Understanding Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats in the same way that amino acids are the basic unit of proteins. When picking a fat for your horse, you should be guided by the fatty acid levels.

The fat content of the horse’s natural diet is quite low – about 4% during peak grazing season and much lower when grass is not growing or forage has been cut and dried. The fat in grasses contains less than 20% saturated fatty acids, primarily palmitic. Of the unsaturated fatty acids, 60+ percent is alpha-linolenic aka C18:3 omega-3 fatty acids and the remainder a mixture of omega-9 C18:1 oleic acid and omega-6 C18:2 linoleic acid.

You have probably heard that omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory and omega-3 antiinflammatory but it’s not really quite that simple. Both are needed for healthy and  balanced immune activity.

Omega-6 linoleic acid [LA] is converted to arachidonic acid [AA]. This is found in very high concentrations in the brain and skeletal muscles, and in cell membranes. If an inflammatory reaction has been triggered, AA can be a source of immune system inflammatory chemicals but it cannot trigger inflammation by itself. AA is also essential for muscle growth in response to exercise. Training athletes supplemented with AA actually have lower levels of inflammatory markers.  LA is especially important for skin and coat health.

Omega-3 alpha-linolenic [ALA] is also converted into the phospholipids of cell membranes and its derivative DHA is as abundant in the brain as AA [above]. Other derivatives of ALA participate in the homeostasis of inflammatory responses and support the activity of the sophisticated arm of the immune system which in turn makes the nonspecific inflammatory reactions less necessary.

Omega-9 oleic acid is incorporated into phospholipids of cell membranes. Like all the unsaturated fatty acids it help keep membranes supple. It is the most common fatty acid in the popular human Mediterranean diet and associated with healthy lipid profiles in the blood.

Although it hasn’t been formally studied in horses, it is assumed horses can manufacture all the fatty acids they need with the exception of the essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic omega-3, and linoleic, omega-6. Grasses typically have about 4 times as much omega-3 as omega-6 fatty acids.

Horses are fed supplemental fat to boost calorie intake, improve skin and coat health and shine, and provide the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fat may be of additional benefit in active horses, for promoting muscle growth. Good sources include:

Coconut oil: Extremely palatable. Also rich in medium chain triglycerides which are the easiest to metabolize for energy. Low essential fatty acids.

Flaxseed oil: Very high in omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3:omega-6 ratio similar to grass. Low saturated fat.

Soybean oil: High omega-6, moderate omega-9 and omega-3, low saturated fat.

High oleic sunflower oil: This specialty type of sunflower oil is high in omega-9 oleic acid (like olive oil) and low in essential fatty acids. This makes it a great way to promote weight gain and coat condition without upsetting the balance of essential fatty acids.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Can EMS Horses Graze Dead Winter Pastures?

Unless you are living in an area with very mild winters, your pasture grasses will shrivel and turn brown over the winter. However, that plant is not dead and horses will be more than happy to eat it. This could send insulin dangerously high for a horse with EMS [Equine Metabolic Syndrome].

It Only Looks Dead

Winter pasture doesn’t look very appetizing and it’s certainly true that it is not as nutritious but with careful planning it can actually be relied upon to reduce the need for hay and other supplemental feeding. The trick is to graze it enough to prevent it going to seed during the regular season then stop grazing long enough for a good amount to accumulate but not long enough for it to go to seed. This preserves the nutritional value as much as possible. The practice is called stockpiling.

If the nutritional value is reduced, shouldn’t that make it safe for EMS horses to graze? Unfortunately, while everything else goes down the one thing that makes the grazing safe or not for EMS horses is high.

Dormant grasses survive the winter depending on their tolerance to freezing.  Freezing expands and explodes cells, leading to loss of fluid and electrolytes.  Grasses increase their freezing tolerance through high levels of simple carbohydrates.  This means their levels of storage carbohydrates, either fructan or starch, depending on the species, will be high.  Even more importantly the level of simple sugar is also high.

