Should you Get a Goat?

The price for an equine of all ages, breeds and sizes continues to climb. Adding one to your family as a companion for your horse also doubles all your equine expenses. An alternative is to pick another species to be your horse’s buddy. Goats win hands down.

If you’re not familiar with goats you are in for a surprise. They’re not smaller versions of calm, quiet cows. They are more like oversized vegetarian Jack Russell terriers – tons of energy and personality. They climb, run, buck, rear and head butt.  They are both escape artists and masters at breaking into things.

Male goats particularly can be aggressive, even when castrated. They are also not the slightest bit intimidated by humans (or much of anything for that matter) and this combination can make the goat an excellent guard animal. They will even attack and rock unfamiliar cars. However, if you have an  aggressive goat you won’t be immune. A favorite trick is to ambush you when you’re out in the middle of a field and have no weapons to defend yourself.  Unless you are looking for a guard dog alternative acceptable to your insurance company, get a doe.

Goats are very independent, which is another way of saying that pleasing you is not a priority. Stubborn is also an understatement and rather than just planting themselves like a mule they will put up a good fight. Force never works but goats are intelligent and very trainable.  Positive reinforcement in the form of treats or treats plus clicker training will get the job done. Goats will lead with a collar, come when called, accept being tied and stand for routine grooming and hoof care. They can be trained to pack and even pull a cart.

There are many pluses to goats. Their feces are like rabbit pellets making it very easy to clean up after them. There are no diseases or parasites that goats and horses have in common. They don’t take up much room and can share your horse’s stall. They will come with you on cross-country rides (but can get under foot when tagging along in the ring!).  The goat will do just fine with hay and whatever else she chooses to graze or browse.

It’s imperative to keep the goat away from your horse’s meals and grain storage areas. They will literally eat themselves to death.  Too much grain leads to a painful bloating that will kill them if not caught and treated in time.

Most horses will form a very strong bond with a goat but they have to be introduced slowly.  The horse’s first reaction will range from suspicion to sheer terror. Keep the goat in an adjacent stall or pen, let her roam the barn aisles. Once your horse extends his head to make physical contact you can bring them into direct contact in a paddock or large stall, keeping a watchful eye in case the horse initially panics or tries to drive off or hurt the goat.  Before you know it, the two will be tightly bonded.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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Can You Recognize Muscular Performance Issues?

There is no missing it when a horse ties up, or even has a severe localized muscle injury, but generalized muscular dysfunction is more difficult to recognize and can cause significant pain, poor performance, gait and/or behavioral issues.

Sustained daily work at anything faster than a walk requires conditioning and muscular adaptation

The horse is equipped with remarkable athletic ability which supports traveling long distances to find food and occasional bursts of speed to evade predators. However, when we impose regular exercise more demanding than a walk the muscle must ramp up its capacity to support that work.

In the normal course of a conditioning program, as work progressively increases the muscle is stressed. In response to the stress, the muscle adds protein leading to more bulk and definition. Antioxidant defense systems and cellular energy generating equipment (enzymes and mitochondria) are increased.

Signs of poor adaptation include poor bulk or even obvious loss of muscle mass and high resting muscle tone. Healthy muscle is pliable and feels like a beef roast. At rest, the chest and muscles above the elbow and stifle will be softest. Muscle should not tense up when you palpate it. If you run a hoof pick or capped pen down the back the horse should dip, not brace against it. Unexplained gait abnormalities could be neurological but could also be muscular. Young “colt sore” racehorses in training often have a large muscular component to their discomfort.

