Learn To Recognize An Overweight Horse

If you have to ask, your horse is probably fat.

Overweight is the gentler way to say a large percentage of horses are fat if not frankly obese. In about 1/3 of these horses there is underlying metabolic syndrome which causes an exaggerated appetite but if they were being fed the appropriate amount of food they wouldn’t be overweight. Same goes for the ones that do not have metabolic syndrome. Calories out versus calories in is the bottom line.

Ponies are the poster child for obese equines but it comes from feeding too much

The first step toward combating this problem is to be able to recognize it. Familiarize yourself with the Henneke body condition scoring system https://www.habitatforhorses.org/the-henneke-body-condition-scoring-system/ . It’s also helpful to look at the front and back leg musculature to see if it seems proportional to the size of the body. The horse should not look like an hors d’oeuvre on toothpicks. You should always be able to easily feel the ribs and in growing horses you will usually be able to see them.

The body condition score is all about fat covering, not muscle or body type. This Arabian and Quarterhorse are both an ideal body condition score 5. The Arabian is not “skinnier”.

Lesson 1 is to learn how to evaluate fat separate from muscle. Lesson 2 is to learn what your breed is supposed to look like. This might surprise you.

Miniature horse: http://www.frosthillfarmminiatures.com/images/sadieyearlingwinpic.jpg

Morgan horse: https://tinyurl.com/3v79y8fc

Paint: https://tinyurl.com/ne35ch9t

Dutch Warmblood: https://equitrekking.com/images/uploads/Vittoria%20-%20dressage%20type%20mare%20%20by%20Joel%20Neel.jpg

Draft: https://tinyurl.com/5736tfdh

How do you get there? As above, it’s all about calories but both amount and type count. Unless they are performing speed work, most horses do not need grains. Grains are a concentrated source of simple carbohydrates compared to grass or hay. Most commercial grain mixes also have added fat, which is 2.5 times more calorie dense than carbohydrate or protein. Tip: If fat is over 3%, there is fat added. Plain grains have 1.5 to 2 times the calories of hays. Bagged grains are 2 to 3+ times more calorie dense.

Don’t they need the vitamins and minerals from grain, or at least a “balancer”? No – or at least not in those formulas. What your horse needs is a supplement that correctly balances his hay https://wp.me/p2WBdh-112 . It doesn’t do any good to feed something that is itself correctly balanced but doesn’t take care of deficiencies or imbalances in your hay. For a horse that needs to lose weight or not gain any more, go with a concentrated supplement fed in a small amount of a low calorie carrier, like a handful of soaked beet pulp. If you need help selecting the right one, you can ask us https://uckele.com/askthevet.

Now that you have cut the high calorie grains and balancers out of the diet, what is your horse going to eat? – what nature intended them to eat, i.e. forage. Hay or pasture can support a normal body condition in most horses. In fact, you may have to limit how much they get. For an overweight horse, feed 1.5% of their current body weight or 2% of the ideal body weight to get safe, steady weight loss. Horses that are exercising above pleasure horse level will need more calories when at their ideal weight but for weight loss you can feed at 2% of body weight making sure protein, vitamins and minerals are adequate. Again, if you need help just ask https://uckele.com/askthevet .

Weight gain or loss on pasture is more tricky. You can’t weigh their intake and taking them off pasture part of the day usually doesn’t work because they can eat up to 3 times faster than normal when they do get access again. The solution is muzzling. This can be a psychological roadblock for owners, and horses are pretty adept at removing some muzzles, but there is a muzzle out there that will work for any horse. Observe the horse eating to be sure it is actually doing a good job.

The best part about horses slimming down to a healthier weight is they don’t need will power. They have you. You determine how much they are fed so please take their health seriously.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Fall Deworming – What Next?

What’s a good equine deworming schedule

Just about everyone knows to deworm for helminths (Stronglyes, etc.) and tapeworms in the fall, but what about the rest of the year.

Fall is the time to include tapeworm deworming for your horse

We deworm for tapeworms in the fall, ideally after the first frost, because the soil mites which carry the infective larvae disappear after it cools off. This one basic guideline for deworming is something most people remember but what should a comprehensive deworming schedule look like? It depends.

Several factors, or combinations of factors, put your horse at higher risk for parasites:

  • Turnout on pasture
  • Turnout with other horses, particularly if more than 1 horse per acre
  • Turnout with young horses
  • Exposure to horses outside the home herd
  • Older age (late teens or twenties)
  • Cushing’s disease (PPID)
  • Young age (2 YO or younger)
  • History of high fecal egg count as an adult

Most young to middle-aged healthy adult horses have developed strong immune defenses against parasites and will show low to negative fecal egg counts (FEC). While a negative FEC is a good indicator of how much of a danger the horse is to other horses at the moment, it has many weaknesses when it comes to detecting the parasite status of the horse https://wp.me/p2WBdh-Bv . Because of these short falls, many vets will recommend at least one other yearly deworming with ivermectin or moxidectin in late spring or early summer.

