The Lactic Acid Myth

If you’re like most people you have been told time and time again that lactate/lactic acid is the cause of muscle fatigue, “burning” and tying up. You may even have bought supplements for your horse based on claims that they could reduce lactic acid, or changed your horses diet based on similar claims. Truth is, blaming lactic acid for poor performance, fatigue or muscle damage is like looking at the pile of ashes after a building has burned down and assuming that ashes caused the damage.

Muscles produce lactate continuously. It’s generated during the breakdown of glucose as an energy source. If the horse is at rest, or moving very slowly, most of the lactate is further broken down to pyruvate and goes into aerobic (use oxygen) energy pathways in the mitochondria. However, as the horse moves faster and needs to produce energy very quickly to keep up with the demands, the aerobic pathways are too slow and more energy is generated anaerobically, producing lactate.

Lactic acid isn’t a “waste” product or a toxin; it’s actually beneficial. Lactic acid is a buffer – a way that muscle cells can carry harmful acidity (H+ ions) out of the cells. This is because the lactic acid binds the acidifying hydrogen ions and carries them into the circulation – lactic acid + hydrogen ion = lactate. The lactate is then further broken down as a fuel by other cells, or converted back to glucose in the liver.

People who have been used to thinking of lactate as harmful have trouble accepting this concept, but the evidence is impossible to ignore:

  • Sodium bicarbonate is an alkalinizing (anti-acidity) substance that is used to improve performance in racehorses, although now prohibited in most areas. Kesl and Engen from the Veterinary School at Iowa State found that when sodium bicarbonate supplements are used blood is less acid, and muscle recovers from exercise induced acidity quicker, but lactate levels actually are higher
  • Horses that are sugar/starch sensitive and tie up show lower levels of muscle enzyme release, an indicator of muscle damage, when put on lower starch diets but the level of lactate produced is identical with high fat vs high starch feeding. Also, starch sensitive horses exercised on high grain diets show more muscle damage, but their lactate levels are the same as normal horses.
  • Many studies have failed to find any relationship between lactate levels after exercise and poor performance. In fact, it is often found that the superior performing horses are those with the highest lactate levels after exercise.

A similar association between high lactate production and superior performance has long been recognized in human athletes (e.g. Reilly, 1999).

What this all boils down to is that blood lactate after exercise is nothing more than an indicator of how hard/fast the horse worked. It’s not connected in any way to tying up or muscle damage. Instead of being harmful, lactate is actually a source of energy and reduces the acidity inside hard working cells by carrying the hydrogen ions out of the cell. High blood lactate is associated with superior performance, not fatigue. Next time you see advertising for a supplement or grain that claims to make your horse work harder or longer by lowering lactate, pass it up.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Care of the Mare and Foal at Weaning

With feral horses, by the time weaning occurs naturally both mare and foal are more than ready for it.  When we hasten the process artificially, there is inevitable stress.

Foals depend on their dams for basic survival needs of nutrition and protection from predators or even other horses.  The dam also gives the foal its social status in the band.  Mares fulfill these functions because of the extremely powerful drive of their instincts and hormones.

Interfering with this bond predictably causes anxiety, even anguish.  This means poor appetite, vocalizing, pacing (or running if room allows), poor concentration and diminished awareness of people, other animals, even physical barriers.  In the worst case scenario they may be a danger both to themselves and others.

A variety of methods are used, from gradual lengthening of periods apart to abrupt complete separation.  When separation is final, mare and foal should not be able to see or hear each other. Foals do best either housed in individual stalls or pastured in a group of familiar peers with at least one quiet and tolerant adult baby sitter.

Mares are more likely than foals to end up being stall confined or put in with a group of unfamiliar horses after weaning.  Their stress levels can therefore be higher and individuals may benefit from supplementation geared to help balance these reactions such as Valerian root, thiamine, magnesium and taurine.

