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Rebuilding Your Horse’s Core for Health and Soundness

The Three Treasures of Chinese medicine are the root of almost every health and lameness condition impacting the horse.  Resolve, re-balance, and support these three important facets of the body and you will restore health and soundness to your horse. This is the core or root process involved with healing and recovery.  Understand it and the answers will seem rather straight forward.  Ignore it and you will be chasing your own tail as you struggle to find solutions and long-term remedies as a horse owner.

Three Treasures and Core Health in the Horse
Three Treasures and Core Health in the Horse

The “Three Treasures” in Chinese medicine involve 3 very important structures or elements of health in any living being, including the horse.  The ‘Three Treasures” are simply:

  • Jing  (vital essence or vitality within the body)
  • Qi  (vital energy or life force within a body)
  • Shen  (having to do with the spirit or the mind)

This may seem rather confusing or even foreign to many horse owners, so let’s take a look at it on a more simple level.  It is a rather important concept and something that is vital to grasp if you desire to keep your horse healthy and sound for the long-term, rather than just the short-term.

Jing Energy and Your Horse

The concept of Jing in Chinese Medicine essentially refers to a type of internal battery present within the body of a horse or even a human.  This is a battery with a preset charge or energy lifespan to it, and this energy can run the entire body.  There are two types of Jing, one being ‘prenatal’ and the other being ‘postnatal’, meaning before and after birth.  The prenatal jing is a preset amount of energy that is housed in the body and something that we are all born with as we enter the world.  The postnatal jing is energy that we acquire from the air that is taken in as well as the food that is chosen to eat or given to the horse.  This food and air both rebuild and sustain the internal ‘jing’ and the ‘Qi’ within the body, producing energy on a cellular level not just for physical energy, but cellular function.

Your horse is alive because of cellular energy and over time, that energy is depleted, like a battery being drained.  Ideally, your horse’s body runs off of energy produced via Qi, but in times of need, it will fall back on jing, which is not good.  The concept of jing is like having an alarm clock that can run off of AC power but has a backup battery.  This jing is the backup battery, ideally only to be used in a time of crisis or emergency.  Once the jing is depleted from a living body, deterioration of the body quickly follows, as does death , which is logical.

Now, ideally, your horse relies upon postnatal jing and Qi to create energy in the body for physical work and cellular function.  However, in many cases, as noted in humans, the demands put upon the horse often require more energy than is being produced, thus the ‘prenatal’ jing battery turns on to sustain and provide in times of need.  This is not ideal and is termed “Jing-leakage”, and if not stopped or plugged up, the horse’s body will continue to fail at a rapid pace.  Death is the ultimate end to jing-leakage, but in the process, what is noted is a deterioration of the horse’s body, resulting in things like joint degeneration, weakened tendons/ligaments, hoof problems, and overall worsening health.

Drains on jing can be plentiful, and in truth, anything can deplete jing quickly from the body if the body is not being provided for in order to generate postnatal jing or Qi.  This is where the proper diet and supplementation come into play, and also where the improper diet and supplementation can quickly worsen a situation.

Situations which deplete Jing in the horse’s body include:

  • Ongoing or chronic health ailment (metabolic disease, laminitis, COPD, allergies)
  • Ongoing or chronic lameness (laminitis, joint degeneration, back problems,tendon/ligament issues)
  • Ongoing high levels of training and competition without periods of adequate rest
  • Ongoing physical or mental stress
  • Over-usage of breeding mares and collecting stallions

The key concept here is that Jing is like an internal battery in your horse, an internal energy source. Energy is needed for all facets of health and soundness.  Energy is also needed to produce healing of tissue, strengthening of muscles and tendons, building solid hooves, and maintaining a healthy immune response.  Reduced internal energy, Jing being one form of energy, is at the ROOT of all health and lameness conditions in the horse. 

Qi Energy and Your Horse

Qi (chee) energy is a different type of energy, being a vital ‘life-force’ energy that is needed by your horse’s body to function, but it is produced internally during states of health and balance.  Qi energy is produced mainly through the air that is taken into your horse’s body and through proper dietary practices.  This is the energy source that is responsible for ATP production at a cellular level, helping all cells to produce energy which is vital to their normal function.  Every cell in your horse’s body requires Qi or energy to function, not just for normal function, but cellular repair and healing.

