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The Equine Diet and Picky Eaters; Thoughts and Concerns

One of my major concerns, as a veterinarian and researcher, is the equine inflammatory process and how it can dictate health and soundness.  This process is complex, involving many contributors, but diet is a major player.  As we investigate further the impact of gastrointestinal health on equine health and soundness, certain things begin to fall into place and become more obvious. The first item is diet, what we are feeding and how we define this. The second item of concern is the picky eater, which more than likely we have all encountered at one time or another.  Many owners feel this ‘pickiness’ is often ‘cute’ or a trait for a particular horse….but is there more to it?  Is this picky eater status a symptom or sign of something larger in the equine industry?

Picky Eater Horse with Grain
Picky Eater Horse with Grain

As I move throughout my research career and look back on my years in clinical equine practice, I begin to notice things, trends that are quite obvious now that I know what to look for.  Inflammation has been a major area of interest for myself, in research and practice, as this process often contributes to almost every known health or lameness concern, not only in animals but also in people.  The inflammatory response is complex and discussed in more detail in a separate article, but the main thing we need to remember is that there are many facets to this process.  It is not just about the perception of pain, but goes much deeper, involving and impacting cellular function on many levels.

Diet has become a keen area of interest to myself, as well as many other researchers.  We know that a ‘healthier’ diet generally leads to improved health on many levels, which is demonstrated in the human research. People and animals that eat healthier, generally are healthier.  As this process or concept is applied to horses, we often see similar changes towards the positive in many respects.  This concept of feeding our horse a ‘healthier’ diet has become a trend, but really what does it mean?  How do we feed a healthier diet to our horse?  This is a common question and one that I receive many emails on each week.

I will state that I am not a certified nutritionist, but a veterinarian, making observations about what is and what is not.  As with anything in our life, we really have two things; the word and experience. The ‘word’ is often in marketing, articles or even advice from a professional.  The ‘experience’ is what we have truly experienced through practice or just life.  In many cases, the ‘experience’ does not agree with the ‘word’ and thus we are tossed as to which one is right? Do we go with what others are doing…what marketing tells us or do we go with our gut and what our experience tells us is correct? This dilema is real for many, whether if it is for their horse or themselves.  More often than not, we know what the answer or solution is, based on our gut or experience, but out of fear, we give into the ‘word’, thinking it is the best option.  In the end, there is no right or wrong, as each of these is relative.  The ultimate question is how the chosen route works for us and the results it brings.

If we look back on the past 30 years in the equine world, we will note that some of the most famous racehorses in history were fed diets consisting of alfalafa hay and pure oats.  In reality, going back to the 1970’s, this was their only option, as there were no commercial feeds available or very few if they did exist.  When I graduated from veterinary school, there were a few commecial horse feeds on the market, but in general they were limited.  At the University, we fed a general Purina Horse Feed to patients, but in my early years of practice, most owners fed a sweet feed to their horses which was produced locally at private mills.  As I moved into the second decade of my career, it seems that low starch feeds started to pop up, in addition to more commercial feeds, which were all specialized for particular problems whether if it was insulin resistance, a young growing horse or an elderly patient. Feeds were no longer ‘textured’ but now were pelletized, which were supposed to be easier to digest especially for the older patient.  There were also ‘complete’ feeds, which incorporated grains and hay (roughage) into one pellet, so there was no or minimal need for pasture or hay.  What used to be simple, in regards to feeding a horse, actually became quickly complex….which it shouldn’t be.  We somehow made what was, in my opinion, an effective and simple means of feeding a horse, into a dilemma for most owners.  These new diets were supposed to ‘fix’ things, but did they? We were moving away from a basic, instinctual diet and more towards complexity in the equine industry.

In the first decade of my career, we saw laminitics, insulin resistance and other health problems….but maybe <10 cases per week.  In the second decade of my career, this case load actually increased. Laminitics were interesting in the first decade, but in the second decade, their incidence actually increased so much that they had lost their flavor in terms of interest.  We went from maybe 3-4 laminitics per week to over 10 per week, dependent on the time and season.  Insulin resistance also increased, as did other issues and concerns such as lameness and tendon injuries.  Why did this happen and was diet a contributor?  Considering that a high percentage of these owners were now feeding the commercial feeds and low starch products, it has to raise the question as to whether or not these diets helped or hindered these patients?  Again, just an observation.

