Protein for the Active Horse

Protein is the most expensive ingredient in a diet. Equine nutritionists are trained with the same mindset as nutritionists working with other livestock.  Cost is a consideration; return for the investment.  This often results in recommendations being the minimum you can get away with rather than the optimum for health and performance.


For example, recommendations for broodmares are focused on getting a live foal on the ground but there is convincing research the current guidelines need adjustment.  In a series of studies published 1997 and 1998, Van Niekerk and Van Niekirk found mares receiving quality protein (higher total protein and essential amino acids) ovulated sooner in the spring transition, had higher progesterone in early pregnancy and lower rates of early loss. Foals from mares fed recommended levels of protein were 25% smaller at weaning than mares on a higher protein intake. Tanner et al 2014 found weanlings fed the recommended level of crude protein and lysine incorporated less protein into their tissues than those fed at a higher protein intake.

With exercising horses, the prevailing wisdom is often that higher protein intakes may actually be harmful but Oliveira et al 2015 have solid data to the contrary. Horses in eventing training fed 2.25 grams of crude protein/kg of body weight showed improved nitrogen absorption, more absorbed nitrogen retained as protein and even improved fiber digestibility. The current recommendation (NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses 2007) is only 1.72 grams crude protein/kg of body weight for horses in heavy exercise, a 31% difference.

Since we know very little about the horse’s dietary requirements for essential amino acids, it’s quite possible the same effects could be achieved simply by increasing intake of key amino acids (the building blocks of protein) rather than large increases in protein across the board. However, we only have good information for a few of the 10 to 12 essential amino acids and wouldn’t really know where to start.

When the horse absorbs protein, it is first broken down into amino acids which are then reassembled into proteins inside the body.  In addition to building muscle, protein/amino acids are needed for the framework of bone, tendons, ligaments, enzymes and hormones.  Creatine, which stores high energy in muscles, is a protein. Carnitine is needed to carry fats into the mitochondria to be burned and its metabolite, acetyl-L-carnitine, is a critical regulator of energy generation.  Carnitine synthesis requires lysine and methionine. Glutathione, the major antioxidant in muscle, is a protein. The list goes on.

How do current diets measure up to the higher, probably more optimal, protein intake?  A 500 kg (1100 lb) horse eating 10 kg (22 lb) of an 11.25% protein hay would meet the higher protein intake for heavy work but since you would need to feed considerably more hay on a hay only diet (close to 30 lb) the hay would only have to be about 8% protein.  Any good hay would likely meet this crude protein requirement.  Ironically, if you feed grain and less hay your deficit is probably larger because a lb of grain contains 2 to 3 times the calories but not 2 to 3 times the protein.

The only way to know precisely how your horse’s diet measures up would be a formal diet analysis.  As a rule of thumb, to close the gap on what could be as much as a 30% deficit in protein intake try adding 50 grams of protein (e.g. 100 g of a 50% protein supplement) from a mixture of flax seed (about 30% protein), soy and whey protein plus a supplement of L-lysine, L-methionine and L-threonine (10-5-2.5 g), especially if you are seeing an indication your horse’s muscle function could be better.  This includes issues with muscle bulk, speed, endurance, topline definition or muscle soreness – all very common complaints with active horses.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Late Summer Weight Loss

Weight loss in late summer is a fairly common problem. It can have many different causes and pinpointing the reason is obviously central to successful resolution.

from: University of Minnesota

Cumulative effects of dehydration is a common cause. With mild dehydration the horse’s body will pull water from the tissues into the blood to restore normal concentrations of sodium and other solutes.  Since the drive to drink from the brain ultimately originates in higher osmotic pressures in the blood, the brain thinks that all is well and the end result is tissue dehydration and weight loss.

Inadequate sodium intake is the most common cause of dehydration.  If you don’t know for sure how much salt your horse is taking in, and that the amount is adequate for baseline needs + sweat losses, there’s a good chance this is the problem.  As a start, provide 2 oz of salt plus an additional oz of salt or a dose of balanced electrolyte providing at least 10 grams of sodium for each hour of formal work.

