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No Grain For My Horse? Part Two

What?  No grain for my horse??  That article was truth, speaking from my clinical and research experience in working with rehabilitation horses as a veterinarian.  While the article was very popular, it sparked many comments and questions.  How do you manage the harder keeper?  How do you manage the easy keeper??  How to you manage the performance and race horse??  How can you possibly create benefits in these horse scenarios when we have come to rely so heavily upon grain? What about NSC recommendations?  Am I just nuts, as a veterinarian??

Grains; Easy Keeper, Harder Keeper, and Performance Horse
Grains; Easy Keeper, Harder Keeper, and Performance Horse

For starters, I am veterinarian and clinical researcher.  My goal, as described by my profession, is to provide a relief and end to suffering and in that, ‘first do no harm.’  I am a certified holistic nutritionist, which is different from a traditional nutritionist, like comparing an alternative medical doctor to a traditional minded physician.  There are differences which lie in view points on how you see the patient, in this case the horse, and how you manage them.  So, my viewpoints may not be accepted by the vast majority, as the vast majority of us in veterinary and human medicine are western minded, reductionist in practice and mind, and often have deeply ingrained traditions within us.  From one point of view, you can refer to us a being ‘conditioned’ by society, marketing, and other venues to just see health or disease from one perspective.

Keep in mind one thing as you review any information:

“While we may not perceive that information as being truth and do not believe in it, this does not make that information incorrect or untruthful.”

As noted above, my goal and job as a doctor, is to help that patient to get well, in mind and body.  The vast majority of the horses that we encounter are/were deemed unsalvageable.  This viewpoint was determined due to a failure to respond to traditional, western minded, approaches which include processed feeds, ration balancers, medications, injections, and regenerative therapies.  The owners and veterinarians threw everything at them they could imagine, and nothing stuck, nothing worked, so hands were thrown up in the air.

The other concern I have as a veterinarian, is that our caseload is ever increasing.  There are more cases of lameness now, more cases of EPM, more cases of colic, laminitis, metabolic conditions, allergies, and PPID now than in the past.  This is a reality!  Despite this ever increasing case load of problems in the horse, we, as owners and veterinarians, keep applying the same therapy over and over again, hoping for a different outcome.  That’s the definition of insanity, right?  It is true that in some cases, those therapies do provide benefit, but often it is short lived, unless other changes are made for that horse.

In the article, What?  No Grain for My Horse!, my goal was to just relay facts from our clinical research and experience.  Those facts were simply that in the vast majority of horses, the grain being fed, whether if ‘whole food’ or commercial/processed, was creating a block of sorts to continued recovery for that particular horse.  I did not state that grains were bad, nor did I state that they should not be fed, but more, we needed to be aware of what grains can do to the body good or bad.  With that, we also needed to take into consideration the individual case with the horse, not putting them into the same group as all others with their disease or lameness classification.

The biggest concern that I have, as a veterinarian, regarding the health of my patients is their digestive health.  For many, this is an obvious problem with a history of ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel disease, gas, colic, loose stools or otherwise.  There are those that do not display these clinical signs, at least often enough to be a perceived problem, but yet, they still have digestive issues that are going undetected.  In order for me to help that horse, I must improve that digestive health, as the digestive tract is closely tied in with other facets of their health and soundness.  This gets back to the digestive microbiome and interconnection with health on many levels.  The majority of these horses are on a grain of some form, thus, it is the first thing eliminated.  Hence the prior article.  If I ignore that grain as being a contributor, then it is like ignoring a hammer that is hitting your thumb.  You must stop all contributors before the body can even attempt to heal.

Again, this is not saying that grain is ‘bad’, but simply stating that at that point in time, it may not be a good idea for that horse.  In all honesty, if you have an ongoing problem in your horse, health or soundness, why wouldn’t you try at least a short trial of no grain and see what develops?  It’s discontinuation may not resolve all issues, but I am betting it will create some improvement.

Let’s look at a few scenarios in the horse which seemed to raise many questions from owners.

