I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts that when I’m not thinking about horses and how to keep them healthy and fit, I spend a lot of time thinking about (and sometimes doing some things about) my own health and fitness. This summer I indulged the fitness enthusiast (and super nerd) in me by attending first ever The Radiance Retreat in the beautiful mountains of Ashville, NC. Hosted by fitness experts (and seriously kick-a$$ chicas) Jen Sinkler, Neghar Fonooni and Jill Coleman, this 3 day women’s only fitness and mindset retreat covered everything from perfecting your snatch (a tough but awesome Olympic Weightlifting technique) to eating to fuel your body and soul and learning to recognize and radiate your inner awesomeness. If fitness and being the best version of yourself is something you’re into, I highly recommend this event (which will be held again in Santa Monica in January, so sign up now cause spots are going fast!).
On of the nutritional techniques we briefly talked about was intermittent fasting (aka IF), something I’ve been dabbling in since May of this year. The idea behind intermittent fasting is that you have set windows of “feeding time” followed by prolonged periods of fasting. I won’t go into the details of how and why because I’m sure I wouldn’t do it justice but if you’re interested in learning more check out LeanGains or EatStopEat. It's certainly not for everyone, but for me it works because I am not a breakfast eater, I’m just not hungry in the mornings and eating a meal before 8am guarantees that I’ll be gnawing off my own arm off by 10:30am and will seriously blow my daily caloric intake by lunchtime. Also, I like to feel full after I eat, and not just “not hungry” or sated but really truly “food baby” full. And eating 3-5 small meals a day (and not consuming enough calories to rival Michael Phelps or a sumo wrestler) for me means never being really full. So I’ve been happy with my venture into IF, it’s helping me make smarter food choices (knowing I’m going to be fasting has helped me lay off the sugar spike/crash foods that I normally abuse), my body composition is improving without feeling like I’m “dieting” and I still get to feel full.

   But I always worry when there is a hot new trend in human medicine/fitness that equestrians will grab onto it and try applying it to our equine athletes. Remember those neon strips on every Olympic athlete last summer? I’m not even sure I believe that Kinesio Tape helps humans (the MDs aren't sure either) but now we’re strapping up our horses in neon strips? So while I’ve been pleased with IF and think you should give it a try if you’re looking for a new way to structure your meals, I don’t want anyone thinking I would be a proponent of intermittent fasting in horses. Horses and fasting are two words that should never be used in the same sentence (unless you’re prepping for a veterinary procedure like a gastroscopy, insulin testing or surgery). In the wild horses were designed to live on the open plains, constantly on the move, covering up to 25 miles a day in search of food and water supplies. Because they mainly live in grassland regions they have to constantly graze for up to 18 hours a day to meet their caloric needs. And because they are prey animals and designed to flee at first sign of a predator they can’t have a heavy meal weighing them down, they have small stomachs and a streamlined GI tract.

PictureGrade 3/3 Bleeding Gastric Ulcer in a Horse
    So what would happen if a horse was placed on an IF program? If we fed them one to two very large meals a day with nothing in between? (sadly the way many stabled horses are fed) Well the number one thing that would develop would be gastric ulcers. When a horse constantly grazes they are constantly producing saliva with each bite that coats the lining of the stomach, buffering the gastric acids and helping to prevent ulcers. When we feed very large meal, especially grain meals, horses produce even more stomach acids than when eating a small hay or grass meal and they produce much LESS saliva per bite of grain compared to per bite of hay. So we’re doing double damage by increasing the acid and decreasing the buffer. And what happens between meals, when they’re in a fasted state? Well they continue to have acidic fluid in their stomachs but because they are not chewing, there is no saliva production. Fasting is so effective and reliable at producing gastric ulcers that that’s how researchers induce ulcers in their experimental horses in order to study how they heal!

    So while I prefer an eating pattern that involves 8 hours of munching followed by 16 hours of fasting (most of which are spent sleeping), this is the exact opposite of what our horses should be doing. In this case what's good for the goose is NOT good for the gander!
   We should strive to feed our horses multiple small meals throughout the day while always having some kind of forage (grass or hay) in front of them all day long to help buffer their stomach acids and prevent painful gastric ulcers.


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I recently uploaded a new lecture to our online education courses; Equine Metabolic Syndrome.  I worry a little that the while the subject matter is one that most of my readers and students should know, the name may be confusing. Do you know what Equine Metabolic Syndrome means? Do you know about Insulin Resistance and what it means for your horses and their health?  It's when an overweight or obese horse develops a condition related to the obesity. They have abnormal fat deposition, exercise intolerance (lethargic and out of shape) and can develop serious medical conditions like laminitis. It's a little bit like Type II Diabetes in humans, but not close enough to use the same nomenclature (cause that would make it too easy for all of us).  While its something that has been going on in horses for as long as we’ve been putting them in stables and supplementing their feed but its something the scientific community has only been investigating for the last handful of years. And because the syndrome is old but the research is new, there is a lot of misinformation out there about why horses are fat and what we can do to fix it. One of the myths I have the hardest time debunking is that of Hypothyroidism. When people tell me their horse is hypothyroid I think of that line from A Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So let me tell you the schpeal that I give clients and other vets who call me for advice.

