• The Mare in the Middle

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    “Some people can’t be trusted.” At least that is what my son, Wes, would tell you about me and my husband, Kevin.  What started out as an innocent, overnight trip to celebrate our 29th anniversary quickly turned into a horse rescue adventure. Now, we need another horse like we need a hole in the head. We were up to fourteen a few years back and were now down to eight. This has proven to be a nice, manageable number with a good mix of young and old.


    When we left that day, Wes, ever the eldest, warned us, “Now, don’t get into trouble, you two.” How much trouble could a middle aged, small town couple that didn’t smoke, drink or gamble get into?” I thought. I must tell you, we are actually pretty boring. We usually get a room at a B & B, have a nice dinner at the Branding Iron, and then spend the next day poking around antique shops. I forgot that Kevin and I are dangerous when we are away from the responsibilities of the farm and family.


    As we were driving to the Preston/Chatfield area in Southeastern Minnesota I mentioned to Kevin that I had seen a post on one of my horse internet forums about a herd of over 40 Morgan Horses that needed to find new homes quickly or they ran the risk of being sold to a slaughter broker.


    It was a just a casual comment, but Kevin was intrigued. He has the biggest heart in the world and this is why he is not allowed in animal shelters. “We don’t need another horse,” I said.  “I only mentioned it because I think it’s sad to see someone lose their farm and have to sell all of their carefully bred horses.”  “Where are they he asked?” “Mason City, Iowa,” I replied. “How far is that?” he wondered. “Only about 100 miles from where we are staying tonight.” I could see him thinking about it. “Let’s go see them,” he said finally. “Why? You know we would want to bring at least one home.” “Com’on, it will give us something to do tomorrow.” His eyes lit up like a little boy who has a wonderful plan in mind. “You don’t want to go back right away do you?”


    I need to preface that last sentence for you; you must understand that, because we have kids and animals, we never go on any real vacations. This one night, annual get away to an area only about 70 miles from our home is the only non-work trip we take. We would do anything to not have to go right back. We like to drag out the experience as long as possible, usually not arriving home until well after chore time.


    “Besides,” Kevin continued, “you can take some pictures for them and that may help the horses place faster.”  I looked at my ever-ready camera and had to agree. More pictures are always better than fewer. And the rescue group’s most recent pictures were taken during a snowstorm, so they might appreciate a few more with better light.


    We mulled the idea over dinner and then I contacted the rescue group and they said they would be thrilled to have us meet the horses. That night, at the bed and breakfast, just as we were about to go to sleep, we both swore that we would only take pictures and not bring home any horses. Absolutely not!


    The next morning, we drove to Mason City, Iowa, where Kathi Ring, of Gentle Spirit Horses, the rescue group, was waiting for us. She introduced us to the owner. He was an older gentleman, who, because of a death in the family and facing eminent foreclosure, was being forced to sell the horses. We felt bad for him, as the herd represented over 30 years of some of the finest names in the Foundation Morgan horse world. He had been offered $250 per horse by a slaughter broker, but chose instead to ask Gentle Spirit for help.


    Since he had lost his farm, the stallions and young stock were being housed at two adjoining feedlots and the broodmares were in a small grass pasture. With my camera in hand and Kevin ready to assist we went into the lot with the 2-7 year old mares and geldings.  We had been warned that they had not been handled much, but within moments, we found ourselves being mobbed.  Bays and blacks, buckskins and chestnuts and even a grulla came to see what we doing. They sniffed us and many allowed themselves to be scratched. My camera and the fact that I was crouching to get a better angle fascinated them.  Kevin was surrounded by curious youngsters as he unfurled the disk shaped reflector we use to bounce light on a subject.


    I tried to shoot as many as I could but it was hard to get individual horses, as they naturally stayed together in tight little bunches. I settled for grabbing a few headshots of as many as I could. The young horses were all very sweet and well bred of course, but it was easy to walk away. With their breeding and temperaments, I told myself, Gentle Spirit would have no trouble placing them.


    We then went out to the pasture that held a group of bred broodmares, three young stallions and mare with her foal.  They were also curious about us and came up to be petted. I spotted a mare with palomino foal lying in the corner of the field and managed to get a few shots of them before they got up.


    As I left the mare and foal and was framing my next shot, a particularly lovely bay mare walked right up to me. She was accompanied by her offspring, a two year old bay filly and a yearling buckskin stud colt. I scratched her chest and told her she was good mother and then moved on, hoping to get all the horses done before we lost our light. This merry trio, with the bay always in the middle, began to follow me around the pasture. Almost every time I tried to take a picture, the bay mare rudely interrupted me, by nosing my shoulder.


    It was then I looked deeply into her kind eye and I knew in my heart it was all over. This mare would have to come with us.  Now, I work with animals all the time. There have been countless puppies and kittens from animal shelters, and I even occasionally help out other horse rescues so I am pretty immune to their plight. I have managed to harden myself to their advances, as I must keep my numbers manageable. It wouldn’t be fair to the animals if I had more than I could love and care for. But this mare was special, and she was doing everything in her power to tell me that she was supposed to be mine. 


    Maybe the universe told her that we had lost our beloved bay Morgan mare, Cinder, to cancer two years ago. Or perhaps my first horse, who, coincidently, was a small bay Morgan mare that looked just like her, whispered to her from horse heaven. It was like she knew… and I’d have to agree, I knew it too.


    I didn’t say anything to Kevin although I could see he liked her also. She wasn’t even halter broke but she let me pick up her hoof and moved softly away from pressure when I asked. We finished up with the stallions in the front lot and said our thank-yous and good-byes to Kathi and the owner. We didn’t say much on the way home and, anyway, I was doing a rough edit of the images on my laptop. As I viewed the images, I was struck by how kind the eyes were of every horse I photographed. They were intelligent, curious and so typically Morgan. I hoped my efforts would help them get new homes.


