We are what we eat, as the saying goes. Our animals follow that same quote. If we feed a highly processed, sugary, questionable meat source, additive laden and preservative poisoned food, we'll yeild a sickly animal. Isn't it interesting our animals now mimic our diseases? Have you ever thought about that? What cougar has to check in at 4pm every day to make sure it's blood sugar level is ok and take an insulin shot if needed? What wolf chases down ears of corn or wheat fields? What cat hunts for vegetables? We need to be highly aware of the animal and it's digestive system. Horses are no different. Why would we dump molasses covered, rancid grain products to an animal that does not get that in the wild? The only time horses in the wild get higher sugar is in the spring, when the grass starts growing. At this time of the year, extra energy is needed for breeding, foaling and raising young. This is when protein and sugar content of the grass is highest.
At no point in a horse's life is it's protein need ever higher than when it is nursing from it's mother. This milk is 12% protein. Yet we seem to think feeding straight, dairy quality alfalfa with upwards of 25% protein is perfectly fine to young, growing horses and also pasture pets. Alfalfa should never be fed at more than 20% of the diet. This is because of the high protein content, high calorie content and highly skewed calcium:phosphorus ratio. If our goal is horses that grow too fast, develop OCDs (bone chips within the joints), ringbone, show thumps, are born with extremely contracted tendons and have weak bones go right ahead and feed straight alfalfa. I raised over 200 foals on straight alfalfa over a 4 year period at a university and watched them become lame from OCDs, epiphysitis, sesimoid fractures, bowed tendons, permanently contracted tendons leading to debilitating flexural deformities, broken pelvises and ringbone. ALL OF THESE CONDITIONS CAN BE ATTRIBUTED TO THE SKEWED CALCIUM:PHOSPHORUS LEVELS AND HIGH PROTEIN CONTENT. Not to mention alfalfa isn't even a grass, it's a legume. And just like humans, many horses have allergic reactions to legumes. Ever seen a horse act crazy when they get alfalfa?
Now back to sugar. Would a good doctor recommend feeding a growing child sugary snacks to keep them healthy? Would you consider an obese child healthy? Would an athlete eat hoho's and snickers to keep them at their fittest? I would venture to guess the answer to these questions is no. For me at least, and for horses too. Horses should have a low sugar/starch diet- meaning they really don't need grain unless they are in some serious training or endurance events. Even then the grain needs to be carefully selected. Oats are a great, low sugar grain, however, they are about 50% starch. When buying feed products from the store be aware of what the product is made of. Wheat middlings, soy hulls, wheat bran, corn, etc.- all of these are non-nutritious fillers. Soy is another ingredient used that can cause reactions. This mixture is then heated to extreme temps which causes alterations in and degradation of the proteins. This can cause allergic reactions and also toxic reactions because the body does not recognize these proteins. After this extrusion/pelleting process it is coated with molasses to cover up any rancid products used so the horse will smell something sweet and eat it. Sounds appetizing huh? Not only is this stuff dangerous to their health, it will reak havvoc on their hooves. You will see "growth rings" or ripples on the hoof wall, which indicate bouts of laminitis, they will usually be thin soled and sore footed without shoes, have cracks and/or thrush/fungus and most will have some degree of rotation.
Horses nowadays are commonly seen out grazing in carefully mowed, fertilized and sprayed pastures. It looks pretty! Seeing a bunch of multi-colored horses out on that green bed of grass just looks right. But for most horses, it isn't. Unfotunately, the grass we tend to call "pasture" is nothing more than a monoculture of lawn grasses. There is nothing really wrong with these grasses, but they need a lot of variety to fill all their basic needs. Some can also cause complications in pregnancy, such as fescue. The thing is, wild/feral horses are rarely seen grazing on one patch of ground for very long. Definitely not day in and day out for months or years at a time. They are also BROWSING on different types of grasses, shrubs, trees and plants that are naturally higher fiber and lower sugar. Add in the fact they can travel around 20 miles a day to get enough food and water and I think it's pretty self-evident our domestic horses are not getting the type of exercise or diet they were intended to thrive on. This also begins to paint a picture of why our horses are riddled with so many metabolic diseases, which leads to many hoof issues. How horses are kept is only the tip of the ice berg when we look at just how much they are affected by it. Changing their environment is the easiest thing we can do, even with limited space. It is also the cheapest when compared to treating the horse it's entire life with medications and special feeds, etc to keep them going. Sometimes we just try to do too much and cover every little issue that pops up (that is trying to show us the bigger issue) instead of just stepping back and evaluating everything. We end up with 10 different supplements, special shoes, injections and special feeds when maybe we just need to let them move more. Maybe we just need to give them some mental stimulation instead of locking them in a stall all day. Maybe they just need access to hay and ground that is more similar to what feral horses eat and live on, and let them choose how much they need. These things are simple.... Yet we seem to make everything so complicated for them.