Materials to respond to training stress must come from the diet. Total protein quantity may be sufficient but key amino acids inadequate. L-leucine is the most abundant amino acid in muscle, also an important energy source and its metabolite HMB stimulates muscle growth. Other key amino acids include:

  • L-Glutamine – bulk and the antioxidant Glutathione
  • L-Arginine – synthesis of Creatine, a high energy storage form, and nitric oxide, a vasodilator and growth stimulant
  • L-Carnitine – an amino acid derivative needed to carry fats into the mitochondria to be burned and its metabolite Acetyl-L-Carnitine which regulates carbohydrate use for energy and is an antioxidant.
  • Beta-alanine – another amino acid derivative that supports the synthesis of Carnosine, a buffer of acids that are responsible for muscle pain and fatigue

Both individual amino acids and high quality protein sources like Whey can be used to support muscle bulk and function.

Inadequate magnesium intake can cause muscle cramping, twitching, pain and even gait abnormalities. It maintains normal levels of muscle excitability and is required for energy storage and utilization in the cell.  The electrolyte minerals are also critically important as they regulate contraction, relaxation and nerve conduction.

Horses under training stress often benefit from adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens may assist the body in maintaining appropriate levels of stress hormones in response to exercise. Rhodiola and Ginsengs are examples of adaptogens.

When the need to generate energy is high, vitamin nutrition becomes critical and requirements increase. The normal processing of amino acids/proteins, carbohydrates and fats relies on adequate vitamin intake. Vitamins are also co-factors in the synthesis of key metabolites in hard-working muscle.

If your horse develops exercise-related muscle tension and pain, don’t forget the relief a good rub with an appropriate liniment can provide. For acute problems, look for ingredients like Aloe vera, Arnica, Comfrey, Lavender and Lobelia for their soothing effects and gentle circulatory support.

Helping your horse be the best athlete he can be requires meeting the unique nutritional needs of exercise. The results can be truly spectacular.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD













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The Benefits of Feeding Flax

Even fans of feeding flax may not realize all its benefits.  It’s a very healthful supplemental feed item for horses of all ages, classes and uses.

People usually feed flax for its high omega-3 fatty acid content. There are two classes of fatty acids (the building blocks of fats) that must be in the diet, omega-3 and omega-6. Both are essential for peak immune function and the omega-3s contribute to normal homeostatic balancing of inflammatory reactions. Whole flax seeds are 30+% fat with the same high omega-3 profile as fresh grass.  There are visible benefits to coat, skin and hooves. Omega-3s also support vision, the nervous system, development of young animals and keep all the cells’ membranes pliable.

At about 25% protein, flax seeds are also an excellent protein supplement with some key specific benefits. They are a good source of the most commonly deficient amino acid, lysine, and contain even higher levels of leucine which is the most common amino acid in skeletal muscle. It’s also a very good source of methionine, the sulfur containing amino acid that is becoming increasingly scarce.  In fact, it is close to meeting the specifications for equine “ideal protein” as set forth by Bryden.

On the mineral end, flax seeds have 2 to 4 times more magnesium than hays. The calcium:phosphorus ratio is reversed at just a little under 1:2 but this complements alfalfa and most grass hays as well. Unlike hays, on average flax seed is low in manganese but has adequate zinc and copper in correct ratios to each other.

If you put flax seed in water you will see it quickly becomes a gel-like, slimy mass. This is because flax seed is very high in soluble fiber, mucilage.  Soluble fiber is a safe source of calories and is prebiotic because it is very easy to ferment. It can also be mixed with psyllium to aide in physical removal of sand from the intestinal tract.

The simple sugar and starch levels in flax seed are low and safe for insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic animals.

Some people fear flax because they have heard it can cause cyanide poisoning. This fear is largely unfounded.  Flax seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, compounds that can be metabolized by beta-glucosidase enzyme to release cyanide.  Cyanogenic gylcosides are found in about 2000 different plants with high levels in some common foods, like lima beans, barley and sorghum. They are a defense mechanism. When insects feed on the plant or seeds they bring the enzyme and cyanide precursors into contact and release cyanide.

Like all toxins, there is a dose effect. The horse ingests a variety of potential toxins from various sources every day but the body can handle these low level exposures with no difficulty. It’s only when high levels overwhelm normal day to day protection processes that problems occur.