    My mind kept drifting back to the mare. She was so sweet and kind. Even though she was not broke, I knew it wouldn’t take much to bring her around. Morgans are, as a rule, willing and thoughtful horses. They are the Border Collies of the horse world. Give them a job to do and they will do it. And they will enjoy doing it, too.


    That night, after dinner and chores and we were settled in, I said to Kevin, “We really don’t need another horse.” He looked down and slowly shook his head. “Agreed?” I asked. “Agreed,” he said sadly.


    I tried to sleep but I was still thinking about the mare. I knew that we were doing the right thing. We can’t go along rescuing every poor horse we see. As one of my other sons, Warren, would say, I was letting my “impulses pirate my thought processes”.


    Suddenly, I had the image of Kevin as a pirate in my mind, “Arrgh!! Lassie, she is a fine horse and we should go and get her,” he growled in his best pirate voice. “But we have enough already,” I protested weakly. “No, me fine Lass, you can never have enough horses. Let’s set sail for Mason City, Iowaay and bring her home. Arrgh!”


    I tossed and turned and finally fell asleep. The next morning I woke up to a horse snorting and nickering outside my window. It was exactly the sound I hear when the horses have gotten out and are wandering around.  I ran to the window and looked out and saw the bay mare standing in the yard below with my other Morgans. She was flanked by Beauty and Finn, once again in the middle. “How did you get here?” I wondered, and then I woke up. I had been dreaming all along. Was it some kind of sign? Kevin heard me moving and was soon awake himself. I looked at the clock. It was only 5:00 am.


    “Barbara?” he said quietly. “Are you awake?”

    “Yes,” I replied.

    “I think we should get the horse.”

    I breathed a sigh of relief. “Me too,” I whispered. “Me too.”

    “Agreed? He said. “Agreed,” I said.


    Later that morning I contacted the rescue and sent them the check to bail my mare out.

    She will be arriving just in time for Christmas. When I told Wes about it, he laughed and said, “I knew it! I just can’t trust you guys. You always get in trouble when you go out of town.”


    I haven’t named the mare yet. The rescue is still working on identifying who her parents are and who the sire is of the foal she is carrying. It really doesn’t matter to me. I

    know her heart, and she knows mine, and she will tell me her name soon enough.



    If you would like to help with the Gentle Spirit Horse's rescue/placement efforts you can find more info here:


    and here:










  • Protein Nutrition IV: Protein for the Working Class

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    Last month we learned that meeting a mature idle horse’s protein requirements are surprisingly easy.  If a horse is provided with good quality hay at 2% of its body weight it can easily consume enough protein even without eating concentrate.  However, if forage quality is low, adding a supplemental designed to provide essential amino acids can easily make up the difference.

    But my horse works hard!

    But what about if your horse has more of a job to do than just stand in his pasture and eat?  Many people automatically reach for a higher protein feed once their horse goes to work, but is that really the right thing to do?  Of course protein requirements of a working horse do go up due to the increased tissue turnover and repair associated with exercise.  Further, horses also lose nitrogen through sweating and increase muscle mass with training.  However, the increase in protein required pales in comparison to the increase in calories needed.  High protein diets increase the need for horses to excrete urea (the form in which excess nitrogen is removed from the body) and may alter their acid base balance. While horses seem to be able to handle the increased need to remove nitrogen from higher protein diets quite easily, it will result in more urine excretion.  Thus more ammonia may build up in poorly ventilated buildings and bedding costs will go up.  In fact, it may be beneficial to feed a lower total protein amount to the horse while providing key amino acids.   In one study, horses fed a lower protein diet but supplemented with lysine and threonine had higher blood pH values after exercising compared to horses on a higher protein diet (Graham-Theirs et al., 2001). When horses exercise intensely they produce lactic acid.  Lactic acid drops the pH in the blood and can contribute to the onset of fatigue. Therefore this lowered protein diet may protect against a drop in blood pH and therefore allow the horses to exercise longer or recover faster.  However it should be noted that the lower protein group was also supplemented with fat as well, clouding interpretation of results.

    So how much do they really need?

     Table 3 shows the total amounts of protein needed, while Table 4 again expresses this on a % protein basis.  You can see that most performance horses will do quite well if you select a feed between 10-12% crude protein.  Remember that when selecting a feed, you must consider your forage source first!  For example, if your performance horse was eating a primarily alfalfa hay with a value of 16% crude protein, his protein needs would already be met!  Selecting a concentrate then would primarily serve to supply any additional energy needs the horse may have.

    Table 3.  Crude protein requirements for work (g of CP/d).

    Wt of horse (lb)




    Very Heavy


























    Table 4.  Percent total protein required in the diet on an as-fed basis depending on the total consumption of the horse per day.

    % of Bwt consumed




    Very Heavy





















    Let’s do math!

    Now let’s put this together in a practical problem.  We will feed an 1100 lb horse 2% of his body weight in grass hay.  Our grass hay has 9% crude protein value on a DM basis.  We weigh out 22 lbs of hay for our horse per day but we weigh it on an as-fed basis (meaning what it weighs on a scale that day).

    First we will convert our weight of hay to the weight of our hay on a dry matter basis.  We will assume the hay is 85% dry matter.

    22 lbs x .85(% dry matter) = 18.7 lbs of hay on a dry matter basis

    Then we will convert our lbs to kilograms.

    18.7 lbs /2.24 = 8.3 kg of hay

    Multiply that by our percentage of protein.

    8.3 kg  x .09 = 747 g of CP.

    Let’s check this horse’s lysine requirements as well.  Remember that the only value for amino acids required by the horse is for lysine.  The current available knowledge suggests that horses need 4.3% of their protein to come from lysine.  Typically grass hays are fairly low in lysine compared to legume hays.  An average grass hay harvested at a mature stage is 0.38 % lysine.  Again we multiply the amount of hay fed 8.3 kg x .0038 = 31.5 grams of lysine.  Our maintenance horse only needs 32 grams of lysine.  We therefore have met his requirement by feeding this hay.