Now that you know a little about what we shouldn't feed our horses, let's talk about what we should be feeding.
Bio-available minerals are found in whole foods. Wait.... a mineral is a mineral, isn't it? Nope! Minerals come in many different forms according to what the mineral is chemically bonded too. There are some, like ferrous oxide (rust), that are completely unusable and even toxic to your body. Who uses those forms? Lots of greedy companies that want to put on the label that iron is in there so the consumer believes it to be a more complete product, when really the horse can't use it and it's body will hold onto the iron and block receptor sites for copper and zinc. This causes bleaching of the coat and hair, poor hoof quality and many other immune system issues. This type of iron is also found in our water and causes those orange stains in the toilets and showers.
Next time you go to reach for that bag of Purina, Nutrena or Sweet Feed mix, stop and think of the damage it's doing and the health it's robbing your horse of. Put it down, and back away slowly... It's a waste of money in every way.
There are plenty of ok products out there like Arizona Copper Complete, California Trace Minerals or get a custom mix for your hay with HorseTech.com. These are put together with a lot of thought to how different minerals affect the horse and also the absorption of other minerals from the diet and exclude iron as it is already in abundance in most equine diets. The hooves, coat and hair are the last things to get nutrients as they are least important to survival (organs first). If there are noticeable issues with any of these parts of the horse, there is almost always a nutrient deficiency, imbalace or digestive issue of some sort. Bioavailable minerals will help fulfill the needs of the body and also the needs of the skin, hair and nails. You will be able to see these definciencies easily by rough hair coat, manes and tails that "rust" out, brittle/cracked hooves, skin conditions such as rain rot, scratches and so on. A horse that has all the needs met nutritionally will have a lustrous, deep, SOFT coat through all seasons, slick, smooth hooves and the same color mane and tail throughout (unless its a breed or color that naturally has different colors). Now, they should be able to get MOST of these bio-available nutrients from hay and unimproved pasture. The less pasture they have, the more we need to supplement their diet. If you don't have 30 acres, you need to supplement! The following are some natural, nutrient dense foods to use!
Herbs have been used for thousands of years to cure diseases and ailments. They are chock full of naturally chelated minerals, vitamins and compounds that have great medicinal value. Some of these compounds are even chemically produced in mass amounts for common pain killers, antibiotics and other prescribed medicines.
When herbs are used, they not only give these compounds to the body to use, they are packaged exactly as nature intended them to be. It's not lab produced, or genetically engineered. They are as natural as birds and bees and you and me. Personally, I've always loved using fresh herbs for canning, cooking and some potpouri type decorations, but I never really looked into all the health benefits they have to offer. I started giving my horse herbs about 4 months ago. He has arthritic pain and I was told to try turmeric. I had been giving a very expensive supplement for joints with very little to no effect. After one week of turmeric he was prancing around the pasture and galloping at full speed. This made me take a closer look at using herbs.
I proceded to purchase a kit of sample herbs to test him with. The idea behind it is the horse will choose the herbs they need. If they act positively to the sniff test of an herb, it is because it is producing a positive reaction within the body- calming nerves, soothing the stomach, letting them relax, etc. If the horse reacts negatively to the herb it may be causing a headache or intensifying an issue they have. The process is testing all 72 herbs, marking the ones with positive reactions and then feeding those. This is supposed to correct the issues they chose the herbs for.
