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Whole Foods for Horses; Truths and Misperceptions

Whole food and the horse are becoming a hot topic of discussion in many forums and other information resources.  For many, the topic of ‘whole food’ makes complete sense and they understand the concepts, while for others, it creates a state of confusion.  When there is a state of confusion, and lack of clear understanding, then that individual becomes subject to the words and advice of others, which can either help or create more harm.  Your horse is dependent upon you, as the owner to make the correct decisions, but in order to do this, you have to acquire a level of understanding even on a basic level.  The food choices that you choose for your horse can either improve their health, keep it at a stagnant level, or worse, push it in the negative direction.  There is more to food than just nutrient value and in seeing this, the right decisions often become clear.

Whole Food Nutrition and the Horse
Whole Food Nutrition and the Horse

Food, it is what is vital for overall bodily function, health, and longevity.  It is what can make or break an equine athlete and when used properly, can help the body to regain vitality after a period of disease. The proper food choices are often not made for the horse and in most instances, this is one of the primary contributors to the host of disease and lameness conditions that are present in the equine community.  All you have to do is look at the disease statistics with the horse and see how caseloads are increasing steadily over the years, especially when it comes to foot ailments, metabolic problems, allergies, and soft tissue breakdowns (tendons/ligaments).  Interestingly enough, the horse’s health problems mirror those of the human medical world, meaning that both are steadily increasing in predominance over time.  Instead of contemplating the situation and determining where we went wrong, we instead seek to be rescued, looking for the next pharmaceutical wonder in the form of a pill or injection that will remedy all that we have created.

The purpose of this article is not to convince you, as a horse owner, that one method or approach is better.  More so, the article and the contents relay the topic the way that I see it, as a veterinarian, researcher, and being intimately involved in rehabilitation of the injured or disease ridden horse.  As I say to my son who is pursuing a career in human medicine, “my opinions are my own, backed by science and clinical experience, but in the end are my opinions alone and do not reflect those of this TV station or broadcast network.”  I am relaying clinical experience, research experience, not just the word of another, but actual feedback regarding what works for me, my patients, and our personal horses.  Now, what YOU, as a horse owner does with this information is up to YOU.  Don’t take me at my word, research it, understand it, apply it and come to your own conclusions.

One truth that I have arrived at over the years is that it is by far best to use the word of another, the advice of another, as a means of arriving at your own truth.  In order to do this, you must set down a path of discovery, a path of understanding, and even reflection.  If you just rely on the word of another, taking what that person states as absolute truth, then the outcome will be limited and you will always be dependent.  On the other hand, if you take the word from another and use it to push yourself forward, in discovery of health for your horse, yourself, or otherwise, then the outcome will be more superior.

Keep in mind that supplements are meant to ‘supplement’ a proper diet.  The higher in nutritional value that the diet is for your horse, in regarding proper food choices, then there is a lower need for supplementation.  Nothing is designed or intended to provide 100% of recommended daily intake of any nutrient, for if it did, it would negate the need for true food and secondly, could create some harm if taken in conjunction with a diet that already provided sufficient levels.  Proper food choices are the key to nutrient provision for your horse and if done properly, will negate the need for supplementation of synthetic nutrients in most cases.

Whole Foods and the Horse; In the Beginning

In 2006, I was diagnosed with cancer.  It was not a pretty situation, but what was evident was that I created it.  This creation of the events was not known to me then, 13 years ago, but is very evident now.  I created it due to the way I was treating myself, my body, my health.  I was taking things for granted, driven by my veterinary patients at the time to be available at all hours, 7 days per week if needed.  Over time, with the improper foundation, this will take a toll on the body mentally and physically, so it was no surprise that cancer reared its ugly head.  It has taken 13 years, but now, I have a clear understanding of many things and this is what I wish to relay regarding the horse and their health.