The two most important things to remember about cyanide and flax are that 1) no case of mammalian cyanide toxicity caused by flax ingestion has ever been reported and 2) cyanogenic glycosides are only high in green immature seeds, dropping to trace in mature brown or golden seeds.

Soaking in water for short periods will create the highest levels of cyanide because it allows the enzymes in the seeds to come in contact with the precursor cyanogenic glycosides. Boiling is safe because hydrogen cyanide is a gas and will evaporate off. However, mature seeds can be fed whole or ground safely with no boiling or other processing.

Flax seed has been fed by many generations of horse caretakers and for good reason. It is a safe source of calories with high levels of omega-3 fats and protein, benefiting the immune system, coat, skin, hooves, muscle, nervous system and all cell membranes.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD



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Immune Function

The immune system is truly an army, with Infantry, Special Forces and even an Intelligence division. Communications employs tens of thousands of different codes carried on the cytokines which also connect it to each and every organ function of the body at large. In fact, the immune system is so specialized and complicated it seems like a miracle that it functions as well and smoothly as it usually does!

“You are what you eat” is never more true than when it comes to the immune system.

Deficiencies in the two most basic components of nutrition, calories and protein, can compromise immunity. Adequate nutrition is needed to maintain cell division, production of cytokines and antibodies, integrity of the skin and mucus membrane barriers and activity of the thymus gland.  Just as important but harder to see is the effect of individual nutrients.

The foot soldiers of the immune system are cells like neutrophils and macrophages which are primed and ready to respond immediately to damaged cells as well as any invading organism or foreign substance. Their action is swift and highly effective but it comes with a price. Highly reactive oxygen compounds are used and the generated oxygen free radicals can damage the immune system cells themselves or other healthy cells around them.

The function of antioxidants is to protect against this friendly fire. Vitamins C, A and E as well as selenium, copper and zinc are all critical players here.  Their antioxidant actions get a further boost from antioxidants naturally present in the diet such as resveratrol, bioflavonoids, alpha lipoic acid, curcumin, N-acetyl-cysteine and other polyphenols present in brightly colored fruits.

The amino acid L-glutamine is critical to the function of all arms of the immune system. Bioactive whey is a particularly rich source of L-glutamine and other essential amino acids.

The intestinal tract has a key role to play in maintaining immune system function throughout the body. In order to qualify for classification as a probiotic, an organism must interact with the intestinal lining in a way that benefits immune function. Among those benefits are supporting activity of immune cells throughout the body, normal counterbalancing of inflammation and maintaining healthful levels of IgA antibody to protect the intestinal tissues locally.

Components of food can also support bodywide immunity by gently stimulating normal immune system activity. These include arabinogalactan, mannanoligosaccharides and fructooligosaccharides.

A variety of herbs have been documented to support normal immune function, particularly in times of stress.  The most valuable are those that favor a strong balanced immune response.  Some of the most useful are Echinacea, Siberian Ginseng, Pau D’Arco and Astragalus.

The immune system is perhaps the most intricate and complicated function in the body and its activity is literally a matter of life and death.  Keeping it healthy depends on the same basic nutrition as all other body organs do.  A high quality balanced diet plus boosting of key nutrients such as antioxidants and herbal support will keep it performing well.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD




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Silver Bullets are for Werewolves

I have been a strong proponent of the role of nutrition in health and optimal function for four decades but with the understanding that while it is pivotal it’s not the sole answer to everything.  Scientifically unrealistic claims for the benefits of supplements mislead owners/caretakers and end up eroding confidence in the power of nutrition.

No silver bullet supplements can guarantee safe grazing for all horses.

Some things are straightforward. Pregnant mares with severe selenium deficiency can give birth to foals with white muscle disease. Supplement those mares with adequate selenium when pregnant and this doesn’t happen. It’s rarely that simple.