These carbohydrates are concentrated in the stolons and crowns of the grass, close to ground level. Under peak grazing season conditions the horse would not graze that close to the ground, clipping grass off at a height of about 2 inches. However, the wilted, soggy  mess of dormant winter grass sits close to the ground and it doesn’t take the horse long to figure out where the most sugary parts are.

Making sure the horse has plenty to eat before turning out on winter pastures will help but it’s no guarantee he won’t eat too much of the high sugar treat.  Snow coverage won’t be protection either.  Many horses are determined enough to paw through the snow and can eat enough to get laminitic. It happens every year.

The cold weather itself may be a risk factor for laminitis since insulins often fluctuate widely in cold weather.  This is on top of the cold induced pain many EMS horses suffer as a result of impaired circulation https://wp.me/p2WBdh-D9.  Don’t compound the risk of painful feet by allowing access to winter grass.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Immune Support

It’s true that your horse cannot get a “cold”/respiratory infection without a virus but all horses carry around a generous supply of both viruses and bacteria. While winter weather can’t cause a respiratory illness, the stress of severe weather coupled with the effect of cold, dry air on the lining of the respiratory tract sets the stage for any waiting viruses or bacteria to take hold by weakening normal immune defenses. Seniors and young horses have an additional risk factor since their immune systems are often not fully competent.

There are a variety of natural and man-made substances which can stimulate various aspects of the immune response but I don’t want to talk about those today. Before they can even be effective the immune system needs to have all the key nutrients it needs to function.

Keeping a horse fleshed out is usually the easiest part of feeding. All it takes is empty calories. An inadequate supply of protein in general or specific amino acids can greatly reduce the strength of immune system reactions. Everything from the multiplication of immune system cells to antibody, cytokine, even mucus production requires adequate protein and B vitamins. Pregnant, nursing, growing and debilitated animals have highest needs. If there is any question of adequate protein, switch from plain vitamin and mineral supplementation to one that includes 20+% protein from vegetable sources and whey for the best amino acid array.

Bio-active whey protein is also potent support for glutathione, the major antioxidant system in the body. Glutathione provides homeostasis for both immune cells and all body cells against free radicals generated during immune reactions. Colostrum does more than supply antibodies to newborns.  It is a specific source of proteins like lactoferrin, complement and proline-rich polypeptides (PEP) as well as cytokines, all of which have immune activity for any age horse.

Essential fatty acids also have profound effects on the immune system. Omega-3s are essential to function of the sophisticated immune system which targets and remembers specific organisms. Omega-6 fatty acids are utilized in reactions involving the primitive immune system which is the first line of defense against invaders. The barrier tissues of skin and mucus membranes are particularly dependent on omega-6.

Fat soluble vitamins A and E require attention. Vitamin A is needed for good immune function in the skin and mucus membranes. E is a well known antioxidant that is particularly critical for the survival of both B and T-cell lymphocytes. These cells have high levels of polyunsaturated fats in their membranes so are especially vulnerable to oxidative damage. All hay based diets are vitamin E deficient. Vitamin A is present in hay as carotene and also loses activity with time.

The immune system can be its own worst enemy because many of the reactions used to defend against invaders involve the generation of high levels of oxidative stress. When this happens, horses can benefit from the addition of plant based antioxidants such as berry powders, Turmeric, bioflavanoids/quercetin, malic acid, N-acetyl cysteine, glutamine, pancrelipase and vitamin C.  Also supportive are arabinogalactans, mannanoligosaccharides and fructooligosaccharides which are naturally occurring  complex polysaccharides from plants which provide gentle stimulation to the rich supply of immune tissue in the intestinal tract – the GALT (Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue).

The immune system is complex because it has to be but understanding all the nutritional elements it needs to function well is the cornerstone of immune support.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD






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Hind Gut Health

I have written on this topic for over a decade but continue to encounter many questions and comments that are based on misinformation.

For this discussion I am going to define a normal hind gut as one that is functioning normally – normal manure in normal amounts, no excess gas or bloating, normal gut sounds on examination, no abdominal pain (colic), healthy weight for the amount of food being consumed – although other things can affect weight.

