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Solution to the Problem; Whole Foods vs Processed in the Horse

Whole food nutrition.  What does that mean to most of you, as horse owners?  Do you see nutrition in your horse as something that comes in a bag of grain, a bale of hay, or do you feel there is more that can be done?  Maybe that something might be missing in the grand scheme of things?  Do you see your horse struggle with body condition or experience delayed recoveries from injuries?  It could all be related to the diet you are feeding, processed foods, and inadequacies, despite your being led to believe that is ‘complete’, balanced nutrition.

Horses Eating Whole Food Apple
Horses Eating Whole Food Apple

Cancer.  One simple word that we all can relate to, but what does it have to do with your horse?  A lot actually.  Some horses may be impacted by cancer, but that is not my focus here.  More so, it is the focus on the word, cancer, and what it means and implies, and how this can benefit your horse.  Some may say that cancer is a far cry from the joint condition they are contending with in their horse, or the tendon injury, or even laminitis . . . but is it?  In fact, most cancer patients have a history of either ongoing stress or recurrent health problems in their past.  Not too dissimilar to many horses currently.

Many moons ago, I started our research focusing on cancer.  That was the starting point and I tried to figure out not only what was happening, but how could one intervene.  Cancer to me, despite medical definitions, is a disease of insufficiency, a disease of ‘too much bad, not enough good’.  The body, plain and simple, is in a weakened state with a compromised immune response and normal defense mechanisms.  The body is also in a state of reduced repair ability.  Now, seeing that explanation, is that so far removed from a horse with a tendon injury?  How about a horse with Lyme disease, or one suffering laminitis?  We look at cancer as something we contracted, like an infection, but it isn’t.  Just like we look at a horse with Lyme disease, believing it was the stupid tick that caused our horse to become ill.  Was it the tick?  Sure, the tick was the transmitter, but the horse had to be open to receiving the infection, implying they were compromised.  The same holds true for EPM, laminitis, tendon injuries, allergies, ulcers, and joint conditions.  Simply put, the body was not in an ideal state of health!  Quite obvious when you see that only 1 horse out of 10, in the same circumstances, contracted the disease or that 10 horses competed in jumping that day, but only 1 had a tendon injury.  There’s something different about that one horse.

Do you relate to this concept?  Or do you believe it to be otherwise?

What is Health in the Horse?

Health is defined as the state of being free from injury or illness.  When you look at that definition, it should really raise eyebrows in terms of the current state of the average horse.  All you have to do is scroll through horse groups in Facebook or on the internet, seeing all of the posts from owners contending with everything from allergies, to EPM, to hoof conditions, weight concerns, metabolic issues, or ulcers.  It’s all over the place and something I have a hard time ignoring.  I’ve seen it as a veterinarian, in countless patients over the years, and I wouldn’t have a career if health in the horse was not a problem.  However, I have two choices as a doctor.  Choice number one is to cover up or palliate the disease or injury on some level in order to maintain a career, or I can do what the oath stated upon graduation:

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”

To me, this means that I put most of my efforts into prevention of disease and injury, rather than  just in treating it, putting a finger in a leaky dam, to get that patient back on the road until another day comes.  To me, as a veterinarian and researcher, nutrition is one of the main key players which is often ignored by many or they are simply misled into believing otherwise. We tend to have put more faith in medications and injections, than we have in the power of nutrition. Nutrition is the foundation of health and all approaches to restoring health or soundness should start there!

Proper Nutrition, Cancer, and What it Means

I didn’t always have this current mindset in my career or in my personal ownership of horses.  Like many, I too was misled by my peers or maybe that drug representative that frequented our office.  Most knew only one thing, and that was drugs.  Their knowledge of nutrition was very limited, despite them believing it was important on some level.  Their solution was to focus on drugs first and foremost, then simply feed some commercial feed labeled for that condition.  I bought into it on some level, but things change as you begin to realize that problems are not resolved, they are simply put off until the next day, week or month.