For example, there’s been a mini proliferation of “topline”/muscle supplements lately. They typically are 30 to 60% protein and deliver essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in dosages ranging from miniscule to sufficient to correct a deficiency state in some circumstances.

The problem is you cannot build muscle just by feeding protein unless there is a dietary deficiency, and there certainly is no supplement that can specifically target the topline. There are several potential causes of topline wasting that cannot be fixed with protein. These include aging, Cushing’s Disease, chronic lung disease, poor saddle fit, Equine Motor Neuron  Disease, EPM and Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy.

The back and croup are also normally covered by a thick layer of fat. Weight/fat loss alone will cause lack of definition along the topline.  The other key “ingredient” to building muscle bulk in any location is exercise.

Then there is the persistent myth that there is a widespread issue with hindgut acidity and hind gut ulcers, with a corresponding assortment of supplements that claim to address it.  The pH of the hindgut normally varies with diet – highest with hays, lower with pasture and hay/grain diets.

There is not one shred of credible evidence showing these normal  variations cause ulcers, pain or behavioral and gait issues. The most recent study that set out to investigate colonic ulcers and causes found ulceration in 12 of 56 (21%), 9 of which were clearly caused by parasites. Only 3 horses (5%) had colonic ulcerations with no clear cause visible but the health and drug (phenylbutazone) history of those horses was not known.

Worse yet are claims for supplements that will let you put any horse out on spring pastures without having to worry about laminitis. Pasture-associated laminitis is caused by higher starch and simple sugar levels in the new growths of grass. Supplement ingredients that address hindgut fermentation (e.g. hops) are irrelevant. Ingredients supporting blood sugar control in humans are also useless since insulin is the problem, not high blood sugar.

It’s true that mineral nutrition is important to the health of hyperinsulinemic horses, but there is no evidence that mineral deficiencies  can actually cause hyperinsulinemia or that correcting those deficiencies or megadosing minerals alone can protect from high insulin levels and laminitis. Please don’t be fooled.  The only way to protect horses prone to hyperinsulinemia from pasture associated laminitis in the spring is to keep them off the pasture.

It’s human nature to want a quick fix, a simple solution to make everything normal. Unfortunately, that’s rarely possible. Nutrition and appropriate supplementation is just one piece of the puzzle. Silver bullets are for werewolves.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Loving Mares

In my younger (OK, MUCH younger) days, I didn’t like mares. They seemed unpredictable and difficult compared to geldings, or even stallions. I was wrong.

Image result for horse goat

In the feral society of horses, mares have tremendous responsibilities. The stallion is the lookout, will move them in times of imminent danger and directly take on predators but the day to day social management falls on the mares. The band moves whenever and wherever the alpha mare directs them. She also maintains order. All the mares below her fall into a defined social framework and do their part in policing the band.

The high level of responsibility that mares have carries over into their behavior in domestication. Mares are very sensitive to, and upset by, chaos and turmoil of any kind. They do not respond well to yelling, confrontations, disruptions or physical force. Their goal is peaceful coexistence with well being for themselves, their foals and their band mates.

The mare’s life revolves around basic needs. When hungry, seek out food. When thirsty, drink. When tired, rest. Sounds simple but unless you look at their world that way it can lead to misinterpretation.

I remember a young Standardbred mare we took to her first race on a rainy day. She was fine in the paddock but when driven out to go to the post parade and the rain hit her face she immediately planted herself, turned around and tried to go back inside. The look on her face to me was obviously “It’s raining! What’s wrong with you people?” She didn’t think too much of the idea that she should stay up with the field and have mud slung in her face either. She got over it once she learned to enjoy racing. The important thing was to recognize the behavior for what it was, not to overreact or overanalyze. She wasn’t balking, sulking, being a prima donna or any other dire interpretation. She was just trying to get out of the rain.