Subtle behavioral signs of trouble include tail swishing or docking, kicking back or at the belly with ears pinned, looking at the flank. Sensitivity to touch or pressure (e.g. girth), gait disturbance or lameness are **not** signs of gut disturbance especially with no other signs of intestinal disorder. [Note: Subtle behavioral changes have been documented with starch feeding but that was a diet of almost 50% barley!]

The disorders du jour are acidosis and hind gut ulcers – both nonexistent the way many people are thinking of them. You may have read about horses having  behavioral or movement issues related to “sublinical acidosis” but subclinical by definition means no observable signs.

The pH of the hind gut varies depending on diet. There are no acid secreting cells and material entering from the stomach and small intestine is alkaline. Diets with high levels of simple sugar and starch reaching the hind gut naturally cause a more acidic environment because of the way they are fermented. There are no consequences of this unless pH drops low enough to damage the intestinal lining, at which point you see fever, colic, sepsis, diarrhea and laminitis in extreme cases. The important point here is that acidosis does not, and cannot, occur on diets with reasonable levels of starch and simple sugars. It takes very large amounts to produce enough acidosis to cause clinical signs and those signs include fever and diarrhea.

You may have seen claims subclinical acidosis is related to stereotypical behavior like cribbing, wood-chewing and weaving. There are zero actual studies looking at degree of acidosis and stereotypical behavior. One study found high grain feeding during weaning increased cribbing but this could not be differentiated from low forage access and long periods with nothing to chew on for distraction. A study of 743 young racehorses on two tracks found a connection between using wood shavings and stereotypical behavior but no influence by % of grain and forage fed. Similarly, other studies have found a decrease with more frequent meal feeding but not by composition of the diet.

A supplement manufacturer has reported high prevalence of hind gut “ulcers” based on observations made on horses going through slaughter houses.  This entity does not appear in any veterinary medicine or pathology textbooks except for colonic ulcerations caused by phenylbutazone use.

A subsequent study lead by Kerbyson in the UK examined 56 horses euthanized for reasons unrelated to the GI tract and looked for idiopathic (no obvious cause) colonic ulcers. They found 21% had ulcerations clearly related to parasites or sand. Only 5% had ulceration with no obvious visible cause (? autoimmune disease, ? phenylbutazone use) which is a far cry from the 63% the original survey reported. In fact, the supplement manufacturer’s website has since switched from mention of “colonic ulcers” to the hind gut being the site of various specific GI pathologies such as parasites.

Once mistaken information has been widely circulated it is difficult to get rid of it but the time has come to stop worrying about hind gut acidosis or ulcers – and buying supplements to address them.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Winter Laminitis

Veterinarians working with many laminitic horses are well acquainted with the problem but others are unfamiliar with it.  It’s a laminitis-like syndrome triggered by cold weather.

Horses normally have a very high tolerance for cold.  In all species, cold causes a reflex shunting of blood away from the extremities and toward the core to limit loss of body heat. Healthy horses prevent the hoof tissue from being damaged from low blood/oxygen supply by using local arteriovenous shunts – pathways which allow them to divert blood quickly back to the veins for return or to send it to the local tissues. When low blood supply reaches a critical level, the arteriovenous shunts to that part of the hoof can close, perfusing the tissue.

The only adverse effect of cold weather and reduced blood flow to the hoof in healthy horses is slower hoof wall growth. In horses with metabolic issues that result in high insulin levels, it may be a different story.

We don’t know all the details of the mechanism but it is clear from research that high insulin can cause laminitis. We also know that even if they have never had a full blown laminitis episode these equines can show similar abnormal structure of their laminae. One thing we do know about it is that levels of endothelin-1 are greatly elevated. This is a chemical in the body which causes blood vessels to contract down. It has also been shown that the vessels in the hoof become more sensitive to other messengers that cause contraction. These changes may interact with cold induced blood vessel constriction to cause a critical interruption of blood supply to the hooves of those horses.