With the trend today of reduced deworming frequency, parasites can sneak up on your horse between the common routine interval dewormings in the spring and fall.  Activity of all types of parasites is increased in the warm weather and you have the added threat of stomach bots in fly season. Waiting until the first solid freeze to deworm for bots ensures there will be no further transmission but by then larvae picked up early in the season have abraded the stomach and grown quite large (each up to 3/4 inch long).

from: University of Florida

Does anyone really believe a stomach full of bots causes no problems?

Abdominal distention or coat changes are additional clues but won’t necessarily be present. Bot infestations are not detectable on fecal exams and tapeworms rarely are. Fecals are best for strongyles but manure must be freshly passed and kept cool until examined or the eggs will hatch. Mailed in fecals are a waste of time and money. When you deworm, be sure not to underdose. Underdosing is the major cause of resistance to deworming drugs.

Another issue in late summer is declining pasture quality. Even if still green, mature grasses drop in caloric value and protein. More succulent and higher protein clovers often do not tolerate high heat well. Weight loss can begin long before pastures appear “dead”. Supplement with a high quality grass hay or  grass with up to 10-15% alfalfa. A sure sign your horses needs supplemental hay is when they begin eating it.  Most horses will choose good grass over good hay any time.

Horses in their teens that begin losing weight late in summer/early fall with no apparent reason may be early cases of PPID – pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, aka Cushing’s disease.  There is a natural rise in ACTH and other hormones from this area of the pituitary which occurs at this time.  In normal horses it is small and of no consequence but early PPID cases have an exaggerated rise.  Weight and muscle loss is one of the consequences. Blood tests are needed for diagnosis.

Weight loss can also be a nonspecific sign of many significant disorders.  If the horse does not respond to addressing the more common issues, always involve your veterinarian.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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Feeding Yearlings

Whether you are prepping for sales and halter classes or trying your best to raise a healthy and sound youngster, careful attention to nutritional needs is a key component.  Yearlings should not be fed like little adults.

This handsome devil is a Beneteau colt that was selling at the 2015 Australia Magic Millions Perth Yearling sale

An easy way to see this is to compare their calorie needs on a Mcal/kg of body weight basis and their protein and mineral needs as grams or milligrams/Mcal of diet.  Those second numbers show you how nutrient dense the diet needs to be.

Compared to the adult maintenance, the yearling needs 113% more calories, 186% calcium, 134% crude protein, and 134% L-lysine.  Although the NRC has not gotten around to recognizing it officially yet, formal research such as vanWeeren et al 2003 shows an effect of copper on healing of osteochondrotic lesions, as did Dr. Knight’s original work in 1990. Feeding three times the current NRC minimum requirement is safe and cheap insurance. Other trace minerals are increased proportionately to keep them in balance.

If you have a properly formulated weanling diet in place this will also meet all the needs of the yearling simply by adjusting calories.  If the horse starts to get too fat, cut back the diet but add 1/2 to 1 lb of a 25% protein and balanced mineral supplement to keep up the nutrient  density.

The usual advice for feeding weanlings is a 50:50 diet of pasture or high quality hay and a  commercial concentrate, by weight of each.  The first thing I check is the fat content.  In a 1999 study by Hoffman et al, young horses fed as little as 1 to 1.4 kg (2.2 to 3 lbs) of an average 10.4% fat concentrate twice a day, with pasture, had reduced bone mineral  density despite mineral intakes that were at least 200% of requirements.

Fats form insoluble complexes with calcium and magnesium. Fiber binding some minerals was also mentioned but is far less likely as a cause since horses raised on pasture get more fiber than this. Added fat in the supplement from the study above amounts to about 10 oz of oil. Unfortunately, many feeds labeled for use in yearlings have too much fat. This also increases calories and results in just the concentrate providing all calories required, if not more, and a fat youngster. This leaves no room for hay and sets the stage for wide hormonal swings, digestive upset and impaired development of the GI tract and its microbes.