A common complaint is that mares do not perform as well or consistently when in season. My first advice is – get over it! Understand that this is as basic a drive for survival as are hunger and thirst.When ovulating, announce it and breed.

Regumate (synthetic progesterone) administration has been the go-to solution for eliminating estrus behavior. It doesn’t stop cycling but because estrus is triggered by drops in progesterone it does block the outward manifestations. Drawbacks are that some mares become dull, irritable and listless (if you have ever been pregnant, you can identify) and progesterone can worsen insulin resistance.

You can also work around this issue with management changes. Don’t expect her peak effort. Do keep her distracted by exercises including many changes of direction, cavaletti, etc. or go for a relaxed cross-country walk. Picking your battles carefully is most likely to get some behavioral modification. If she vocalizes occasionally, ignore this. A little urine squirting when in the aisle is really not a big deal either. If this is too much for you to deal with, get a gelding.

A mare treated calmly and fairly will be a willing partner but if you can really earn her trust and be admitted to her world you’re in for a special experience. One of my favorite horses of all time is a mare that came to us as the stereotypical “bitchy mare”. She was actually dangerous, would try to kick or bite anyone within range.

Her former trainer revealed he never entered her stall without a whip and had used strong arm tactics to deal with her – unsuccessfully. Observing her the first few days one thing was abundantly clear. She was miserable. After some firm but gentle definition of boundaries it was possible to give her a good examination. She had multiple physical problems – feet, joints, back, muscle. All work was suspended and she was given time to heal.

With respectful handling and her pain receding she was a new horse. She would yell in welcome and often “talk” when being groomed or treated.

Because she tended to overdo it when on turnout, we got her a goat as a companion. She became so attached she would stay by the goat and buck in place rather than tear around. Another time a litter of puppies broke into her stall and she was found standing like a statue with puppies jumping on all four legs. When on the home farm, I could leave her stall open for her to graze as she pleased because she didn’t have anywhere else she wanted to be. She was also the fastest racehorse we ever had.

There are many other stories, and anyone who has loved and been loved by a mare has a collection of their own. I just want to say that anyone avoiding mares thinking they are too difficult is really missing out!

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Nutrition for Advancing Pregnancy

In the last half of pregnancy the foal grows from the size of a small dog to an average 100 lb foal. Nutritional needs ramp up significantly in late pregnancy and calories are the least of the concerns.  This means keeping the mare at a good weight can still result in important deficiencies.

The mare in late pregnancy needs 28% more calories but 41% more protein. Calcium and phosphorus requirements are increased 80%, vitamin A 100%, vitamin E 60%. If you keep her diet the same as when not pregnant, just increase calories by that 28%, she will end up short on all the other nutrients.

How are you faring with providing for your pregnant mare? The answer lies with the quality of your hay but few people focus on that so let’s look from another angle. Most people describe their feeding program in terms of their bagged feed. If you are feeding 5 lbs/day (roughly 5 quarts by volume) of a supplemented and balanced 14% protein feed you are providing roughly 35% of your mare’s late pregnancy protein and mineral needs if her prepregnancy weight was around 1100 lbs.

If you add 1 lb/day of an at least 25% protein/mineral supplement she will be getting about half of the protein she needs and as much as 75% of minerals (depending on the product) from the combination of grain and protein/mineral supplement. This is a good start on minerals but quite a way to go yet on protein. This mare will also be eating 10 to 15 pounds of hay, which should more than fill in the gaps in minerals but will still leave her short on protein unless it is at least 11% protein.

While it is very common to build the diet for a pregnant mare on fairly high grain feeding as above, it’s expensive and there is another way. A good quality grass hay, with a calorie level of 0.9 Mcal/lb and 11% protein can support an 1100 lb mare through pregnancy at only 24 lbs/day even in the last month. Calorie needs are met and protein actually exceeds requirements. An equine nutritionist can advise on mineral supplementation needed based on the hay analysis.