    Even if our 1100 lb horse is in moderate work we are short by only 7 grams of CP.  This can easily be met by any additional concentrate or by simply eating more hay.  However, if we move him up in work, we become much more deficient in protein as well as lysine.  Let’s assume he is now in heavy work and deficient by 100 g of protein.  We want to add 3 lbs of concentrate (which isn’t very much) to his diet.

    3 lbs /2.24 = 1.3 kg of feed

    We need our 1.3 kg to supply 100 g of CP.  So our feed needs to be 100g/1300 g of feed = 7.7 % CP on a dry matter basis. On an as fed basis, this would be 9% CP.  Almost every commercial feed will contain this level of crude protein.  Hopefully we have now illustrated that there is no need to feed a high protein feed designed for growing horses or broodmares to our exercising horses.

    In summary, protein requirements for maintenance horses or even those at work are fairly easy to meet by a normal horse diet.  If feeding a poor quality hay, you may have to supplement your horse’s diet.  If so, then choose a feed that contains legumes (like alfalfa meal) or a concentrate that contains a high quality protein like soybean meal.  While no clear amino acid recommendations are available for working horses, there appears to be some benefits of feeding lower total quantity of protein while supplementing with key amino acids.  This certainly does appear to be the future of equine research concerning protein nutrition.

    Next month we will address the protein needs of the groups of horses which need the most attention: the growing horses and the broodmares.

  • Flaxseed - Reduces Inflammation Responses - Implications for Atherosclerosis Flax Council of Canada

    Flaxseed reduces the production of major systemic markers of inflammatory activity, including eicosanoids, cytokines and platelet-activating factor. Regular consumption of flaxseed may influence the progression of atherosclerosis, an inflammatory disease.

    Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory disease. Its origins are in infancy and childhood when the earliest lesions, called fatty streaks, begin to develop in arteries. Fatty streaks consist only of monocyte-derived macrophages and T lymphocytes—two types of immune cells whose presence in arterial walls provides evidence that the inflammatory response contributes to atherosclerosis. Recognizing the role of inflammation in atherosclerosis suggests a new approach to cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment: Developing interventions that alleviate chronic
    inflammation and may retard the progression of atherosclerosis.

    Flaxseed inhibits the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and lipid mediators derived from arachidonic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and thus reduces inflammatory responses. This effect is likely due to one or both of the following constituents present in flaxseed: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the essential omega-3 fatty, and lignans, which are phytoestrogens that exhibit antioxidant, antimitotic and antifungal activity. With its unique fatty acid profile, flaxseed is the richest source of ALA in the North American diet— ALA constitutes 57% of the total fatty acids in flaxseed. It is also the richest source of lignans, providing 75-800 times more lignans than other plant foods such as legumes, cereals, vegetables and fruits. ALA and lignans appear to influence inflammatory responses by different mechanisms.

  • The Benefits of Flaxseed

    Elaine Magee, MPH, RD — WebMD Feature

    Is flaxseed the new wonder food? Preliminary studies show that flaxseed may help fight everything from heart disease and diabetes to even breast cancer.

    Flaxseed may be on everyone's lips -- and in everyone's cereal -- but this new darling of the plant world has been around for more than 4,000 years, known even in the days of Hippocrates for its healthful benefits.

    Flaxseed has been a part of human and animal diets for thousands of years in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and more recently in North America and Australia, says Kaye Effertz, executive director of AmeriFlax, a trade promotion group representing U.S. flaxseed producers. As flax gained popularity for its industrial uses, however, its popularity as a food product waned, but it never lost its nutritional value. "Today flax is experiencing a renaissance among nutritionists, the health conscious public, food processors, and chefs alike," says Effertz.

    The reason for the increasing interest in flaxseed is its apparent benefits for a host of medical conditions, says Roberta Lee, MD, medical director of the Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in New York.

    Flaxseed is very high in omega-3 essential fatty acids, Lee explains. It's the omega 3s -- "good" fats -- that researchers are looking at in terms of their possible effects on lowering cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar, lowering the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers, and reducing the inflammation of arthritis, as well as the inflammation that accompanies certain illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and asthma.


  • Telling the Story

    Three dogs on truck hood

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    I had the privilege of photographing some old dogs yesterday.  My friend, Deb, made the long drive from the Twin Cities in Minnesota to our farm in western Wisconsin with her three dogs in tow.  She wanted me to do a photo session for her before she lost one of them to old age or disease.  She was especially concerned for her almost 15 year old Australian Shepherd, Brady. His condition was progressively getting worse. Day by day, she could see his once sharp mind slipping away.

    She arrived and her dogs leaped from the back of her SUV, heads high and eyes bright.  It was if they were saying, “Where are we? What are we going to do? What a cool place, Mom!”  They spotted the cats first and Dilly, her six year old Mini Aussie, pulled hard on the leash as he tried to say hello to the closet one. Brady sniffed the air and her 12 year old Sheltie, Murphy, stepped forward as if he owned the place. After a few minutes of initial excitement the dogs began to settle down, or at least Brady and Murphy did. It is not in Dilly’s nature (not unlike my own) to be still for very long. There was so much to see and do.

    I had my camera in hand so we headed down to the big barn door where a long hallway frames a dog's head nicely with the landscape beyond and tried to get the three dogs into a sit-stay. Being well trained obedience dogs, Dilly and Murphy sat quietly, but Brady couldn’t bear to have Deb out of range for more than a moment and kept breaking his stays to follow her.

