Tag Archives: horses

  • Vitamin A

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    This month we will begin a series examining the function of vitamins in the health and well-being of horses.  We will also discuss natural sources of vitamins which occur in the horse’s normal feed, as well as different forms which are offered in supplements.  Finally, we will look at the latest research on vitamins in equine nutrition.  Unfortunately, there is a paucity of information regarding vitamin requirements in the equine.  While recommended  intakes have been established for vitamins A, D, E, thiamin and riboflavin, all others essentially fall into the category of educated guesses.  Often equine nutritionists must rely on published information in other species, and extrapolate that to the equine.  These suppositions may or may not be valid, but often allow the only approach available.

     

    (If we were feeding these two hays, you would most likely need to supplement your horse with vitamin A if you were feeding the discolored hay.)

    We will begin with a discussion of the fat soluble vitamins in a horse’s diet, in particular vitamin A.  The fat soluble vitamins will be absorbed out of the gut of the horse along with the lipid component of the diet.  While that may seem odd considering that horses naturally consume a very low amount of lipid in an all forage diet, remember that plant cells do contain waxes, sterols and other compounds that are soluble in ether.   Even hay will typically contain around 2-3% crude fat on a DM basis.

    While many of us know these fat soluble vitamins as their familiar names of vitamin A, D, E and K, we may not be as familiar with their scientific nomenclature.    Vitamin A falls into the sub group of trans-retinols.  Vitamin A, or retinol, serves a host of functions in the body, far beyond the traditional role of assisting in night vision.  Vitamin A is also involved in gene expression, reproduction, embryological development and immune function.  Metabolically, retinol can be converted to either retinal or irreversibly to retinoic acid.  While retinal plays a role in vision, retinoic acid is more active in epithelial cells health, anti-oxidant function  and gene expression.  As retinol cannot be stored by itself in the body, it is stored in animal tissues as retinyl palmitate, or retinol linked by an ester bond to palmitic acid.  In supplements, vitamin A typically is provided as retinyl-acetate or retinyl palmitate.  In the intestine, retinyl  palmitate is cleaved to just retinol.  In the natural equine diet, horses primarily receive vitamin A as carotenoids,  which are precursors to vitamin A synthesis in the body.   The functional carotenoids include alpha, beta and gamma carotene, as well as beta cryptoxanthin.  Of these beta carotene provides the highest vitamin A activity.   Beta carotene is cleaved into two, to form retinal.  The rate of conversion of beta carotene to vitamin A is actually dependent on vitamin A status, and will decrease if vitamin A intake is sufficient.    Thus, no direct conversion ratio is actually appropriate, as the individual animal’s vitamin status alters its conversion rate.  Additionally, as beta carotene intake increases, the rate of conversion to vitamin A may decrease, at least has been proved to do so in other species.  Beta carotene is thus considered a very safe form of supplementation, as no toxicities have been linked to beta carotene consumption.  Animals will decrease the conversion to vitamin A, thus avoiding toxicities.

    With that said, we can attempt to generalize the biological activity of the different forms of vitamin A.  For instance, .3 micrograms of all trans-retinol is equivalent to 1 IU, or international unit, of vitamin A.  In the conversion of beta carotene to vitamin A, differing values are used for equine diets.  Original estimates were 400 IU of vitamin A are created for every mg of beta carotene consumed.  However, beta-carotene may have a different conversion  rate between life stages of the equine.  In brood mares, an estimate of 555 IU for every mg of beta carotene is used, while it is presumed to be only 333 IU of vitamin A per mg of beta carotene in growing horses.  While this conversion data is actually extrapolated from studies in rats, it does appear to be reflected in horses.   Mares kept on the same pastures as yearlings had higher serum retinol concentrations than the yearlings, while the yearlings had higher serum beta carotene concentrations.  This does indicate that the mares were more efficient in converting beta carotene to retinol.

    Natural sources of vitamin A are higher in fresh, growing forages, and are associated with the bright green color in hay.  Many horse owners associate the bright color of corn with a substantial amount of vitamin A, but it actuality it contains only about 6 mg/kg of DM of beta carotene.  Concentrations of beta carotene in hay can range as much as only 30 mg/kg of DM to as much as 380 mg/kg of beta carotene.   Thus, corn, is typically much lower in beta carotene activity than hay.  Typically, the content of beta carotene is reflected in the quality of the hay.  What we typically call low quality hay, that of excessive maturity, lengthy storage, rain damaged, sun exposure etc. will be potentially deficient in vitamin A.  The type of the hay also influences vitamin A content.  Legume hays not only have higher concentrations of vitamin A, but it may be more available as well.    We can do a quick calculation using an intermediate conversion number of 400 IU of Vitamin A/mg of beta carotene and the range of beta carotene seen in hays.  Per kg, forage can vary from 1200 IU of vitamin A per kg, to as much as 152,000 IU per kg of hay.  The requirement for vitamin A for a maintenance horse is recommended to be 30 IU/kg of bwt. Thus our 500 kg horse is would need 15,000 IU per day.  Assuming he was eating 2% of his body weight in a low vitamin A forage (typically mature  ), he would be receiving only 12,000 IU per day, which would be short of his requirement. Horses which were fed a low quality forage with no grain supplementation were depleted of their vitamin A stores within two months.  Comparatively, horses which had access to pasture at the same time experienced no change in vitamin A.  Therefore, horses on fresh pasture, or more brightly colored forage would easily meet his vitamin A requirement and should need little supplementation.  A horse eating a high quality forage may actually be receiving the equivalent of 1,520,000 IU of vitamin A!  While this may seem excessive, remember, the horse will essentially decrease the rate of vitamin A synthesis from the beta carotene in the diet.

     

    (Despite its bright appearance, corn offers relatively little beta carotene compared to forages)

    Many horse owners are also interested in the synthetic vitamin A which may be found in feeds, and how that compares with the natural carotenoids.  A water soluble, synthetic beta carotene was not able to support vitamin A status to the similar extent seen in naturally occurring beta carotenoids, or in comparison to retinyl palmitate.  This may be similar to trials even in humans, where water soluble supplements were not as beneficial as fat soluble.  However, an alternative synthetic beta carotene source was able to increase blood concentrations in of beta carotene in the horse.  Thus subtle differences in chemical composition may be key.  Retinyl esters, or retinol attached  by an ester bond to either short chain or long chain fatty acids, are also used in equine diets.  Again, these represent the similar form to how retinol is found in the actual animals body.  Due to their increased stability both retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate have been used in feeds which allow for longer storage.  If we look at these two sourced, retinyl acetate offers .344 micrograms for each  IU while .550 micrograms of retinyl palmitate is needed for 1 IU of vitamin A.

     

    (Retinyl palmitate.  The storage form of retinol in animal tissues, as well as a common supplement in animal feeds.)