When it came to most IR laminitic patients, our general recommendation years ago, which holds true now, was to pull them off pasture, no grains, only low starch grains, low quality hays and dry lot.  Did this help the laminitis situation?  Yes and no, to be honest.  The clinical laminitis seemed to improve, in regards to pain, but overall, these patients did worse clinically in my opinion.  They became depressed and lost body condition.  Their hoof and skin health suffered and mentally, they just weren’t ‘there’.  We seemed to have improved one thing at the expense of the patient, as a whole.

In today’s laminitic world, the cases aren’t managed much differently.  Same general recommendations, no grains, low starch processed feeds, low quality hays and no pasture.  Special shoes are applied and due to lack of nutrient provisions, we then supplement them with hay balancers, which are supposed to ‘balance’ out the diet and provide all that they need.  Are these horses faring out better than the ones 18 years ago?  The simple answer is ‘no’. These owners continue to battle the condition, putting tons of money into special feeds, therapies and other regimens in hope that if they throw multiple darts at the board…one will stick.

Now, I tend to make observations, trying to connect dots.  I like to observe trends and see what the possible connectors or contributors may be over time. In the first decade of my career, we did have laminitics and other health concerns in horses and most of those horses were fed non-commercial diets and mainly just hay.  Laminitis is going to happen, no matter what we do in some situations, but what we have to look at is trends or incidence, which I personally believe has risen over the years…despite our efforts with special diets and medications.  Even in the 1970’s, with the plain diets they utilized, problems still existed, but likely were lower in incidence than current times.  What I question is healing and recovery rates of THEN versus NOW.  I have no absolute data on this topic, but my guess is that recovery or management rates were higher then.  Just an opinion.

Diet to me is huge, as a major contributor to every facet of health.  As the saying goes “you are what you eat”, which applies to every species of being, including plants.  In years past, during practice, I would strongly emphasize clean, home cooked diets to our companion animal owners.  I’d recommend it in patients with clinical problems, such as dog with allergies or even cancer, but also routinely in disease prone breeds as they are presented as a puppy. What was obvious is that if we fed them home cooked meals, they just did better.  Allergies were better controlled, they were healthier and had more energy, fewer episodes of GI upset.  The cancer patients also did much better with home cooked diets, which agrees with human data regarding cancer patients eating less processed foods and more healthier foods.  This is not a fad, but a concept and a concept that we seem to have lost our way with overall, somehow thinking or believing that these processed foods available are better for us in general.  In reality, they are just easier…quicker to make, but generally speaking, not healthier.

The Picky Eater Horse.  Where do they fit in and what do they tell us?  

This is another area of interest to me.  In years past, we did have the picky eater, but not as prevalent as they are today, in my opinion.  Again, in the first 10 years of my career, we only really had one food source which was utilized by owners, which was a sweet feed, whole oats and hay. These horses could become a picky eater, but often it was due to a health problem or sickness they had which diminished their appetite.  Over the second decade of my career, the picky eater became more obvious and problematic to me as a veterinarian.  We’d have these patients in our hospital and run into problems with them not eating their meals or taking their medications.  We always fed the simple sweet feed or mainly oats to our patients, but over time these horses were moved to more specialized diets by their owners, which created issues.  The irony was that the ‘sweet feed’ or whole oats we fed was something that almost all of these horses started off on in years past, as it was a staple in our area, but over time, they actually began to reject this feed regimen, turning their noses up.  It never made sense to me how a horse that used to eat a whole grain, such as oats, would soon reject it in favor of a commericial, processed food source that didn’t even resemble food. We even see this problem in current rehabiliation patients that are presented.  Many have concurrent lameness issues as well as underlying GI problems, and are on highly processed feeds.  If you offer these horses whole oats, as an example, most will turn their nose up at it, which is more a sign than a problem.

So…now we have to start to make connections and seeing what fits.

The picky eater situation is one of the most common ‘side complaints’ that I get in emails and consultations.  In most cases, the owners do not note the ‘picky’ appetite as being a problem, but more so it is incidental and a personal behavioral trait for that horse.  If we begin to step back and look deeper, we begin to see that a high percentage of horses with an easy keeper status, insulin resistance, anxiety, ulcers and even certain lameness problems are actually the picky eater.  It is not uncommon to get an email from an owner, noting the ulcer history or other problems, but then finding out that the horse is also a picky eater and hard to get supplements into.  Is this a trait, a coincidence or a sign of trouble?

Everything is connected in the world of inflammation from my perspective.  We just need to be more observant and connect dots which may exist.