    Another photographer may have been upset by this, as it was in effect, ruining the shot, but to me it was just another part of telling the story. Brady was losing his vision and hearing and to an intelligent, active dog like him if must have been a new and perhaps frightening experience. No wonder he would get up and try to follow Deb when she left him. The good obedient dog in him wanted to comply, but his confidence had been eroded by his illness and he knew he needed to be by her side.

    I told Deb not to worry and had her sit down with all three dogs. She gathered them to her chest and they all grew still, comforted by her presence. Even little Dilly stopped moving for a moment or two. I managed to get several shots of them all together before Dilly broke off to chase the chickens.

    He took off after one of my hens. The hen ran as fast as she could, bee lining it towards the safety of the henhouse. Dilly was right behind her, even grabbing a mouthful of feathers as they went behind the barn. We ran after them, positively sure that we were going find a dead hen in Dilly’s mouth. To our surprise, Dilly had chased the hen to the woven wire fence of the goat pen and was making sure the terrified hen did not try to escape as he gently herded her into the corner. Thankful that his herding instinct was stronger than his predator instinct, I rescued the hen and brought a very proud Dilly back to Deb.

    Our next shot was in the hay fields where the dogs ran and played, joyful in their newfound freedom as Deb unleashed them and let them run. Dilly zoomed back and forth through the alfalfa and Murphy, ever the gentleman, stayed right at Deb's side. Brady, grinning his doggie grin, ran from new scent to new scent, just happy to be alive. I could see that Brady was slowly leaving us, and that it would only be a matter of time before Deb would lose him forever. He seemed to have moments of clarity and then  not be with us at all. I couldn’t help remembering that all animals live in the here and now and don’t know tomorrow. As much as it pained Deb to see him deteriorate all that mattered to Brady at that moment was that he was with his beloved owner and doggie companions. He was running free in green fields, smelling new smells and feeling the warmth of the late afternoon sun upon his head and back.

    I still wanted to get a shot of the three dogs together so I took advantage of my son’s rusty old pickup truck that was parked at the edge of the field. We placed all three dogs on the hood and were able to get the group shot we wanted.

    We did a few more shots of Deb walking with the dogs down my long winding driveway and then by the wooden fence of the arena. After that, we loaded up the three tired, but happy, dogs into her SUV and Deb headed off for home.

    That evening as I was editing the images, I was overwhelmed by the depth of the loyalty, devotion and undying love that shown through each dog’s face when they looked at Deb. I felt blessed that I was able to be a part of their story, even if only for a short while. And in time, when her old dogs leave her, I hope that she will find some consolation in the images and the story her dogs told us on that glorious fall day at the farm.

  • Protein Nutrition III: Determining Protein Requirements for Your Horse

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    In the last two articles we discussed the importance of protein quality, not only in terms of site of digestion in the horse, but also the amino acid composition of that feed.  Now we will try to simplify these concepts into selecting appropriate feeds for horses.

    The first task in developing a feeding program for your horse is to identify what class of horse you have.  (For a review revisit: Equine Energy Requirements and Energy Requirements for the Working Class)  The horses with the lowest protein requirements relative to their body size are the mature horses not in work, or maintenance horses.  This does not include geriatric horses which may have altered protein needs due to the lowered efficiency of their digestive system.  We also must assume that the horse is receiving enough calories in the diet.  A horse fed a diet sufficient in protein, but low in calories will lose weight (makes sense right?) but a horse which has adequate calories but not enough protein can also lose weight.  We also make some consideration for the activity level of the horse as well.  Remember the difference in energy requirements  between the couch potato Quarter Horse and the active Thoroughbred mare (Equine Energy Requirements)?  Well a similar relationship exists with protein requirements.  Essentially the more active horse would have more lean tissue/muscle  to support than the lazy horse.   Table 1 lists the actual protein requirements for a  maintenance horse depending on activity level and their body weight.  Remember that this does assume a quality protein source. Lower quality protein (less digestible or poor amino acid profile) can adjust these figures upwards.

    Table 1.  Crude Protein requirements for maintenance (grams of CP/d) based on average activity level.

    Wt of horse (lb)

    Couch potato























    What percent protein do you need?

    But let’s put these numbers into something more people are familiar with, percent of the diet.  Table 2 provides the percent protein of the total diet a horse would need to consume to meet their protein requirements.   Looking at Table 2 shows how easy it is to meet a maintenance horse’s protein requirement.  You can also see that as total consumption goes up, the percent of the protein needed in the diet goes down.  Conversely, if you fed less you would need to increase the percent protein in the diet.  Horses will usually consume between 1.5 and 2.8% of their body weight per day on a dry matter basis.  Typically you will see horses lower their consumption of less palatable hay which often equals poor quality.  However, this can largely be based on the individual, as some horses compensate by lowered feed quality by increasing intake (Edouard et al., 2008).  It turns out that horses are much more variable in their voluntary intake than other domestic species are!  Just like a horse to always want to be unpredictable. If you notice your horse picking through its hay and leaving a good proportion of the hay untouched it may be wise to select a supplement designed to provide amino acids but not to greatly increase the calorie consumption by the horse.  Alternatively it may be time to find a new hay supplier (see Selecting Forages).

    Table 2a. Percent total protein required in the diet on a dry matter basis depending on the total consumption of the horse per day.

    % of Bwt consumed

    Couch potato























    Table 2b. Percent total protein required in the diet expressed on an as fed basis assuming an average dry matter content of 85%. Note: this can change with the feed fed and is only representative of harvested feeds, not pasture or grasses.