Horses with cold induced hoof pain/laminitis show obvious lameness, foot pain and often typical laminitis stance but without bounding pulses or heat in their feet. In milder cases it may be mistaken for the sensitivity to moving over frozen uneven ground that all horses show. However, it doesn’t go away on level surfaces. There is variability in individual sensitivity to cold but signs may appear beginning at 40F [4.4C].

Even horses that have their insulin usually well controlled by a low carbohydrate balanced diet can be susceptible. This may be because cold weather has also been observed to often cause wide swings in insulin levels and/or because of previous damage to the circulation in the feet.

The first step in helping these horses is protecting their extremities from the cold. Leg wraps such as lined shipping boots work well and are safe to leave on because they won’t slip out of place and cause uneven pressure on the tendons [aka “bandage bows”]. Boots with pads and socks or fleece lining are essential.

The equine can be supported nutritionally by supplements which encourage the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vessel dilating messenger that is the natural counterbalance to endothelin-1.  The herb Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Jiaogulan) is a powerful support for nitric oxide. This is helped by providing the precursors for nitric oxide in the form of L-arginine and L-citrulline. Antioxidants also combat oxidative stress which inhibits the activity of the enzyme that produces nitric oxide inside blood  vessels [eNOS – endothelial nitric oxide synthesis].

Winter laminitis has historically been regarded as very difficult to manage but understanding the vascular mechanism has led to significant strides in helping these horses balance the forces affecting the blood supply to their feet.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Interpreting Equine Behavior

It can be fascinating to read about equine behavior, especially things like the organization in feral bands. However, when it comes to interpreting an individual’s more subtle responses there is a good chance we could get it wrong.

How many times have you heard it said that when a horse exhibits licking and chewing, e.g. during a body work session, it indicates enjoyment?  Another common interpretation is that it shows either submission or the horse is  “thinking about things” during a training session. Although not quite as positive as the first scenario, these are still interpretations of the behavior in a positive way.

However, a recent study reporting on behavior of feral horses found that licking and chewing occurred during aggressive encounters between horses – by both the aggressor and the target. In fact, it was more likely to be the aggressor doing it. This argues against licking and chewing indicating submission and suggests it is related to stressful situations rather than pleasant ones.

The researchers also noted it was triggered by tense situations and likely to be followed by a more relaxed scenario. It was suggested this may mean it is a transitional behavior or even a way for horses to calm themselves down but admitted more research that actually simultaneously measures stress hormones is needed.  In any case, it is clear  licking and chewing is connected to stress, not enjoyment. It’s a lesson not to interpret equine behavior based on what we think or wish it to mean.

Anthropomorphizing equine behavior can be dangerous. I remember a couple that took riding lessons with me when they were in their 50s or 60s. It was their first exposure to horses.  The husband was convinced his horse wouldn’t step on him if he fell off, “because he likes me ” because he gave him treats.  He refused to consider the real reason the horse would avoid stepping on him was to protect himself.

The wife didn’t have any appreciation of her own or the horse’s personal space, was often intruding in a way the horses found startling and as a result got a severe bite to her breast. When this couple decided they were experienced enough to go cross-country by themselves (they weren’t), they went to a stable hiring out horses.  The wife insisted her horse not wear a martingale because they were “mean” and the horse looked “nice”.  She was killed when the horse reared and went over backwards.

Even people who should know more often get it wrong. High-spirited horses for example will get labeled as crazy, dangerous or aggressive when that’s not true in many cases. I admit to being prejudiced because I enjoy this type of horse but I prefer to describe them as enthusiastic. Firey might be more fair since they shouldn’t be handled by people who are afraid of them but the point is they are not out to harm you. They’re bursting with energy like a toddler.

The way to get to know horses is to spend time with them, work with and around them. Apply your knowledge of how to safely work with horses then pay attention to the more subtle individual variations you will see in each individual. There is no one size fits all training or handling method. It takes time and patience to build that experience. This is called horsemanship and there’s not enough of it to go around.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Winter Skin First Aid

Winter means a break from insect related skin issues, but it has its own set of unique problems.