Commercial growth feeds do a good job with minerals but don’t correct imbalance issues in the hay or pasture. Protein provided is 60 to 65 % of minimum requirement with  most or all lysine being met, depending on the product.  If hay is at least 8.5% protein, it will fill in the additional protein.  All of this assumes you feed the full recommended amount, typically as much as 7.5 lbs/day for a 650 lb yearling.  If he backs off the recommended minimum 1% of body weight in hay or gets too heavy (and they will with those high fat feeds) you will have to reduce it – and with that the protein and minerals also go down and will have to be added back in.

An alternative approach is a simple concentrate you mix yourself instead of the commercial feeds, adding a separate concentrated mineral mix and protein as needed. For example, by weight, 1 lb beet pulp and 2 lbs high grade oats with 1 oz of flaxseed per pound of mixture is balanced for calcium and phosphorus, about 12% protein and contains about 65 to 70% of the calories of high fat yearling feeds.  Ingredients also meet or exceed the % lysine required in protein for yearlings.  Other combinations of high calcium (alfalfa, clover, beet pulp) and high phosphorus (grains, brans, seeds) can be used to get a balanced Ca:P ratio.

For a 650 lb yearling, combine 7.5 lbs of good quality grass hay with 7.5 lbs of oats/beet pulp mixture, 2 cups of ground flaxseed (all daily totals) and 1 lb/day of a high quality 25% protein and balanced concentrated mineral supplement. Look for a blend of milk and vegetable protein, 4.5 to 5% calcium, at least 350 ppm copper and 875 ppm zinc with lower manganese.

If needed, an additional 2 to 4 oz of oil can be added for coat conditioning. Boost protein for low protein hays or pastures using a protein supplement without the added high levels of minerals.  When more calories are needed, increase all elements of the diet proportionately – e.g. pound each of concentrate and hay, 1 oz flax, 2 oz protein/mineral supplement.

Attention to detail will get you the well developed, muscular rather than fat, shining and structurally sound young horse you are wanting.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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You Can’t Always Follow Your Gut With An IR Horse

Following your gut instinct is good advice in some situations but gut, and even good old common sense, can also be wrong.  This is where fact and science come in.

Correctly caring for a horse with insulin resistance takes some major lifestyle changes. It is up to the caretaker to implement those changes. This can be a major advantage for the horse, who doesn’t have to rely on his own will power, or it can throw any number of obstacles in his path.

We hear things like ‘The horse can’t possibly be happy without pasture’, despite the fact that millions of horses around the world are; many of which do not even have pasture as an option. Another is that they can’t possibly be healthy on a diet restricted in amounts or types of food, when in truth it is the human imposing their own emotional reaction to that possibility on the horse.

Most dangerous are objections that sound like they are based in science when they are not. One is that not permitting an IR horse 24/7 access to food will cause stress and a cortisol increase that will actually make him worse.  This has a ring of truth to it, but it’s wrong.

Sticker et al 1995 fed mares either 100% of requirements or restricted calories by 50%.  The restricted mares had a drop in cortisol levels.

DePew et al 1994 fasted mares and stallions for 19 hours then fed a pellet and hay meal. Cortisol rose after feeding and did not change in response to fasting for 19 hours.

Glunk et al 2015 fed adult Quarter horses a restricted hay diet of 1% of their body weight either as loose hay or from slow feeder nets, divided into two feedings with 15 hours between the afternoon and morning  meals.   The floor fed horses finished their meals much quicker.  There was no difference in cortisol levels between the two types of feeding. Cortisol dropped in both groups over the 28 day trial despite the markedly restricted feeding and weight loss. [Horses were sampled every 30 minutes after meals and hourly between feedings.]

Storer et al fed both normal and hyperleptinemic (IR) mares either constant pasture, free choice hay or hay and pellets only once daily.  The mares fed only once daily had an expected exaggerated insulin and glucose peak after feeding but their cortisol levels were lower than the mares with constant access to hay or pasture at all testing times.