Interestingly, my horse chose herbs which covered issues I already was well aware he had. Now, certainly I don't believe that he heard me discussing these issues with the vet, massage therapists and others and then took the time to research the herbs that would help alleviate these problems. Do you?
I have always believed animals are much smarter than we will ever truly understand and they have that built in radar for what they need. This clearly shows the truth in that. After feeding those herbs for two months he had a major change in attitude, and quite a few different issues resolve. He has been retested and chose different herbs this time and will be fed those for about 3 months and then re-evaluated again. So far he is consuming less salt, less hay, he's gained muscle and definition, a mirror-like shine to his coat, clearer eyes and lo and behold!! I will not have to clean his sheath! He also tested negative for any worms this spring. Amazing. Ask me for the herb kit and other great premixes of herbs for specific needs.
Here they are, in all their shiny, dappled glory!
Never, ever, ever buy man made mineral blocks or salt blocks for horses. They are not made for horses. Originally they were made for cattle because cattle have rough tongues and can lick more of the salt away. Horses have smooth tongues making it nearly impossible to get what they need. They will then end up biting at the block and that can cause TMJ imbalances which opens up a whole myriad of issues. Blocks also contain "glues" and binders to hold it all together so they don't wash away in the rain. Mineral blocks usually contain more than just minerals and those fillers they do contain are not good for the horse. Bottom line- stay away from blocks. Use only loose, natural salt. I use Redmonds Real Salt.
Personally, I stay away from white salt too. If we think about it, it's a completely different chemical makeup than natural salt. Have you ever heard stories of people getting stranded out on the ocean, and they drank the sea water and became dehydrated extremely fast? Do you know why that is? Because natural salt binds to water and is excreted. It literally pulls water with it. It's why sweat is salty. It is also how our bodies detox. Now, think of white salt. Have you ever heard of people trying to lose weight by cutting excess salt out of their diet? They mean white salt. The kind that is used in many processed foods and the same as table salt. Do you know why they cut it out? Because that salt makes them retain water and thus appear more bloated. Not to mention, water isn't light so those looking to drop numbers on a scale and stop infammation within the body would do well to limit or completely exclude white salt.
For those of you thinking, "But wait, how will we get iodine??!" The iodine in table salt (iodized salt) has a shelf life of 40 days. So if you get that big box of salt that lasts years... you aren't getting iodine from it anyway.
Natural salt moves water.... White, bleached salt stagnates water. So within the body, it is a completely different process between the two salts. If you have ever witnessed or heard of a horse that has been fed sweet feed or senior feed and was taken off of it and all of a sudden "dropped a ton of weight," it didn't lose good muscle weight... It lost water weight because the white salt content (and sugar in the feeds) was removed from the diet. What this tells us is the feed was fooling everyone. That horse never developed muscle or gained good weight. It was just holding onto water, making the tissues swell and appear to be filling out.
Grass Hay/Mixed Grass Hay
Horses need to continuously eat small amounts of forage. Their stomachs are constantly producing acid, and if they are left without anything to eat for large amounts of time (feeding meals) they will get ulcers and usually unfavorable behaviors. Not all grass hay is the same. But I have learned over the years, as long as it is clean and dry (no mold, wetness or dust) most horses do very well on it if it is a good mix. Variety is key with these guys, just like us! We can't be healthy eating the same thing day in and day out. Yes, spinach is healthy, but if that's all we eat we end up causing other deficiencies (and getting just plain sick of it!).
We need to relearn how our bodies naturally get the nutrition they need. What did we ever do without supplements??? We had to make sure we got our servings of veggies, fruits, meats, dairy and so forth. All the foods on this earth have all the nutrients our bodies need. Can you believe that? And all the nutrients a horse needs are in it's natural diet. In grasses, shrubs, roots, trees, leaves, flowers, vines, brush, spring water and the fruits and veggies plants produce. Now, most of us don't have access to or own enough land to allow them to graze and get all the nutrition naturally. I had it for awile and the horses were perfect weight, shined like glass and were conditioned from all the walking to get these foraged foods.