What about horses in high risk categories? Young horses that have not developed good immunity yet definitely need more frequent deworming. Treatment at 6 to 12 week intervals, rotating between ivermectin/moxidectin and drugs effective for roundworms will be needed. Similarly, adults that are high shedders (high egg counts) need treatment at those frequencies to both protect them and the horses they are around.

What if you have a horse in one or more other high risk categories? One option, but expensive, is to do fecal egg counts every six weeks, making sure they are collected fresh, kept cold and examined quickly. If that is not an option, you will need to adjust depending on circumstances. If it’s a high risk individual – e.g. older horse with PPID – but environmental exposure risk is not high you might do early spring, mid summer and late fall with a once yearly FEC before the early spring treatment. If both a high risk individual and high exposure, you may need every 4 to 8 week dewormings spring through fall and should do your FEC in mid winter.

Obviously there are multiple factors to consider in determining a schedule. Be sure to get your veterinarian’s input as you put a plan together.

P.S. Deworming causes a disruption in the microflora. For young healthy horses with a thriving population, this self-corrects in a few days. However, as horses age the numbers and diversity in their microbiome wanes. For those horses, as well as those known to have high parasite burdens, a probiotic could help.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Fall Laminitis Risk

Your horse should be kicking up her heels in the cool, crisp autumn air but every year some are struck by laminitis.  There are several distinct groups of horses at risk and they all have EMS/high insulin in common.

A rise in ACTH hormone which occurs in late summer and fall https://wp.me/p2WBdh-Iy can trigger laminitis in uncontrolled PPID. Horses with EMS may also be pushed over the edge by this seasonal hormonal shift. Be vigilant for changes in crest, other fat deposits, weight and activity. ACTH levels should be checked around mid August to make sure the pergolide dose is adequate. By the time the seasonal rise is in full swing in late September, dosage increases are often less effective. These horses can, and do, develop laminitis with no access to pasture.

Fall laminitis has also been blamed on increased fructan levels in pasture grasses which occur when nights turn cooler. However, grass fructan has never actually been proven to cause laminitis and the higher sugar levels in stressed grasses and fall regrowths, with the insulin spikes they cause, are the  real cause. This is only an issue for EMS horses. This is not a matter of individual sensitivity to fructans. It is only the horses with EMS that are at risk.

EMS horses can also develop laminitis after free access to acorns. Very high intakes can cause poisoning in any horse but EMS horses develop laminitis with no other signs of toxicity because acorns are high in starch. It happens every year. Starch levels seem to vary from year to year and so does risk but don’t let that fool you into letting your guard down.

Another risk group is pregnant mares. Pregnant mares develop insulin resistance as pregnancy advances. This combined with increasing weight and pasture changes in the fall may result in laminitis. Mares managed to cycle and be bred early (January to March) are more at risk than those bred during the natural breeding season.

Management of at risk horses should include:

  • make sure ACTH is controlled in PPID horses
  • feed a suitably low sugar and starch diet
  • limit (muzzle) or avoid pasture time when nights are below 40 F or there is obvious new green growth
  • prevent access to acorns

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

Magnesium and phosphorus are common deficiencies and important for energy generation and storage in metabolically active cells in the hoof.  Selenium and iodine are common deficiencies also and both critical to normal functioning of the thyroid gland. Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha lipoic acid are antioxidants which also support normal glucose tolerance, as do fenugreek and chromium. Zinc, copper and biotin are often suboptimal and play important roles in normal hoof wall production and hoof integrity.

Proper management and supplementation can assist the horse in maintaining good blood delivery and avoiding nutritional roadblocks to normal hoof health and metabolism.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Weight Loss in Senior Horses

It’s reasonable not to expect your senior horse to look as robust as younger animals, but they should maintain a good covering of flesh over their ribs, back and hip bones.  When the older horse starts to look gaunt, there’s a problem.

Advancing age brings weight loss in horses

I’m going to start with the least likely causes first, just because many concerned owners will have their minds rush to the worst case scenario.  Although these causes are less common, it’s good for everyone to bear them in mind when going through the process of sorting out the horse’s problem.