My cancer is not important, but what is important is what comes out of those events.  There is always a good side, but often we can’t see it.  The good side was that I stepped back to analyze not just my own personal situation, but that of my patients.  At the time, the cancer incidence in our companion animal practice was at an all time high with lymphoma being high on the list, then other various cancers from leukemia to transitional cell carcinomas of the bladder.  On the equine side of my practice, we had a high load of horses with allergies, COPD, uveititis, laminitis, metabolic problems, joint disease and even recurrent colics.  Bottom line was that my patients were not much healthier than myself, and being a doctor, all I knew at the time was to prescribe a medication or wait for our drug representative to release something new, something ‘better’.  I applied what I knew from college, from my continuing education courses, and interaction with colleagues at the university level, but nothing was working.  The case load continued to increase.  My job as a doctor was to cure disease, not encourage it.

What did I learn?  Over time, it became evident to me that ‘we’ as a society were creating these diseases and conditions due to our ignorance, or lack of understanding.  As I corrected this, at least in my efforts as a doctor, my patients improved, however, and this is a BIG however, the owner had to be involved and with that, having a level of understanding of their own.  Otherwise, we ended up butting heads and the patient did not make the progress that we desired.  This lack of positive progress then led to an increased level of disbelief on the owner’s end, which then made matters even worse.

Whole Foods in the Horse; Clinical Experience

Recently, many have raised the question of whole foods and the horse, as being a true source of nutrient value, comparing it with ‘required’ levels for health that can only be achieved with a synthetic or inorganic supplement.  Points have been raised that whole foods do not provide adequate levels of vitamins, minerals, or protein and therefore essentially, are best designed as ‘treats’ rather than a meal.  While this is just the viewpoint of a few individuals, from my clinical perspective, this mentality is what has created the current health problems in the horse.  It is a lack of understanding, and with this lack of understanding, we create more problems.

While it may be true that some isolated whole foods may not provide the recommended daily allotments of vitamins, minerals, or proteins, this viewpoint is restricted by two factors:

  • Volume of whole-food intake
  • Assortment of whole foods chosen

Any isolated whole-food is not likely to provide a proper spectrum of macro- or micro-nutrients, but when combined with other whole-foods, and taken in the proper volume, often the patient thrives, whether if that patient is a horse, a companion pet, or yourself.

As a veterinarian, when treating or managing a horse or other patient, food is of utmost importance in my therapy regimen.  Honestly, it’s importance is above any medication, whether if that is an antibiotic, corticosteroid, or other pharmaceutical.  Why?  Because if that body, the patient, the horse, is not fed properly and supported, no medication is going to remedy the problem.  In order to regain health, the body must be stabilized and provided for in order to facilitate healing.

Now, for many in the equine world, they focus on specific nutrients, in specific amounts and they supplement these specific and often isolated nutrients via synthetic or inorganic forms.  This can be calcium, phosphorus, selenium, chromium, copper, zinc, or otherwise.  They perceive these isolated nutrients as being the ‘key’ to recovery, the only solution or maybe the ‘one’ thing the horse is needing in order to recover.  While this viewpoint may be correct on some levels, it is very restrictive and reduces health down to one or two key nutrients, when the picture is much bigger.

In my veterinary practice, past and present, I have never ‘cured’ a horse with a vitamin/mineral supplement.  I have never fixed their hoof problems, their allergies, their metabolic issues or even laminitis with a vitamin-mineral supplement or ration balancer.  I have never brought a deteriorating horse with enteritis and colic back to health by tube feeding a vitamin/mineral supplement.  I have however, greatly enhanced their recoveries through the use of food, real food.  That horse with enteritis, diarrhea, and colic was brought back with proper forage provisions and tube feeding of a gruel consisting of alfalfa pellets, other whole-foods in powder form, and specific herbs.  Although specific vitamin/mineral blends are available for tube-feeding a horse in a critical care situation, they never provided results for my patients.  When it comes to a critical care situation, more often than not, you only get one shot at recovery.  If your choice is incorrect, the patient will pay the consequences.

The same was true in our companion animal practice with all of their health issues and cancer incidence.  Our recovery rate from cancer was quite impressive to be honest, but this was not done with chemotherapy and other drugs.  It was done through proper food choices, lifestyle changes, and implementation of herbs, which really are whole-foods themselves.