    So how much vitamin A should a horse consume? The original information provided concerning vitamin A requirements was obtained as the concentration needed to prevent the classical deficiency diseases. Deficiencies of vitamin A are actually quite hard to produce, at least as the classical symptoms of vitamin A deficiency diseases are known.  These include night blindness, hair loss, and ataxia.  Certainly as has been stated before, as the content of beta carotene decreases in the diet, the animal may adapt to becoming more sensitive to absorption and assimilation into the body.  Furthermore, as vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin, it can be stored in the liver and in adipose tissue, and mobilized to support peripheral tissues when the diet is insufficient.  Growing and exercising horses are recommended to receive 45 IU /kg bwt, while pregnant and lactating mares require 60 IU/kg bwt.   However, there may be a difference between the amount of vitamins in the diet to prevent deficiency diseases, compared to what is optimal for overall health and well-being.   It has been suggested that broodmares can benefit by receiving 400-500 mg per day of beta carotene in late gestation and early lactation.  This is truly the area of future research, establishing how much should be fed to offer health benefits without exceeding either the safety margin, or simply wasting money as no additional response can be seen.  Certainly fat soluble vitamins should be considered more carefully as they are also more likely to cause toxicities, as they can be stored in association with lipid, while water soluble vitamins fed in excess are typically excreted more rapidly.  Many horse owners may reach for supplements too often, with little regard to actual dietary concentrations.  Over-supplementation of vitamin A has actually been linked to developmental disorders in young horses.  However, no direct information is available to state at which exact level vitamin A can interfere with proper bone development.

    So what is the bottom line for vitamin A?  If your horse is grazing fresh growing pastures or consuming high quality, bright green hay, it is probably more than adequate in vitamin A. However, if your hay is of lower quality, or your horse does not have access to pasture, you should consider a supplement or a grain that is fortified with vitamin A. If you are concerned with toxicities, remember that beta carotene is by far a safer choice.  Perhaps some time in the future we will have better information as to what values are optimal for growth, reproduction or performance.

  • Equine Parasite Management

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    Last month we introduced you to the major internal parasites which can plague your horse. This month we will discuss management strategies that you can use to decrease the parasite load on your horse, in part through an understanding of their life cycle. We can actually use the horse’s environment to help decrease our reliance on de-wormers and do our part to aid in the battle of anthelmintic resistance.
    If you remember the life cycle of our most insidious parasite, the small strongyles, you know that the tiny infective larvae hatch from eggs outside of the horse. They then use the dew or moisture present on the grass to be able to wriggle around in the blades of grass and await your horse to come along and ingest them. Since they need this moisture as part of their life cycle and to be mobile, horses housed in stalls and dry lots are far less likely to be able to pick up infective larvae. It is pasture grazing, therefore, which is the key to the strongyles’ survival. Worm larvae will tend to be located in the thicker grass areas of the pasture and down in the thatch layer, where moisture remains longer.  The highest potential for infection will occur if your horse crops the grass close to the ground.
    If you observe horses natural feeding patterns, horses tend to graze pastures into areas of roughs and lawns. The lawns, characterized by short grasses,  are the areas which are cropped closely to the ground and the roughs, which have longer grass, are the areas where horses choose to defecate and avoid grazing. Obviously the larger the area in which horses are kept, the less likely they are to graze near infective piles of horse manure. This will decrease their chances of picking up larvae. As stocking density of the pasture increases, or vegetative growth decreases, such as in times of draught, the horses will be forced to eat nearer these thick areas of grass just teeming with swarms of larvae. If the grass becomes too short, supplemental hay should be provided to avoid forcing the horse to graze in the roughs. Additionally, the pasture can be mowed to keep the roughs from spreading further into the pasture.
    Many people employ dragging the pasture to break up manure piles and spread them through the pasture to prevent the formation of roughs. However, if you use this strategy, you must understand that you are effectively dispersing the eggs and larvae far more thoroughly than they could ever do themselves. Even on their own, larvae can spread 4 to 12 inches from their original pile, and even further if aided by heavy rainfall. Therefore, if you drag the pasture, keep the horses off the pasture for at least two weeks. Preferably the dragging should be done in the hottest part of the year in order to expose the larvae to heat and dehydration. Cool temperatures allow the larvae to survive longer, so it is not advised to drag during the spring and fall.  If you must drag in cooler weather prevent the horses from grazing for an even longer period of time. As strongyles larvae are especially hardy and can survive winter quite easily, this is really not a good strategy for trying to kill the larvae.  Finally, if you are going to spread manure on pastures as a means of disposal, never spread fresh manure. Make sure it has been thoroughly composted before applying it to your pasture.
    In an ideal world, pasture rotation allows the best management strategy to reduce strongyles infestation  in your horses. Horses grazing in fresh new pasture will avoid grazing near manure piles, and have a lower chance of re-infesting themselves. Letting pastures lie dormant will also allow any eggs or larvae present to die before horses are introduced. If space and equipment allows, putting pastures into hay production will allow parasites to die as well. Finally, if you own multiple species of animals, grazing pastures alternatively between cattle, goats and sheep will reduce your parasite burden, as the worms are host specific. Obviously all of these strategies do require a significant amount of acreage and fencing to be effective and may not work for everyone.
    Remember, for strongyles elimination, heat is your friend. Only drag pastures during the hottest part of the year, and do not allow horses back onto the pasture for at least two weeks. Use separate pastures for winter pasture and summer pasture. Remember, winter does not kill the parasites. In cooler climates, parasites will not die after emerging from their dormant state until about June, May in hotter climates. If you do have a clean pasture, before you turn horses onto it, chemical deworming can prevent parasite infestation. Horses that are dewormed should be held on dry lots for several days before turning them out. This will allow all the eggs that the mature female has deposited to pass through your horse’s digestive tract. When your horses enter their new pasture, they won’t be bringing any “friends” with them!
    What about the other parasites in your horses life other than strongyles? There are certainly management strategies which will help control their populations as well. For ascarid control, remember that these worms are primarily a problem for young horses. If possible and space allows, rotate which pastures house young horses with adult horses. However, even this may not be completely effective as ascarids can remain alive in the environment for several years. Essentially, if foals and young horses have been housed in a pasture, it is fairly likely that ascarids are present. Unfortunately, as ascarids don’t involve the same strategy for survival as strongyles, they can also infest the young horse in stalls and dry lots. This is typically why young horses are dewormed more frequently than older horses.
    Stomach bot larvae and adult fly control are unfortunately only going to be controlled through the use of anthelmentics. The adult form can fly for miles so even if you have a great deworming program, if your neighbors do not, their flies will simply fly over to your property to lay eggs on your horse.
    Tapeworms are relative newcomers when discussing parasites in horses. While not new to the horse, they are new to us, so not as much is known about them. They are believed to have a similar susceptibility to climate as the small strongyles, but may be hardier. More horses in northern climates have been exposed to tapeworms, which would indicate that these parasites are relatively cold resistant, but may have a susceptibility to heat. Therefore, follow similar management protocols as you do for small strongyles control.
    From looking at the parasites life cycle and their means of infesting horses, it is clear that horses are often dewormed more frequently than is really necessary. As anthelmintic resistance becomes a growing issue in horses, we need to understand the ways in which we can manage horses to reduce their parasite burden. Next month we will tackle the issue of anthelmintic resistance and discuss which deworming strategies might be the most correct option for your horse.