Feeding a pregnant mare nothing but good quality hay or pasture may seem impossible because we are so conditioned to think of the horse’s diet in terms of the bagged feed, “necessary” for protein, vitamins and minerals. However, because grains are so calorie dense they need to provide at least 2.5 times the protein present in hay to just break even. If a pound of a bagged feed = 2.5 lbs of hay on a calorie basis, it would have to be 25% protein to provide as much as the 2.5 lbs of a 10% protein hay. Even making allowances for better digestibility of protein in the grain mix, they still come up short.

What your mare lacks in her diet she will take from her body. This is a nice fail-safe for the developing foal but not at all good for the mare long term.

What if your hay changes too frequently to analyze and you are not sure if the quality is adequate? Add a protein/mineral supplement, 1 lb/day for the first half of the pregnancy, 1.5 to 2 lbs/day after that for the average size mare.

When feeding this it is unnecessary to feed a supplemented bagged feed and actually causes excessive mineral intake and potentially toxic combined levels of vitamin A and D. If she is eating sufficient hay – 24 to 30+ lbs/day in late pregnancy – there is no need to feed grain. Just feed the protein/mineral supplement. If she is not eating enough hay, you can make a simple feed mixture that will be balanced for major minerals and cost you far less. Examples include:

  • 4 oz soybean meal, 1 lb each beet pulp and oats
  • 4 oz soybean meal, 2 lbs oats, 1 lb alfalfa pellets
  • 4 oz soybean meal, 1 lb each alfalfa pellets and wheat bran
  • 4 oz soybean meal, 1 lb alfalfa pellets, ½ lb rice bran (without calcium added)

As always, introduce diet changes gradually to avoid digestive upset. Finish off the diet with 1.5 to 2 oz of salt/day and 2000 IU of vitamin E in oil.

Mare on pasture? You can’t measure how much she is eating but you can keep a close eye on body condition. Skin is stretched thin over the ribs in a heavily pregnant mare so this area cannot be reliably used. Instead, pay attention to the fullness of the rump, the neck and the topline.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Myths and Misconceptions about Insulin Resistance/Metabolic Syndrome

It always takes a while for textbooks, veterinary schools and practitioners to catch up with the best published research. Magazines and news feeds often focus on whomever has a better and louder PR network. There are also companies and individuals that seek to capitalize on owners’ concerns, offering products or services that may even claim to be science-based but are not.  The end result is a lot of advice that at best is not helpful and at worst is harmful. These are a few of the latter.

Short chain (or any length) fructans cause insulin to rise.  This is sometimes presented as a need to look at starch plus WSC (water soluble carbohydrates which includes some fructans) versus starch plus ESC (ethanol soluble carbohydrates = simple sugars only) when evaluating the safety of a hay or other food item.  This misunderstanding can cause people to reject perfectly safe hay and waste time and money looking for hay which ends up being overly mature and nutritionally inferior in many ways such as digestibility, protein and vitamin/mineral levels. Look for ESC + starch less than 10% and don’t worry about fructan unless NSC [WSC + starch] is over 40%.

Insulin resistance is an inflammatory condition.  Metabolic syndrome in humans is associated with elevation of a number of inflammatory proteins called cytokines but the picture in horses is far less clear.  Suagee et al 2012 found no correlation between insulin levels and inflammatory cytokines like TNF-alpha and IL-6 that are elevated in IR humans. Vick et al 2007 found a correlation between IR and TNF-alpha levels but only in mares older than 20. No other cytokine changes.  Burns et al 2010 found higher inflammatory cytokine levels in the neck crest fat but no difference between normal and IR horses. Laminitis in IR horses is also not inflammatory. This is important because it explains  why the response to NSAID drugs for pain in IR horses is typically poor and why these drugs do not “treat” anything.