So, when the critics of present day whole food supplements for horses raise their concerns, on some levels, they are correct in their logic but on the other hand, there a a few points that are missing in the grand story.

Whole Foods and the Horse; Deficiency and Excess

In my years being involved with equine rehabilitation, one thing has become blatantly clear to me and that is that most of these horses are nutrient deprived.  Interestingly enough, this observation mirrors many cases of cancer, whether if human or animal.  The horses in our care include tendon cases, foot related problems, laminitis, metabolic concerns, digestive, or even just mental concerns.  Regardless, nutrient deficiency is very obvious.

I am not stating this observation because the horse’s body condition is compromised, or that hoof health is poor, which may be obvious signs of nutrient deficiency on some levels, but more so am stating my observations due to the fact that a high level of nutrition often provides more complete results.  These results then more often than not come at a rapid pace with changes evident on many levels.  Interestingly enough, a high percentage of these horses coming into our care have been or currently on a ration balancer or vitamin-mineral blend, and have been sometimes for 2-4 years.  Despite this fact, the horse has not done well, continued to deteriorate, and now has been abandoned or donated for lack of progress.  The owners did what they were told, by their veterinarian, their nutritionist or otherwise, but results were not gained.  For others, the instructions or advice given resulted in stagnation of the condition rather than improvement, meaning the condition did not progress further but held at a current state.  So, in that respect, maybe their approach did some good, but was not enough to propel the horse’s body into a true state of health and soundness.

Health is about balance, period, and that balance is not just in nutrient provision but also lifestyle, the mind, and influence upon cellular pathways.  In order to achieve this balance, it goes far beyond just nutrient provision.  There is by far a greater chance of running into negative outcomes when using an isolated, synthetic vitamin-mineral supplement than there is in the proper choice of whole-foods.  This can result from overdosing on various minerals or vitamins, but also due to potential negative influences upon the digestive tract.  Thus, choosing to use this route of supplementation may create more negative outcomes than positive.  Not always the case, but certainly true nonetheless.

Are whole-food nutrients more bioavailable than their synthetic or isolated forms?  This is up for debate for sure, but I believe the main principle we are overlooking is what is the true value of whole foods versus a synthetic vitamin-mineral or feed ration balancer for the horse?  This is what produces results for my patients.

While there is some research to note that the administration of synthetic or isolated nutrients can impact blood levels of those nutrients, what is in question, at least in my mind, is whether or not this is the ideal form of administration for the horse or any living being?  For starters, in all likelihood, the body is designed to receive nutrients throughout a given day, potentially in smaller increments to meet needs and demands.  This makes sense as many nutrients are not stored, but readily discarded if not needed by the body at that time.  If a owner is providing a synthetic vitamin-mineral supplement to their horse, or ration balancer, those nutrients are delivered at full dose in one feeding.

When it comes to food, nutrients are delivered in smaller volumes, and ideally consumed or provided to the body over the course of the day.  Food, considering all of it’s components, provides those nutrients in a form that may or may not be absorbed by the body at any given time.  Your horse may require or not require magnesium, as an example, at any given point, and thus the body may choose or not choose to absorb it from any given food meal.  This may be dictated by the current state of health of your horse, physically and mentally, which may then either raise or lower nutrient requirements.  The right foods provide the body with access to those nutrients, whether if it chooses to utilize them or not, with no known toxicity, as opposed to synthetic or isolated nutrients in many cases.

One example of this is evident in human cancer research, with no observable results noted in patients receiving isolated or synthetic nutrient supplements.  In some studies, using vitamin E and other isolated antioxidants, the research noted worsening of the patients in their disease and resulted in discontinuation of the studies.  In comparison, most studies on whole foods, specifically plant based diets, note improvement in the patients with reduction of clinical symptoms.  This is evident not only in some cancer studies, but also cardiovascular disease, metabolic conditions, and many others.

