownst to him, Jacobs developed a relationship with someone who would play a large role in his career down the road at Purina. During the first year of his PhD. program, he spent time at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension (MARE) Center, involved in their Warmblood breeding program where he met DiBerardinis, who he would later work closely with once he began his career at Purina. 

“I have always loved what they do at Hilltop Farm. It’s a phenomenal place,” he says. “They are the peak of what a facility like that should be, and they’re supportive of all different types of programs. In my role at Purina, I have the opportunity to work closely with Natalie [DiBerardinis] and her whole team, helping with any of the nutritional issues that they have with any of their horses, whether they be the young horses, or the performance horses.”

Hilltop Farm is currently home to over 75 horses, ranging in age from two months to 25 years. In training, they have a mix of young, green horses to Grand Prix dressage horses. Their staff is a diverse team of managers, trainers, grooms, stable hands, grounds crew, and young horse and broodmare specialists. The property is fitted with indoor and outdoor riding arenas, a galloping track, ample grass turnout, and hills and trails for riding. 

“For me, it’s the ideal place that I would want my young horse to grow up in to become a performance horse. For their mental soundness and even their physical soundness, it’s important to get out of the ring,” says Bragdell. “You build that trust and it’s great for their minds. It’s so important for them to want to come back into the ring and work.”

The animals at Hilltop Farm are a mix of client-owned horses, sale horses, and Hilltop-owned horses. Some clients may bring their young horse to Hilltop for training to become their next riding horse, while others bring their horses to the farm specifically to sell offspring. 

“The stallions are probably the best known component for the farm, as it’s one of the few farms that really serves as a stallion station for both our own stallions as well as client stallions,” says DiBerardinis. “It’s also one of the few farms that has stallions competing at the highest levels. We feel like the stallions can and should compete at the highest levels but also have a balance in their life where they can still be available for breeders while they’re at the peak of their career, instead of only after they retire from sport.”

Hilltop began feeding Purina products to their horses in 2007, after doing their own research into the brand which offers the wide range of feed they needed. 

“An important attribute we were seeking when considering which feed company we wanted to work with was the availability of different feeds within one brand for the different life stages of the horses on the farm,” says DiBerardinis. “Nutrition is the key to growing our young horses, but it’s just as important for our performance horses and breeding stock because they all have different nutritional needs.” 

Purina ambassador Michael Bragdell in the show ring. Photo © Stacy Lynne Photography

Collaboration for the Greater Good

Hilltop’s first collaboration began with a special case: A newly imported horse who was having trouble putting on the expected muscle and weight. The farm reached out to Purina and was put into direct contact with one of the nutritionists who came out to the farm, saw the horse in person, and evaluated their feeding program, and the horse became part of one of their trial studies. From there, Purina has conducted various other research at Hilltop. 

The farm’s broodmares have been milked by the Purina research team in order to perform nutritional analysis aimed at better understanding the nutritional profile of a mare’s milk at different stages of lactation. During analysis, they looked at how Hilltop’s horses are managed differently than at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, and how the different styles affect nutrition. Purina also did work with a milk replacer that was fed to foals as a supplemental bottle to see if it had any impact on behavior and growth. Hilltop helped Purina by participating in field trial research for multiple products: Purina(R) Ultium(R) Gastric Care, Purina® Outlast(R) Gastric Support Supplement, and Purina(R) RepleniMash™ product. 

Hilltop also played a major role in the development of Purina’s updated horse weight tape. The weight tape is based on data that had been collected at Purina’s research farm for years; however, the problem was that the data was largely based on Quarter Horses who tend to be smaller in size than Warmbloods. Using Hilltop’s horses along with other horses around the country, Jacobs was able to take enough measurements to gather the data points needed to develop a weight tape that is predictive of the weights of larger horses. 

“One of the keys for Jane at Hilltop was to always have an education-based focus and a broad collaborative view of things we can do better,” says DiBerardinis. “That core philosophy seems to be quite aligned between Purina and Hilltop.”

Looking ahead, Hilltop Farm and Purina plan to continue collaborating to create the most innovative, custom nutrition plans for every single type of horse in the industry. 

“Trust is something that’s built over time. When I was first invited to the Purina research farm, it was clear to me that it’s a great group of professionals out there,” says Bragdell. “It’s very much research-based, but it also has an underlying family feel. We’re constantly conversing on how to make horses feel and look better, and they’re always listening. There’s always more resources and research they have to offer.” 

Purina recognizes the hard work, dedication, and time that each and every horse owner puts into their animals. While it takes much more than just one factor to maintain a horse’s peak condition and performance, nutrition plays a massive role in their success and health, and Purina strives to offer the highest quality and variety of nutritional solutions possible for their customers. 

“We’re all horse people. We all love horses and live horses every day,” says Jacobs. “What we make and the quality of what we make are important to us because we’re feeding it to our horses, too. The love of horses that all of our customers have, that love is shared by the people at Purina.” 

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

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