Test Your Nutrition Knowledge

Nutrition is a specialty like any other scientific field. Despite this, it’s common for people with no qualifications to offer nutrition advice. Many things you hear or read over and over again can be wrong.  Take this mini quiz to test your own equine nutrition knowledge. I’ll post the answers tomorrow.

When building a diet and deciding how much to feed, the first thing to be calculated is always:

  1. calorie needs
  2. protein needs
  3. fat requirements
  4. starch and sugar levels
  5. minerals

The mineral most likely to be present in any diet at levels far exceeding requirements is:

  1. calcium
  2. phosphorus
  3. chloride
  4. iron
  5. copper

The most common nutritional factor contributing to poor hoof quality is:

  1. low protein
  2. fatty acid deficiency
  3. trace mineral deficiency
  4. too much sugar
  5. silicon deficiency

Bioavailable sources of sulfur in the diet are:

  1. MSM
  2. sulfur containing amino acids
  3. flowers of sulfur (inorganic sulfur)
  4. sulfates
  5. Both 2. and 4.

What can cause inflammation in the horse’s body:

  1. High omega-6 fatty acids
  2. High sugar/starch intake
  3. High copper intake
  4. Both 1. and 2.
  5. None of the above

True or False.   If you feed the recommended daily amount of a balancer or fortified feed, vitamin and mineral  deficiencies or imbalances are impossible.

Deficiency of which electrolyte causes alkalosis in endurance horses:

  1. sodium
  2. potassium
  3. chloride
  4. bicarbonate
  5. calcium

Compared to hay, fresh pasture always has higher levels of:

  1. vitamin E
  2. vitamin C
  3. fructan
  4. water
  5. all of the above

The most common trace mineral deficiencies in hay are:

  1. iodine
  2. selenium
  3. copper
  4. zinc
  5. all of the above

Horses differ from humans and small animals in the way they absorb:

  1. calcium
  2. protein
  3. fats
  4. iodine
  5. chromium

Assuming an equivalent adult body weight, which of these horses has the highest protein requirements:

  1. mare in late pregnancy
  2. a 2-year-old in race training
  3. yearling
  4. mare in early lactation
  5. horse recovering from surgery

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

 

 

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The Magic of Colostrum

Foaling season is upon us and everyone realizes the lifesaving importance of mare’s colostrum in transferring disease-protecting antibodies to the new foal but colostrum does much more than this.

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For example, colostrum contains a hexasaccharide that inhibits gram negative organisms, prevents biofilm formation and can even help reverse antibiotic resistance. PRPs in colostrum are small strings of amino acids, “proline rich peptides”. Previously known as transfer factors, PRPs in mare’s milk don’t actually transfer immunity; they stimulate it. Colostrum contains a host of immune system targeting cytokines and growth factors that stimulate the bone marrow. Colostrum is also rich in fat, protein in general and has a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals.

The mare’s body is programmed to short change its  own nutrition in favor or providing adequate nutrients in the colostrum and milk but it can’t manufacture deficient nutrients out of the air. Current dietary recommendations also may not always be sufficient for highest quality milk.

It has been shown that supplementation for the last 4 weeks of pregnancy with vitamin E at 2500 IU/day (over 3X the current recommendation for late pregnancy in a 500 kg mare) resulted in higher vitamin E levels in the mares, milk and foals as well as higher antibody levels in milk and the foal’s blood.

The window of opportunity for foals to consume adequate colostrum is only about 12 hours. The colostrum provides antibodies against bacteria in the environment where the mare has been living as well as her past exposures and vaccinations. It also helps jump start the foal’s own ability to form antibodies. Colostrum is gone after 24 hours and the foal’s own immune system needs to start working.

Very young foals are capable of mounting an immune response and producing antibodies but have weaker abilities in their Th1 response. Specifically this means they have trouble identifying, targeting and destroying cells that have been invaded by organisms.  This is what makes them susceptible to infections that adults easily resist, such as Rhodoccus equi.

Recent research has found that the ability to mount these sophisticated immune responses to R. equi is greatly enhanced if the foal is vaccinated by the oral route rather than injection. It had previously also been found that antibody titers in young foals were higher when the oral route was used for vaccination.

The intestinal tract is home to an extensive network of immune system cells, the GALT (gut associated lymphoid tissue). When an infection tries to enter the body by this avenue, the local immune system cells both deal with it at that level and also send out information to the immune system throughout the body, priming it to defend against the infection.

It is well known that the immune system of the GALT is also stimulated by substances that do not cause active infections. With the knowledge that foals respond best to immune challenges through the intestinal tract, this becomes an easy and appealing way to efficiently promote normal immunity in the young foal.

Even though foals lose the ability to absorb large antibody molecules (immunoglobins) in less than a day, colostrum and milk retain many immunity promoting and supporting ingredients such as growth factors, L-glutamine and Lactoferrin. Colostrum and bioactive Whey Protein are concentrated sources. Probiotic bacteria and plant components such as Mannanoligosaccharides, Arabinogalactan and Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) naturally promote a robust immune response. Vitamins B5, B1 and B12 support the high metabolic activity of immune system cells.

Combating the infectious challenges of the world is a formidable task for young foals, with the first few weeks of life being the most dangerous. You can maximize the foal’s chance of thriving by supporting high quality colostrum and making sure the foal ingests it in that critical window of the first 12 hours after birth. Beyond that, gentle support of the immune system via the oral route shows the most promise as an effective strategy.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

 

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What is Insulin Dysregulation?