Freestone et al 1991 did find small (but not statistically significant) rises in cortisol in ponies fasted 24 to 72 hours, consistent with the tendency of ponies, but not horses, to develop exaggerated release of fat into the bloodstream with fasting. The metabolism of ponies (and minis, donkeys) is distinctly different from horses.

What about the fact that feral horses spend 18 to 20 hours a day eating? This observation does not automatically mean horses have to spend this much time eating to be metabolically healthy.  You have to remember that grass is over 70% water while hay is typically around 10% and a much more concentrated calorie source than pasture.  They have to spend that much time eating native pasture to get enough calories.

By all means feed your insulin resistant horse with a slow feeding set up to avoid long gaps with no food that might lead to insulin peaks and also just to keep her busy but don’t worry that going without food for even short periods will increase cortisol and make IR worse. Research has proven that’s simply not the case. In fact, in study after study a drop in cortisol has been found with fasting or restricted feeding of horses.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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SPECIAL EDITION – False Advertising – Where’s the FDA When You Need Them?

I’m a big believer in the importance of nutrition but nothing makes it harder to keep nutrition front and center as a basic, main stream consideration, than outrageous claims being made.

A feed manufacturer is claiming (illegally by the way) that the following Do’s and Don’ts will prevent Equine Cushing’s Syndrome and Insulin Resistance:

Do’s:  Feed hay/forage 24/7; feed whole foods; kelp; ground flax; curcumin; exercise; chaste tree berry; spirulina; cinnamon; chia seeds; peas.

Don’ts:  Soy products; iron amino acid complex; ferrous sulfate; ferric oxide; lecithin; glyphosate/Round Up; cane molasses; wheat middlings; preservatives;  distiller’s dried grains and solubles (corn syrup)**, oversupplementation of selenium; processed feed.      **this is NOT corn syrup.

I’ll make this short.  Which things on the DO list will prevent PPID and IR? None.  Which things on the DON’T list will cause PPID and IR? None.  Will the combination of the DO with the DON’T prevent PPID and IR? No.

The proposed solution, of course, is their feed which is not organic, contains pelleted (isn’t that processing?) hays, high inflammatory omega-6 ingredients, dried fruit (? sulfites) and to top it off is a whopping 11% fat, 28.3% starch + sugar.

Their advertised “team” includes two people calling themselves nutritionists. They should be ashamed.

‘Nuff said.

Note: They’re a bit more careful about claims they make on the web site – not so much on Facebook and in their direct e-mail advertising.  I’ve got copies.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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The Most Underappreciated Performance Enhancer

It’s free too.  Next to air, this is the single most important factor in supporting good performance and maximizing response to training and conditioning.  Water.

The horse’s body is about 70% water.  From brain functioning to the cushion of joint cartilage and deformability of bones, water plays a critical role in the function of every cell. From a performance standpoint, water as sweat regulates body temperature to permit cellular reactions to continue normally.  Water in the blood stream maintains blood volume and pressure to deliver nutrients to working tissues and remove waste materials. Water in and surrounding the cells facilitates nerve transmission and generation of energy.  During recovery from exercise it takes 7 grams of water to replenish just 1 gram of glycogen.

Exercise generates tremendous amounts of heat. Because the horse can only survive with body temperature within a fairly narrow range, cooling mechanisms take precedence over all other functions needing water and the horse will continue to sweat until on the brink of death. Because of the rapid and large loss of water through sweat (minimum of at least 1 gallon/hour for the average horse), other body functions are rapidly compromised.  In fact, inadequate body hydration likely accounts for  more subpar performance than all other causes  combined.

Research has revealed that as little as a 2% loss of body water weight can result in a 10% decrease in performance.

Having clean water available at all times, including as much as they want during and after exercise, is the first step in ensuring hydration is not suboptimal in hot weather.  The horse also has to drink it.

How many times have you been away from home at a competition or ride only to find your horse won’t drink the water there? It’s extremely common. One solution is to bring water from home.  A large picnic carrier filled with half water and half ice will survive even a long hot trip in the back of a truck. Most horses will also readily drink bottled water. Investing in a few 5 gallon jugs is well worth the small price.  Also bring his bucket from home.