Behavioral manifestations of stress in foals are best handled by management of their environment, keeping them with familiar companions, a stabilizing adult and confined in an area with sturdy and safe fencing. However, there are still often problems with the babies going off feed.  Maintaining adequate nutrition but without excessive calories is also an issue for mares which need to decrease milk production but often are pregnant.

The solution to this problem begins before weaning.  Both the mares and foals have extremely high requirements for protein and minerals compared to adults that are not growing, lactating or pregnant.  They require a diet more dense in protein and minerals per calorie.

The easiest way to achieve this is to provide needed calories with an well balanced adult type concentrate and forage then supplement with a high protein and mineral supplement that can be adjusted to the needs of the stage of growth, pregnancy or lactation.

Look for 25% protein from milk  and high quality vegetable sources with guaranteed lysine and methionine levels. There should be a balanced, high potency mineral profile with 5 to 6% calcium and 500 ppm copper.  Unlike supplements for adults, a moderate level of iron inclusion is advisable for this age group. Fat soluble and full spectrum B vitamins complete the support package.  Because this nutrition is in a concentrated form they are more likely to eat it all.

Weaning is no fun. Reduce physical dangers by careful management of the environment  and nutritional calming support as needed.  Deal with dietary shortfalls caused by poor appetite with the use of a concentrated protein and mineral supplement that is more likely to be completely consumed.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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The Limitations of Fecal Egg Counts

As concerns grew over emerging parasite resistance to existing deworming drugs, owners were increasingly advised to make deworming decisions based on the results of fecal egg   counts (FEC). While this approach has merit, it’s not foolproof.

Strongyle egg

To be accurate, a sample for parasite eggs should be taken from the rectum or from the   center of a freshly passed pile of manure. A simple technique is to grasp a fecal ball with a gloved hand then turn the glove inside out when you remove it, trapping the sample inside. This should then be placed into a small sealed container and examined immediately or kept cold until it is tested. Samples sent through the mail or allowed to sit around at room temperatures or warmer are not reliable because eggs can hatch. Hatched larvae are not detected by egg flotation techniques.

Egg counts of small strongyles, currently the major intestinal parasite in horses, show a seasonal pattern in temperate areas that have a clear winter and summer.  There is a sharp rise in spring and a smaller secondary peak mid summer, followed by precipitous drops. FECs in late fall and into winter do not reflect the parasite burden of adults or arrested encysted tissue forms.

Large strongyles (“bloodworms”) have the potential to produce even more extensive damage to the horse than the small strongyles. Intensive deworming had all but eliminated them but they are starting to re-emerge now with less frequent treatments. Like small strongyles, the eggs may hatch if manure is not handled properly.

Onchocerca are parasites that live in the nuchal ligament of the neck.  Their larvae can cause intense itching, allergic reactions and midline dermatitis.  They do not have eggs in the feces so cannot be detected with an FEC.

Similarly, bot fly larvae cause erosions in the stomach but never leave eggs in the manure so are undetectable. Tapeworms break off egg packed segments of their bodies into the manure rather than having eggs mixed throughout. It’s sometimes possible to detect tapeworms on a FEC but you have to get really lucky.

Pinworms cause an agonizing itch in the anal area that can drive a horse to rub their tail raw. The eggs are laid on the skin in this area, not in the manure.

Another problem is that the FEC only detects egg-laying adults. By the time you see eggs from roundworms and strongyles, the damage to the intestinal tract, liver and lungs from migrating larvae has already been done. Strongyloides larvae infect foals by migrating to the dam’s udder and getting into the milk. Their migration in the foal damages tissues and is often the cause of “foal heat diarrhea”. The FEC is more a tool for herd health and  monitoring eggs in the environment than it is for monitoring individual health.