Given that Qi is produced within the horse’s body via food and air, you have to step back and look at those two facets.

First, if your horse has breathing problems such as with COPD or Inflammatory Airway Disease, then airflow may be compromised to a certain degree.  This then can directly reduce the amount of air available to produce Qi or energy in the body.  This is logical as air contains oxygen, which is needed for cellular energy production.  Reduce that airflow to your horse and energy levels fall often quickly, which explains the high level of fatigue seen in COPD patients and the low level of performance seen in horses with airflow disturbances such as being a ‘roarer’ or having other upper airway issues.

Second, if your horse is not fed the proper diet with proper nutrient provisions or they have digestive issues either primarily or secondarily, then Qi cannot be produced adequately from the food that is given them.  If the diet is sub-optimal, not rich in micro- and macro-nutrients, along with phytochemicals, then this food source cannot serve as a substrate for proper energy production.  You cannot produce adequate energy to run 2 furlongs in a race if the horse is fed a quarter-pounder with cheese with a large fry.  Additionally, even if fed an optimal diet rich in high quality forage and low in grain, if your horse has digestive issues ranging from ulcers to irritable bowel disease, or even an un-diagnosed case of malabsorption, they will not be able to utilize or take advantage of that food.  This then results in a reduced level of Qi or internal energy production in your horse, which then impacts not just physical energy, but cellular energy.

Reduced internal energy, Qi being another form of energy, is at the ROOT of all health and lameness conditions in the horse. 

Shen and Your Horse

The concept of ‘Shen’ revolves around the spirit and the mind, impacting every living and breathing being.  This concept goes along with the mind-body-spirit phenomenon and how what happens in the mind often is manifested in the body.  If the mind or spirit is unbalanced or unsettled, then the body often reflects this.  This may be a hard concept to understand but in truth it is rather simple.

Look at a horse on the racetrack or one that is stalled a large percentage of the day with little turnout.  This lack of proper lifestyle leads to the spirit being unsettled, manifesting with a horse that is anxious or depressed, pawing, cribbing, weaving or even digging in their stall.  This is the mind or spirit unsettled.  Interestingly enough, the longer the mind or spirit is unsettled, the more bodily problems that develop and the harder it is to get some to heal or mend.  This is the impact of the mind activities upon the physiology of the body, creating ulcers and other manifestations.  Your horse’s mind can influence cellular function in every area of their body, just like yours can impact your body.

As an example, let’s take an off-track Thoroughbred with a tendon injury.  In typical scenarios, the protocol would be to prescribe anti-inflammatory medications, maybe some topical remedies, and to stall the horse to aid recovery.  The idea here is that ‘rest’ is what is needed to heal that tendon.  Now, some horses do mend and recover, but if they do, it usually requires 4-6 months.  Some fail to recover at all and continue to deal with tendon issues.  The reason for this is that during this ‘rest’ period, the mind of the horse becomes unsettled and agitated.  They are not meant to be in a box stall for that period of time.  The mind wanders, gets anxious or depressed, and the body responds.  Negative vices develop, the horses become more agitated and often harder to even hand-walk by their owners.  Then, instead of dealing with the problem of the unsettled mind, either the issue is ignored or the horse is sedated on some level, which just compounds the problem.  Going even further, many of these horses are on full grain loads while stalled, which generates internal heating to the body and thus, further agitation.  Is it a wonder that these horses don’t fully heal from their tendon injuries or other ailment?

Considering how tightly the shen or mind-spirit is connected with the body, it is wise to tend to that spirit and keep it balanced.  Otherwise, as the spirit is more unsettled, the body consumes more Qi and Jing, further pushing their body into a state of depletion.  This then makes it even harder and harder to obtain our goal of recovery, healing, and a return to competition.