Getting back to cancer and evaluating patients that have truly made a remarkable recovery, two things hold true.  First, they changed their mindset, their approach to life, and reduced stressors.  Second, they changed their diet drastically, focusing on whole-foods.  If you look at each case, one observation that can be made is that both changes occur in each patient, but how they do it will often vary significantly, especially in regards to the diet.  All eliminated processed foods, no doubt, but what foods they consumed can be highly variable.  Their diets are good, much better than before, but there is no ‘one’ food that each consumes that aids their condition.  More so, it is the approach, the commitment to survive and just eat better.  Most eat a ton of fruits and vegetables each day, but then some will gorge on carrot or beet juice, while others take high doses of various herbs.  A lot of variability but on a similar base regimen.

The change in lifestyle allows them to reduce stress on the body, which is really the main culprit.  Then, they alter their diet in order to properly fuel the body for recovery and healing.  Pretty simple and many ways to do this.  However, one key here is that ALL of them eliminated processed foods.  You likely will not find a single patient that then takes a synthetic vitamin-mineral supplement.  Just doesn’t happen, because they realize that the power of nutrition lies in the foods that we eat.  You can’t supplement your way out of a bad diet!  Even then, modern research indicates that use of a vitamin-mineral supplement often provides little benefit to the cancer patient.  Some studies indicate moderate harm or worsening of the condition!

Why, you might ask?  That synthetic vitamin-mineral supplement or hay balancer, in the case of a horse, is nutrition, right?  Well, that depends on your definition of nutrition.  The real definition of nutrition is:

“the process of obtaining or providing the food necessary for health and growth.”

Note the word “food” in this definition.  It does not say ‘vitamin-mineral supplement” or include the word ‘synthetic’, it says “food”.

The Horse and Proper Nutrition for Health

When you’ve been around equine patients for as long as I have, you begin to notice trends.  There are many horses with various health or lameness conditions, which most just address as the primary problem, but I just tend to go deeper.  I look past that condition, recognize that it is there, but seek out why it is there?  There are always contributors and the injury or health condition is not an isolated event.   Nutrition is almost always a key player.  The sad thing is that many owners recognize it as a problem, but fail to give it the credence that it deserves.  They fail to apply it, make changes, or have excuses as to why it cannot be done.  Instead, most are just seeking drugs or special shoes to keep their companion going, covering up the problem until another day.  By then, usually it is much worse.  I personally witnessed the onset of the commercial processed food industry in my career as a veterinarian, not participating in it, but watching from the side lines as health problems continued to escalate.  These types of foods were not a solution, but more so potentially a contributor.

Now, with that said, many owners do accept their nutritional program as a real challenge and connect the dots with the issues their horse is enduring.  They make changes, realize that each horse is different, acquire wisdom and knowledge, then apply it each day.  Most of these owners reap the benefits, increase health dramatically in their horses and begin to realize that they are not as reliant on medications.  Stamina improves, recovery improves, performance improves, body condition improves, and their horses becomes a much healthier animal.

There are different levels of food processing.  Level one can be simply drying a herb, grinding it and making it into a powdered form. Then we have two more levels, each with further processing of the ingredient and addition of sugars, dyes, preservatives, and artificial substances.  In many cases of equine feeds, the product is created, but before release, artificial nutrients are sprayed onto the end product to ‘fortify’ it.  You have to understand that with each level of food processing, nutrient value is lost.  So, in that last example, the nutrition value has been removed so much, that they have to spray on synthetics to make it more acceptable.  But the key here is that it is not just nutrients, but other vital co-factors and phytochemicals additionally that are lost, if they were even present to begin with.  Actually, the key to many whole foods is not just their natural nutrient provision, but the Co-Factors that really provide benefits.  Really, it is a combination.  

If you look at an apple or maybe a blueberry, you may analyze it and conclude that there is vitamin C or maybe another nutrient in there that is creating health benefits.  That is referred to as ‘reductionist nutrition’.  In reality, it is not just the vitamin C, but other nutrients, and co-factors such as quercetin, catechin, polyphenols, and anthocyanins in that fruit that provide a real kick to health.  The nutrients provide for cellular repair, while often the co-factors are the chemicals that reduce inflammation, encourage the repair process, stimulate immune function, and provide antioxidant support.  You don’t see those phytochemicals in the average run of the mill processed feed.  In some, you might see quercetin, as an example, added to a supplement or feed, but is that enough?  Really?  It’s the working of all of the parts that makes the difference, not just the isolated nutrient. The sum of the whole is greater than the parts!  This is true for all foods, whether if that is alfalfa, spinach, beets, carrots, flax seed, whole grains, or otherwise.  This concept also holds true for the hay that you choose to feed, what the nutritional value of it is from the start, and then realizing that with more time, that nutrient value is reduced.  Not what you originally believed you were feeding.