Whole Foods in the Horse; Benefits beyond Synthetic Supplements

Debates on the proper forms of nutrition will continue over time as it is impossible to truly answer all questions and arrive at absolutes. What is evident, at least from my perspective, is that food, real food, offers more than any synthetic vitamin-mineral or feed ration supplement could offer your horse.  However, again, you must keep in mind that dosing or volume utilized is extremely important.  While spinach may be good for overall health, one leaf of spinach per day is likely of no benefit beyond a perceived treat.  In order to benefit from the health properties of that food, the proper volume must be utilized and consumed.

Real food, whole-foods if desired, not only offer vitamin-mineral provisions, but include many other cofactors from prebiotics to specific chemicals that offer anti-inflammatory or antioxidant provision.  This is true for many foods, but also herbs, which in my book are food in an of themselves, and used as a part of many diets for centuries.

A synthetic vitamin-mineral supplement generally offers nutrient value, in the synthetic or isolated form.  It may be balanced, based on general accepted standards, but above and beyond nutrient value, there is little left to offer, unless the blend has been modified in some way.

A whole food, real food, offers not just nutrient content in the form of vitamins and minerals, but most sources of food offer protein in the form of amino acid content.  Protein is not generally provided for in the standard ration balancer for the horse.  Now, each food offers different levels of protein and with that different degrees of amino acid provision.  Not all are ‘balanced’, which is fine, for the goal is to consume varieties of different foods, not just one.  The right choices can help to create balance for your horse.

In addition, most real foods will offer prebiotic potential in the form of fiber and lignans, potentially even polysaccharides, which provide real benefit to the digestive tract in your horse.  Going further, most real foods contain within them specific beneficial chemicals, polyphenols and bioflavanoids of many kinds, which contain within themselves proven abilities to impact the inflammatory process, digestion, antioxidant potential, and even anti-cancer properties.  Here again, these benefits are NOT present within a ration balancer or vitamin-mineral supplement for your horse.

Let’s take a few herbs and foods as an example.

Curcumin or Turmeric is one of my favorite, often being incorporated into many horse’s recovery regimen.  Turmeric by itself does provide some degree of nutritional value, but while this is present and offering a level of mineral value, it is not the reason for its usage.  More so, Turmeric is used in different forms to take advantage of its inherent polyphenol content, namely curcuminoids, which offer marked research proven benefits to the body on a level of inflammation and oxidative stress, not to mention the potential for impact on the digestive microbiome.

Blueberries are another that we utilize often in our program.  They are high in nutrient value on various levels, but offer very potent levels of antioxidant capabilities which impact health in the horse and human on many levels.  The main antioxidants present include anthocyanins which are noted to have antioxidant capabilities, anti-inflammatory properties, and noted to impact blood sugar, insulin function, vascular health, and even cancer development.  In addition, due to naturally present fiber and other cofactors, blueberries are known for their ability to regulate the digestive microbiome.

Then, there are specific foods known for nutrient provision which include green spinach, alfalfa, barley grass, beets, and many others.   While all of these foods are very high in nutrient value, they each offer other health benefits from prebiotic potential to mitigation of inflammatory pathways.  Most of these foods also offer high levels of inherent nitrates, which are then utilized by the body to promote healthy nitric oxide production and with that, improved circulation.  Not something that is found in the average vitamin-mineral supplement, ration balancer, or processed feed for the horse.

Lastly, many foods from greens to herbs can greatly enhance immune function either directly or indirectly via the digestive tract.  These can include blueberries, various ‘greens’, beets, mushrooms, and many herbs from Turmeric to Astragalus.  So, aside from nutrient value, these foods and herbs can often be a complete package deal with used properly, in the right volume and in the right combination, offering tremendous health value for your horse.

Whole Foods and the Horse; Final Conclusions

The debate over the use of foods as medicine will continue through my lifetime and that of many others.  The reality is that in my career, as a veterinarian, the only thing that has proven to be of any clinical benefit to my patients has been real food, not synthetic vitamins or minerals and not processed grains or kibbles.  This is not of my discovery, but has been evident for centuries in the world of medicine and healing.  However, despite almost every real food offering health benefits and nutrient provisions, not every food is ideal for every horse or patient.  This goes beyond nutrient value and demands a certain level of understanding regarding other inherent properties to that food and even energies emitted.