Many people deworm once or twice a year using a combination of ivermectin or moxidectin with praziquantel.  This combination gets the bots and tapeworms which do not show up on FEC.  FEC may be checked once or twice a year. For healthy adults with strong intestinal immune systems in a stable, low exposure environment, this can work well.  However, there are many potential scenarios where it won’t be enough, including:

  • Very young or very old horses with poor immunity
  • Mares immediately after foaling
  • High exposure environments at home or horses that travel and may have high exposure
  • Pinwoms
  • Threadworm larvae reactions

Looks for issues such as colic, “pot belly”, weight loss or failure to gain, poor hair coat and slow shedding which can indicate intestinal parasite problems.  Finally, fear of causing dewormer resistance is often behind reluctance to treat the horse but the #1 cause of resistance is underdosing.  If your horse may need deworming, do it and make sure the dose is adequate for weight.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Chastetree Berry for Horses

Vitex agnus-castus, aka Chastetree, Monk’s Pepper, is a small tree native to the  Mediterranean that produces lilac colored flowers on long stalks which fruit large round berries.

Vitex was mentioned many times in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  It was also known to 13th century Europe.  The tree grows well in both temperate and subtropical zones.

CTB – Chastetree berries, or simply Chasteberry – have a long traditional history of use to help balance hormonal systems, both male and female. While males and females have different levels of hormones produced by the sex organs, the activity of those organs is influenced by the same pituitary hormones, namely LH and FSH.

Recent research into the actions of CTB extract has shown it supports the activity of dopamine.  Since dopamine regulates LH and FSH secretion, this is believed to be how the plant works.  Dopamine also regulates the secretion of prolactin and hormones from the PPI, the intermediate lobe of the pituitary, i.e. the POMC derived hormones beta-endorphin, alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone and ACTH.

CTB extract functions as an adaptogen in these hormone systems. Adaptogens are substances that assist in stabilizing physiology and promoting homeostasis.  Homeostasis is a state of equilibrium in which the organism functions optimally.

CTB extract has been well studied for human use and is listed by the German Commission E, a body which provides scientific background on the use of traditional herbal substances.

In horses, CTB extract has the potential to assist the body in maintaining homeostasis in a wide range of situations, including:

  • Ovarian function and female hormone production
  • Lactation
  • Female behavior
  • Male hormone production
  • Male behavior
  • Shedding (under the control of prolactin)
  • Intermediate pituitary lobe hormone production

Vitex agnus-castus is an excellent example of scientific study validating and explaining traditional herbal uses.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Feeds for Carb Sensitive Horses and Weight Control

By carb I am referring to hydrolyzable carbohydrate digested to glucose in the small intestine. This includes starch and the sugar/ESC (ethanol soluble carbohydrates) fractions on an analysis. These are the carbs that elevated glucose and cause an insulin response. Fiber and fructans are also carbohydrates but do not cause an insulin spike.

Low carb feeds are needed for horses with high insulin related to insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome or PPID (Cushing’s disease) as well as myopathies like EPSM/equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (aka PSSM) and recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER) – tying up. These feeds are also useful for easy keepers or weight loss as long as there is no added fat, for inactive or injured horses, horses that become too “high” on grains and for horses which develop soft manure when fed grains. Many of the commonly used high fiber ingredients are prebiotic since they are easily fermented and therefore support good populations of those bacteria.

If you think substituting plain grass hay pellets will always keep your bucket meals below 10% you’re wrong.  Young growths of hay are best for pellets because they hold together easier but are also highest in sugar and starch. Beet pulp can be a good choice but may have molasses added or be too high in residual sugars. When using beet pulp, always rinse it well before and after soaking. This will remove extra molasses and sugars.

Before getting to ingredients, an important point here is how low is low enough. There is no shortage of feeds claiming to be low or safe, but many are anything but and they may be as high as 25% starch or sugar+starch combined – and that includes “balancers”.  For horses with issues related to high insulin or myopathies, that number should be 10% or lower. If the manufacturer does not volunteer this data in their product information, contact them and ask to see a  typical analysis.