The cold, dry air in winter leads to a major cause of delayed healing, dehydration of exposed tissue. A moist environment is important for cells to migrate across the wound and for white cells to do their work cleaning up the wound. Suturing wounds that warrant it, and keeping other wounds covered with a protective salve, will guard against dehydration.


Choose a topical treatment which will prevent the wound from drying

The cold itself can also be a problem because blood flow is decreased to the skin in cold weather. Inflammation helps counteract it in the early stages of healing but once that calms down, in 3 to 5 days, blood flow is not as good as in warmer weather. This slows healing by inhibiting cell migration and can also mean the difference between death or survival of areas of skin that have a damaged blood supply from the injury.

Because of the detrimental effects of cold, dry weather, wounds need more protection. Even small skin breaks in areas with a lot of movement, like the heels and pasterns, can quickly become painfully deep cracks.  Keep an eye out for wounds on your small animals too and regularly check their paws for cracking.

Good choices for holding in moisture on wounds are ointments and salves without a water base. Look for petrolatum, beeswax and oils.  Help with temporary irritation and discomfort comes from ingredients like Arnica, Chamomile,  Comfrey, Calendula, Witch Hazel, Plantain, White Willow Bark, Golden Seal and Vitamin E.  Natural ingredients with antiseptic advantages include Tea Tree Oil, Oregon Grape, Echinacea, Gentian, Sodium Copper Chlorophyllin and all essential oils.  Protect delicate new skin with the antioxidant benefits of  Chaparral, Burdock and St. John’s Wort.

For wounds on the lower legs, apply a generous amount of salve after cleaning gently with warm water then cover with several layers of gauze (never use cotton on open wounds) and a standing leg wrap over that. To avoid having your gauze slide down inside the wrap, use a dab of your wound dressing to hold the gauze layers together and also to hold it where you want it inside your leg cotton wrap, then apply the wrap as usual. Check and rebandage once a day for the first few days, or until drainage has stopped.

Also be vigilant for signs of the #1 cold weather skin infection, Dermatophilus congolensis, aka “rain rot”. This organism thrives inside a dense winter coat, especially if the horse gets wet. It is most likely to attack immunocompromised individuals, like seniors, but no horse is safe.

Look for areas where the hair seems to be standing on end in little tufts. Also use your bare fingers or very thin gloves (like ski glove liners) to feel for tiny scabs. The scabs are easier to remove early in the infection.  To support skin recovery, remove as many scabs as you can. Use a tea tree based spray to saturate the area, or a tea tree salve rubbed in well to make sure you get down to skin level.

Tip: For ease of use and your horse’s comfort, do not store wound products in the cold – including in tack trunks.  Keep them in a heated room and when working on your horse place them inside your clothes as close to your body as possible until you are ready to use them.

Winter weather is no friend to skin.  Fight compromised healing by preventing tissue dehydration with oil/wax based salves and ointments and taking advantage of many helpful actions of herbal ingredients.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Preventing Colic in Winter

You have probably seen this topic appear several times and in many places – with good reason. Colic is more common in winter (and fall), and the risk factors can be mitigated for the most part.


Impaction colic is always mentioned but risk of other types of colic can also increase. The factors include:

  • Insufficient water intake. This dries the intestinal food contents as well as things that shouldn’t be there, like sand accumulations which become more physically irritating. Poor intake can be secondary to both insufficient water availability and the water being frozen or too cold.  Contrary to what you  may have heard, the horse will drink cold water. However, they drink less of it than warm water. Inadequate water is the major risk factor for impaction.
  • Diet change. Transition from pasture to hay immediately slashes water intake considerably. It is also a diet change and should be done gradually to allow the organisms time to adapt. High fiber diets may be poorly tolerated by some horses, especially seniors, with development of diarrhea and/or colic.
  • Inadequate salt. Many people think horses don’t need salt in the winter, or that they will always take as much as they need from a salt block. This is false. Suboptimal salt intake lowers water consumption. Adequate sodium from salt in the intestinal tract also enhances the absorption of many nutrients.
  • Pica. Without grass to leisurely munch on all day, a bored horse that runs out of hay or becomes tired of it may sample wood, dirt or any type of bedding. This may contribute to colic.
  • Inadequate exercise.  This factor is often ignored but exercise is very important to intestinal motility. Even with light controlled exercise, horses going from pasture to stalled have drier feces and decreased motility despite drinking more water: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=horse+exercise+intestine+motility . This is most pronounced for the first five days but the pattern will repeat any time there is a significant drop in movement – e.g. during a storm.