When I see a patient with laminitis, Lyme, a tendon injury or any other condition, I look at the diet because I know that the body can heal, it wants to heal, but something is getting in the way.  In almost all cases, nutrients are not being provided.  The owner may believe they are, because they are feeding hay or giving a hay-balancer, but this is an illusion.  It gets back to the cancer patient and diet.  What are you truly trying to achieve?  Then ask yourself if your current regimen is working or not.  Pretty simple.  In many of these cases, the body is in such a negative state of disrepair, that a heightened diet or supplement regimen with whole herbs or foods is needed, at least in the short term, to create a jolt of healing.  Sadly, many instead are on a ‘maintenance’ regimen or worse have had a reduced level of nutritional support for various reasons.

If you understand that the body wants to heal and that the power of healing is contained within real foods, then why do we continue to struggle?  Why don’t we do what our intuition and logic tells us?  If our hay quality if sub-optimal, why do we choose to spend money on a synthetic hay-balancer, rather than just investing in a higher quality forage?  Why does it require 6-12 months to ‘heal’ a tendon injury, when most can be remedied in less than 2 months with no stall rest?  If a bone can heal from a fracture in 6-8 weeks, why do we feel differently about a tendon? Why do owners struggle with ongoing laminitis and metabolic conditions, when they can be remedied almost immediately, producing real change for that patient even in the short term?  Why do we get so focused on individual isolated nutrients such as vitamin E, selenium, or magnesium, believing we need to supplement those nutrients instead of just improving the overall diet.  Improving that diet provides not just those nutrients, but you then take advantage of the co-factors to really put the wheels into motion!  You don’t get those co-factors in a synthetic vitamin-mineral supplement or an isolated nutrient product you are adding to the feed.

The sad reality is that many horses do not have access to a pasture.  Many more don’t even know what grass is, or they have briefly seen it in their lifetime.  Some others have no idea what a carrot or apple is when you offer it to them.  These should all be subtle clues that something is amiss.

Look at the Label Next Time You Feed!

True whole-food nutrition is really simple, honestly.  Most make it more complicated than is necessary and this is not your fault, as an owner, but is due to the influence of the masses.  True whole foods really don’t even require a label.  You won’t find one on an apple, a carrot, or a strawberry.  Now, labels may be needed for regulation purposes, but look at the list of ingredients.  Can you pronounce them?  Do you know what they are?  Are they of food origin or are they created in a laboratory?  Is there a list of ‘added’ nutrients, which are spray dried on?  If that is the case, it is a processed food at a tertiary level, and likely is not providing the benefits that your horse really needs or requires.

Cancer is a disease of weakness internally, a state of debilitation.  It is the epitome of inflammation to me, and what is possible in the body if it is not controlled.  A tendon injury, allergies, joint ailments, hoof concerns, ulcers, Lyme disease and EPM are also signs of weakness in the body, just potentially on a non-life threatening level.  However, if you apply the same mentality, the same theories and approaches, the results will follow!

Now, with all of that said, you need to remember the first point that most cancer survivors have made, which is change in the lifestyle and reduction of stressors.  I’ve been at this game a long time now, with many patients under my belt, and I can tell you that you cannot provide enough nutrition to overcome that stress response in a heightened state.  You can support the body, but true healing will not occur until that stress response is mitigated.  That means you can’t believe that you can stall a horse 23 hours out of the day, or confine them to a dry lot, or improperly address their feet and then believe that nutrition will overcome all those factors.  It won’t happen and you, as an owner, will be left wanting.

Take a good look at your horse.  Is he healthy or do you contend with ongoing problems?  Remember that the body wants to heal, I truly believe this, but all factors must be in place.  Take some advice from cancer survivors that have taken control of their lives.  Make those changes and results will soon follow, but you have to be committed.  It’s not a difficult path and many are there to assist and guide you!

Learn more about whole foods, herbs, and alternative medicine practices in our book “Herbs and Whole Foods; Repairing the Horse.”


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN

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