  • Obesity in Horses

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    Just like in people, many horses suffer from obesity related health issues. Overweight horses can have more trouble with joint issues, suffer from exercise intolerance and can even develop metabolic problems. While many horse owners know the risks of having an overweight horse, it may be difficult to reduce weight in these horses – certainly the horse is usually an unwilling participant!  In this article we will address management techniques and dietary strategies designed to reduce weight, but still keep the horse physically and mentally healthy.
    First of all, which horses are good candidates for losing weight? Ideally most performance horses should have a body condition score around five. Horses that are slightly overweight, or have a body condition score of 6 or 7, shouldn’t be at a great risk for health issues, but certainly will perform better at a condition score of 5 or 5 1/2. Horses above a 7 have more risk of developing health issues such as insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or even Cushings in their later years. If the horse with a high body condition score also has uneven fat distribution, he is more likely to have metabolic issues, and may even be harder to remove weight from than a horse with a more even fat distribution (personal observation). Horses that have cresty necks, substantial amounts of fat over the tailhead, enlarged abdomens and fat in the area of their mammary glands or sheath fit this category.   It is more critical for these individuals to lose weight. Now that we have identified the horses which need to lose weight, let’s address a healthy weight loss plan.
    One of the first issues to address is the quality of the horse’s forage. Ideally we will feed dieting horses harvested forage/hay, rather than pasture as it is easier to monitor their intake. Horses that are overweight will do better on mature grass hay which has less caloric density than alfalfa or alfalfa-grass mix. When selecting hay, look for more mature hays that have been cut at a later stage of growth. Typically these will be coarser stems and have seed heads present in the hay. However, when looking for lower energy hays, don’t sacrifice the overall quality of the hay – it should not contain weeds, debris, dust, mold, etc. We are just looking for fewer calories, not hay that your horse shouldn’t eat! Once we have the correct hay type, the owner will have to limit their horse’s intake. This can often be confusing, as we typically teach owners to feed based on a percentage of the horse’s body weight. However, in this case, we have a horse that weighs too much, and is consuming more hay/forage than it should. Let’s take a look at the math involved to determine how much the horse should eat.
    For an example, we will start with a 1300 lb horse who has a body condition score of 8. If we looked up this horse’s energy requirements for maintenance, it would need 19.7 Mcals per day. But that energy requirement is based on a horse that is in a lean body condition. Remember that it takes more calories to maintain metabolically active tissue like muscle than it does fat.   So even if we fed our horse at its maintenance requirement, it is still receiving too much energy for its body type. We will now assume that for every body condition score we want the horse to lose, it should lose about 45 lbs. For our 1300 lb horse, our target weight is actually closer to 1165 lbs [1300 lbs-(45lbs x 3 body condition units)]. The maintenance requirement for the lean 1165 lb horse is 17.7 Mcal per day.    Using these numbers, we will calculate out how much hay this horse would need to provide that amount of energy. For this example, I will use a grass hay of advanced maturity with a caloric density of .86 Mcal/lb as fed. The amount of hay the horse would consume using our 19.7 Mcal figure would be 23 lbs of hay (19.7 Mcal/0.86 Mcal/lb), while the horse would receive 20.6 lbs of hay if we intend to provide 17.7 Mcal (17.7 Mcal/ 0.86 Mcal/lb). Let’s compare that with the standard feeding guidelines for horses based on body weight. If the target weight of our horse is 1165 lbs, and we fed at 2% of the target body weight, our horse would receive 23 lbs of hay. That certainly wouldn’t work because that would provide enough calories to maintain his current weight of 1300 lbs! So how much do we need to reduce his hay intake? If we feed the horse at 1.75% of its target body weight, the horse would receive 20.4 lbs of hay per day. However, even feeding at this rate will probably not get us to their target weight. Therefore, in order to really achieve weight loss in our horse, we should probably feed closer to 1.5 % of the horse’s target weight. That means our horse would only be eating 17.5 lbs of hay per day. For the horse owner, this means that in order to successfully achieve weight loss, we need to get a scale out to the barn, and physically weigh out the amount of hay the horse will consume in one day. While this may be time consuming, it is the most accurate technique to deliver the correct and consistent amount of calories.
    Now let’s talk about some other practical issues. A horse that is only consuming 1.5% of its target body weight is going to have some “free time” that it is not used to having. We need to provide mental stimulation for this horse or it may development unwanted stereotypies such as cribbing or wood chewing. Continual stalling would not be ideal as this will certainly lead to a great deal of boredom and frustration. If possible, the horse should be kept in a dry lot (free access to pasture certainly won’t help!) with secure fencing. Do not underestimate the horse’s ability to get through the fence to graze! Also, providing other horses with which to interact, stable toys, etc. will help relieve boredom. If you find your horse finishing his meals too quickly, putting the hay in a hay net which is tightly woven may also slow down his rate of intake and alleviate boredom. While these strategies may sound tedious, it is important in order to improve the overall health of your horse.
    Next month we will continue to discuss the dietary needs of a horse in a weight loss program, as well as how to safely use an exercise program to encourage weight loss.
  • A Tale of Two Mares

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    All photography© 2011-2012, Barbara O'Brien