    % of Bwt consumed

    Couch potato























    Protein content of common horse feeds

    Now let’s look at some typical protein values for feeds.  To be sure of your own feed ideally have your forage tested as well as examine your feed tag.  Corn ranges between 8-9 % CP on a DM basis, oats 12-13%, soybean meal – 43-49%, grass hays – 10-18%, and legumes between 18-25%.   With the range of protein content in forages, one can see how important it is to have knowledge of your nutrient content prior to selecting your concentrate.   Even with these ranges, most maintenance horses will easily meet their protein requirements by forage alone.  If you look at the range of percent protein needed by the maintenance horse in their total diet, it compares quite well with grass hays.  If you are feeding your horse and he is maintaining weight, he should easily be meeting his protein requirements at the same time.  Remember, we assume  the horse is receiving good quality hay.  If you are worried about the horse meeting its amino acid needs, many feed companies make supplements specifically designed to be fed with a strictly forage diet, rather than greatly increasing the concentrate intake.  For example, many feed companies offer protein supplements in the range of 30-35% crude protein.  These are designed to be fed at a minimal rate (only 1-2 lbs per day) in order to simply balance out any deficiencies from an all forage diet.  Clearly not all horses need the extra calories that come from feeding higher levels of concentrates.  This provides a convenient, easy way to ensure that your horse’s nutritional needs are being met.

    Next month we continue with protein nutrition in the exercising horse.

    Edouard et al.2008. Animal:An international journal of animal biosciences. 102:10:1526-1533.

  • Protein Nutrition, Part II Protein Quality - It's More Than Just Digestibility

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
    In the last article, we introduced the idea of examining the protein in our horse’s diet beyond just the mere percent crude protein on the feed tag or a forage report. We discussed the concept of protein digestibility and the importance of the site of digestion. As there is only limited evidence that uptake of amino acids takes place in the hind gut of the horse, we prefer to feed proteins which are digested and absorbed in the small intestine of the horse. Typically concentrates offer more pre-cecal digestibility of protein than do forages. Therefore site and extent of digestion are key components of protein quality. However, there is another equally important factor in protein quality, and that is the amino acid profile.
    Last month the amino acids that horses could synthesize on their own were listed, as well as the amino acids that are essential to be supplied by the diet. Horses must receive the proper balance of amino acids in order to synthesize the many complete proteins in their body. When they do not receive enough of a particular amino acid, protein synthesis is limited. That amino acid is then referred to as the limiting amino acid. Typically, lysine is the most common limiting amino acid in the horse’s diet, or the one in shortest supply. It does not mean it is the most abundant amino acid found in the horse’s body, rather the one that is most commonly deficient in feeds. Now remember, every protein in the body is coded for by the DNA that provides a blue print to build that protein. The DNA provides the proper sequence of amino acids that must be linked together to form the protein. Let’s say that to build one molecule of actin (a protein found in muscle cells responsible for their contractile activity) there are 25 lysines, 30 threonines and 46 alanines. (The actual polypeptide chain of actin is over 300 amino acids long.)    If the diet contained only enough for 20 lysines to be added to the peptide chain, protein synthesis would halt, even if you had 35 threonines. If you added those lysines back in through the diet, protein synthesis could continue. Now, this is an arbitrary example, instead try to think of protein synthesis occurring throughout the body, constantly adding amino acids that have come from the diet, synthesized by the horse, or that have been recycled by tearing down old proteins.   Obviously the more protein the horse is synthesizing (think young growing horses) the more critical the amino acid profile of the diet.

    DNA molecule which contains the information to build every protein in your horses body.
    So what is the amino acid profile? Simply put, it is the percentage of each amino acid that appears in the diet, or even in a horse’s tissue. For example, in equine muscle tissue, lysine is set at a relative value of 100%, while other amino acids such as arginine, leucine, phenylalanine and threonine appear at 76, 107,60 and 61% respectively of the amount of lysine present in muscle(Bryden, 1991). In other animal species such as swine and poultry, nutritionists try to match the amino acid profile of the diet to the amino acid profile of the actual animal. In this manner, the least amount of amino acids are wasted. Instead, they are incorporated into the animals’ body to allow for growth, reproduction etc. One of the goals of many animal nutritionists is to achieve something called zero nitrogen balance in the animal. That means the amount of N going into the animal matches the amount of N going out of the animal. Or we are replacing the amount of N that is being lost by the animal through normal tissue turnoever. If we feed protein beyond what the animal requires, the animal will still digest and absorb those amino acids. However, if they exceed the horse’s requirements to synthesize protein, the horse will instead catabolize those amino acids for fuel, and excrete the nitrogen in the urine as urea. If you have ever walked into a poorly ventilated barn with horses that were fed high protein diets, you probably have smelled the ammonia that comes with excessive protein feeding. Furthermore, feeding excess N just adds to the N being added back to the ground through runoff from facilities.
    Protein quality and it’s amino acid profile can alter how much protein the horse actually requires. While we often just discuss protein requirements generically as a percentage, in fact horses can be fed a lower total amount of protein if it is of higher quality. For example, in young horses, the lysine requirement is 4.3% of their crude protein requirement.    The higher amount of lysine in the feed, the less of that feed will need to be fed. Let’s take a 4 month old foal which requires 669 grams of CP and 28.8 g of lysine. We then feed our horse either a 16% crude protein feed of high or low quality. We feed him at 2.5 % of his body weight and he weighs 370 lbs. That provides an intake of 9.25 lbs per day. If his feed provides 16% protein, he gets 660 grams of protein. We have almost completely met his protein requirements. But what if one of our feed sources contained only 2% lysine? That means that the foal would be deficient by 15.8 grams (the feed would provide 13 g of lysine) and thus his growth rate would be limited. Therefore the foal would have to eat much more of that diet (more than he can consume) in order to consume the correct amount of lysine. Our foal on the high quality diet would receive 28 g of lysine, meeting his requirements, and allow his body to grow normally. In older horses whose protein requirements are easier to meet, we can actually lower the total amount of protein in the diet provided it is of a high quality. In fact, lowering the total protein in the diet while supplementing key amino acids has been proven effective in both growing horses (Graham et al., 1994, Stanier et al, 2001) and in exercising horses (Graham-Thiers et al, 1999, 2001)
    The future of protein nutrition in the horse may very well focus on identifying the correct amino acids needed in the horse’s diet, and moving to a lowering of the absolute % CP in the diet, therefore minimizing waste, and decreasing the amount of N added back to the environment. While nutritionists still have much to learn, the goal when feeding protein is to feed just the right amount the horse needs, and not to overfeed needlessly.
    Next month, we put the theories into practice and discuss protein requirements for various classes of horses.