You also want to know if the feed if fixed formula, aka locked formula, which means the ingredients and their relative percentages do not change. Do not buy anything where the ingredients list mentions “products” or “by-products”. Those generic terms can encompass many different ingredients. Take a look at the guarantee analysis. You want to see fiber over 20% and fat no higher than 3%. Ideally, there is no added iron in the formula since metabolic horses are commonly iron overloaded and the base diet already has plenty of iron. Check the ingredients list for items starting with iron or ferrous.

  • Soybean hulls. These are the thin outer coating on the bean, like the skins on peanuts inside the shell. They are an excellent protein source (29% protein), ultra low sugar and starch, easily fermented fiber.
  • Beet pulp. Again, very low sugar and starch, rich in easily fermented fiber. Also holds moisture well if you need to feed wet.
  • Flaxseed. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids lacking in other diet ingredients, low sugar and starch, high levels of easily fermented soluble fiber.
  • Distillers or Brewers dried grains. These are grains that have been fermented for ethanol production. They are high protein, low sugar and starch but high taste appeal.
  • Grass hay or alfalfa meal. Alfalfa can be an issue for some metabolic horses but low levels in a multiingredient feed improve palatability.
  • Wheat middlings. These are a mixture of the most nutritious parts of the grain (e.g. bran, germ) that would otherwise be wasted in the production of white flour. High protein contributes to the amino acid diversity of the feed. Greatly reduced starch.

It takes some time and investigation to find out the details on feeds but the effort is well worth it.  A correctly formulated feed is both safe and appealing to the horse.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD




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Exercise and Gut Health in the Heat

From trail riding to endurance, lessons to racing, exercise in the heat has effects on the digestive tract.

Intensity of work is related to how much heat is generated during exercise but intensity is relative. Activity easily handled by a fit horse may require an extreme effort by one that is not fit. Also, fluid and electrolyte losses in sweat are greater for intense efforts but horses working for prolonged periods at lower levels may accumulate equivalent sweat losses.  An additional factor for horses working for prolonged periods is less opportunity to eat and drink, possible changes in diet.  Horses shipping in hot weather also have less opportunity to drink and their sweat losses in hot trailers can be considerable.

The body and intestinal tract coexist closely but there is normally little exposure of the body tissues/blood to intestinal contents because of proteins located between cells of the intestinal wall called tight junction proteins. It has been shown that increases in body temperature commonly seen with exercise can alter these tight junctions, resulting in cramping and diarrhea. Alterations in tight junctions are also believed to be related to the generally “sick” feeling that athletes can perceive after exertion and contribute to immune dysfunction.

High core body heat can also reduce the number and diversity of organisms in the digestive tract.  Reduced efficiency of fermentation and lowered generation of volatile fatty acid fermentation products means less efficient use of fibrous feeds and less efficient absorption of nutrients and water.

We can’t completely avoid heat having an influence on the GI tract but can take some sensible measures. Make sure your horse has been properly conditioned for the work you do. This is no time of year for “weekend warriors”. Also guarantee adequate intake of salt/electrolytes and constant supply of water to avoid the disrupted intestinal function that comes with dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities.

Supplements containing ingredients like L-glutamine, Marshmallow root, Licorice root, Slippery Elm, sodium copper chlorophyllin and Aloe Vera can help soothe irritated linings while mannanoligosaccharides and beta-glucans provide gentle stimulation for the local gut immune system.

Probiotic supplementation after the horse has been cooled out from exercise could be helpful in restoring beneficial populations.  This supports good fermentation, absorption and immune function.  A blend of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast and bacterial species is best.

Diet can also be very helpful in supporting fermentation and levels of fatty acids as well as promoting good hydration both in the intestinal tract and throughout the body.  Easily fermented and high soluble fiber supplements such as fructooligosaccharides, psyllium husk fiber (always wet before feeding) and beet pulp accomplish this.  Regular use of a supplement with good digestive enzyme (amylase, lactase, cellulase, phytase, lipase, protease) activity can assist with small intestine functions so that the hind gut does not get overloaded.