You can help combat all this by dividing an ounce of salt between feedings, or dissolve it and spray on hay (daily dose for average size horse). Make sure water is at least protected from freezing and keep it at a tepid warm temperature if possible. Feeding bran mash, soaked beet pulp or hay cubes/pellets and wet meals of any type will help get that critical water into the horse.

Feed hay from nets or feeders to slow intake. Keep hay close to the water source as horses will often eat for a while then drink when it is convenient to do that. Watch for excessive consumption of bedding or dirt.

Last but not least, make sure the horses get as much exercise as possible. Keep stall time to a minimum. Spread hay over a large area with several bags. Ride as much as possible and pony another horse or two along with you.

This is definitely more work than a quick visit to the barn to toss out hay and knock ice off water but lowering colic risk is well worth it.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Winter and Stiff Joints in Older Horses

Retired seniors that are holding weight and getting around comfortably in the warmer months can experience greatly reduced strength and mobility in the cold, to the point they may have difficulty getting up. The explanation for this is multifactorial.

Reduced exercise:  Use it or lose it is very true. Horses may be stalled more in winter and if outside seek shelter and stay there. Very hard frozen ground or slippery conditions also restrict movement and play.

Reduced strength:  It’s well known that even healthy racehorses run slower in the cold. Blood flow to muscles is reduced. The body also makes energy generation less efficient so that more of the calories burned are going to heat, a process known as nonshivering thermogenesis.  Human studies have shown even dexterity is affected by cold, although it is unclear whether this is a muscular or neurological issue (or both). Shivering is also a drain on muscular energy so shivering horses have even less strength.

Tissue Stiffness: The flexibility and elasticity of connective tissue, tendon and ligament decrease with age. Cold doesn’t help. Studies have shown greatly increased muscular and tendon stiffness with cold exposure.

Arthritis and Bone Health: Not every older horse is arthritic although the majority probably have at least one easily identified arthritic joint that gives them problems from time to time. As the condition progresses, pain, soft tissue scarring, loss of cartilage and bone changes restrict the movement of the joint. Although the mechanism is still unexplained, weather conditions have been confirmed to influence arthritic pain. Musculotendinous stiffness in cold also restricts the mobility of joints, “locking” them into smaller ranges of motion.

Finally, the hormonal changes of aging and of PPID lead to weakening of bones. This predisposes the horse to fractures in the event of a fall. Fractures in areas such as the pelvis or hip can be difficult to identify but significantly influence the horse’s mobility.

General Health: Cold is a significant stressor and cold exposure can lead to all the consequences of severe stress including immune system compromise, hormonal imbalance, poor appetite and depression to name a few. Young animals can deal with this much better through homeostatic mechanisms that keep them in a balanced state but seniors typically do not have those reserves.

How to help:

  • Relocating to Florida would be nice but barring this keep the horse as warm as possible. This means shelter from wind and precipitation, blanketing, wrap the lower legs or use lined shipping boots, neoprene wraps for knees and hocks overnight
  • Make sure the horse has an area to lie down that has ground insulation, good footing, and is easy accessible to a small tractor or front end loader in the worst case scenario of the horse needing help to get up
  • Expand your joint regimen from the usual glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronate to supplements which include proven antioxidant activity and herbals which can interact with gene activity to enhance normal homeostatic repair and balancing functions in joints. These useful substances include Yucca, Devil’s Claw, Turmeric, Boswellia, Golden Rod, Astragalus, White Willow, Perna Mussel, Cat’s Claw, Golden Rod, Phellodendron, Fever Few, Egg Shell Membrane, Hydrolyzed Collagen, fatty acids, Silica, Boron, Vitamin C, essential amino acids, B vitamins, copper, zinc, Bioactive Whey, MSM, Resveratrol and other flavonoids abundant in brightly colored fruits.
  •  The above nutrients also support bone health in the older horse
  • Consider a mild adaptogen to support the horse’s hormonal system in dealing with the stress of cold weather. Jiaogulan is an excellent choice.