  • Protein Nutrition, Part I: Protein Digestion in the Horse

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    This month we begin a new series focused on protein requirements for our horses, and the various feeds which provide protein. Protein is commonly the first concern of many horsemen when selecting their feeds, and the most frequently discussed. In the equine industry, there tends to be a common fallacy that if a product costs more, it clearly is a more desirable product to feed. As feedstuffs which contain more protein are often more costly, this tends to make higher protein feeds more attractive to the consumer. However, that higher protein content may not be necessary to feed to your horse! Before we can delve too deeply into the proper amounts of protein to feed to the various classes of horses, we should back up and break down what protein does for the animal, and examine how the horse digests this very important nutrient.

    Proteins are actually complex molecules that are comprised of a series of amino acids joined together by peptide bonds. All proteins are built from a specific series of the 20 most common amino acids. While many more amino acids are found in nature, we typically limit our discussion of amino acid nutrition to these basic 20 amino acids.  Of these amino acids, some are characterized as dietary essential amino acids or non-essential amino acids. The dietary essential amino acids include lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, the branched chain amino acids (valine, leucine and isoleucine), tryptophan, threonine, histidine and arginine. The distinction between these two classes is that mammalian systems lack either the ability to synthesize some amino acids (they lack the appropriate synthetic enzymes) or they cannot produce enough of that amino acid to support normal bodily function. The non-essential amino acids can be produced in the animal’s diet from other amino acids. In contrast, bacteria can produce all amino acids. This is what gives the ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats, such a unique advantage. They can rely very heavily upon bacterial synthesis of amino acids to meet their requirements.
    Figure 1. The levels of protein structure from primary (just the linear chain of amino acids) up to the completely folded, functional proteins.
     All animals, in addition to plants, bacteria and fungi produce a wide array of proteins necessary for normal function. These include structural proteins found in muscle, bone, cartilage etc., enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and cell signaling molecules. The specific make up of a  protein is coded for by the organisms DNA. The DNA contains billions of individual genes that contain the information on how to build each specific protein found in the organism. Different tissues will turn on or express different genes, thus making liver produce the necessary proteins for its function, and the heart a separate set of proteins. However, every cell will contain the genetic information to produce every protein. That is why you can use a skin cell to clone an entirely new animal. All the necessary information to make a new horse is contained in that one cell. While this information may not seem germane to feeding horses, it is important to understand why the animal must receive particular amino acids in the diet. Without the right amount of essential amino acids, the animal is unable to synthesize protein correctly.
    When we feed protein, we need to be concerned with more than just the amount of protein contained in the feed. Feed tags will provide us with the percent of crude protein present in the feed. This number is really based on the percent of nitrogen found in the feed. That number is then multiplied by 6.25 to achieve the amount of crude protein. That is based on the fact that the average protein contains 16% nitrogen. However, there may be non-protein nitrogen present in the feed which may or may not be useful to the animal. While all protein contains nitrogen, not all nitrogen is protein. For example, in ruminant animals, non-protein nitrogen is often fed in the form of urea, due to the unique makeup of the animals digestive system which allows it to utilize these feed sources.  But what the crude protein percentage does not provide us with is information about  how useful is that protein to the animal. As horseman, we need to be concerned not only with the quantity of the protein we feed, but more importantly, with the quality.
    The quality of the protein can be thought of in two different ways. One indicator of protein quality is how digestible is that protein to the animal. A feedstuff which has a high percentage of protein that is unavailable to the animal, or is unable to be absorbed, is essentially useless. So let’s take a moment and explore protein digestion in the equine. Protein digestion begins in the stomach of the horse, where it is exposed to both inorganic acids (hydrochloric acid) and proteolytic enzymes – pepsin. These two digestive secretions begin the breakdown of protein by initiating the unfolding of the protein structure. While proteins are coded for by DNA in a linear form, the particular amino acids present in the protein cause the peptide chain to fold and wrap around itself to form its unique functional shape. In fact, one misplaced amino acid can render an entire protein useless. This is often the basis of many genetic diseases, a mutation which causes the wrong amino acid to be added to the peptide chain. Pepsin begins the disruption of the polypeptide chain by cleaving after specific amino acids, primarily tryptophan, tyrosine and phenylalanine. While gastric digestion does not completely break protein down to a point it can be absorbed by the animal, it shortens the polypeptides and allows more access to the enzymes which will be present in the small intestine
    As the dietary protein enters the small intestine, it will be digested much further by a series of proteolytic enzymes which arise from the pancreas. These include chymotrypsin, trypsin, elastase, carboxypeptidase etc. These enzymes essentially complete the breakdown of protein into small enough pieces that can be absorbed including single amino acids, dipeptides and tripeptides. Once these are absorbed into the enterocyte, the dipeptides and tripeptides are further hydrolyzed into single amino acids. These then enter the blood stream of the animal where they can be delivered to various tissues to be used for protein synthesis. Non-protein nitrogen can also be absorbed out of the small intestine of the horse. Feeding urea causes an elevation of blood urea nitrogen,as well as urinary nitrogen, as the animal flushes the nitrogen out of the animal’s system. There is no evidence to support the usage of feeding nonprotein nitrogen to the horse, as it is unable to be incorporated into bodily protein. 
    Sidebar: Foal management. The exception to protein digestion occurs right after birth. The foal is born with a naïve immune system and must receive antibodies from the dam. These come from ingestion of colostrum or the first milk a mare produces. The colostrum contains a trypsin inhibitor which prevents the antibodies which are present in the milk from being digested. The foal also helps out the process by having an “open gut”. The proteins initially presented to the gut can be absorbed intact through the process of pinocytosis, or engulfing of the entire protein by the gut cell membrane. However, there is a finite capacity of the gut to perform this action. The most efficient uptake of intact proteins takes place within the first 12 hrs, with relatively little to no absorption past 24 hrs. Additionally, there is a limit to how much protein can be absorbed. If a foal was first provided milk replacer prior to the administration of colostrum, they may not be able to absorb the important antibodies if fed later with the appropriate colostrum. So always make sure your foal receives high quality colostrum in the first 24 hours of life. Don’t skip straight to the milk replacer in an orphaned foal!
    Any protein which escapes digestion in the small intestine is then delivered to the hind gut of the horse, where microbial fermentation can take place. The microbes are quite adept at further degrading feedstuffs, and producing compounds that are of value to themselves, as well as to the horse. The bacteria in the hindgut of the horse are quite capable of synthesizing all of the amino acids, however there is little evidence this is useful to the horse. In contrast to the ruminant animal, whose site of fermentation and microbial protein synthesis is prior to the site of enzymatic digestion and protein absorption in the hindgut, the horse is unable to absorb these proteins. Unless the horse practices copraphagy, or the ingestion of feces, this protein is believed to be lost to the animal.  In horses infused with lysine either in the stomach or in the cecum, only gastric infusion resulted in an elevation of plasma lysine, indicating the inability to absorb lysine out of the hindgut. However, there has been some recent evidence that some absorption of amino acids may occur in the hindgut. Messenger RNA coding for specific amino acid transporters have been isolated from the hindgut of the horse. This indicates a potential ability of the horse to absorb at least some specific amino acids from the hindgut. However, the transporter proteins themselves have yet to be isolated, or the disappearance of specific amino acids from the hind gut to be proven.
    Finally, let’s compare different feedstuffs in the extent and site of their digestion in the equine. Protein digestibility differs according to both type and amount. It has been repeatedly documented across a wide number of studies that increasing the amount of protein in the diet, also increases the percentage of that protein which will be digested. Perhaps this is due to an adaptation of the digestive system to increase the synthesis of proteolytic enzymes when presented with larger amounts of protein. Total tract digestibility of protein in forages ranges from 73-83% for alfalfa, 57-64% for coastal Bermuda grass hay, and 67-74% for other grass hays. Total tract digestibility for grains or concentrates is much higher, ranging between 80-90%. If however, the site of digestion is take into account, prececal digestion of forages ranges between 25-30% while concentrates are digested much more extensively in the small intestine, up to 70-75%. So what does this mean for the horse owner? Ideally when selecting protein sources for horses, both the digestibility as well as the site of digestion must be considered. Ideally,protein should be digested in the small intestine rather than the hindgut, to optimize amino acid absorption. However, there may be some evidence that this species which does rely so heavily on hind gut fermentation may be capable of some absorption out of the hind gut. The extent of that is yet to be proven.
    For next month, we will look at the second piece of protein quality, the amino acid profile of the diet.