Exercise and heat effects on gastrointestinal integrity and activity should not be ignored. Solid conditioning, reasonable work expectations and targeted support can make this manageable.

Dr. Kellon

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The Latest Dog Food Scare

Since horselovers are almost universally doglovers as well, I want to veer a little bit off path for this blog and discuss a dog food scare that is currently spreading like wild  fire.

On July 12, the FDA announced they were investigating a possible link between diets containing potatoes or legumes (soy, peas, lentils, etc.) and dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. It was one of the most confusing and least informative bulletins ever written.

As the word spread, the description of the diets quickly morphed and focus was put on diets that were “grain-free”, “exotic” and “boutique” (meaning not a major name brand).  Owners were advised to feed diets from companies with a long track record using more “typical” ingredients (which in most cases means corn/corn products are a major ingredient).

Dilated cardiomyopathy is one of the most common types of heart disease in small animals. It can be caused by a deficiency of the amino acid taurine which is only found in meat protein. Cats cannot synthesize this amino acid but dogs can; making taurine from the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine or cysteine.

The FDA notice talked about 8 dogs – 4 of which (3 Golden Retrievers and 1 Lab) were taurine deficient and 4 were not.  A retrospective study of DCM cases by Dr. Adin found 22 cases over a 2 year period in dogs on grain-free foods but 27 in dogs not fed grain-free. Furthermore, none of the grain-free fed dogs were taurine deficient.  There is also a large online database of taurine levels in dogs on grain-free diets.  Of 169 dogs when I last looked at it, only 68 had low taurine levels in their blood. Of that 68, 22 had no echocardiogram so DCM status was unknown, 24 were positive for DCM and 22 were normal despite low taurine. Clear as mud!

Historically, taurine deficiency DCM was first reported in Goldens 15 years ago and they were all on big name commercial foods – chicken and corn or lamb and rice based.  Another 15 year old study in Newfoundlands with taurine deficiency DCM found they were fed big name lamb and rice food.  Many lamb and rice based formulas are still on the market and most do not contain added taurine despite the known issue.

It has also been found that foods containing beet pulp and other high fiber ingredients can lower taurine levels by interfering with the intestinal reuptake of taurine from bile salts. (Taurine is a major component of bile.)

Not all DCM cases are diet related. Genetic predisposition has been identified in several breeds. It has also been noted that some dogs (Beagles) can conserve taurine by reducing how much is in their urine when diet supply is low, but others cannot.

In summary, it’s much more complicated than a “boutique” grain-free diet with peas or potatoes is a health risk. Dogs on such a diet may or may not have low taurine – and the same goes for grain-free diets from major companies as well as lamb and rice based diets.  It may well be true that some breeds or individual lines within breeds do have a requirement for taurine and/or higher levels of the taurine precursors and these highly vegetarian based diet ingredients, whether grain or not, are not suitable.

To suggest grain-free diets are more often associated with taurine deficiency, let alone DCM, and that more typical corn based diets are safer is currently premature and speculative. Only formal feeding studies and large scale investigations including many different dog food types in dogs both with and without DCM can provide some answers. Hopefully along the way we may even get some useful information about true nutritional requirements of dogs and how to correctly feed them as the carnivores they are or supplement them to prevent adverse health effects if we don’t.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Understanding Pain

Short title for an incredibly complicated topic.  There are many different types, causes and pathways for pain.  For the purpose of this blog I will limit the discussion to acute and chronic pain that involves inflammation.

At the cellular level the horse’s body is in a constant dynamic balance between damage and repair, death and replacement. When this balance is disrupted in favor of death and damage, whether from injury or simply temporarily from overdoing exercise, it triggers the release of cytokines.

Cytokines are small proteins which allow cells to “talk” to each other and directs their activity.  For a long description, see There are 45,161 entries to date in the cytokine encyclopedia associated with the above web site.