Hypothyroidism in a dog.
Back in the day, well not too long ago, people would notice that they had a horse that had become overweight and lethargic and they wanted to know why. In people and in dogs hypothyroidism is a real, documented disease and is somewhat common. Humans with thyroid dysfunction are fatigued, weak, irritable and gain weight, or have trouble losing weight. Dogs will become dull and listless, reluctant to engage in their normal activities and will gain weight despite no change in appetite or feedings. So it would only make sense that if your horse was now dull and pudgy that hypothyroidism would be the answer. So we started testing horses thyroid hormone levels and guess what? Sometimes they were low. ">Problem solved!!!  And thus hypothyroidism was blamed for a variety of equine problems such as obesity, laminitis, anhidrosis (inability to sweat), recurrent rhabdomyolysis (tying-up) and poor fertility.  But here’s the problem with that theory…. Thyroid hormone levels that we measure in the blood may not tell us about true thyroid function. And who cares what the numbers from the lab say if the thyroid gland itself is functioning properly and doing its job to aid in growth and regulation of metabolism? We also know that certain medications (Bute & dexamethasone), strenuous exercise and diets high in energy, protein, zinc and copper will falsely alter the levels of circulating hormones in the bloodstream. The only way to know about how the thyroid functions is to perform thyroid function tests, which are rarely done in the field because the medications needed to stimulate the thyroid (to prove to us that its working) are not readily available. But when horses that are showing the “classic” signs of hypothyroidism, and have low thyroid hormone levels are tested for true thyroid function, they are found to be normal. Researchers have even tried to prove this association by removing horse’s thyroid glands to see what happens. Well what doesn’t happen is they do not become obese and they do not develop laminitis.

“But I don’t understand!” you say. “I had a hypothyroid horse and we treated her and she got better! Was my vet wrong?” Well, yes and no. For all those years, we have been treating your horses correctly, using all of the knowledge that we knew at the time, but we were doing it for the wrong reasons. It has only been within the last few years that the veterinary community has come to define Equine Metabolic Syndrome. EMS is an endocrine disease of horses that is characterized by insulin resistance, meaning your horse’s cells don’t respond to insulin they way they should and the energy (glucose) they consume can’t be metabolized properly. It’s similar to Type II Diabetes in humans, in that it is often a result of obesity, rather than a cause. Some horses are more predisposed to being overweight, “easy keepers.” Obesity leads to insulin resistance, which in turn makes weight loss even harder to achieve. Horses with EMS are more prone to episodes of laminitis because of alterations in glucose and insulin in their blood streams. Many “hypothyroid” horses that have normal thyroid function will test positive for EMS and insulin resistance.

“So why does treating with thyroid medication make these horses better if they don’t have a thyroid problem?” you say. Excellent question! Well thyroid supplementation causes an increase in metabolism. By increasing the horse’s metabolism they are able to loose weight and correct their insulin resistance. It works so well that researchers are now recommending treating these types of horses with a much higher dose of thyroid supplementation, a “supraphysiologic dose.” So while we have been doing the right thing all along, we only now understand why it was working. It is important to understand one other big difference. True hypothyroidism, in dogs and people, will require life long treatment. Horses who have been successfully treated for EMS do not, and unnecessary treatment with thyroid supplementation over extended periods of time is not only a waste of money, but also a potential health risk.

   So if you have a horse that is slow, sluggish and fat, or one that has been previously diagnosed as hypothyroid, learn more about Equine Metabolic Syndrome by taking our online course and talk to your vet about what you can do to test and treat this very common condition.

Last post we talked about my horrible eating habits as a child and my misconceptions on how to formulate an equine nutrition protocol. Remember hay is not just a side salad, it is the basis of a diet, and grain is not a meal, just a multivitamin. So with that in mind let’s think about how we should adjust the horse’s diet to alter the number of calories being fed. First we have to do some math. Let’s say your dressage horse was burns ~23,000 calories per day. To get all of those calories into him, you gave 14,990 calories a day in hay and an additional 8,010 calories a day in the form of a complete performance feed. This is a diet that meets your calories requirements and is balanced and complete in vitamins and minerals.

Now imagine what will happen when your horse enters retirement and trades in his days of half-passes and piaffe for light hacks and trail rides. Because of his decreased activity he is now only burning 16,500 calories per day. If you continue to feed his old diet he will surely get fat! So what do you do? How do you decrease the amount of calories while maintaining a complete and balanced diet?