Some foods offer abilities to impact hormone pathways, including provision of phytoestrogens or ability to stimulate testosterone secretion or even impact adrenal or thyroid function, which may or may not be suitable for that horse.  While they may not be suitable for that patient or horse, it does not mean that the food is wrong or bad, implying that it is of no value to any being.  Then there is the energy that is emitted by the food or how it impacts the body.  Some foods are cooling in nature, some are heating, while some are neutral in quality.  Again, every food is not ideal for every horse or situation.

With all of this being said, there are three remaining points to be emphasized when it comes to use of whole foods, or real food, and benefits to any horse.

First, there is a certain level of understanding that must come with proper food usage.  Without that level of understanding, problems can arise which are not inherent to the food itself, but more so are created as a result of failure to understand.  As an example, if a horse is compromised, debilitated and lacking true response, it would not be in his or her best interest to utilize cooling foods as this would likely exacerbate the condition.  More so, warming foods would be chosen to revitalize the body and enhance circulation and energy production.  Likewise, a horse that experiences laminitis in the winter time is likely due to an imbalance in these pathways, and thus would benefit from a warming approach rather than one of cooling.  Vice versa applies to the horse with metabolic problems, laminitis, and allergies that tends to rear its ugly head during the warmer times of the year.

Second, your source of acquisition of those whole foods, whether if in whole food form, or in powdered or extract form will dictate and impact outcomes.  Not every apple provides the same nutrient value and an apple that is 3 days old is likely of less nutrient value than one just picked off the tree.  In addition, that apple that is 3 days old may offer more readily available carbohydrates which could negatively impact blood sugar, insulin and digestive function.  The same is true for other foods and powdered formulations.  Not every one will offer a high level of nutrient value and indeed, some may actually harbor very high levels of heavy metals or otherwise.  The key is to find a trust worthy supplier that can provide a clean source for these food mediums.  One source of spirulina may offer a protein value of 60%, while another is <40%.  One supplier’s spirulina may have a lead level of 2.0 ppm while another is >0.9 ppm.  Just because it is green and looks like spirulina, as an example, does not mean all is well in the world.

Third, dosing or volume administration is critical.  I would agree with most critics of whole-foods that most supplements on the market do not provide adequate nutrient provision.  The main reason for this is either a poor choice in combination of ingredients or more likely, a very low dose provision to the horse or patient.  Now, the average horse owner may ask why the dose would be so low, and the response is simple.  The dose is low to keep cost under control in order to meet the financial expectations of the consumer.  Thus, many may rely on packaging or marketing to push ‘whole food value’, when in fact the supplement provided to the customer is really nothing more than a treat as some have pointed out.  This does indeed give the whole-food supplement industry a bad reputation and can be very misleading.

A final word on this last point and that is over the course of my rehabilitation career, I have noted that many horses require a higher level of nutrition beyond what even a pure alfalfa diet can offer.  Is this a result of extremely high nutrient demand by the horse’s body, which is a reflection of the degree of disease or injury?  Is this a result of poor digestive function and inability to properly digest and assimilate those plant derived nutrients?  Or is this a result of the chosen food or forage not providing adequate levels of required nutrients?  I would guess it is a result of all three and maybe a reflection of other factor from farming practices, soil provisions, and even usage of herbicides and/or pesticides.  The fact is, in my experience, that if we provide for that patient via a synthetic vitamin-mineral supplement, they will continue to fail to respond to my expectations.  However, if we implement real food, usually in the form of dehydrated powders in high volumes, the patients often make huge strides in their recovery in a short period of time.

The horse’s body, like yours and mine, is a finely tuned machine capable of much more than we can understand and even conceive.  If you provide for it properly, it will heal, but the degree of healing achieved is dependent upon the level for which it is provided for.  The truth is that this can get costly for most horse owners, and thus the continued reliance upon other sources of nutrients.  However, for many that choose not to go this route and understand, not only are they potentially providing the wrong nutrient sources, but they may be creating more harm and with that, their veterinary costs continue to escalate over time.  The ultimate question is what do you seek for your horse and how do you wish to accomplish this?

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


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN



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