If you can’t always have your horse close to your truck and water, get the horse accustomed to a flavored water at home.  Equine flavoring products can be used, preferably sugar free, or use a handful of feed. The advantage of the sugar free flavorings is they won’t support bacterial growth in the heat and are easier to clean out of the bucket.

Getting the water in is only half the battle. To keep it there your horse must have normal electrolyte levels both in the blood and in the tissues.  It is especially important to stay on top of sodium and chloride by remembering to give the horse both his baseline salt requirement and to replace electrolytes lost in sweat. See this recent blog for details:

The next time your horse seems to be flagging in the heat remember the solution may be as simple as a long drink and electrolyte replacement. You will see the results within minutes.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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Living with Old Soft Tissue Injuries

Tendon and suspensory ligament injuries plague horses performing in all disciplines.  Even pleasure horses and pasture ornaments may fall victim if they take the proverbial “bad step” over rough ground conditions.

These are every bit as painful as bone or joint disorders and take as much as a year to heal. Even when healing has progressed well these tissues are permanently weakened compared to their uninjured state and always at risk of re-injury.  Minor flare ups are common when horses are back in work. They may not have any serious lasting consequences but they really take their toll in disrupted training schedules.

from Paulick Report

Fortunately, a little extra care can make a huge difference in terms of keeping previously injured areas tight and free of problems.

  • Use boots or wraps when working the horse.  I don’t believe they really do much in terms of “supporting” the horse but they do help hold all the structures in correct alignment. If you have ever had a painful ligament or tendon you know how it is possible to use the involved structures (e.g. a wrist) without pain if you have a proper wrap in place.
  • Always ice the area for 30 minutes after work. Apply as soon as possible after exercise stops, even before removing tack or hosing.  This sounds like a lot of work but once you get into a routine it becomes second nature.  Bring preloaded ice wraps to the barn in an insulated carrier. Just swap them out as the ice melts.  Cold is very effective at curtailing minor inflammation but won’t  interfere with the normal low level inflammatory processes needed for tissue maintenance and remodeling.
  • If the area tends to fill/swell when the horse stands still, use standing wraps when in the stall. The purpose is not to block the appearance of a sign of problems, but to prevent it from interfering with optimal circulation.

The above measures will not mask signs of serious re-injury but they will prevent or minimize discomfort from things like adhesions stretching or breaking down with exercise.

In terms of general management, movement is your friend in keeping all tissues as strong and flexible as possible so minimize stall time.  Even a smallish paddock is better than standing still. Carefully condition the horse for the work you will be expecting and avoid fatigue at all costs.

Whether shod or barefoot, absolutely meticulous attention to hoof trim and balance is critical to preserving the tissue repair.  Working only over manicured surfaces is unrealistic but do avoid heavy going and slow down on uneven natural surfaces.

The common practice of giving a horse with an old injury phenylbutazone or other antiinflammatory/analgesic before work in anticipation of it stressing the area is not a good idea.  If you are doing something that causes a reaction sufficient to require these drugs you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.  Work up to the desired level of performance gradually and if you consistently run into problems at a certain level of activity you will just have to accept the limitations or risk doing serious damage.

Tendons and ligaments are a specialized form of connective tissue, the most abundant tissue type in the body which also accounts for over 50% of the body’s protein yet little attention is paid to the role of nutrition. Lysine is the major essential amino acid in connective tissue, as well as its derivative hydroxylysine.  Vitamin C is required for that conversion.  Copper, a very common deficiency, is needed for the formation of strong reinforcing cross-links in the structure of tendons and ligaments.  Although its exact role is unclear, magnesium is important to integrity of these tissues. Use of the quinolone antibiotics which can tie up magnesium is associated with side effects of tendon/ligament damage that can be prevented with magnesium.