Most people will say, “Just cut back on his grain.” This is both good and bad advice. It is good that most people recognize that if we are going to alter anything we should alter the grain and leave the hay (the uber important fiber source) alone. The bad thing about just cutting back on the amount grain is you’re not just cutting calories.

This brings us back to the multivitamin analogy. Let’s say you take a multivitamin that for some reason contains 1000 calories but you are looking to loose a little weight by cutting back on your calorie intake (and exercising, right?). If you cut that multivitamin in half you will save yourself 3500 calories a week, that’s enough to lose a whole pound! Great right? Wrong, because by cutting that multivitamin in half, you may be halving your calories but you are also halving the amount of vitamins and minerals you are ingesting…not ideal.

That’s the same thing we do to our horses by just cutting back on the amount of the same old grain. You can’t keep giving him the same amount of grain because of the calories but you want to make sure you are providing the right levels of the essential vitamins and minerals. And if you feed a 1,000 pound horse half of the recommended amount of feed (the amount of complete performance feed intended for a 500 pound horse) you will be giving half the calories, sure, but also be giving half the nutrients. So what can we do? Well what would you do if it were you and the 1,000-calorie vitamin? You’d get a new vitamin! Right?!?

And that’s exactly what we should do for our horses, don’t just give a smaller amount of the same grain, get a different grain, one that has a more appropriate level of calories for your horse’s needs. There are so many good product lines on the market that contain multiple options for a complete balanced feed for horses at different activity levels. Pick one that’s right for your horse. Find a feed that will only provide 1,500 calories but still 100% of the recommended vitamins and minerals. Reed the feeding recommendations, they tell you what class of horse the feed is intended for: Maintenance (the lawn art), Light Work, Heavy Work, Pregnant/Lactating. Make sure you are always providing a complete balanced diet to your horse; regardless of how many calories he needs to keep his waistline in check and keep him eating out of your hands.
When I was little I used to help with the evening feedings at the barn after my lessons. In the same sequence every time, we dropped bales of hay down from the loft and I threw a few flakes into every stall while the barn manager mixed up everyone’s feed. As soon as that first bale hit the ground all hell broke loose! The barn shook with kicks to the wooden walls, buckets rattled on their hooks and teeth ran down the metal stall guards like a prisoner banging a tin cup across the bars. But as soon as I finished with the hay calm was restored and the barn sank into a satisfied silence of quiet chewing. The feed cart was then wheeled down the aisle and grain could be dumped into bins without fear of flying hooves or gnashing teeth.

I equated this pre-grain hay to the tiny salad brought out by the waiter at a nice restaurant. Placed on a tiny plate and consisting of a few pieces of lettuce, a ring of onion, one cherry tomato and a few croutons. It was meant to bridge the gap between the time when your mother cut you off from the bread basket (after your third or fourth breadstick) until your meal arrived. It wasn’t the meal itself and to me had no impact on my daily intake (I didn’t even factor it in when deciding what to order).

I know now that I was wrong. Salads can make fine meal, wonderful meals in fact, where all of your nutritional requirements are met and you are left sated. For humans we should strive to make the components of a salad the bulk of our diets, I bet we would be a lot healthier as a population. In horses it is even more important than that. Hay is not a side salad intended to keep horses calm while waiting for the real meal, in fact it should be the whole meal, the main component of a horse’s diet. It delivers calories, protein, and carbohydrates and as part of the carbohydrates, the most important element: fiber! Horses are hindgut fermenters; the microbes that live in their cecum and colon digest the fiber and produce molecules the horse can use for energy. Without fiber these good microbes would die, the horse would have no energy and worst of all the bad microbes (Salmonella and Clostridum to name a few) would take over and then we’re really in trouble.

So when I was a kid I was thinking about nutrition all wrong (for horses and probably for myself as well). We don’t build a diet around grain, adding hay just to keep the barn from being torn down at feeding time. We must build our horses entire nutritional program around hay. To do this we really should have our hay tested (every field and every cutting is a little different), to know exactly how many calories there are per pound and how much protein and carbohydrates our horses are getting. That way we can calculate exactly how much hay each horse needs (think 2-3% of their bodyweight per day, yes this means doing math and weighing your hay to know how much each flake weighs). The grain is the additive, only there to provide the vitamins and minerals that may be deficient in the hay (like Vitamin E and selenium) as well as some extra calories for the high performance horses who can’t eat enough hay to meet their caloric requirements. Rather than thinking of the hay as salad and the grain as the meal, we need to be thinking of the hay as the meal and the grain as a multivitamin, just filling in the gaps to make our total diet balance and complete.