  • Losing Boston but Saving Sarah

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    We lost a good one yesterday.

    Part of the price of having wonderful animals in your life is the pain that comes with saying goodbye to them. We had to put Boston, our 28 year old Quarter Horse, down. He had a fast spreading neurological condition that affected his spine, which in turn affected his ability to walk or keep his balance.

    And even though I believe it was right the thing to do, it is never an easy thing to do.

    Boston came to us many years ago as a Dollar Horse. A Dollar Horse is an older horse that is ready to quit being shown or bred but not ready to be retired forever. Or they can be reliable, trusted mounts that the family has sadly outworn.

    My Son, William, rode Boston those first few years and, although they like each other all right, their connection was nothing special.

    It wasn’t until Sarah, my cousin’s daughter, came to live with us that Boston found his true companion. Here was a girl that understood the best places to be scratched and one that he could follow around the pasture like a puppy hoping for a treat.

    Sarah was fifteen when she came to us, and on the first day, I handed Boston’s lead rope to her and said. “This is your horse. He is yours to ride and care for and just love.”

    Sarah was beginning a journey of recovery when she first met Boston and I believe he knew that she needed him, and if it is possible for a horse to give himself entirely to a person, I think this is what he did.

    She didn’t like riding him at first. Even though she was a confident rider, she didn’t have a lot of experience. Boston quickly learned to take advantage of this. He would trot merrily along, and then stop short and Sarah would tumble off onto the ground in front of him. Thank goodness for helmets and soft dirt arenas and Sarah’s willingness to get right back on.

    We found an excellent instructor and with time and hard work, Sarah’s riding improved enough that she was able to canter Boston bareback through the fields, and for the first time in her short life, I think she felt something akin to pure joy.

    Boston loved Sarah too. She was in charge of feeding him and all other aspects of his care. She would go to the gate and call his name and he would come running from wherever in the pasture he was. Boston knew what was coming and knew it was good.

    He was a good listener and over the next three years, he heard many a story about her life and took it all in with a kind eye and warm head and neck to cry into.

    Boston’s illness came on quickly. I hadn’t noticed anything wrong until I saw his rear fetlocks scraped up with abrasions from the opposite hoof. As I led him up to the barn I saw that he had to twist sideways to stay upright. I put him in a stall and called the vet. I also called Sarah, who was at her parents in town packing to move onto her dorm at college, and told her what was happening. I knew she would want to be there if we had to put Boston down.

    The vet watched Boston walk and we all agreed that his condition was only going to get worse and the decision was made.