Necessity of vitamin C supplementation is questionable since the horse can manufacture vitamin C  but making sure lysine, magnesium and copper are adequately supplemented is simply common sense and important to these horses. Couple with some simple management adjustments and you will maximize the chance of enjoying an athletic partnership with the horse.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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Plant Pigments and the Immune System

Green drinks are a hot human health craze these days and with good reason. Plant pigments possess a variety of beneficial properties for the immune system.

Green pigment (chlorophyll) is only a piece of the picture.  Flavonoids, carotenes, lycopene, zeaxanthin, anthocyanins, betalains and others are among the wide array of plant pigments.

A primary function for the plant is to capture the energy of light which the plant uses for photosynthesis, the creation of high energy compounds ATP and NADPH, which are then used to produce food sources for the plant, including glucose. The horse can’t use pigments this way but his body interacts with these nutritional substances, especially in the immune system.

Immunity is an incredibly wondrous and intricate function.  It is divided broadly into reactions which shoot first and ask questions later – the innate immune system which responds  immediately to any foreign substance or organism – and the sophisticated/adaptive immune system which targets specific invaders with antibodies and remembers them in stored cells. Inflammation is an inherent part of the immune response to invading organisms or toxins, as well as the method of removal of dead or injured tissues. The immune system also has an intricate set of checks and balances which protects the body’s own tissues from direct attack as well as from collateral damage by friendly fire. Immune system reactions are turned off by a combination of the inciting problem being removed and counter-regulatory messages which control and eventually stop the reaction.

The nature and intensity of immune system reactions is determined by a complex formula involving genetics, the type of threat, the animal’s overall health status, adequacy of basic nutrition (calories, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals) as well as food fractions which normally interact with the immune system. The latter is where plant pigments come into play.

Many plant components interact with the horse’s immune system at the most basic level – gene expression. The study of this is called Nutrigenomics and it is adding tremendously to our understanding of how diet supports health.  Basic research into the functioning of the immune system also shows how diet goes far beyond supplying basic energy sources, vitamins and minerals.

Chlorophyll supports the production of innate immune system cytokines by lymphocytes lining the digestive tract. Chlorophyllin, a sodium copper derivative of chlorophyll, supports the natural healing of open wounds when applied topically and consuming it is associated with higher numbers of all immune system cells.

Chlorophyll and chlorophyllin are also natural antioxidants, as are all plant pigments. Quercetin and other citrus bioflavonoids are naturally occurring dietary participants in counterregulatory gene activity which maintains normal healthful levels of inflammation. Many plant flavonoids also work with the body in maintaining inherent defense systems against the invasion of cells by harmful organisms.

Proanthocyanidins from grape seed extract are one of the most potent antioxidants on the planet and possess all the attributes described above.  They also support the body’s ability to naturally regulate allergic reactions and responses to temporary irritation by environmental toxins.  The pigments of the blue-green algae Spirulina work with the horse’s body in the same way.

Brightly colored foods are as healthful for your horse as they are for you.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD



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Stallion Handlers Should Be Moms

Some mom skills come in really handy – like sensing when things are too quiet and having eyes in the back of your head.  In many ways stallions are like overgrown kids.

This is not to make light of interacting with stallions in any way. They are quick, powerful and no mere human is a match for a stallion in a flat out battle. However, the common perception of stallions as aggressive and inherently dangerous is not accurate.  They are also not sex crazed maniacs that will hurt a mare and kill foals.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Mares are much more of a threat to the stallion than the other way around and stallions are normally very protective of foals.

Stallions mellow with advanced age to rather stately and dignified gentlemen but in their younger days can be challenging.  It starts early. Colts are more active and physical than fillies, tormenting their dams from an early age with their penchant for mounting.  Rearing and mock fighting with their pasture mates is also a favorite.  As they become sexually mature, feral males form bachelor bands where they peacefully coexist but with an obvious herd hierarchy that is established through posturing and threats much more often than any actual physical contact. The posing is part of their daily interchanges with herd mates.