    My most recent horse rescues are two lovely Morgan mares that came from a Pennsylvania horse auction widely known to be attended by large-scale slaughter brokers. Fortunately, a sales broker who works with the group Forever Morgans, purchased them. Forever Morgans' mission is to find good homes for horses that would have most likely ended up on a slaughter truck.
    The first mare, Laurel, arrived in the summer of 2011. She was a 16 year old mare that had been an Amish carthorse. When she arrived, she still had on a full set of driving shoes, which we quickly pulled to let her just be a horse. Although, she had a lovely temperament, she didn’t really understand being a pet. She didn’t know what apples or carrots were and did not understand why we would just come into the pasture and brush her for no particular reason. It took awhile but she soon began to realize that she had a new life here, full of lazy days in the pasture with lots of treats and kind words.
    In December of 2011 we rescued, again through Forever Morgans, a 17 year old mare we call Ivy. She had had some success in the show world and then had been sold to the Amish to be a carthorse and broodmare. She had been run trough the auction with her six month old filly who was sold separately and unfortunately did not make it. She was a flashy big bay with a graceful long neck and big expressive eyes. When I rode her, it felt like I was going like a freight train, but her trot was as smooth as silk. Remembering her early life as a show horse, she was appreciative of the treats and good food and lots of love so she settled quickly into her new life with us.
    The winter of 2012 was mild here in Wisconsin and passed without a fight. Laurel did well all winter. With her heavy winter coat, and 24/7 access to hay she gained weight quickly and was looking good. But, no matter how much grain and hay I fed Ivy she did not seem to be gaining as quickly I would have liked.
    Even though she was ribby, I noticed her belly getting wider and wider. It was then I suspected that she may be pregnant, but no… that couldn’t be. She was sold as open (not bred) so she couldn’t be pregnant… could she? So I increased her feed just in case and kept an eye on her to see how she progressed.
    I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when on April 1st, I noticed the first signs of eminent foaling. She was all bagged up, meaning her udder was developing in order to nurse a foal. I was happy and excited. We had not had a foal around for years. How fun to have a surprise one and most likely a purebred Morgan at that! I prepared a stall for her and began the waiting game.
    After many restless nights spent checking on her every few hours, on April 10 she had a beautiful, healthy bay colt. As a firm believer in imprinting newborn foals (the practice of familiarizing a newborn foal with humans) I spent the next few hours carefully touching every part of his silky soft body and tiny little hooves.
    Ivy proved to be an excellent mother and it was evident that she had done this many times before. She was calm and let me handle the foal with no sign of nervousness or stress. We decided to name the foal Quincy, as it seemed to suit the friendly colt’s exuberant personality.
    Laurel, who was in the paddock with Ivy all along, proved to be an excellent auntie. She gave Ivy plenty of space with the foal but stayed near enough to make her and Quincy feel safe as part of a herd. When Quincy was a little older he naturally, as colts do, began to pester Laurel. She, being the good-natured mare that she was, would gently reprimand him and teach him important horse manners.
    One morning when Quincy was about a month old, I was surprised to find Laurel missing. Ivy and Quincy greeted me like usual, but Laurel was nowhere to be found. There had been a thunderstorm the night before and I checked the fence to see if she was frightened by something and ran off but it was working just fine. It was then I found her behind the barn. She was covered in mud and in obvious pain. She grunted and rolled and I knew right away we were dealing with a bad case of colic. Horses cannot burp or release excess gas through their mouths and so whenever they get a stomachache or a blockage it needs to go through their whole system. I called the vet and then went back and got Laurel up and began to walk her. Walking helps get their systems moving again. There was nothing to do now but wait.
    When our vet, Dr. Tom, arrived he treated her with medication to ease her pain and help her muscles relax. We also tubed her with mineral oil to ease her digestion. We were instructed to keep an eye on her and see if her symptoms and her pain subsided. Laurel's condition turned out to be what was most likely torsion colic or a twisted gut, a much more serious case, where part of the gut gets twisted, like a kink in a garden hose. We planned on giving her the night to allow the mineral oil to work but when I went to check on her about 8:00 that evening she was thrashing in her stall. My heart sank as I realized Laurel was not going to recover, and it became clear to me what I had to do. I called Dr. Tom and asked him to come out and put her down, as she was suffering and I knew she wasn’t gong to recover. I went back out and led her out onto the grass to wait for Dr. Tom. It was then I let out a short sob, which startled Laurel and even in her pain she leaned her head into me as if to say are you ok? Her attention made me cry even harder. She was finding it hard to walk so I just stood with her, and a moment later she lay down in the cool spring grass. She was breathing heavily as I knelt down and stroked her head. “You can go now,” I said. “You can go.” With that, Laurel looked at me one last time, her eyes soft and warm. She heaved a last big sigh, and then she was gone. I wept while I petted her, not wanting to leave her, but I knew I must Tell Dr. Tom that he did not have to come after all. I finally went inside, thinking how courteous she was, saving Tom a trip in the dark night and me an additional vet bill.
    The next morning, I let Ivy and Quincy out into the paddock. They quickly realized that Laurel was gone. Ivy called for her but after awhile, she went back to eating her hay.
    I noticed Laurel’s grooming kit with the extra soft brush for her face and the empty hook where I hung her halter and I began to cry again for my poor mare. As all animal lovers can attest, it is never easy to lose the one you love.
    While I openly wept for my beautiful mare, I tried to console myself that Laurel had a good life here. There was always food, there was always pasture, there was no work or a harsh smack from a whip, and there was plenty of attention from children, who were only too happy to brush her coat and comb her mane. I had to tell myself that at least we did what we could for her and both our lives were better for having found each other.
    At that moment, I felt something come up behind me and nibble on my shirt. It was little Quincy, trying to get my attention. He jumped and snorted as I turned and then came up to me again, cheerfully demanding to be scratched and fussed over.
    Hey, I’m still here. He seemed to be saying. You still have me to love. And that is just what I am going to do.

  • A Simple Statement

    Written By Julia Edwards-Dake

    I ride. That seems like such a simple statement. However as many women who ride know it is really a complicated matter. It has to do with power and empowerment. Being able to do things one might have considered out of reach or ability. I have considered this as I shovel manure, fill water barrels in the cold rain, wait for the vet/farrier/electrician/hay delivery, change a tire on a horse trailer on the side of the freeway or cool a gelding out before getting down to the business of drinking a cold beer after a long ride.

    The time, the money, the effort it takes to ride calls for dedication. At least I call it dedication. Both my ex-husbands call it ‘the sickness’. It is a sickness I’ve had since I was a small girl bouncing my model horses and dreaming of the day I would ride a real horse. Most of the women I ride with understand the meaning of ‘the sickness’. It’s not a sport. It’s not a hobby. It’s what we do and, in some ways, who we are as women and human beings.

    I ride. I hook up my trailer and load my gelding. I haul to some trailhead somewhere, unload, saddle, whistle up my dog and I ride. I breathe in the air, watch the sunlight filter through the trees and savor the movement of my horse. My shoulders relax. A smile rides my sunscreen smeared face. I pull my ball cap down and let the real world fade into the tracks my horse leaves in the dust.

    Time slows. Flying insects buzz loudly, looking like fairies. My gelding flicks his ears and moves down the trail. I can smell his sweat and it is perfume to my senses. Time slows. The rhythm of the walk and the movement of the leaves become my focus. My saddle creaks and the leather rein in my hand softens with the warmth.

    I consider the simple statement; I ride. I think of all I do because I ride. Climb granite slabs, wade into a freezing lake, race a friend through the manzanita all the while laughing and feeling my heart in my chest. Other days just the act of mounting and dismounting can be a real accomplishment. Still I ride, no matter how tired or how much my seat bones or any of the numerous horse related injuries hurt. I ride. And I feel better for doing so.

    The beauty I’ve seen because I ride amazes me. I’ve ridden out to find lakes that remain, for the most part, unseen. Caves, dark and cold, beside rivers full and rolling are the scenes I see in my dreams. The Granite Staircase at Echo Summit, bald eagles on the wing and bobcats on the prowl add to the empowerment and joy in my heart.