Cancer is rare in the equine world, but as the horse ages anything goes. For example, thyroid cancer is limited to older horses and causes dramatic weight loss.  Similarly, organ failure involving heart, lung, kidney or liver is also uncommon but prevalence increases with age.  The history, constellation of symptoms, physical examination and laboratory work will direct your veterinarian to a diagnosis.

Cushing’s disease, an overactivity of the pars intermedia of the pituitary gland, is a common hormonal disorder in older horses.  Clinical signs include muscle wasting and weight loss.  Weight loss caused directly by the disease may be compounded by loose teeth due to bone resorption in Cushing’s, and chronic  infections in the teeth/oral cavity from depressed immunity in this condition.  Cushing’s horses also often have oral ulcerations which can make eating painful.

Dental disorders can easily contribute to weight loss if they interfere with the horse’s ability to thoroughly chew hay.  Grass may be handled better in early cases because it is much softer but eventually grass chewing is also compromised.  These horses will “quid” – produce half chewed wads of hay that fall out of their mouths.

Another chewing difficulty not as well known is decrease in the force of chewing secondary to changes in the angle of the chewing surface as the horse ages (the curve of Spee).  Dental examination may show no abnormalities, leading to the false conclusion that chewing is not an issue.  The horse may or may not quid but by not chewing forcefully enough the food particles are not broken down as efficiently so not exposed as well to digestive juices and enzymes.

The solution for chewing difficulties is to change the diet. Replacing hay with chopped hay may be enough in some cases. This can be purchased bagged or some people make and bag their own by passing hay through a chipper.  If chopped hay does not lead to sufficient weight gain, a switch to soaked cubes, pellets or ground hay meal is necessary.  An alternative is to use a high fiber complete feed, preferably soaked, to provide all the needed calories.  Regular hay can still be provided to keep the horse busy but do not count on it for any calories.

Moderate amounts of fat can be a good addition for calories but you should first be sure the horse is also eating the required amount of vitamins, minerals and protein since fat is otherwise empty calories.  Older horses will also sometimes hold muscle mass better if supplemented with a high quality protein source such as a soy and whey mix, or the three commonly scarce amino acids – lysine, methionine and threonine.

Senior horse weight loss is common but not inevitable.  Work with your veterinarian to rule out serious illness and identify the cause.  Diet modification is often the solution.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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NSC, Fructans and EMS – Again

It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. The same (incorrect) information keeps surfacing again and again. This time I’m told there is a self-proclaimed expert on forage for horses and forage carbohydrate fractions doing podcasts, etc. that say NSC is the hay fraction to be concerned about with EMS. Not so.

NSC = nonstructural carbohydrates. As the chart above shows, this includes oligosaccharides and fructans. Oligosaccharides and fructans are NOT digestible in the small intestine and do NOT cause a significant insulin rise, e.g. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22966077/ . Since over 90% of laminitis cases are caused by high insulin, this is an important point.

There has never been a documented case of laminitis caused by fructans in hay. Never. It’s just not an issue and telling people to use NSC instead of ESC + starch leads to rejection of perfectly acceptable hays.

Evidence based science means statements made have properly determined evidence/proof behind them. There is ample evidence that insulin is by far the major cause of laminitis and no evidence that the fructan levels found in hay pose a laminitis risk.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Confused About Equine Respiratory Disease Names?

You should be.

In the last 40 years or so, what is commonly known as “heaves” and now called equine asthma was originally also called equine asthma, then COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), then RAO (recurrent airway obstruction). The more recently described IAD (inflammatory airway disease) is now said to be on the “equine asthma spectrum” along with RAO/COPD.

Flared nostrils at rest is a sign of chronic equine lung disease.

The term “equine asthma spectrum” is particularly bad because neither one of these conditions resembles human asthma. Human asthma typically begins in childhood, is allergic in nature with eosinophils in the bronchial lavage and is characterized by “attacks”, between which breathing is normal. Equine asthma spectrum is also a bad term because it implies IAD is an early stage of RAO, which is not necessarily the case.

There is one equine condition which parallels human asthma – SPAORD – summer pasture associated obstructive respiratory disease. This follows an allergic pattern and can be helped by desensitization injections. It is particularly commonly in the southeastern USA https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28722254/ .

Asthma is a human disease term. It is characterized, as above, by eosinophils in the lungs and allergic triggers which will set off an attack. Attacks are severe and often require emergency treatment or a rescue inhaler but between attacks the person is normal.

IAD in horses is also a disease of young animals. It typically has no signs at all unless the horse is asked to perform extreme exercise, such as speed. Even then, the only outward sign is often that performance does not meet expectations. Endoscopic examination reveals excessive mucus in the trachea. Evaluation of fluid flushes from the lung show increased numbers of neutrophils, occasionally some mast cells or eosinophils. The treatment of choice is corticosteroids plus management of the environment to reduce dust and organic particles. IAD can resolve as the horse gets older.