The Easy Keeper Horse and No Grain

The easy keeper horse is one that has a tendency to put on weight easily.  These horses have a unique body type, considered to be an ‘endomorph‘ in most situations.  An endomorph is the body type that is heavier genetically, more prone to gaining weight, as compared to the thinner ectomorph, or the more muscular mesomorph.  This could also be viewed in Ayurvedic medicine as Kapha (endomorph), Pitta (mesomorph), and Vata (ectomorph).   Simply put, the easy keeper type is prone or more susceptible to weight gain by their body type.  This is somewhat their natural tendency by nature. In seeing this, one has to adjust their diet and exercise to help keep that excess weight off, because that excess weight can and will create more health problems.  Despite it being a ‘natural’ tendency, it is not healthy for the horse or human.

If you take the time to understand the endomorph, you will realize there are dietary recommendations for that body type, which usually revolve around humans, but it is applicable to the horse as well.  Additionally, look at the Kapha body type in Ayurvedic medicine, and again you will see that there are general recommendations for foods to consume and foods to avoid.

Grains, nuts, and seeds are generally one main area of foods that are to be at least severely minimized if not avoided completely in this body type; horse or human.  The reason being is mainly the carbohydrate and fat load that is present within those foods.  This adds heavily to caloric intake, and unless that horse is actively working to counter that effect, they will gain weight.  Additionally, from my perspective and research, this body type in the horse is also highly predisposed to digestive issues and microbiome disturbances, which is then made worse by the grains, seeds, nuts, and oils being used.  Just my perspective in working with these horses over the years.  These are our true metabolic horses, our insulin resistant horses, and our chronic laminitis horses.  This body type in the horse is also overly represented in the cases of COPD, allergies, uveitis, white line disease, and even thrush.  Take the time to make this observation and you will find it is true.  Connection with gut health??  Yes.

So, if no grains for an easy keeper type, then how do you provide for all of their ‘nutrition’?  Simply put, through proper choices in forage, pasture and other whole foods.  Grains are not a source of nutrition, and if they provide a real nutrient base, then a synthetic sprayed-on preparation of vitamins and minerals has been provided.  That’s not nutrition, at least from my perspective.  Here’s an article on Whole Foods and Misperceptions in the horse.

For more information on management of the easy keeper and metabolic horse, I invite you to sign up for my online course.  A tremendous amount of information there, but from a different perspective.

Formulas helpful in the easy keeper horse:

The Hard Keeper Horse and No Grains

The harder keeper horse is that horse which has experienced weight loss and is having a hard time putting on additional weight.  These are generally not difficult cases to contend with and manage, after all health issues such as organ function, dental health, and internal parasites have been eliminated.  If all of these factors are in working order, then really, the problem boils down to one of two things; improper caloric provision or excessive consumption of calories by the horse, which goes back to metabolism.  

The hard keeper is the ectomorph body type, in most situations unless there is another problem.  These are the leaner horses, harder to keep weight on, and classify in most cases as being Vata, or Vata-Pitta type in Ayurvedic medicine.  Again, here, we have to look at the body type and evaluate recommendations for that specific body constitution.

In the harder keeper, grains can be helpful, but should not be relied upon to add weight to a horse.  This goes against all traditional approaches with the diet in humans, and in Ayurvedic medicine.  Grains can be fed, but watch the volume.  They are not a meal!  They can provide a good caloric boost, but can have adverse effects in this body type as well as others in the horse.

One of the biggest problems with the average harder-keeper horse is anxiety.  The vast majority, not all, but many have vices, such as pacing, weaving, running fence lines, hyperexcitability, or cribbing. They are generally more attentive, tend to fly off the handle, and jump at the drop of a pin in fear. This is anxiety and presents on many levels.  This anxiety, which is an improper internal fear response, is turning up the caloric burner, their metabolism.  They are burning calories at a much higher rate than other horses, especially the easy keeper.