This behavior carries over to human interactions with domesticated stallions. The dominance  behaviors almost become a form of play where the horse is constantly trying to sneak in a nip, invade your space or keep you from entering his.  Calling his bluff with a sharp word and tap is sufficient to “win” if you are operating from a position of strength – i.e. have adequate restraint on the horse if he is out of the stall or have yourself in a position of power and movement if you are in an enclosed area with the horse loose. These encounters won’t be a once and done phenomenon.

The stallion will continue to challenge you every day and several times a day.  As handler and horse get to know one another, these exchanges can be almost invisible to an observer as a subtle change in body language communicates both the posturing and the response.  Like a mom, an experienced stallion handler can read their minds and convey the don’t-you-even-think-it message with as little as a sideways glance. The horse appears to only be quietly behaved but let someone else try to work with the horse and he can seem to be a different animal, immediately “in your face”.  There is no malice in the behavior though; no intent to inflict harm.

I’m leaving a lot out here, most notably the ground work training of breaking, leading, respecting your space, teaching the absolute zero tolerance for serious behaviors like rearing, striking and aggressive biting and making sure the animal has sufficient exercise and social interaction, with other horses at least visible. However, stallions are trainable just like mares and geldings.  On the whole, dangerous stallions are made not born.  They are a product of poor management and abysmal horsemanship coupled with excessive physical force.

It’s unfortunate that many horsepeople will go their whole lives without ever getting to know a stallion. They are a challenge and keep you on your toes but their unique zest for life is the essence of horse.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Summer Allergies

Nothing ruins enjoying the warm weather with your horse quite like the scourge of allergies.  Manifestations run the gamut from sneezing and snorting to wheezing, runny eyes and agonizing itching.

from Towcester Vets, UK

Allergies are basically a misdirected and unbalanced immune reaction. When the immune system is exposed to a protein that is not a normal component of the body the usual response is to engage both major arms of the immune system (termed Th1 and Th2) to develop antibodies of the IgG and IgA class.  In individuals prone to allergic reactions, IgE antibody is produced and primarily the Th2 type reactions are activated.  When the sensitized immune system is next exposed to the same protein (called an allergen), a reaction is triggered which results in release of chemicals like histamine.

Why some horses are prone to allergy is not entirely clear but studies have suggested a strong  genetic component.  A horse can inherit the predisposition to develop allergies but will not inherit any specific allergy such as to a particular food.

Management of the allergic horse includes minimizing exposure to the trigger as much as possible. Antihistamines may be used to try to prevent the development of new reactions but antihistamines cannot reverse symptoms already present. Corticosteroids are typically prescribed for problems that do not resolve on their own.  They are extremely effective but come with side effects such as reduced immunity and metabolic disorder with chronic use or high dosages.

We can help the horse by providing supplements that support a balanced immune response.  At the most basic level this includes key antioxidant nutrients of copper, zinc, selenium, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids.  These are indispensable building blocks for the body’s own antioxidant defenses such as glutathione, EPA, DHA and the superoxide dismutase enzymes.

Vitamin C is a key antioxidant both in its own right and by virtue of its ability to regenerate other antioxidants, like vitamin E, to an active form.  It is abundant in fresh grass but activity is lost rapidly in hays. Vitamin C is particularly important in the respiratory system and the eyes.  Flavonoids (e.g. quercetin) are plant compounds which work synergistically with vitamin C. MSM also has documented antioxidant activity.

Spirulina is an edible algae which promotes normal balance between the arms of the immune system including supporting the production of IgG and IgA antibodies and healthy levels of histamine.

Finally, several herbs have been found to support a normal balance between the Th1 and Th2 arms of the immune system.  These include Astragalus, Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus), Pau D’Arco and Echinacea.  Herbals used topically can also provide soothing relief for temporary irritations.  Ingredients that excel in this include Aloe Vera, Chamomile, Calendula and Chickweed.

There is no question that allergies can ruin your warm weather fun and torture your horse but there are several nutritional and herbal approaches that can be used to support normal function of the immune system and provide temporary relief for skin involvement.

Eleanor Kellon,  VMD

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