RAO/COPD is a chronic condition of older horses. It is distinct from IAD or SPAORD in that the horse’s breathing and chest exam are abnormal even at rest during episodes. Horses have difficulty getting air out during expiration, compare to the difficulty with moving air in during inspiration in IAD or SPAORD. Bronchial thickening and overinflated lungs are common with RAO. Mucus is a more prominent feature with IAD than RAO. Characteristics on physical exam are flared nostrils and a heave line at rest.

Heave Line, from afs.ca.uky.edu

RAO is much more like human COPD than IAD. The only similarity with IAD is that washes of the deep lung will show neutrophils but even then the number is highly variable. RAO also bears a strong similarity to a condition in people called Farmer’s Lung https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/diseases/farmers_lung.html .

The management for equine respiratory conditions has not changed. Unless the horse is obviously being affected by pasture conditions, they should be kept outside as much as possible. When in the barn, use paper, peat moss or wood chips as bedding in all stalls. Do not clean stalls or sweep with the horse inside. Do not store hay or straw in the same barn. Bucket meals should be moistened, even if pellets. Hay should be thoroughly dunked in water to remove or settle organic particles. A hay steamer can also be used but you should know that sterilizing fungal spores does not help the horse. Hypersensitivity reactions occur even if the organism is not infectious.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

Looking for a supplement to support healthy lung tissue? Try Lung EQ .

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Common Problems Of The OTTB

Your OTTB may come with some problems but you can deal with them.

The Thoroughbred is many people’s dream horse – elegant, intelligent and regal. Obtaining an off the track Thoroughbred [OTTB] can be a great way to get a reasonable price and give the horse a second career but racing can leave it’s mark with physical issues.

Racing can cause some lameness problems.

Because of their stature and long necks, Thoroughbreds are at risk of developing “roaring” – laryngeal hemiplegia. In this condition, one of their vocal cords is paralyzed due to nerve damage because keeping very long nerves healthy is difficult. The left travels further and is usually the one affected. When working, they make a loud whistling-type noise when inhaling. It can intefere with racing ability but usually not with pleasure, show hunter, dressage.

A 1999 study from the University of California, Davis, medical school found spinal and pelvic problems in a staggering number of racehorses on postmortem exam. The likely reason for this is the early age at which they are broken and ridden since the spine does not mature until the age of 5 years. Your veterinarian will have various options for managing any back issues that may surface in your horse, just be aware there’s a good chance he had it before he left the track.

Many Thoroughbreds have a fairly straight hindleg, with little angle to the hock and stifle. This doesn’t cause a problem when cantering or galloping but when the horse must do a lot more trotting, jumping, calisthenic or collected work, the shock absorbing effects of more angled joints is lost. Added to this is a high prevalence of developmental bone disease in the stifles of young Thoroughbreds, which may or may not cause future problems.

Joint issues can also plague the front legs, which bear a larger share of the weight and concussion. Knee (carpus), fetlock, pastern and coffin joints may all be affected. Soft tissue injuries, most often flexor tendons and associated structures but also the suspensory ligament, are common, especially as horses mature. Old tendon problems may surface from time to time but can be effectively managed https://uckele.com/articles/rehab-for-tendons-and-ligaments/.

A veterinary prepurchase exam is always a good idea. It’s unrealistic to find an OTTB that has a completely “clean” exam although he/she should be sound on the day of the exam. Remember your vet does not have a crystal ball in predicting future soundness but may be able to tell you areas that could be a problem depending on the type of work you intend to do.

Targeted supplementation to support soft tissues and joint health and mobility will help your horse deal with the inevitable exercise-related challenges.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Facts and Fiction About Horses and Overheating

It’s almost Labor Day but there are plenty of oppressively hot and dangerous days left.

Working horses in summer heat creates some significant welfare issues with consequences as severe as death.  Research has provided some very valuable information but despite this there are still many myths and misconceptions.


It isn’t only upper level performance/racing horses that are at risk.  Serious dehydration and overheating can happen to any horse, especially with some of the misinformation out there.

“Never let a hot horse drink all they want, or drink cold water.”  Consequences are said to range from colic to founder.  This is false.  The horse needs to drink as much as desired as soon as possible for maximal rehydration effect. Hot horses will drink from 2 to 5 gallons.  If you restrict intake, they will lose some of the drive and will drink less overall.

“Never hose the horse with cold water” or “Never put cold water over the large muscles”.  Consequences are said to range from cramping or tying up to heart attack.  Again, this is completely false.  Body heat is quickly transferred to the water.  The colder the wash water, the quicker the horse will cool down.