“Whole foods” can prevent/cure insulin resistance. It’s not too clear where this idea came from but I suspect it is referring back to the difference between how things like white bread versus whole grain products produce higher glucose and insulin spikes in humans. That’s true, and it’s also true that processed (e.g. extruded) barley and corn are more digestible to glucose. However, that does not mean that whole oats or whole corn will be safe.  They most definitely are not. It also does not mean that heat processed grains or co-product foods like brans or wheat midds cause IR. Food does not cause insulin resistance and many of these co-products are lower in sugar/starch and higher fiber than the whole food.

XYZ supplement or feed will make it safe for your IR horse to return to pasture.  All the evidence points to IR being an inherent part of the horse’s metabolic makeup. They are born this way. When food is scarce and poor quality IR is actually a survival advantage, but not for domesticated horses. Nothing can change the way the horse was born. Proper management will keep it from being a health issue but free access to grass is rarely possible. Grass is a living tissue and its levels of sugar and starch will vary. Things like type of grass, weather conditions, stage of growth, severity of IR, level of exercise influence how safe (or not) some degree of grazing may be but no supplement will make it safe for you to just turn an IR horse out on grass.  You may get away with it for a while but sooner or later there will be problems.

Glyphosate (Round Up) causes metabolic syndrome. All herbicides are potentially toxic but like all things potentially toxic there will be a dangerous level (dosage matters) and also predictable effects that are discovered in the course of toxicity studies. Glyphosate has been blamed for  just about any human medical condition you can think of. More recently, claims focused on horses including that glyphosate causes EMS. The proposed mechanism for this is glyphosate substituting for the amino acid glycine in cellular insulin receptors. Problem is, this is 100% speculation with zero evidence to show this happens and at least one formal study, Kim et al 1990, that shows it does not. The people making these claims have a “Dr.” before their name by virtue of a PhD but their area of expertise has nothing to do with physiology, biochemistry, medicine, toxicology or nutrition. Would you go to your dentist for advice on a hysterectomy or to your gynecologist for a hip replacement? Don’t take advice about food choices from a computer scientist. There are often benefits to organic foods but going non-GMO won’t eliminate equine metabolic syndrome.

If you want to read an excellent, up to date, scientific article on laminitis and insulin resistance written by researchers who actually work in the field, go to

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Supplementing Old Hay

It’s the time of year when even last year’s hay isn’t so new anymore and hay is getting hard to find, leading many people to settle for hay that is actually 2 years old. Properly cured hay stores well in terms of the major calorie sources (fermentable fiber and other carbohydrates) but it does incur some important nutrient losses.

Freshly harvested hay is rich in a pigment called beta-carotene which is the major precursor of vitamin A. As hay ages, light and air take their toll on the beta-carotene. As levels drop, hay begins to lose its nice green color. This is a sure sign vitamin A value has dropped. Skin, eyes, coat, thyroid and ovaries are among the tissues most affected by insufficient vitamin A. Start supplementing with 20,000 IU of vitamin A when hay is 6+ months old, increasing to 40,000 IU when over a year old.

Vitamin E activity also drops with storage and is lost even more quickly than vitamin A. All horses eating hay rather than fresh green pasture should be supplemented with 1 to 2 IU/lb of body weight daily.  Alpha-tocopherol is the major biologically active form of vitamin E. If you use mixed tocopherols you will not be supplying enough alpha-tocopherol.

Both vitamin A and vitamin E are fat soluble vitamins and require adequate fat for absorption and transport. Fat is also required for the conversion of beta-carotene to active vitamin A. Curing and storage reduce the natural fat content of hay to 50% or less of the value in fresh pasture, primarily by loss of the fragile omega-3 fatty acids. High omega-3 fatty acid supplements, based on Flax and  Chia, help replace these losses.  Actual requirements of the horse are unknown at this time but daily supplementation of at least 2 to 4 ounces of these seeds is generally recommended.