    I think of the people, mostly women, I’ve met because I ride. I consider how competent they all are. Not a weenie among the bunch. We haul 40 foot rigs, we back into tight spaces without clipping a tree. We set up camp. Tend the horses. Cook and keep safe. We understand and love our companions; the horse. We respect each other and those we encounter on the trail. We know that if you are out there riding, you also shovel, fill, wait, and doctor. Your hands are a little rough and you travel without makeup or hair gel. You do without to afford ‘the sickness’ and probably, when you were a small girl, you bounced a model horse while you dreamed of riding a real one.

    Julia Dake©
    2006

  • Feeding Horses with Respiratory Allergies

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    Similar to people, horses can develop allergies to environmental contaminants that lead to asthma-like symptoms. In the equine world, this syndrome is referred to as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). It was previously referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or (COPD) but due to dissimilarities with the syndrome observed in humans, RAO is now the preferred term. When some horses are exposed to dusts and molds, they develop allergies.  Why some horses do and others do not develop allergies is unknown. There is some evidence that this disease may be genetic. Horses born to affected parents are three times more likely to develop RAO than horses born to non-affected parents. Therefore, if you know your horse is predisposed to RAO, it is even more important to identify the symptoms and to properly manage its environment.
    Identifying RAO
    When the horse is exposed to an allergen, the body responds by increasing inflammation through the bronchioles coupled with bronchoconstriction.  The lungs increase in mucus production which the horse may not be able to clear easily. Frequently nasal discharge is seen, along with coughing, an increase in lung sounds and more distress during breathing. Lung sounds are typically heard with expiration, or the horse will “wheeze” when breathing out. Continual exposure to allergens may lead to fibrotic changes within the lungs. This will result in a horse which cannot take in oxygen to the same extent as an unaffected horse. You may notice that the horse has an increase in respiration rate over what is normally experienced during exercise, or he may become more exercise intolerant or fatigue easier. Horses with this syndrome which have had it more severely or more chronically may even develop a “heave line”. This is due to the hypertrophy of the abdominal muscles which must be used to assist the animal in breathing, rather than just solely using their diaphragm.
    Management of the RAO horse 
    As pollen and mold counts increase in the environment, horses with RAO will experience more symptoms or episodes of RAO. Often barns and stables are not designed with proper ventilation in mind. This contributes to a continual exposure of the horse’s respiratory system to particulate matter. Hay and straw bedding ideally should always be stored in a separate building from where horses are housed, and certainly not overhead. Additionally, the stalling area should be separate from the riding arena. All the dust that is kicked up while horses are exercising can greatly exacerbate the problem. Ever think about how much dust is stirred up into the air while the barn aisles are being swept? Ideally all of this dust exposure should be minimized and RAO affected horses removed from the barn whenever dust is stirred up. One of the best changes to management practices of the RAO horse is simply to house them outdoors. Often an improvement in airway function is seen within days.
    While horses stabled inside are clearly more likely to be exposed to particulate matter, horses on pasture during the summer can also have trouble. This even has its own nomenclature,  summer pasture associated obstructive pulmonary disease or SPAOPD. Horses with this syndrome should be kept off pasture during the summer months, but can be housed outdoors during the rest of the year. If horses must be housed inside, whether they are SPAOPD or perhaps competitive horses that must be stalled, it is imperative that the environment is as dust free as possible. Straw bedding may not be a great choice for RAO horses but shavings can also contain molds similar to those in hay and straw. High quality straw may actually be lower in spore count that some shavings. Alternative beddings may yield the best results such as cardboard or newspaper pellets. If straw or shavings are used, remove any RAO affected horses while bedding is introduced into the stalling area. Essentially, let the dust settle before the horse is put back into the stall!
    Feeding management
    Ideally the RAO horse should graze fresh pastures as much as possible, but obviously this is not always possible.  One of the most immediate dietary changes for the affected horse is to absolutely eliminate any moldy hay or straw that may be in the horse’s environment. While moldy hay should never be fed to horses, it is more critical with RAO horses.   One of the difficulties in finding suitable hays for RAO horses is that humans may not always be able to detect the presence of mold if it is not obvious. Try to find hay sources from a knowledgeable producer who bales high quality hay. The type of fungus which produces the most damaging fungal spores prefers relatively hot temperatures. This would be seen in poorly cured hay, or hay that is baled at too high of a moisture content. The heating which occurs during spoilage is a haven for these fungi.  Round bales may not be an ideal choice, unless they are stored completely inside and are never subject to any sort of spoilage. Additionally, round bales encourage the horse to almost bury their head within the bale, making the immediate breathing area of the horse very dusty. Completely pelleted diets might be a good choice for these horses at it greatly eliminates the dust exposure to the horse while feeding. The quality of the pellet is also critical. Uncoated pellets may break down more easily and have a substantial dust component. Hay cubes and haylage are also alternative feeding strategies.   Moistening the feed can also help in dust suppression prior to feeding. Hay only needs to be soaked for 30 minutes to achieve optimal dust suppression. Beyond that time no additional benefits are seen. However, the down side to soaking the hay is that some of the nutrients are leached out into the water, including P, K, Mg and Cu.
    Beyond eliminating dust and molds other dietary therapy may be aid the RAO horse. Supplementing RAO horses with additional anti-oxidants in the diet may be helpful. There is an increase in free radical formation or reactive oxygen species (ROS) in horses with lung inflammation. In fact, the increase in RAO may increase the upregulation of genes which produce inflammatory factors such as interleukins. Horses with RAO given a supplement of vitamin C and E plus Se resulted in less airway inflammation and an increase in exercise tolerance. Other natural sources of anti-oxidants such as sorghum and omega 3 fatty acids have not yet been studied for their effectiveness in RAO horses.   Additionally, due to the increased energy requirement just to breath, RAO horses are often underweight. The sustained stress to the horse’s system may also contribute to this weight loss. You may need to find a feed with an increase in energy density, such as a fat added feed to help maintain its body weight as well as additional anti-oxidants.
    If one follows these management guidelines carefully, RAO horses may be symptom free for years to come.   While pasture is ideal for RAO horses, performance horses which need to be stalled can be kept healthy with a rigorous adherence to maintaining a dust and mold free environment and proper dietary management.

