Whenever I do an initial intake on a potential client’s horse, they are often surprised at much of my inquiry is regarding what they are feeding their horse, how much they are feeding, what supplements they feeding. Typically about halfway through my inquisition they will interrupt and ask why I am asking all these questions---I am there to do physical bodywork on the horse, right?
Yes, I am. And yes, nutrition has a profound effect on the ability of that horse to integrate any bodywork.
In recent years much has been said about equine ulcers, and among my show clientele, and particularly in the southeast, it seems most of my clients horses are on some form of gastric treatment. This is not a blog about equine ulcers, but one about how horse’s guts work and why treating ulcers is too simplistic. Unfortunately, gastric ulcers are often the tip of the proverbial iceberg. More and more, I am seeing horses affected far more by hind gut issues—not truly ulcers, but more of an incorrect balance of fermentation microbes. Thus, even when my clients assure me their horse was on Omeprazole (Gastro-Guard, Ulcer Guard) for a month, and that their horse is on probiotics, my suspicion is not removed, because this is a treatment for a part of the GI tract- the foregut- that is very different in function and structure than the hindgut. Time has shown that in nearly 100% of my client’s horses with GI issues, the foregut ulcers went hand in hand with something known as hind-gut dysbiosis, or hind gut acidosis, or, in really simple terms, an acidic hind gut.
The hindgut of a horse can be imbalanced by many factors, including:
1) Feeding too little fiber in the diet (less than 50-70% of overall feed intake)
2) Feeding concentrates in too large an amount at once--- anything more than 4 lbs of concentrates at any one time can adversely impact hindgut health regardless of how much fiber the horse gets
3) Allowing too long of time between feedings
4) Antibiotic use
5) Stress, such as transport and showing
6) Rapid changes in the diet
7) Even if diet is balanced, if horse underwent any of the above in previous time, the hindgut microbe population may be more an acid-forming rather than alkaline; without correcting this issue, there can be a long-lasting lingering effect of hind gut acidosis.
So what is an ideal diet?
Like people, horses are all individual, and energy requirement will vary with workload, breed, environment, and life stage. However, there is one constant truth:
Horses are non-ruminant herbivores designed to eat very large quantities of low quality forage as they walk slowly across open landscapes. Their foregut is designed to quickly pass through small amounts of food nearly constantly, with quick absorption in the foregut (stomach and small intestine) of starches, fats, and proteins in this low quality (wild grasses), with the greater part of digestion happening via the alkaline microbial population in the hind gut, which produces volatile fatty acids, that, when (in a healthy hind gut) are absorbed quickly across the intestinal wall, help build protein (protein=muscles, people!!!)
Think about this statement, and let’s compare to a typical stabled horse.
1. We feed them on more of a human- eating schedule (breakfast, lunch, dinner) - so they get big dumps of feed a few times a day versus tiny amounts trickling through constantly.
2.We often feed them so they are standing and eating, not creeping across the landscape—that creeping actually stimulate peristalsis, or digestive movements of the GI tract.
3. We feed them hay from fertilized pastures, with often only a few grass species, not the widely varied grasses, weed, and herbs found in a wild landscape.
4. We often feed them concentrated feeds they would never come across in nature- oats, corn, wheat, rye, barley. It smells good, yummy, sweet to us, so surely it’s like yummy horse granola, right? And yes, like us, most horses like sweet candy-food too!
5. We under-exercise our horses, and typically think they are burning more than they really are. Almost exclusively, in the US horses in “heavy work” are only training racehorses, top level three day eventers, working ranch horses, and long distance endurance horses.
No wonder the colic, gastric ulcers, and poor GI health seem to be at an epidemic proportions!
What does this have to do with bodywork? In a nutshell, horses with GI issues often show signs that they don’t feel great, and often start pinning ears, kicking out at a leg being put on; they buck when asked to pick up a canter, or after a few minutes of trot work, they act up. They act irritable and often are deemed sour to their work. Time after time I have been called in to see so many of these horses- typically the owner/trainer suspects the pelvis or back is out, or the saddle is pinching. I check a few places, like areas on the barrel where certain parts of the digestive tract lies close to the surface, and I get the hard stink eye rolled back at me. As easy as it would be to work on the horse and help pay my bills, I generally walk away from the scenario, with the very strong suggestion that the owner talk to their vet and run some simple tests.
What I dislike even more is the insistence that the horse is being fed a fancy feed with a highly qualified company nutritionist backing up that product. I have yet to meet a nutritionist representing a bale of hay. It seems all the nutritionists are representing a bagged concentrate feed. There is a place in the equine diet for concentrates, and when I give my horse these feeds, I want the formulation backed up solid nutritional science. But the indisputable fact is that the equine gut was designed to process and thrive on a diet consisting primarily forage—grass & conserved forage, like hay- not concentrates.
In my next couple blogs I will address different aspects of nutrition-starting with feeding the elderly equine, deciphering differences in different fiber sources, how certain mineral deficiencies can wreak havoc on tissue suppleness (thus, muscle suppleness), and some feeding strategies for fat horses, skinny horses, and horses kept smack in the middle of a city where turnout is non-existent.