Insulin dysregulation [ID] is a term coined in a 2014 publication to describe horses with abnormal levels of insulin.  Elevated insulin used to be considered to mean a horse is insulin resistant, and in many cases it still does, but there is emerging information there can be other mechanisms behind an elevated insulin.

“Insulin resistance” means the insulin responsive cells (muscle, fat, liver) do not respond normally to stimulation by insulin. As a result, the pancreas puts out higher levels of insulin until the glucose blood levels normalize.  This is one explanation for why blood insulin levels would be higher than normal.

The level of insulin in a horse’s blood is a function of both how much is being secreted by the pancreas and the rate with which the liver, kidney and muscle clear it from the blood.  There is some evidence to suggest there may be decreased clearance of insulin in horses with high insulin levels.  However, abnormal clearance as a primary cause contributing to high insulin blood levels has not been definitively proven.

In horses that are insulin resistant, failure of the muscle and fat to respond appropriately to usual levels of insulin stimulates the pancreas to keep putting out insulin in higher amounts until blood sugar levels normalize. However, the pancreas reacts to other things besides blood glucose levels.

When the horse eats, hormones called incretins are released into the blood by the intestinal tract. Two of these incretins, GLP-1 and GIP, cause release of insulin from the pancreas.  It has been found that some ponies that test negative for insulin resistance with intravenous testing will have positive tests for hyperinsulinemia (high blood insulin) after being challenged orally with grain or dextrose.  The abnormally high insulins after feeding have been linked to higher levels of active GLP-1 incretin.  On the other hand, a similar study in full size horses with EMS (equine metabolic syndrome) did not find any significant connection between higher active GLP-1 and high insulins.

Because high blood insulin after eating or oral dextrose dosing does not necessarily mean the animal will test positive for insulin resistance by intravenous testing, the term “insulin dysregulation” was suggested to describe all horses with hyperinsulinemia, regardless of the cause(s).

Personally, I don’t think this is a good term. Dysregulation implies there is something abnormal going on.  A 2015 study by deLaat et al found that the non-IR ponies with high insulins on oral testing were also absorbing increased amounts of glucose. In that scenario, the higher levels of GLP-1 and insulin could be considered an appropriate response to the higher glucose, not “dysregulation”. The dysregulation in that case involves glucose absorption, not the reaction to it.

Similarly, if reduced insulin clearance is proven in horses with high blood insulins, it is not necessarily a “dysregulation”.  There may simply be a limit to how fast insulin clearance can occur. Alternatively, it may be entirely normal for insulin clearance to slow down when there is a situation of high glucose.

To put it another way, if insulin levels were truly being abnormally regulated it would show up in the blood glucose. Too much insulin would cause low blood sugar and too little would result in high levels. We don’t see that.

It’s important to understand that having high insulin does not necessarily mean there is insulin resistance, if only so that you do not become confused by seeing the term insulin dysregulation.  However, the bottom line for the horse is the same. High insulin is a risk factor for laminitis and the best way to combat it is with an appropriate diet and plenty of exercise – regardless of what is causing it.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

 

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Get Ready for Allergy Season

The groundhog was right about six more weeks of winter, but spring is just around the corner and with it all the plants, molds and insects that can spell allergy.

Studies in several species and different equine breeds have uncovered a genetic predisposition to develop allergies and even the involved genes but destiny does not have to be ruled by genes.

Allergy can be described as an unbalanced or exaggerated immune response to a normally encountered challenge. The body will be reacting to a specific protein, called the allergen, in pollen, mold or insect saliva. Seasonal allergies can involve the skin, eyes or respiratory tract with all the familiar signs. Allergy is even behind some cases of seasonal headshaking.

Multiple drugs are available to treat allergy signs, and very effective when needed but the most effective, corticosteroids, come with the risk of significant side effects. There is also much you can do nutritionally to support the immune system’s ability to function in a healthful way.

A balanced diet is the first step because the minerals most likely to be deficient or negatively affected by imbalances are also those involved in homeostatic inflammatory pathways (magnesium, iodine) or have considerable antioxidant functions (copper, zinc, selenium).  Horses not on pasture have low levels of vitamin C and vitamin E as well as the critical omega-3 fatty acids which the immune system needs to maintain homeostasis. These nutrients put a strong foundation under the immune system, giving it the tools it needs to function properly.

When more support is needed there are many ways to boost the antioxidant  capacity of the body including supplemental glutamine, N-acetyl cysteine, MSM, bioflavonoids (e.g. quercetin), Turmeric, Ginger root, Green Tea, White Pine extract, alpha-lipoic acid, Grape Seed and Skin meal, Gingko biloba, Boswellia and Jiaogulan.  Gentle immune system support in the form of both pre and probiotics is indicated. Spirulina may be particularly useful as it supports the body’s normal beneficial antibody activity versus the antibodies of allergy.

Manifestations of skin allergy can be particularly distressing for your horse – or dog for that matter. These temporary irritations can be soothed by topical use of Aloe Vera, Chickweed, Chamomile, Calendula, Thyme, Arnica, Elderberry, Comfrey and White Willow bark.

For best results, start your seasonal allergy support program at least 30 days in advance of allergy season.  This gives your horse’s body the best chance of functioning at its smoothest.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

 

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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.  https://drkhorsesense.wordpress.com/2016/09/19/the-heart-of-the-immune-system-is-the-gut/. 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. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/evj.24_12732/full

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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