  • Feeding for Digestive Health

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney 

    The digestive tract of our equine companions is typically the system which most often goes awry. Colic and other digestive related upsets are the leading cause of death in the equine, but luckily can largely be avoided with careful management. If we understand the normal digestive physiology of the horse, we can avoid errors in our feeding program.
    One of the most important features of a good feeding program for horses is providing an adequate amount of good quality forage for our horses. If we think about how a horses’ digestive system is designed to function, the relatively small stomach of the horse is designed to ingest small amounts of material throughout the day. This provides a constant influx of roughage to the hindgut, where it undergoes microbial fermentation. This is certainly the most healthy system and natural way of feeding horses. However, most horses managed in current stabling scenarios are meal fed, typically twice per day. While perhaps unavoidable, we try to offset this somewhat unnatural system by ensuring the horse receives enough forage for both its digestive health, and mental health as well.  Typically, horses will consume 2% of their body weight per day in dry matter. Most hays are usually around 85% dry matter (meaning they still retain 15% moisture after drying). For a thousand pound horse, that means that we should offer at least 23 to 24 lbs of hay per day. See calculations below:
    1000 lbs x .02 = 20 lbs of DM
    20 lbs DM/.85 = 23.5 lbs of hay as fed (or what you would actually weigh out)
    Beyond just the shear amount of hay we offer, we should also think about the time the horse spends consuming that feed. If we again think about the natural feeding behavior of the horse, they eat for about 18 hours a day, continually traveling and searching for the most tender, nutritive grasses. When horses are deprived of feed, the pH of their stomach begins to drop, making them more susceptible to ulcers. In fact, a drop in pH of the stomach begins within 5-6 hours after the horse ceases eating. At 10 hours post feeding, the horse’s stomach is completely empty.
    Beyond the obvious health risks this poses, the horse is unable to perform its natural foraging behavior. This encourages the development of stable vices such as cribbing, wood chewing, etc. which can be further detrimental for the horse’s health.
    Therefore, our feedings should be spread out through the day to account for this.  Alternatively, we can offer more hay to our horse then the previously discussed 2% to allow them to participate in their normal desire to pick through their feed to select the most desirable parts. Realize this may increase the amount of hay wastage and economic loss. In addition, offering more hay can result in horses gaining more weight than desired if not offset by adequate exercise. If this is the case, look for hays that are lower in digestible energy (typically grass hays). However, this does not mean a decrease in quality such as the inclusion of dust, molds, weeds, etc.
    In addition, the regular intake of roughage allows for a more stable population of bacteria in the gut. When the diet of the horse is radically altered, a shift in population of bacteria in the gut occurs, responding to the new environment supplied to the bacterial. This sudden shift in bacteria can result in digestive upsets, as well as development of laminitis. Therefore, any feed changes should occur gradually.  This includes the new pasture growing in the spring. Horses which are kept stalled or in dry lots should not be suddenly turned out into rapidly growing pastures in the spring. Ideally they should be introduced gradually, increasing the duration the horse has access to the pasture.
    While maximizing forage intake is certainly ideal, what if you have a horse which cannot meet its energy needs through forage alone? Such horses usually fall into our moderate to heavy work category, or our lactating mares and growing babies. These horses then need to have a more calorically dense energy source, such as concentrate (or grain). When we feed a large amount of concentrate to a horse, the pH of the digestive system also changes, which may be detrimental. To avoid this, it is advisable to feed no more than .4% of the horse’s body weight in non-structural carbohydrate at any one meal. Our traditional grains such as corn and oats are abundant in nonstructural carbohydrates, which provide an excellent source of energy, but more care should be taken in feeding substantial quantities. Alternatively, we can provide feeds which are higher in rapidly digestible fibers, such as beet pulp, citrus pulp and rice bran. Many horse feeds now contain these ingredients as energy sources. In addition, rice bran is high in fat, which provides an extra boost of calories. Fat is 2.25X more calorically dense than carbohydrates, and provides a great way to increase calorie consumption with a lower risk of digestive upsets. Fat added to feeds may also dampen the increase in blood glucose seen after feeding concentrates. Finally, a horse will need less feed by weight when consuming a fat-added feed than a traditional concentrate.
    One of the final considerations to maintaining a healthy digestive system of the horse is to ensure it receives adequate water every day. Horses on harvested feeds need adequate water intake to maintain the fluid environment of their digestive tract. If forage is higher in fiber and less digestible, it is imperative that the horse receives enough water to keep digesta moving normally through the tract. Most horses consume at least ten gallons of water a day. It is ideal to provide more water than the horse consumes (i.e., the bucket should not be empty before refilling).  Also be sure that, in the winter, the horse has access to water. In cold environments rapidly freezing water may lower a horse’s overall intake and make him at risk for impaction colic. Using bucket or tank heaters or a more frequent watering schedule will ensure that everything keeps moving regularly through your horse!
    Following these simple guidelines for feeding will help avoid costly veterinarian bills and keep your horse healthy, both mentally and physically.

  • Elephants in the Pasture - a Tale of Partners

    Written By Julia Edwards-Dake

    There are some riding partners who cannot be replaced. If you are lucky you’ve had such a partner. You’ve ridden beside the person with whom all your cogs and all their cogs just mesh. There’s a knowing without knowing. For me it was Debra.Our partnership began in 2001, when a mutual friend introduced us. We clicked. Both married, working and both struck with the ‘sickness’; our love for horses. The give and take was almost immediate. We meshed.

    The pace at which we did things together was perfect. We knew without saying what would come next. We drove down the road at the same pace. We rode with no hurry. No flurry. We moved down the trail in a quiet congress with each other. We knew when to saddle and head out. When to gallop or take the lunch stops all rolled together. Even knowing when to be quiet and just ride came naturally between us.

    Our geldings seemed to understand. They would stand quietly, the tall elegant Arabian and the stout grey quarter horse, while we had a cup of coffee and watched the clouds slide past the hills. From the beginning, even our horses meshed.

    Debra is one of the most natural and knowledgeable horsewomen I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and riding with. She has a common sense that comes from a lifetime with horses. To this day, she doesn’t comprehend the depth of her horse-knowledge. Few really appreciate it but when she shares it with you, you’ve gained a full measure as a horsewoman. Debra isn’t one to go about spouting information, flaunting her experience. She waits until the question is asked and then offers her answer. If you pick it up; you gain. If not, she doesn’t offer again and you lose.

    I suppose the strongest basis of our relationship was her willingness to share her horse sense. She was willing to teach and I was willing to learn. She taught me how to haul my big gooseneck horse trailer and just how tightly you can turn. She taught me to trust her when she soaked the fenders of my brand new saddle in water and twisted them in place with a broom handle. I thought I’d die of heart failure during the night and day of drying time. I was certain I’d allowed my friend to ruin my new saddle but the stirrups turned nicely and my knees stopped hurting.

    She might offer a simple thing like nail polish on Chicago screws. It takes a bridle coming apart on the trail one time to appreciate that kernel of information. I am amazed when I offer that information to people and they smack their forehead just as I did when she offered it to me. Duh.

    Sometime it’s a big thing such as, ‘Don’t pick at your horse. Set him up. Set him straight and get on with riding.’ In the beginning I didn’t know what that meant. I treated my ranch-raised Wyoming quarter horse like a glass figurine. And he took advantage. Now, I set him straight and we proceed without a murmur. No picking. Duh.