The less we have in the way of natural forage, the more we need to supplement natural foods to substitue for the losses. It's super simple and really doesn't cost much. Buying in bulk when possible saves money, and we aren't giving a whole smorgesboard daily. In fact, most of the recipes I follow are less than a cup of whole foods a day! But it supplies vital minerals and vitamins as well as the co-factors that make them more absorbable and easily digested. Did you know that most bagged feeds and supplements on the shelves are totally devoid of the enzymes required to break down and absorb the nutrients in the feed?? It's why we still see so many deficiencies in horses that are seemingly covered nutritionally with their hay and grain!
I'm sure all of you have heard about Omega 3's at some time or another. Maybe you have also heard they are a good thing! If you have, you would be correct! Omega's are fatty acids required by the body in the diet. There are omega 9's and 6's and 3's. The 6 and 3 are what we focus most on. Typically in our diets and equine diets 6's far outweigh 3's, 3's are anti-inflammatory and 6's are inflammatory. Naturally, grasses have a ratio of 4:1 in 3's to 6's. If the horse is strictly on hay due to IR, Cushings, EMS or similar issues omega 3's are very important to supplement the diet as they are lost during the hay making process. Here are some benefits to feeding omega 3's:
Improved skin and coat quality
Decreased joint pain for arthritic individuals
Improved bone formation
Prevention of gastric ulcers
Alleviate allergy hyperactivity
These are just to name a few. They also help with brain function and eyesight as well as the nervous system. Most of the time equine diets (and companion animals and humans) are very high in 6's and low in 3's contributing to a number of issues that are running rampant in our culture. Flax and chia seeds are wonderful sources of omega 3 and are the same as fresh grass without the unwanted high sugar content. Dr. Kellon recommends feeding 4-6oz of ground flax per day to reap therapeutic benefits. Also, if a horse is not fond of flaxseed, as some are picky, flaxseed oil is very easy to add to the diet and 1 fluid ounce is the same as 4 oz of ground flax. If feeding flax or chia it should be ground to break open the casing for optimal digestion.
***Side note: Some horses do not react well to flax, a good substitute with similar values is Chia seed. Camelina is another good source of omega 3s and it can be found in meal form or oil. Wild Horse Products has a great mineral and omega supplement for horses called Iron Horse and also Iron Hoof with flax and camelina meal as the base. Ask me about samples or placing an order!
Clean Drinking Water
This might seem like a "duh" statement, but clean water is very important for your horse. I don't mean, sparkling, blue, heavily chlorinated water. I mean CLEAN WATER. Most tap water has a lot of chlorine in it. It also can be high in nitrates and nitrites which cause algea to grow. Then people add more chlorine to kill the algea growth in water troughs. Did you know the chlorine that kills algea and bacteria will also kill the bacteria in your intestines? It basically sterilizes the gut. Little known fact, there are more bacteria in your body than cells. And you would not be able to survive without these bacteria. The good bacteria in the gut help produce volatile fatty acids and also help the body absorb the nutrients from food. A high sugar diet causes acidosis which allows the bad bacteria in the gut to multiply overtaking the good, which usually leads to higher parasite loads. Alfalfa also causes acidosis. So does high amounts of grain. High parasite loads will affect nutrient absorption and cause rough hair coat, brittle, cracked hooves, skin diseases and so forth.
Filter the drinking water. This will remove some of the chlorine (depending on what kind the local water company adds in) and other harmful substances such as high iron, lead, etc. Instead of adding chlorine, add Apple Cidar Vinegar (raw and unpasturized preferrably) to the water trough. This will neutralize the water and also put good bacteria and absorbable minerals into it. Most horses love it. You can also take the ACV with you when traveling to new locations and add it to the water to help encourage your horse to drink. It will make it smell like the water at home and make them more comfortable drinking it.
The absolute BEST way to water your horses is a natural spring, rain water, or running creek. Horses will choose this water over well or tap watere 9x out of 10! Mine do EVERY time.