My personal favorite cold weather comforting measure is to pack the feet with a warmed poultice or pine tar packing, wrap in a few layers of heavy plastic wrap and boot them. Ahh.

The benefits go beyond pampering. The goal here is to minimize the effects of normal aging and cold weather on your senior so he or she can enjoy yet another Spring.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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Cold Weather Feeding

As the country rapidly slips into winter, questions on cold weather feeding increase.  People want to know what to feed and how much more in winter. The short answer is, it depends.

If you have done any reading on this you have come across the term “critical temperature”.  This is the environmental temperature below which the horse’s body has to work to maintain normal body temperature.  For horses with a summer coat, it is 40 degrees F (4.4 C) and with a thick winter coat it is 18 F (- 7.7 C).  For coats that are in between slick and full, the temperature will also be in between but it’s important to realize that length per se does not predict the warmth of the coat. Most important is the presence of a dense undercoat.

For every drop of 1 degree F, the horse needs 1% more calories.  For example, a 500 lb pony eating 10 lbs of hay/day needs an extra 0.1 lbs = 1.6 ounces of hay.  This is a very small amount and it’s perfectly reasonable not to make adjustments until you reach a more easily measurable amount such as at least half a pound (8 oz) so in this case you would adjust by adding half a pound for every 5 F drop below critical temperature.  If you had a 1000 lb horse eating 20 lbs/day you could adjust sooner because every 2.5 F drop would = an 8 oz change in hay.

You could also make more frequent adjustments using something more easy to measure than hay – pellets or cubes. Keep a scale in your feed room to measure ounces accurately and just add the pellets or cubes to your feed bucket.  A fish scale works well.

If your horse is eating both grain and hay, you can either increase both by the same % or  convert the increase in grain to extra hay instead.  This will keep you from overfeeding grain. It is also of benefit because the fermentation of hay in your horse’s intestinal tract generates heat.  To convert from grain to hay, multiply the amount of extra grain by 2 if plain grains, 2.5 if sweet feed and 3 if high fat feed. In other words, to go from 1/2 lb of extra grain to hay, it would be equivalent to 1 lb of hay for plain grain, 1.25 pounds of hay for sweet feed and 1.5 pounds of hay for high fat feed.  These are approximate.  You may need slightly more or less.

Several things can influence your horse’s critical temperature and how much you need to feed. Young or small horses have a higher ratio of body surface area to weight so lose heat faster. Thin animals have less fat insulation.  Horses without good shelter lose more heat (use the wind chill corrected temperature in this scenario). Heavy blanketing or obesity reduce the extra calorie requirement. The individual’s metabolism will also play a role.

Remember that more food can’t guarantee the horse stays warm and horses don’t always hold weight as predicted by equations.  Any horse that is shivering is cold.  Palpate deeply through the coat to feel for ribs on a regular basis and increase calories if needed.

As mentioned, hay is the best thing to feed because heat will be generated in the intestine in the process of fermenting it.  The same is true of high fiber feeds such as beet pulp and soy hulls. Horses that don’t drink well won’t eat well either so feed salt and provide water at a comfortable temperature. Finally, if you have increased hay or feed it free choice but are still detecting weight loss, don’t hesitate to feed a more dense calorie source of grain, fat or high soluble fiber from flax, beet pulp or soy hulls.

Note: If your horse is overweight consider not increasing his winter feeding unless you can feel his ribs. The calories he needs to stay warm can come from his stored fat rather than more food.  In the cold, the horse also produces internal heat by making energy generation in the mitochondria less efficient, a process known as uncoupling. The fat calories that don’t go to making ATP are converted to heat.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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