    Debra stands out as the eye of the storm during a crisis. I was thrown from a horse I had no business riding and broke my back. We were in the middle of nowhere, of course. She calmly called 911, directed the gathering of my gelding and all of this over my protests of “I can ride out….okay…I’ll walk out…okay I’ll crawl out but NO helicopter.” A half an hour later she is directing the helicopter to our location. I still laugh when I remember her telling the emergency transport personnel, ‘We are under the tallest tree.”

    When I started riding again 4 months later, I bought a GPS. At least next time (please, no next time) she’ll be able to give the longitude and latitude. “Under the tallest tree”. Smack. Duh.

    I am not saying Deb is perfect. No. Certainly not when it comes to objects in the distance. More than once she’s pointed out a bird or bear only to discover it is a branch or a rock. While she claims her eyesight is perfect those of us who know her know better.

    One day she outdid herself in prime Debra-style. While hauling to one of our favorite trail heads we passed a ranch that always had a pasture full of exotics. Emus, ostrich, yak and long, long, long horn cattle. Deb points and says, clearly and truthfully, ‘Look. Elephants in the pasture.’ Silence. I look, after all the rancher has exotics. All I see are two huge downed trees with the root balls exposed. Silence. I drive down the road not looking at Debra, just nodding and driving.

    I know the exact moment when she realizes the elephants were the root balls of the trees. Silence. I start chuckling, then laughing. I am laughing. Debra is laughing. Neither of us can say a word. Nor do we want to. We both rather like the thought of elephants in the pasture. What I really liked was Debra’s willingness to see, with her vivid imagination and usual flamboyant style, “Elephants in the pasture”.

    Together, Deb and I camped and dreamed, laughed and cried. We were together through divorce and death, money and living off credit cards. We fought and made up. We doctored sick horses. We doctored each other. We rode and when we didn’t, we missed the pleasure. We watched the stars, named the constellations and called to the wild turkeys. Miles of trails passed under our horses’ hoofs while secrets passed between two good friends.

    Debra still rides in California and I now ride Carolina trails. Even after three years of living on opposite coasts, our friendship stretches the miles. We talk ‘horses’ at least once a week sometime more often. I call on her for advice and a laugh. She calls me for a laugh. And we remember the ‘Elephants’

    Perhaps one day you will be on a trail in Northern California. You’ll meet a lean woman on a tall grey Arabian. Ask her is she’s seen any elephants in the pasture. If she says yes, give her a smile from me.

    ©2007, Julia Dake, January 22, 2007

  • Preparing for the Breeding Season

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
    While breeding season may be the last thing on anyone’s mind at this time of year, it will be coming soon. Now is the time to ensure that your mare or stallion is going to be at their optimal reproductive efficiency. While much of a mare's or stallion's fertility depends on other factors such as age, condition of reproductive organs, etc., there are some basic management steps we can take to ensure that as few cycles of inseminations are needed to get a mare pregnant. Multiple breeding attempts can quickly outstrip the original stallion breeding fee and be a significant cost to the mare owner. Often we forget that every shipment of semen may be an additional cost, followed by extra veterinary fees, mare board, etc. Therefore it is in the mare owner’s best interest to have her in optimal condition before the first breeding attempt ever occurs.
    So how do you prepare your mare and stallion in January to begin breeding anywhere from February to mid-summer? The easiest place to begin is to look at your horse’s body condition score. For a mare, we want her to be at a body condition score of at least 5 or 6 (see "Too Fat, Too Thin, or Just Right"). A mare in this condition would be a moderately fleshy mare whose ribs are covered by fat, has evidence of fat deposition behind her shoulder and over her tailhead, and whose back is level. Mares that are a higher condition score than that may still have no problem getting pregnant, but are unnecessarily obese. This may result in more wear and tear on her joints. Additionally, as there is no increase in reproductive efficiency, maintaining a mare in too high of condition may just be a waste of feed costs. Furthermore, if she has chronically been obese with localized fat deposition, she may even be at risk for metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance (see Equine Carbohydrate Disorders, Part 3: Metabolic Syndrome).  If your mare is diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, it is important to correct her metabolic profile and manage her carefully through the breeding season. Altered hormonal profile can impair her ability to become pregnant and certainly extra weight in a laminitic mare may increase her level of pain.
    If we look at the opposite condition and the mare is too thin, she will need more cycles to settle compared to a mare at adequate condition. She also may take longer to return to normal cyclic activity following winter anestrous (when mares cease to cycle due to the shorter day length). Thin mares' conception rates may be lower, and if she foals in a thin condition, she may take longer to begin cycling again. With so many negative effects of trying to breed a thin mare, one of the easiest ways to increase reproductive efficiency is to put weight on your mare!
    Stallions also use more energy in the breeding season due to the increase in their activity levels. Stallions which breed mares in an intensive live cover breeding system will of course need more energy than a stallion which is bred only once every other day. Stallions which are more extensively used would have energy requirements similar to a light to moderately exercising horse, and their maintenance requirements will also be elevated (see "Energy for Work").  Typically, stallions are simply more active during the breeding season as they exhibit their normal sexual behavior. Ideally, stallions should be maintained in a body condition score close to 5 throughout the breeding season.
    Beyond just meeting a stallion's energy requirements, feeding of Omega-3 fatty acids may help improve his reproductive efficiency. In a study by Harris, et al, published in 2005 in Animal Reproduction Science, stallions supplemented with dietary Omega-3 fatty acids increased their daily sperm output.  Furthermore, there was an increase in morphologically normal sperm in the supplemented group.  The greatest response was seen in the stallion with initially the most morphologically abnormal sperm. In this study, one stallion who was considered to be a “poor cooler” improved his post cooling progressive motility from 23 to 38% in a 48 hour test cool. Therefore, supplementation of Omega-3 fatty acids may be a valuable tool in improving the reproductive characteristics of sub-fertile stallions.
    Basic guidelines for increasing body weight and condition in horses are really no different for the broodmare or stallion than in other classes of horses. The quicker the gain is needed in the horse, the larger the increase in calories which must be offered daily. If you only have two months to get your mare in condition, you need to increase her energy intake by 30-40% to increase her body condition score by one number. If we have three months, which may be more realistic, the energy requirements increase by 20-30%. Remember, however, if you are trying to accomplish weight gain during the winter, she may also have an increase in energy requirements due to her need to thermoregulate. This will make weight gain more difficult. To add calories quickly to the diet, look for a fat-added feed that will be digested quickly and efficiently.  Remember that fat offers 2.25 x the calories that will be in grains which consist primarily of simple carbohydrates. Fat will also disrupt the metabolic profile of the horse to a lesser extent than a diet high in sugars and starches.
    Of course, beyond caloric intake, always ensure that your breeding horses are consuming a complete balanced diet in respect to all nutrients, have good health care and are suitable candidates for breeding. Breeding horses is a big responsibility in terms of the care and well-being of the mare, stallion and the subsequent offspring.