Many of these harder keeper types will demonstrate digestive problems as well, such as gas, loose stools and ulcers.  Not uncommon and in a high percentage of them, if you perform a fecal culture, they will have a dysbiosis and overgrowth of lactic acid bacteria.  This overgrowth is then fueling more anxiety, more internal inflammation, and digestive problems.  This means not just more health issues and stomach problems, but they are often not digesting the food you are giving them.  Thus…more weight concerns.

In addition to the average harder keeper horse, which has anxiety and stress as a root problem, older horse tend to fall into the group of ‘harder keepers’ as well.  This, in most cases, is not associated with their body type, but more so dental issues, herd issues or other dynamics.  For some, it is a body constitution problem, being more Vata in nature, and thus with age, they become thinner.  This is what is viewed as a relative “kidney-YIN” deficiency and should be addressed accordingly, through foods which are considered YIN tonics.

In the harder keeper, I do not use grains. Again, not saying they are bad, but I see the ‘gut’ problem and I simply remove a contributor.  Grains are generally ‘heating’ in nature, based on food energy, and thus add to the internal heat present in that horse.  Think of them as often being a furnace, pumping out energy physically or internally with an elevated metabolism.  They require more ‘cooling’ than heating. Through the act of trying to put weight on a horse with grains, you just added to the ‘heat’ component and are making matters worse.  Hence, not just more weight loss and anxiety, but more stomach ulcers.  Much easier to remedy with the diet than to spend money on ulcer medications.  This excess ‘heat’ in the body literally depletes moisture, making body condition worse, almost sub-clinically dehydrated.  This is a form of “YIN” deficiency in the horse’s body.

The harder keeper horse needs attention to proper forage, providing high protein, high nutrient load, and relative ‘coolness’ from the forage.  Alfalfa hay, pellets, cubes are my ‘go-to’ in these horses.  For most owners, they will note that their horses get ‘hyper’ on alfalfa or too ‘hot’.  I’ve never experienced that, but then again, I am addressing digestive health, so that negative effect may be a result of the imbalanced microbiome in your horse and negative effects on protein metabolism.

In addition, fats can come into play and benefit these horses, using various oils in their foods or feeding Flax, which is a seed, higher in fat and well balanced for this type of horse.  Not in excess, but when used properly, these options can provide calories, help support the digestion, and ‘cool’ down the horse.  Worried about nutrient provision???  Don’t be. Feed a high quality hay, use some whole foods as additives, just observe your horse and see what happens.  Most of these harder keepers are on fairly low quality hay, and if a new source is introduced, along with a strategic approach to the digestive health, they do quite well.  No grains needed, outside of something like Flax, unless digestive health is improved and supported.

Moving outside of fats, you have YIN tonics, which are foods which add moisture and vitality to the body, and through that, weight gain.  Some grains can be viewed as YIN tonics, but true YIN tonics are cooling in nature, and grains can be more heating.  This YIN deficiency state is what is contributing to a thinner body condition, more anxiety in some cases, and gastric ulcers.  YIN tonics come in all shapes in sizes.  There are a few I use personally, which are mentioned below.

Formulas helpful in the harder-keeper horse:

The Race Horse, Performance Horse and No Grains

In reality, this is not a group of horses in which we can assign a body type, for in this group of performance horses, there lies all three body types; ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph. If you can understand that these three body types exist, then you can see hopefully that the approach for them should be dictated by their body type and not just the fact that they are competing on some level. We tend to perceive a horse that is competing, or racing, as being unique on some level, requiring something special, when in fact, this is not true.  If you feed based on the body type, then you should maximize their output within that body constitution or type, and with that, minimize problems in health and soundness.

With that being said, most owners with competitive horses note that they require more ‘energy’ in order to compete or race.  While this may be true on some level, the general consensus is that they require more ‘grain’ in order to accomplish this feat.  Indeed, if you look at statistics, the average sport horse owner feeds more grain than other disciplines, and sadly, feeds less high quality forage.  This is reflective of our belief that the performance horse requires more grain and that they will acquire their nutrition from that prepared grain.

Looking at this from a veterinary perspective, the performance horse comprises the highest number of visits to the veterinarian, either for health or lameness issues.  This is the class of horses that are given the most ulcer medications, the most joint injections, the most hormone therapies, and the most corrective shoeing.  Coincidence??