Fixing Your Horse at a Core Level

All health and lameness conditions in your horse stem back to these three treasures, being either Qi, jing or shen.  Going outside of oriental medicine concepts, every facet of poor health or lameness that you are contending with in your horse is a result of cellular failure and lack of energy production. In truth, on a scientific level, this goes back to mitochondrial function within the cell, which includes every cell in your horse from bone to immune.  The mitochondria are small organs within each cell, responsible for energy production.  They are the power-house within your horse’s cells and almost every disease, health-ailment, or lameness condition is associated with ‘mitochondrial dysfunction‘.  This results in reduced energy production (Qi or Jing), which then creates what you are seeing as a horse owner, whether if that is metabolic disease and laminitis, joint pain, or a tendon that will not mend.

If you can grasp this concept of cellular energy and how important it is for overall health and soundness in your horse, then the philosophy behind the ‘Three Treasures’ makes complete sense!

In looking at that typical horse with a tendon or joint problem, the therapies prescribed and utilized in traditional medicine are palliative at best.  They are therapies or medications used to block pain and to some degree inflammation.  These approaches at best are managing symptoms, rather than the problem at the root or core, which is cellular dysfunction.

  • Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production are why your horse’s joints deteriorate.
  • Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production are why your horse has allergy issues.
  • Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production is why your horse has tendon or ligament issues.
  • Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production is why your horse has metabolic issues and even laminitis.
  • Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production is why your horse has breathing issues such as COPD or I.A.D.
  • Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production is why your horse may be a bleeder or have performance or recovery issues.
  • Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production is why your horse ages.

This is the ‘core’ problem, be it cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production, in your horse. This is where the ‘Three Treasures’ come into play and why their concepts are so important in not just recovering your horse, but maintaining as high of a level of health and soundness as possible.

Now, let’s get back to those Three Treasures and dig deeper.  Cellular dysfunction and reduced energy production are the root problem, but that is really an ‘effect’ being the result of something else.  There is always a ’cause-effect’ relationship, so what is the cause??  This is the ‘leakage’ which must be contained in order to reduce the energy drain upon the body.

First Step is to stop the leakage of Jing or vital energy (Qi) from your horse.  This means that in cases of high stress, it must be abolished and the horse is allotted time off to rest mentally and physically.  This doesn’t always equate to stall confinement, but may mean pasture turnout into a small herd.  In the case of foot pain, the shoes are removed and the horse is allowed to run, play and expand the hoof capsule properly.  In the case of dietary depletion, the diet is corrected to provide for the horse’s body rather than work against it. You must stop the leak or at least slow it down, otherwise more will be lost even if supplemented.

Second step is to provide and supplement for each of the ‘Three Treasures’.  This is done ideally through the usage of herbs, at proper doses and frequencies.  Herbs can be used to replenish and support Jing and even help prevent leakage.  Herbs can also be used to replenish Qi or vital energy in the body and cellular network.  Herbs can also be used to properly calm and balance the unsettled shen, mind or spirit.  Ideally, all three aspects are addressed and if done properly, your horse’s body will gradually rebuild itself, often not requiring much else in terms of medications or even supplements, outside of a proper diet.

Herbs that promote and balance Jing include:

  • Gynostemma
  • Schisandra chinensis
  • Astragalus membranaceus
  • Ginseng (Korean)
  • Ginseng (American)
  • Ginseng (Siberian- Eleutherococcus senticosus)
  • Asparagus (Traditional or Shatavari)
  • Shilajit
  • Cordyceps sinensis

Herbs that promote and balance Qi include:

  • Ginseng (Korean, American, Siberian)
  • Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
  • Astragalus membranaceus
  • Schisandra chinensis
  • Licorice root
  • Dioscorea oppositifolia (wild yam)
  • Chaga mushroom
  • Ashwaghanda
  • Shilajit
  • Cordyceps sinensis

Herbs that promote and balance the Shen include:

  • Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
  • Schisandra chinensis
  • Hawthorn leaf and berry
  • Ashwaghanda
  • Poria cocos
  • Shilajit

(The majority of these herbs are available as Individual Herbs)

In addition to the Three Treasures above, the concept of digestive Qi also becomes a factor.  This is essentially the digestive capability present within the horse or the digestive fire.  This is vitally important, as again, one can feed an optimal diet to your horse, but if digestion is not supported, the diet cannot yield proper energy or Qi.  So supporting the ‘digestive fire or Qi’ is also vitally important to success in healing and maintaining your horse.