  • A Horse is a Horse, of Course, of Course...

    Written By Walt Friedrich

    Recognize the famous opening lines from the old TV show, “Mr. Ed”? Biologically, it’s a true statement. But look again: there is one huge separator in horsedom, and all horses fall into one category or the other. They are either wild/feral or domestic, and while biology and appearances are the same, the lifestyles are completely different. We’ll refer to American ferals here, though much of their condition is mirrored in the world’s true wild horses.

    We, in America, can thank the Spanish of 500 years ago for reintroducing the horse onto this continent after an absence of tens of thousands of years. Columbus brought several dozen domestic horses with him, leaving them on the island of Puerto Rico when he returned to Spain, so they might reproduce and, later, serve future Spaniards in quest of wealth on this continent. Those explorers and gold-seekers used them quite handily. Thus, over time, they found their way to northern South America and Central America, ultimately into Mexico, thriving everywhere on their journey. Of course, there were escapees into wild country, notably into what is now southwestern United States, where the fugitives did what horses do – they organized themselves into bands and continued to thrive, but without aid from humankind. These were the progenitors of the modern feral western mustang. The “training” they had received while in captivity was quickly forgotten, as they gained competence in the free but dangerous lifestyle of American ferals. Learning literally “on the run”, over time these magnificent creatures thrived as a transplanted species, developing into very large herds with distinct social orders.

    Then, as fate would have it, the tables turned somewhat as our West gradually became populated. Settlers tapped this now-vast resource for animals that provided transportation as well as labor – and there we were, with domestic horses as part of our lives, but with a twist. Our society lived closely enough with both domestic and feral horses that we could easily recognize their differences in lifestyle and behavior.

    Good thing, that;  by bringing horses into our families in a very real sense, we are easily able to compare them with their feral counterparts. Very convenient – but by taking him from his natural environment, we also take on the responsibility for his well-being. It’s a huge responsibility, since the Caretaker of the ferals is Mother Nature herself, who can do a much better job of it than we can. Fortunately, when we hit a snag, as we often do, we can look across the way and maybe see how Nature does it.

    Many of those snags we hit sort of come with the territory. The life of a feral is rather simple, and the needs are generally rather easily met. For instance, as grazers, food for feral horses consists primarily of growing plants, but stands of growing plants are often scattered in our western wilderness, causing feral herds to move constantly in quest of suitable and sufficient sustenance. It is estimated that ferals typically move 20 or more miles every day as they seek out food. Sounds like a tough life, but that’s what it makes these horses…tough. That’s a lot of exercise, it keeps them healthy and fit, burning the energy coming from the sugars in the grasses. Pretty simple – eating a variety of growing plants, lick at mineral deposits, drink fresh water, and move, move, move. The entire species’ success is based upon that simplicity.

    But now consider their brothers, the domestics. Rather than in the freedom of the open range, many live fetlock-deep in relatively lush grass in our pastures, and in addition, we provide hay and grain. So they typically have little problem getting food, and they need do practically no work to get it.

    What about shelter? For the feral, it’s whatever and wherever he can find it – a stand of trees, thick brush, a rockpile to act as a windbreak. Now, that’s “roughing it”. The domestic, on the other hand, often has a stable with stalls, or at least a run-in shed

    Food and shelter, the basics of life. So it would appear that the advantage goes to the domestics.

    But not so fast, there’s a price to pay for those benefits. The combined results of Mother Nature’s nurturing and their own genetics supports the ferals’ ability to survive and prosper in their simple but sometimes harsh reality, and Darwin’s survival of the fittest – natural selection, actually -- precept keeps the gene pool healthy. Domestics, however, often live their privileged lives within the confines of a fence. A horse has evolved to move, almost constantly, and with the fenced-in restriction, it’s up to his humans to see that he gets some work – but rarely 20 miles per day!

    The less-fortunate domestic finds himself living in the confines of a stall for much if not all of the time – this poor fellow misses not only movement, but also fresh air and sunshine, and, importantly, the ability to keep something in his stomach all the time by grazing. Now, who would think that an empty stomach can lead to an ulcer? Yet that seems to be the case; a stall-bound domestic, unable to feed sometimes for hours, compared to a feral, grazing a little all the time, is much more likely to develop ulcers. It is claimed by some that gastric ulcers are very common in domestics, often going undetected or undiagnosed, to the horse’s detriment.

    All horses are created, designed and built to eat a variety of growing plants, and thrive on them. Grain never was on his original menu – yet it’s standard for most domestics, largely, some believe, out of habit. When a horse pulled a plow all day, he needed more energy than forage provided, and grain – carbohydrates -- filled the bill. But today’s typical domestic, whose biggest workload amounts to carrying a rider from time to time, rarely needs help from extra carbs. And when an overload rushes through his digestive system and into his cecum, he’s in danger of serious complications, like colic, laminitis, founder.

    The natural diet of a feral is rather nicely balanced, thanks to the variety of plants  he ingests along with the mineral licks he visits for that extra “punch”, and he takes in water untampered by civilization, then tops it off with constant exercise. The result is a naturally healthy horse, rarely afflicted with common ailments of domestics, such as colic, ulcers, laminitis, founder, navicular disease, Cushings, Insulin Resistance, even rain scald, just to scratch the surface of a long list.

    Though lacking the benefits of a free lifestyle, domestics can do almost as well as long as they are properly fed and cared for. Grazing the same variety of grass every day, eating the same type of hay, hardly qualifies as a well-balanced diet, resulting in horses “old” before their time.

    What can we do about it? It’s not rocket science -- feed healthy and well-balanced diets, and ensure as much exercise as we can provide. The exercise part is easy and fun for both ourselves and our horse – riding! -- and get him out of his stall and into the field as much as possible. The diet part means back off on the store-bought feed, then take that first, giant step: get his hay analyzed. Armed with that list of nutrients he takes in, we can supplement what’s lacking easily. But be selective, and read the labels carefully. It’s not just what’s in it, how much of each nutrient and how they balance is equally important.

    A good general supplement will be rich in Omega-3s, magnesium, zinc and copper, but contain little or no iron (the horse gets all he needs from grazing) – these minerals are often deficient in pasture grasses and hays, but they are vital for good equine health. One of the best such supplements is Omega Fields’ Omega Horseshine® (www.omegafields.com).

    There are many laboratories that will analyze your hay. Contact your local Ag Extension for names. One of the best is Dairy One in Ithaca, New York (www.dairyone.com).

    There is a great little book you can buy or borrow from your library – it’s entitled, “Beyond the Hay Days”, written by Rex Ewing. It’s an excellent, easy-to-read reference on equine nutrition. It belongs on your shelf for quick reference if you’re serious about feeding your beloved equine companion properly. It’s available at Amazon (www.amazon.com – do a search on the home page) as well as through many book stores.

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