In most cases, production of cytokines is turned off in default mode. Their production begins in response to cell injury or  death. In addition to directing clean up and repair processes, cytokines are an integral part of triggering pain.  Some, such as one with the deceptively innocuous name BAMBI, react directly with nerve endings or neurochemicals.  Others respond to reactive oxygen species (ROS)/oxidative stress associated with cell injury and keep the reaction going.

Cytokines aren’t all bad. Once damage has been cleaned up by the immune system cytokines are important players in regrowth of blood vessels and cell regeneration.

Pain is the body’s way of signalling that there is a problem. The nervous system will reflexively act to protect injured areas by splinting muscles and limiting movement.  Since horses don’t follow directions, this function of pain is important in reducing the chance of further damage.

Our first impulse on finding the horse is pain is to get rid of it but this must be tempered by realizing pain has a protective role. Anti-inflammatory pain medications are a bit of a sledgehammer approach because they also inhibit pathways needed for healing.

There are ways to work with the horse’s built-in homeostatic functions to assist the body’s own mechanisms for dealing with inflammatory reactions.  For example, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) helps maintain normal counterregulation of the  cytokines TNF-alpha and IL-6 and supports antioxidant defenses.

Speaking of antioxidant support, you have many effective options there including bioflavanoids, vitamin C, low dose garlic, N-acetyl-cysteine, quercetin, lipoic acid and vitamin E as well as the herbals Turmeric, Boswellia, Ginger, Ginkgo and grape seed extract.

Harpagophytum procumbens (Devil’s Claw) offers powerful nutritional support against oxygen free radicals as well as cytokine TNF-alpha and IL-6 plus harmful prostaglandins. Devil’s Claw also has a direct nutrigenomic effect in maintaining normal activity of genes involved in TNF-alpha and COX-2 enzyme activity.

We hate pain but it serves an important purpose. The trick is to recognize the source of the pain response and assist the body in returning to normal balance without interfering with healing. Targeted supplementation has a lot to offer in that battle.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Is A Salt Block Enough?

It’s a perennial question. Can a horse meet his salt needs from a salt block?  In a way, it’s a trick question.  There is more than enough salt there to meet the horse’s needs.  The real question is will the horse consume all he needs from a block.

While horses can, and do, lick salt blocks it may not be enough

A widespread myth is that horses cannot get enough salt from a lick but  cows can because their tongues are rougher. A cow’s tongue is rougher (like a cat’s) – but not rough or sharp enough to slice salt off a block!  Cows and horses both get salt from a block by dissolving it with their saliva.  Same as licking a lollipop.

All herbivores have a strong drive/taste for salt. The sodium in salt (salt is sodium chloride) is the only mineral consistently at very low levels in the natural diet.  The drive to eat salt comes from the brain. Salt hunger increases with higher levels of the hormones aldosterone and angiotensin II.  The main function of this hormone system is to regulate blood pressure and maintain normal blood volume.  Sodium is important for this because of the major role it plays in holding water in the blood stream and the tissues surrounding the body’s cells.

Both horses and cows prefer loose, coarse salt over salt blocks but are able to meet their needs using a block when at maintenance or even lactating. Factors that may cause a horse to overeat salt are individual taste preference or boredom. For example, stalled horses eat less salt if they have a toy to play with. Insufficient consumption may be influenced by gum disease, oral ulcers or oral irritation from abrasive plant material.

Mild overconsumption (about twice requirement) has been documented in horses and has no negative consequences. Failure to eat enough salt can also occur, even at maintenance. If you are unsure if your horse is eating enough salt  from a block, you need to weigh the block every few days and compare consumption to need. See

Studies have shown horses with large sodium losses through sweating are the least likely to meet their daily needs with voluntary salt intake. There’s a reason for this.

It has been claimed that horses can regulate their salt intake to match their needs.  This is actually what the  aldosterone-renin-angiotensin system attempts to do. However, the focus is not on sodium per se. It’s on blood volume and blood pressure.