Herbs to promote proper digestion include:

  • Triphala (three herb blend)
  • Poria cocos
  • Chen pi (tangerine peel)
  • Nigella sativa (black cumin)
  • Ginger root

Manage the Core and Resolve the Issues in the Horse

In my experience, as a veterinarian and herbalist, if you can address those ‘core’ issues which are present in every case, no matter what is presented, then the horse recovers much more quickly.  Additionally, if these three factors are addressed, including digestive support, not only do they respond and heal quicker, but they are stronger and more resilient in the future, being less susceptible to injury again or health problems.

This cellular dysfunction is present in every horse issue, no matter what it is, so supporting that cellular function properly can restore the body.  That is just logical.  If you rebuild the cell, then the cell responds and the prior issues often go with it.  Tissues heal, bones and joints become stronger, and the body becomes more vibrant.

Now, there are many herbs mentioned above and there is not a single herb that is to be used alone.  They are to be used in synergism, as each herb offers its own benefits.  In some cases, herbs can have side effects, such as being too warming or overstimulating, which are offset or neutralized by other herbs used in the formula.  Thus, we often use a combination of both warming and cooling herbs to support the jing, Qi, and re-balance the Shen in the horse.

In addition to herbs, there are several key nutrients which can impact mitochondrial function positively, enhancing cellular energy, and restore cell function based on research and clinical application.  This is the principle behind the Cur-OST EQ Cell Repair formula targeting metabolic horses, but equally effective in a tendon injury case as well.

In all my years of research, this approach of addressing mitochondrial function, which coincides with the ‘Three Treasures’, just seems to make the most sense, but it also produces the best results.  All of the herbs mentioned above have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, thus they can and will help with conditions such as pain and inflammation.  However, most of these herbs act more in the longer-term, rather than the short-term.  Thus, I will add other herbs, such as Curcumin, to the blend to help us overcome more ‘acute’ issues such as a high level of inflammation or discomfort.

At this time, in our equine rehabilitation program, we are using three formulas in all cases, despite the horse’s presenting complaint or problem being different.  No matter if it is metabolic issues, joint pain, back pain, tendon or foot issues, this is the approach used for all.

These formulas include:

  1. Cur-OST EQ Inflammend
  2. Cur-OST EQ Core Support  (coming soon)
  3. Cur-OST EQ Gut Support  (coming soon)

The last two formulas are targeted at addressing the ‘Three Treasures’ while also supporting digestive health on a much more basic level than our traditional formula, Cur-OST EQ Tri-GUT, although this formula is equally as effective and may be warranted in more involved cases.  An alternative for the Cur-OST EQ Core Support at this time is our Cur-OST EQ Adapt & Recover.

We are continuing to explore this approach and new formulas in our patients.  As we gain more insight, the formulas will become available.  The one caveat to be mentioned here, however, is that this approach can be rather expensive, as not only are some of the herbs costly, but the proper dosing is critical, which then raises cost, especially when you are managing a 1200 lb horse.  This approach is getting back to the root problem, which is cellular function, and if applied properly it can produce very nice and longer-lasting results for the horse.

In future articles, I will highlight some benefits of these individual herbs for a greater understanding on how they can truly impact your horse.


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN

1 thought on “Rebuilding Your Horse’s Core for Health and Soundness”

  1. Connie Bassett Mercier

    I am excited to read this article. I work in the natural supplement industry and am very willing to apply this to my horse’s health needs. I like the adaptogens and mushroom blends. My horse is anxious, reactive, high energy and oppositional. Changes in her environment really affect her. She has also had lymes and continues to have weight loss issues. She is 20, her CBC blood panel looks ” more than perfect – like that of a younger horse” as do her eyes and teeth. She is never lame, but tight muscled. She has a quiet lifestyle, small barn, nice paddock with run in, clean and orderly. I ask little of her, do a lot for ground work, ride often but lightly and Ive learned to “ride the horse I have today” in the 9 years Ive had her. With her weight maintenance issues, and her nervous brain, spooky, reactionary – I wonder what blend is best – She has been on Total, immune repair and the protein toppling and muscle. (Topline is not good). Any advice would be helpful. She was on Total for several years following her lyme issues, it was a lifesaver

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