“Grain makes horses hotter (literally)”.   In other words, horses fed grain will overheat easier.  The truth is that diet influences body temperature through the heat generated when foods are fermented in the large intestine.  Since grains are primarily digested by enzymes in the small intestine, horses fed reasonable amounts of grain and therefore less hay will do less large intestinal fermentation and generate less heat in the intestinal tract.

“Only very fast/hard work can cause dangerous overheating.”  Not quite.  Heavy muscular activity does generate more heat but an important factor is how efficient the energy generation is.  A fit horse can perform work generating much less heat that the same level of work would cause when unfit.  A fat, unfit horse trotting up a long steep hill could be at more risk of overheating than a racehorse.

“In hot weather you should switch from salt to an electrolyte supplement”.  Wrong – and potentially dangerous.  Sodium and chloride, which is salt, are the major electrolytes lost in sweat, followed by potassium.  However, the horse has a baseline requirement for salt that is about 1 ounce (28.4 grams) per day even without sweating.  This needs to be met first and a typical dose or serving of many electrolyte products does not supply even that much, let alone the baseline plus sweat losses.  For more details, see:


Unlimited water both inside and out, lots of salt and care not to work the horse beyond his level of fitness will help you successfully avoid the danger zone in hot weather.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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In Defense Of Wheat Bran

Wheat bran has gone from a darling of caretakers everywhere to one of the most widely demonized feeds.  The ensuing impression that bran is somehow “bad” is unwarranted.  In fact, bran has some very desirable characteristics.

bran mash

Wheat bran’s high phosphorus content is often mentioned as a drawback but is actually a plus for many diets.  Alfalfa,  clover and many grass hays have calcium:phosphorus ratios that are higher than ideal, if not full blown phosphorus deficiencies.  Since phosphorus is the least palatable of all supplemental minerals, having a good feed source is a real plus. Wheat bran provides about 4 grams of phosphorus per pound. If you don’t know if your diet needs more phosphorus, balance the wheat bran by feeding an equal weight of alfalfa with the bran.

Speaking of minerals, wheat bran is also an excellent source of magnesium, copper and zinc compared to hays or whole grains.

Bran has less fiber than hays but a lower percentage of poorly digestible fiber than hays.  The phytate fiber in wheat bran can block some calcium absorption.  At the amounts commonly fed this is not a significant issue although, again, you can also balance the bran by adding an equal amount of alfalfa – your horse won’t mind either way

The high palatability and calorie yield of bran makes it a very valuable addition to senior diets, especially horses that can no longer efficiently chew.  A mash of 50:50 wheat bran and alfalfa or 25:75 bran and beet pulp has a calorie content roughly equivalent to the same weight of plain oats but only 1/4 to 1/2 as much starch.  The appealing aroma and taste of bran make it an excellent carrier for supplements.

In many ways wheat bran is a perfect example of the high nutritional value of some “by-product” feeds.  Much of the nutritional value of wheat is concentrated in the bran. In addition to the above, it averages over 17% protein, is a good source of the amino acid methionine, and is high in B vitamins.  The bran also has a rich supply of fiber bound antioxidants which are released during fermentation in the cecum and colon, contributing to disease protection in those areas of the gastrointestinal tract.

Bran may be old-fashioned, and like all feeds needs to be properly balanced, but when used intelligently it can be a very valuable addition to the diet.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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The Latest On Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy

The overwhelming consensus among researchers is that DCM is a multifactorial disease.

Breed is one of the factors which determines canine DCM risk.

In July 2018, the FDA announced it was investigating a link between canine DCM and grain-free dog foods containing pulses/legumes or exotic proteins made by small companies. In 2019, they actually released a list of specific brands associated with cases sent to them, apparently forgetting that such reports are to be considered suspected adverse events until actual good research can prove or disprove it.

As you might expect, this behavior resulted in lost income for the named brands as well as grain-free, “designer” dog foods in general. In September 2020, the FDA considerably walked back the emphasis on these diets and admitted the data showed a multitude of possible causes https://tinyurl.com/d46e5bs6 . Those factors are reviewed in detail in this article https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/98/6/skaa155/5857674 and Dr. Yamka, well know canine nutritionist, gives his most recent evaluation here https://tinyurl.com/3vy8crxa .

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as bad press and the shadow cast over these types of dog foods is likely to unjustly continue for a long time. That’s not to say there aren’t important dietary/amino acid factors involved both in health, risk and recovery, but those are as complicated as the overall risk picture and “grain-free” is not the bad guy here.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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