   I love food. I love food and I love to eat. I love everything about the act of consuming nutrients (even those that aren’t so nutritious). I love the look of food, the smell, obviously the taste, that feeling you get when you’re so full that you want to curl up and take a nap. I love it all (except maybe the cooking and cleaning, but that’s a tale for another post). The old saying goes, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and that definitely holds true for me. In fact, after a few weeks of talking and spending time together, a friend of a guy I had been seeing asked why things weren’t more serious between us, my reply was, “He hasn’t bought me dinner yet.” That night, I was taken to dinner and last week we tasted food for our upcoming wedding. I am wholly motivated by food. But can the same be said for our animals? Or dogs? Cats? Horses? Is the ‘carrot on a stick’ really the way to go, or is a good scratch behind the ears enough of a reward for Fido?

Food and Contact Bonding
    We know that in forming relationships and bonds there are two things to consider; the food bond (which obviously is very strong for me) and the contact bond, the real bonding that occurs through physical contact. These ways of bonding are most evident when you look at an animal mother and her newborn. There is a lot of licking and nuzzling (contact bonding) and there is also the food bonding of nursing. So which is stronger? Studies have shown in humans and cats, tactile contact creates a true bond and we sometimes assume that since the taming and domesticating of animals involves so much physical contact that it is important to the bonds we form with our horses. Studies have shown that when horses are groomed, their heart rate decreases (and anyone who uses their horse as their therapist knows, the groomers heart rate decreases too; think of it as a Reverse-Umbrella Study). So is grooming enough of a positive reinforcement to train a horse?

Inter-individual bonding.
French and Polish researchers collaborated to find out the answer. They took 20 Konik horses, a primitive breed originating directly from the wild Tarpan horse who were raised in semi-natural conditions for the first 1-2 years of life. Horses were then trained to respond to the command “reste” by remaining still for a given period of time. Essentially they were teaching these horses to ‘Stay.’ One group of horses was rewarded with food and the other group was rewarded by vigorous scratching on the withers, similar to the way horses groom each other in the wild. The researchers attempted to train the horses to ‘stay’ for longer and longer periods of time throughout the study. The training lasted for 6 days. The other portion of the experiment investigated the human-animal bond by placing a horse in an open space with a human standing stationary in the center. They measured the time it took the horse to approach the human and the total time the horse spent interacting with the person.

FR- Food Reward; GR-Groom Reward
  Here’s what they found: Horses that were rewarded with food were far more successful at learning the task and reaching the highest level (1 minute of ‘staying’) with 9/10 horses completing the training. Only 4 of 10 horses that were rewarded with physical contact were able to stay for the full minute. Also, the food-rewarded horses had a much steeper learning curve than the other group. In fact, the learning curve of the ‘scratching’ horses plateaued after Day 2 and after that no improvement was seen. Now these results aren’t too surprising to me. Like I said, I love food and I would surely learn a task much quicker if I was offered cheesecake as opposed to a massage.     What did surprise me was how food-rewards had an effect on the human-animal bond. When placed in a paddock with a motionless human, and no rewards were offered for any actions, horses that had been trained with treats approached the person much faster (less than 50 seconds) than the contact trained horses (nearly 3 ½ minutes!). These horses also spent much more time interacting with the human (2 minutes vs 30 seconds). Summarizing their study, the investigators said, “Using food rewards had beneficial effects on horses' attachment to humans and facilitated learning, whereas the tactile contact was clearly not perceived sufficiently positively, neither for bonding to occur, nor for enhancing learning.”

    So there you have it. The quickest way to a horse’s heart IS through his stomach. I’ve always known that I have a special connection with the equine species, and now I know what it is, our love of food.
    Now that being said, don’t go and throw out your brush box and buy a 50lb bag of carrots. There are still many benefits to physical contact with your horse, for both him and (maybe even more importantly) you. Spending time in close contact with your horses helps you learn more about them, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. The Umbrella Study showed us that horses can read our silent cues, but the more time we spend in the barn and in the saddle, the better we will be at picking up our horses cues.

   I also don’t want to promote feeding your horses hand-fulls of molasses covered treats every time he picks his hoof up to be picked out or stops when you say “whoa.” Many packaged horse treats are high in starches and sugars and can lead to carbohydrate overload which leads to a whole host of problems like colic and laminitis. Even buckets full of healthy treats like carrots and apples can be too much of a good thing and throw off the nutrient balance that your hay and grain provide. And sadly (as I have learned from a lifetime of balancing my love of food and my love of being able to see my toes) weight loss and gain is all about calories in and calories out. Obesity is becoming a huge problem in our horse population and diseases like Metabolic Syndrome and Insulin Resistance have been directly linked to the increased incidence of laminitis and other medical ailments.
So keep on brushing and hugging your horses but remember, if you really want to get him to do something, try some treats (as long as its in moderation).