Like vitamin E, vitamin C is rich in fresh pastures and very rapidly declines when hay is cured. The horse is capable of  synthesizing his own vitamin C but this may not be enough for optimal levels. It has been documented that blood levels of vitamin C drop sharply over winter and horses may benefit  from supplementation of 1 to 5 grams of vitamin C/day.  Vitamin C is an important cofactor for the production and maintenance of strong immune responses and healthy skin, lung and tendon/ligament tissues.

Finally, excessive loss of moisture over time often leads to crumbling of the leaf portion of the hay, visible as a layer of “fines” when the hay is handled. The more stemmy portions left behind are lower in protein, B vitamins and fermentable fiber. A higher percentage of minerals bound to the nonfermentable fiber can also reduce mineral nutrition.  Use of a full spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement formulated to complement the most common hay mineral profiles (e.g. low to no iron, low manganese) is good insurance.

Poor nutrition over winter is a common occurrence for the feral horse but there is no reason for the well managed domestic horse to have these challenges. Maintain optimal nutrition by understanding the deficiencies in older hay.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Hormonal Laminitis – What It’s Not

At the NO Laminitis Conference last year I spent several hours talking about what insulin related laminitis is not. A paper just published in The Veterinary Journal (Patterson-Kane et al) called Paradigm shifts in understanding equine laminitis does the same thing.

Laminitis has always been incompletely understood. We have assembled a list of causes/triggers but did not really understand the mechanism behind the damage to the laminae.

One theory was that it was vascular. Compromised blood flow caused cellular damage or death. Others focused on infiltration by white blood cells and the inflammatory reaction. Most recently bacterial toxins gaining access to the body after damage to the lining of the  hind gut was proposed as the triggering event. The toxins activate enzymes called MMPs which then break down the basement membrane, a tissue that forms a bond between the secondary dermal and epidermal laminae. These are factors involved in laminitis caused by plant toxins, bacterial infections (e.g. retained placenta, “bastard” Strangles) and hind gut overload with starch or inulin. However, it is now recognized that approximately 90% of laminitis cases are caused by endocrine disease – high insulin levels.

Hyperinsulinemia is seen in Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), aka Cushing’s disease complicated by insulin resistance. With such a high percentage of cases being caused by hyperinsulinemia, it becomes extremely important to understand both how to control insulin levels and exactly how insulin causes damage to the laminae if we are going to effectively prevent and treat this type of laminitis.

Controlling insulin involves medication if the horse has PPID, as much exercise as possible and a diet where everything the horse eats has less than 10% simple carbohydrates – sugar (ESC) and starch. Fructan is not a sugar and does not enter into that 10% total.

As for the mechanisms underlying the damage to laminae, the logical place to start looking for those is to go back to what is known about other forms of laminitis. Studies have now found that with hormonal laminitis there is no activation of MMP enzymes or basement membrane destruction, no evidence of inflammation as an early event. These are important findings because they explain why NSAID drugs like phenylbutazone typically have little effect on the pain of hormonal laminitis.  Anti-inflammatories don’t “treat” anything when there is no inflammation.

One theory was that insulin resistance deprives the laminae of needed glucose but this was soon shown to be incorrect because these cells do not rely on insulin for glucose uptake. A current hypothesis being investigated is that the high insulin levels interfere with normal cellular reactions to IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1) because IGF-1 cellular receptors can also be triggered by insulin, albeit much more weakly than by IGF-1. There is some evidence so far that IGF-1 activity is disrupted in hormonal laminitis but much more needs to be done to determine the consequences and whether this is actually a cause or just a reaction to tissue damage.

The one abnormality that is well documented is high levels of endothelin-1, the most potent vasoconstricting substance in the body. This is also a feature of human insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and explains the circulatory problems these people have. It also explains why many hyperinsulinemic horses experience hoof pain with exposure to cold and why treatments designed to increase nitric oxide, a vasodilator, are often very helpful with hormonal laminitis pain.

We have a lot more to learn. The first step is letting go of old information on other causes of laminitis because they simply don’t apply here.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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