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Blueberry, Strawberry, Raspberry and the Metabolic Horse

Metabolic syndrome and obesity is an epidemic in the equine world.  The fact is that you are in control of your horse’s health, believe it or not, and the foods you choose to feed them can either assist in their vitality and health, or work against it, contributing to more disease and pain.  The blueberry is one of many fruits, including the strawberry and raspberry, that pack a powerful punch when it comes to health.  The little purple and red gems are packed full of vital nutrients and phytochemicals that can truly alter well-being and health.  The blueberry is just one of many fruits that possess these research supported powers, impacting overall health, sugar metabolism, mental well being, and even digestive health.  These benefits can impact the metabolic horse on many levels.  Many will claim that horse’s do not normally eat these fruits, which is true, but does that mean we don’t take advantage of them?

Blueberry, Strawberry and Metabolic Horse
Blueberry, Strawberry and Metabolic Horse

Blueberries have become one of my favorite fruits, not just in my daily health regimen, but included into many of the horse’s supplement regimens which are in our care.  Many of these horses have metabolic concerns, while others do not.  Either way, they benefit, each on a different level.

Most in the horse world, including many veterinarians, are seeking that quick solution, the pill, the injection, surgery or otherwise to aid their horse’s failing health and soundness.  While we may perceive illness and lack of health, the truth is that the body is much more than that, and capable of some pretty incredible feats. In order to help the horse’s body to heal, mend, recover and regain strength, you need to feed it properly and allow the miracle present to reveal itself.

Horse’s age and this aging process is directly related to inflammation, cellular function, and more specifically mitochondrial health.  This aging process and cellular degeneration is a result of not just time, but the diet, stress, and other factors which accelerate the sequence of events.  As the cells begin to break down, your horse’s body begins to fail on many levels.  While this process is inevitable for all living beings, the choices you make in regards to food and lifestyle for your horse, can either dramatically speed up or slow down this process.

Blueberries: Powerful Foods for the Metabolic Horse

In the horse world, which I tend to spend much of my time, we are encountering a major epidemic of obesity related problems, viewed as metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.  The irony here is that these health problems in the horse mirror the human and our approaches to lifestyle, food, and overall health.  It is a problem created by many owners, like it or not, just like metabolic issues and obesity are created by us in our own body.  It’s a train that has gathered tremendous momentum in the health care industry, but it can be slowed down and even diverted to another track if you just take a different approach.  Medications are palliative for this condition, both in animals and people, offering very little to the patient, and in most cases really not providing much benefit to overall health.  It was in evaluating this condition in the horse several years ago, that I began to truly understand the power that lies within the blueberry and other fruits. This was also when they became a part of my daily lifestyle, in true volumes to reap benefits.

Blueberries are powerful little purple gems that pack a punch.  Like other fruits, blueberries do contain a small amount of protein, a higher amount of fiber, and often an even higher amount of low-glycemic carbohydrates.  They also contain some nutrient value in regards to vitamins and minerals, but generally this is negligible and just a side bonus.  Their real power is present not just in the fiber but the powerful chemicals which give them their purple color and vibrancy!  This is also true for the strawberry, raspberry, blackberry and other fruits.  These vibrant colors are produced by phytochemicals present within the berry, called polyphenols.  These polyphenols are very potent antioxidant like compounds which are produced by the plant as a means of natural defense against damage, oxidative stress, and disease.  They are produced by the plant to protect it, but by ingesting them ourselves, our body reaps the same benefits!

These polyphenols, including anthocyanins, are what can truly impact your horse’s health and metabolic condition.  They help your horse’s body to combat oxidative stress damage, inflammation, impact the immune response, cardiovascular health, sugar metabolism, and even digestion!  Keep in mind that it is the big picture with food, not the isolated components.  The anthocyanins work together with the fiber and other nutrients present within that fruit, creating synergism.  So just taking polyphenols is not the same.  It’s about the entire fruit, the sum of the parts, which is important!

Blueberries, Circulation, and Performance in the Horse:

While blueberries have not been directly researched or studied in the horse, outside of small research trials which we have performed, they pose many benefits in rodent and human studies which can be transferred to the horse.  Here is a list of some studies evaluating cardiovascular health, which are directly applicable not just to the equine athlete but those horses enduring circulatory issues in the feet or muscles.  This may be linked to poor performance, reduced stamina, poor hoof growth, navicular disease, or laminitis.  The main mode of action is the impact of the fruits on inflammation, oxidative stress, and other parameters.