Proper diet is critical to a healthy horse, but so is it's environment. If round bales of grass hay are fed, then the horse continually has something in it's stomach. Perfect. But, if those round bales are pulled apart by the horses creating a mud pit of urine and manure around the bale, the horses are forced to stand in it to eat. Personally, I have never seen a horse in this situation with good hooves. It also encourages no movement. Just stand still and eat. Horses need to move. Wild horses travel up to 20 miles a day in search of food and water. Our domestic horses probably don't do 1/20th of that, especially if they are stuck in a stall most of the time. This lack of movement causes muscular issues and behavioral issues. It also causes unhealthy hooves from the inside. Movement and heel first landings are imperative to developing the digital cushion and lateral cartlidges within the hoof. These are the shock absorbers. It's what makes the difference between a rock crunching barefoot horse and a crippled, can't walk on soft ground horse when the trim is correct and there is adequate sole thickness.
Bedding the horse on the terrain you want to ride in is crucial to barefoot success. You can't take a horse stuck in urine soaked bedding, that never gets out of the stall and expect it to go out on rocky trails and be fine. It doesn't work that way. So what's best? A paddock paradise setup, with hay nets in various areas to encourage movement and lots of different terrain. Make them go up and down hills, over logs, through creeks or ponds, over ditches and through different rocky areas. It's fun creating these tracks and the horses usually like it too. Keep it clean of manure as well. A horse that stands in manure and urine most of the day will have weak, thin soles from the urine eating away at the tissue and the frog will usually be atrophied and thrushy causing high, contracted heels. High heels will cause toe first landings, which can lead to "navicular". All of this leads to things you do not want for your horse.
Encourage movement in how you set things up. Even if you only have a flat sqare to work with, move the water to one corner, the hay to opposite corners and the salt block across the lot from the water. This way they have to walk across the lot for everything. Keep their area as dry and clean as possible.
Corrective Hoof Care
Finding a person who says they do barefoot trims isn't hard. Ask most farriers and they will offer a "barefoot trim." Where I come from we call it a pasture trim and it is vastly different from a true barefoot trim. In fact, it is the exact same trim given to a horse being prepped for shoes, they just don't nail the shoes on. Also, there are many types of barefoot trims, by barefoot "professionals" that will also do damage to the hooves. So it is important to ask any hoof care professional a lot of questions before hiring them or letting them continue with your horse.
What's the difference?
- A truely correct trim respects the live sole and looks to achieve uniform sole thickness by restoring the heels and heel buttress. A pasture trim usually (and even some invasive barefoot trims) removes live sole, continually thinning the sole, making it virtually impossible to ride without shoes or protection. Some of these trims also cause a run forward foot with too long of a toe and crushed heels OR as I've been seeing more recently, a very upright and condensed hoof forming a weird cup they like to call concavity. A good trim makes sure there is adequate sole depth and heel height, and if there isn't the trimmer should work with the owner and horse to build sole and heels.
- A correct trim encourages heel first or ground parallel landings. Most incorrect trims encourage toe first landings by leaving the toes and breakover too long.
- Correct trims incorporate a mustang roll around the quarters and toe to decrease breakover and allow proper function of the hoof inside and out. A pasture trim leaves the hoof flat which will cause breaking away of the hoof wall normally at the quarters and toes, opening the hoof up to infection and stretching of the whiteline and sole in the toe.
- A good trimmer should inform the owner of anything and everything going on with the hoof. My personal and professional experience is that most farriers and even some trimmers don't relay info to the owner about what is happening with the hoof. I have taken over many clients that were using traditional farriers and they had no clue their horse had terrible thrush, thin soles causing soreness or contracted heels. This is negligence on the trimmer/farrier's part in my opinion.
Being barefoot will make you more aware of your horse, more aware of what is fed and more aware of what affects the horse. It's much more involved than shoeing and it does take time to grow a good, healthy hoof. So if you are looking for a quick fix, going completely barefoot is probably not for you, although I have seen some miraculous changes in less than a month. There are boots and glue on shoes to help make transitioning to barefoot easier on you and the horse, but these should only be transition tools. Unless your horse has conditions preventing him from going completely bare- if the diet, environment and hoof care are right, the horse should be able to go just about anywhere.