    Sarah stroked his head and told him goodbye and after a short time he was gone. We all cried as she clipped some of his mane and tail to keep. She told him he had always been a good horse to her and that she was sorry he was gone and that she would always love him.

    I told her that he would be waiting for her and now he was whole, and well, and running in green pastures with the other horses we have lost over the years.

    Sarah is now 18 years old and embarking on her first year in college. She has overcome huge difficulties in her life and is a strong, beautiful, young woman ready to face whatever life throws at her. I am hoping that in some small way, Boston helped in this journey – that he knew that his work here was done, and she was going to be all right without him.

    For information on premium stabilized ground flax supplements that are rich in natural Omega-3 to help maintain a shiny healthy coat, strong solid hooves, and top performance – and for clear and concise labels – for horses in all life stages – please click on Horse Health Products. Order online 24/7/365 – or call toll-free – 1-877-663-4203.

    Omega Fields® provides premium, stabilized ground flax products for equine, canine, feline, poultry, and human nutrition. Online-based consumer distribution includes and Omega Fields’ mission is to offer the finest quality, most nutritious products at a fair price and provide outstanding customer service. We want our customers to have exceptional experience with our products, our staff, our websites, and our retailers.


  • Eating Crow

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    There comes a time in every parent’s life when suddenly their children are smarter than they are.

    This happened to me recently when I was with my eldest son, Wes. Wes, sadly, has been unemployed for the last few months so he has taken to tagging along with me on my errands and photo shoots. So when I needed to go check out some lambs and goat kids that I wanted to use in an upcoming photo shoot, Wes came along for the ride.

    I have a farmer friend that not only has prize winning sheep and goats, but also breeds prize winning chickens and waterfowl. He has every imaginable chicken, duck, goose and swan and they all announced our arrival, loudly clucking, calling, and quacking as we pulled up.

    You would not need an alarm system if you have even a few African Geese.

    The dog ran up, tail between her legs with her ears back in submission, as if to say, “I am so sorry. They make such a racket. Really, I’ve tried to talk to them about it, but they just don’t listen.”

    My friend came out and took us to see the lambs and goats. I picked out the ones I wanted and we about to leave when he said; “Oh, I have something you can take pictures of.” He led us through a series of pens, each one filled with exotic ducks and geese until we came to a pen with a live trap in the middle. I fully expected to see a monster raccoon, as I knew that raccoons are no friends to a chicken-duck-goose-farm.

    What I didn’t expect to see was a very big, very angry crow. My friend told me that the crow must’ve tried getting the bait and now found himself in big trouble. “You can take him home and take pictures of him,” he said excitedly. My mind began to spin at the possibilities. Maybe I could tame him and teach him all sorts of clever tricks like Uncle Billy’s crow in It’s a Wonderful Life. How cool is that?!

    Wes and I watched in amazement as my friend reached into the trap to transfer the crow to a small poultry carrier. We were even more amazed when the crow latched onto my friend’s tender skin between his thumb and forefinger with his incredibly shark beak and refused to let go. Being an elderly fellow, and the victim of, I imagine, many bird bites, my friend didn’t even flinch as he pulled the crow’s beak away and put the bird in the carrier

    He happily loaded the crow into my van, all the while telling me how neat it will be to take the crow’s photograph. I thanked him and drove away, with really cool shots already dancing in my head.

    I had no sooner left the driveway and hit the main road, when Wes, who had remained uncharacteristically silent, during the entire exchange, turned to me and said, “Mom, this is a bad idea.”

    Now when your 22-year-old looks you square in the eye and says, “Mom, this is a bad idea”, one should take notice.

    “I, myself, have had some bad ideas,” he continued,. “Like driving a car in Wisconsin with expired tags — bad Idea. And quitting my job before I had another one — bad Idea. And dating a girl who was still in love with her old boyfriend……Really Bad Idea”.

    He looked me in the eye to make sure I was paying attention. “My bad idea meter is going off the charts on this one,” he warned.

    “What?” I asked. “What’s the big deal?” I’m just gonna bring him home and take his picture and then let him go,” I said.

    “One, its illegal.” he protested. “You know you can’t keep a wild bird. Two, I know you think you are a pretty good trainer but this bird is not going to pose for you. Three, someone is going to get hurt. It’s a really bad idea.”

    “C’m’on, we could make it work at least for a few shots.”

    “Mom,” he said again. “Bad idea. That bird is going to be terrified and he’s going to fly all over the studio breaking things, perhaps even hurting himself trying to escape. He is most certainly going to hurt you. Bad idea,” he said again, turning his head away as if to say, how could his own mother be so dumb.

    I imagined my sweet tame Uncle Billy crow turning into one of the crows from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and had to reluctantly agree that he was right. I played it back and forth in my mind, trying to get around the reality of owning illegal wild crows, and had to concede my son was smarter than I was. We went a little further to a secluded spot on the road and pulled over.

    We set the carrier down and opened the door. The crow, who had been eyeing us with the blackest sharpest eyes, I had ever seen, walked slowly out onto the road. He didn’t even look back as he took flight, not knowing how close he came to being captive to my creativity.

    Wes, put his hand on my shoulder. “Thanks, Mom," he said, as we watched the crow fly farther and farther away. It was then I realized, I am not so dumb after all — I raised him, didn’t I?

    For information on premium stabilized ground flax supplements that are rich in natural Omega-3 to help maintain a shiny healthy coat and top performance – for horses in all life stages – please click on Horse Health Products. Order online 24/7/365 – or call toll-free – 1-877-663-4203.

    Omega Fields® provides premium, stabilized ground flax products for equine, canine, feline, poultry, and human nutrition. Online-based consumer distribution includes and Omega Fields’ mission is to offer the finest quality, most nutritious products at a fair price and provide outstanding customer service. We want our customers to have exceptional experience with our products, our staff, our websites, and our retailers.


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