  • Blueberries have been shown in multiple studies to impact cardiovascular health through impact on inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular function
  • In one study of obese men and women, consumption of 350 grams of fresh blueberries per day for 8 weeks resulted in a reduction of systolic and diastolic blood pressure, while also reducing the level of oxidized LDL cholesterol, all major contributors to cardiovascular disease. (1)
  • In another study, consumption of 1 cup (150 grams) for 6 months improved endothelial (blood vessel) function, reduced arterial stiffness, and impacted both HDL and LDL.  It was noted that 1/2 cup serving per day did not change any biomarkers! (2)
  • In one study of mice with induced myocardial infarction and congestive heart failure, daily blueberry supplementation improved left ventricular wall thickening, wall remodeling, and myocardial infarction progression, increasing survival by 22%.  (5)

Blueberries, Metabolism, Insulin/Glucose in the Horse:

This is an interesting area and one that we looked at in a small research trial, assessing weight loss in a group of horses.  In this study, concentrated blueberry extract was included with several other fruits for synergism effect.  The end result was a reduced body weight in the horses averaging 30 lbs over 30-days, with most losing more weight.  In addition, there was a noted improvement in foot soreness.

The mode of action is the same, impacting inflammation, oxidative stress, and improving cellular health which all impact insulin function and metabolism in the horse.  As a side note, it is theorized that these berries, including blueberry, are directly impacting the digestive microbiome, which then has a further impact on health, soundness, and metabolic function in the horse.

  • In one study, mice fed a high-fat diet along with blueberries noted an improved insulin response and reduced elevation in post-meal glucose, along with reduced fat cell death, all of which contribute heavily to inflammatory events and metabolic syndrome. (3)
  • Insulin sensitivity was also noted to improve in another study in obese and insulin resistant men and women, with no other biomarker changes, but the dose was quite low at 22 grams per day. (4)

Blueberries and Digestive Microbiome in the Horse

This is one of the most interesting areas of impact for the blueberry and other fruits in the horse, as demonstrated in human research.  Blueberries and other fruits contain high levels of fiber, ligans, and phytochemicals which act as natural prebiotics and in some cases, antibiotics, helping to reduce harmful bacterial levels in the gut and encourage ‘good’ bacterial growth.  Considering that the vast majority of metabolic and overweight horses have underlying digestive microbiome imbalance, they can certainly benefit from these powerful fruits.  Through alteration of the digestive microbiome, it is then possible to impact the rest of the body from joints to insulin function in the horse.

  • Blueberries were found to positively impact obesity and fat metabolism through alterations of the digestive microbiome in mice through an expansion of Bifidobacterial species. (9)
  • Blueberry polyphenol extract was noted to positively impact the digestive microbiome, inhibited weight gain and returned fat metabolism to normal in a rodent trial using a high-fat diet to induce obesity. (10)
  • Blueberry supplementation in mice on a high-fat diet demonstrated a positive change to the digestive microbiome, altered inflammatory signaling, and improved insulin function. (11)

Blueberries and Joint Pain in the Horse

This is an area of added benefits from these fruits, including the blueberry, for the horse.  Through modification of the inflammatory response and oxidative stress in the horse’s body, this usually equates to improvement of other ‘inflammatory’ conditions, including joint and soundness issues.

  • Daily supplementation of blueberries in a group of individuals with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis noted reduced pain, stiffness, and difficulty performing daily activities. (12)
  • Dietary fruits, due to polyphenol content, are noted to exert a protective role in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. (13)

Blueberries, Fruits, and Your Horse

Taking into consideration the dramatic rise in obesity related conditions in the horse, including metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, it just makes sense to do what you can to alter and improve the process.  Medications are rarely the solution, despite us wishing for them to be, and thus, it forces us to hopefully step back and contemplate the situation.  Your horse did not contract that health condition, it was created.  If it was created, then it is highly possible to ‘un-create’ it for your horse.

This process of ‘un-creation’, if you will, is done by implementing new strategies, new approaches and canceling the old ones.  Foods are your source of true healing, and I have become increasingly convinced of this.  It is not so much about the nutrient profiles present in real food for your horse, but more so about the plant derived co-factors which are present.  It is these little chemicals, from fiber to polyphenols, which create the real impact on health and soundness for your horse.

As always, true results come with a certain level of understanding.  It is like driving a car.  A person can tell you how to drive a car, which in the early stages you may use that advice, but over time, you begin to truly ‘understand’ how to drive that car.  This is the same for health and soundness in your horse.  There are many options available, each with their own benefits, but application with understanding produces the best results.

Blueberry and Fruit Options for Your Horse


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN



  1. Basu A et al. Blueberries decrease cardiovascular risk factors in obese men and women with metabolic syndrome. J Nutr, 2010, July 1582-87
  3. DeFuria J et al. Dietary blueberries attenuates whole body insulin resistance in high fat fed mice by reducing reducing adipocyte death and its inflammatory sequelae. J Nutr. 2009, May, 1510-16
  4. Stull A et al. Bioactives in blueberries improve insulin sensitivity in obese, insulin-resistant men and women.  J Nutr. 2010, July, 1764-68
  5. Ahmet I et al. Survival and cardioprotective benefits of long-term blueberry enriched diet in dilated cardiomyopathy following myocardial infarction in rats. PLoS One, 2009, Nov 4:11
  6. Shukitt-Hale, Blueberries and neuronal aging. Gerontology. 2012; 58:518-523

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