Over the past decade, research has been done which has noted a change in bacterial populations within the horse’s GI tract, especially in metabolic and laminitic patients.  The condition is what is termed a bacterial dysbiosis, and in most research projects has indicated an overgrowth of lactic acid bacteria, of different species.  This was a concept which we, at Nouvelle Research, explored in the Spring of 2015, noting that indeed, in most easy keepers with a variety of health conditions, there was a higher population of lactic acid bacteria present in the feces, as compared to normal horses. Again, everything is relative and nothing is absolute.  The normal group of horses explored not only demonstrated lower lactic acid bacteria counts, but also were generally fed whole cereal grains (no processed feeds) or no grains at all. The group of horses with higher levels had more health problems, were fed commercial diets and even higher levels of synthetic based supplements. If we further look at lactic acid bacteria, we soon discover that this group of bacteria really thrive off of sugars and sweets, using them as fermentation substrates at higher level than other groups of bacteria.  Considering this, is it possible that this drive for more ‘sweets’ or sugars in the diet is actually due to a shift in bacterial populations, creating the more ‘picky’ eater?  In reality, this must be true on some level as in order to get around a ‘picky eater’, we often have to ‘sweeten’ up the meal by adding molasses, honey or other additives.  They want this added sweetness, they really need it, due to this shift which may be occuring in the GI tract. this picky eater behavior just a trait or is it a sign of something bigger..something deeper?  Could this not just be a trait for that particular horse, but an indication of a bacterial imbalance which is present, which itself may be contributing to GI problems and even systemic inflammation?  We have discussed probiotics and even leaky gut in separate articles.

For the past year or two, many horses owners have become aware that we feed nothing but whole grains in our facility.  We did this for our patients over the years and do it today for our own personal horses. Why?  As a vet, I have never used a commercial or processed feed.  I have never recommended one, but most have been used by the owner’s own choice.  Food is a vital part of health and soundness.  Food is what provides for our body, our cellular function, antioxidant support, healing and strength.  Food not only provides nutrients in their natural form, which is more readily utilized by the body as compared to synthetics, but food also has medicinal value.  Many foods, including fruits, vegetables and other herbs are actually capable of boosting the immune response, altering cellular processes such as inflammation and lowering incidence of certain health conditions.  There is a difference between how we are eating now, for ourselves our horses and our pets, as compared to years past.  Whole foods are what we are talking about…food in its natural form or one that is close in resemblance.  In todays equine world and even human markets, foods are highly processed, often not even resembling their natural form visually and if they do, they are often ridden with preservatives and additives to make their shelf life longer.  Natural food expires with time.

The whole rationale behind us feeding and recommending whole food diets, is to not only provide nutrition in its natural form…but to also avoid possible contributors to health and lameness problems which may be present in the additives, preservatives and even dyes which are added.  Often, we also have a high level of synthetic nutrients added to these processed diets and hay balancers, which may actually pose a problem as well, as these nutrients may or may not be in the same form as that which is present in nature.  One thing is for sure, by feeding a processed diet we are not getting the full ‘bang for the buck’ as a whole food diet.  Whole foods, as mentioned, are not only sources of nutrients naturally, but also have other cofactors present which provide medicinal benefits on a totally different level.  These ‘cofactors’ are not present in a bag full of pellets or a processed low starch feed.  They are only present in nature.

So, what is the bottom line here?  As I mentioned initially, I am not a nutritionist by trade, but just a veterinarian, researcher and observer.  I think that we make diet more complex than what it needs to be. Instead of feeding a high quality hay or letting our horses out onto a well maintained pasture, we stall them, limit sunlight exposure, or put them on dry lots….then we feed them fancy feeds and even throw in hay balancers to fill in the voids.  In reality, we would probably fare better if we invested that money into a high quality hay and allowed them time on pasture.  Grains are not and have never been meant to be a major part of the equine diet, but for some reason we have made them that way, often relying on hay balancers and grain instead of hay or pasture.   When we do this, we create problems.  Each horse is going to have their requirements, in regards to nutrition and other things, and we have to recognize this instead of feeding and treating them all the same.

What do do?  This is the number one question that ends up arising.  I can’t advise you to this as each situation is different, but only convey what seems to work. My general advice is that if the program you are using and following is working for you, then stick with it.  If not, then you need to re-evaluate and regroup.  The diet we are feeding is more of a contributor to the many health and lameness problems than we realize and care to admit.  I do believe, as a veterinarian, researcher and performance horse owner, that by feeding whole cereal grains, high quality hay, turnout on pasture and utilizing herbs as food sources…many of the past problems in these horses become non-existent or at least more manageable.

For more information, please read the “cleaning up the equine diet‘ article.

I hope this helps.  Thank you.

Tom Schell, D.V.M.

Nouvelle Research, Inc.






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