When a horse produces sweat it pulls the water and electrolytes needed from the blood stream. To rapidly replace those losses, water and electrolytes are moved into the blood from the cells and tissues surrounding them.  Important factors here:

  • The regulatory system only responds to blood levels
  • Once blood levels are restored, the body thinks all is well even if tissue and cellular levels are still low
  • Equine sweat is more concentrated in electrolytes than blood is

The end result is blood restored to normal but tissue electrolyte and water levels still low. Since the horse has no drive to eat more salt or drink more water when blood levels are normal, this deficiency persists.  If the horse does not have any further large sweat losses the fluid and electrolytes will eventually equilibrate if the horse has access to extra salt but this process can take several days, not a good scenario for horses in regular work.

The bottom line is that horses doing no or only very light work may meet their needs from a block but you have to measure to make sure. Horses that are exercising and losing significant amounts of water and electrolytes in sweat will need supplementation if in regular work.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Picky Eaters

Most horses are good examples of what it means to “eat like a horse”.  The few that don’t dig in as well can drive their owners nuts.

To make things worse, Murphy’s Law often kicks in so the pickiest horses are those that have restricted diets or really need the supplements or medications you are trying to get them to eat.

Like people, individuals vary in their preferences for specific flavors as well as textures. Most healthy horses will eat just about anything but the picky ones can pose a real challenge in finding something they will accept, especially if you have to add supplements or medications to it.

Even horses with robust appetites usually object to having powders puff up their noses when they eat. To prevent this, wet the feed lightly with water or oil (best is CocoSoya which also smells wonderful). This also prevents powders from sifting through and being left in the bottom of the bucket. Mixing powders into the feed thoroughly works for some horses but there are others that prefer to have them top dressed without mixing. I never could come up with a reasonable explanation for why that would be the case but nevertheless it’s true!

If the horse absolutely refuses to eat something you can try a few things:

  • Start by putting just a tiny amount in the meal, increasing slowly
  • Syringe it all directly into his mouth
  • My favorite, a hybrid, is to syringe most of the dose into the horse before feeding then feed the meal with progressively larger amounts of the offending substance in the meal. This method has the taste of the supplement or drug in his mouth already before feeding.
  • Some owners report the horse will accept things better when placed on the hay. This can work if you make sure the entire dose is actually sticking well to wet or oiled hay, and that the horse is truly eating and swallowing all of the hay, not spitting it out or sorting through it.

Sprinkling small amounts of the supplement or drug around the stall, on ledges as well as the floor, can also help desensitize the horse.

Texture can make a difference. You need some water or oil to make sure there is good adherence but too much water may cause the horse to refuse the meal.  Others like it more soupy. You have to experiment.  Also be aware that water may actually enhance the taste or odor of whatever you are adding, while oils tend to mask it.

Some horses are remarkably picky even when nothing is added to their basic meals.  This is a common problem when trying to switch from sweet feeds to low molasses options, or from high starch to low starch items. Important: If the horse is refusing to eat something that had previously been well accepted, suspect a problem with the feed even if you can’t tell anything is off, dental issue causing pain or some other illness. Refusal of concentrates and preference for hay is highly suspicious for gastric ulcers. Involve your veterinarian.

Otherwise, first try to wait out the boycott by not allowing any hay or turnout until the meal is cleaned up. If the horse has more staying power than you do, you’ll need to ramp up the appeal.  My three  favorite options are:

  • CocoSoya oil – even barn cats have trouble resisting it!
  • Crumble the horse’s favorite dry herbs or treats on top of the meal
  • Stevia-based flavorings (don’t use other artificial sweeteners).  Some people use Stevia sweetened pancake syrup but there are other options in horse agreeable flavors like apple, banana, peppermint, fenugreek and cherry.

It may take a lot of trial and error but with persistence you can overcome the picky eater problem.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD



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