For most, they would say this is a price they pay, as the horse is competing and thus, creating more strain upon the body.  While this is true, it is quite possible that through a proper feeding regimen, designed for the body type of the horse, and a targeted preventative supplement regimen for specific tendencies in that horse, that many of these issues could be avoided and performance/stamina improved.

If you look at the average Thoroughbred race horse, they are fed between 4-12 quarts of grain per day. While many are fed high quality hay, they are likewise stalled 23 hours out of that day, exercised for maybe 1 hour most days.  Do you want to see stress in a horse?  Look at the average race horse, or better yet, observe the average dressage horse and watch their headset and eyes.  Most racehorses are of the Pitta body type, with some being Pitta-Vata, and others being Pitta-Kapha.  Despite, we do not see this natural tendency in body type, and we feed them all the same.  High grain loads.  High stress. The Pitta type (mesomorph) is hotter by nature, but more muscular.  More grains = more heating, thus more ulcers, more EIPH, more anxiety.  The Vata type is more cooling, thus grains can be of benefit, but again, not as a meal.  The Pitta-Kapha type of race horse is the concerning one in the end, and is reflective of Secretariat.  High caloric intake to supply needs, often with heavy carbohydrate/grain load. This adds weight, and upon retirement, the horse has shifted to the Kapha type and is not assuming health ailments with that type, which is metabolic ailments and laminitis.

We have this natural line of thinking that the average Thoroughbred is a ‘hot’ natured horse, but this state is reflective of their feeding regimen, not their personality.  Our OTTB’s come in pretty ‘hot’ off the race track, but within a couple of weeks, I’d allow a 5 y.o little girl handle them.  They retain energy to perform still, but their prior injuries are now mending and no medications required.

I understand that the equine athlete requires more ‘energy’, but you have to keep in mind that the energy is not just provided by grains, but can come from other sources.  In addition, the horse should have a storage of energy, glycogen, to use and if they do not, which results in quick fatigue, this indicates glycogen depletion and metabolism problems.  This then links us back to early stage insulin resistance and the need for different energy sources, which is then further complicated by more grain provisions.

When it comes to the average performance horse, we need to look at alternative fuel or energy options, outside of grain.  For far too many horses, damage is present within the body, and despite feeding those grains the horses continue to not fair well.  Thus, we need to look at cellular metabolism more specifically, and with that digestive health.  As noted in human athletes, ketones have become a real option, which can serve two purposes; digestive health and energy.  Look at the 2019 Tour de France, and see what those ectomorphs were consuming.

I am not against grain in the performance horse, but simply request that you evaluate and determine your horse’s body type before just applying what others are doing.  Is it really worth putting money into grain for perceived energy when the ‘costs’ are so high in veterinary care, diagnostics, and therapies? Is it possible, that in your particular situation, the grains could be working against your horse’s body type?

There is always a better way, but this involves taking the time to understand the situation and apply those options.  The bottom line with grains is that they are not ‘bad’, at least most of them, but more so it is about how they may be contributing to your horse’s health and soundness.  From my perspective, it boils back to digestive health in the horse, and if this function is impaired, then the whole organism is out of balance.  Until it is rectified and put on a path to balance, health and soundness may continue to be out of reach for your horse.

Recommended course:  Introduction to Herbs and Whole Foods in the Horse


Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN



2 thoughts on “No Grain For My Horse? Part Two”

  1. I’ve read about not feeding grains. I have a horse with probable EPM. The vet didn’t want to test her since she was showing all the signs. I’ve treated her with 4 different treatments. I’m about to give up on her. Will just feeding her alfalfa and alfalfa pellets help her any? She’s kinda thin but not horrible. Could I add black sunflower seeds to her pellets for fat? She’s been going down hill since I got her out of a kill pen in 2018. She was a race horse. But I didn’t know that when I got her, a year later showing drastic signs. I’m very rural, and I hadn’t ever seen a horse with it. Thank you.

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