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17 December 2012 If it’s f-f-f-freezing, your horse needs more F-F-F-FORAGE!

One of the most common ‘old wives tales’ I hear at this time of the year is horse people feeding corn or oats to keep their horses warm, in the belief that they are a “heating feed”.  While this myth is actually interpreted in two ways, some mean ‘temperature’ hot, while others mean ‘mental’ hot, we’ll address the former here, and will take a look at why ad lib forage is a much better asset to your winter feeding regime.

How does the horse control his temperature?

The horse, unlike your pet lizard for example, is a ‘homeotherm’ (the opposite is a ‘poikilotherm’ for all you trivia buffs).  What this means is that he does a great job of regulating his own body temperature, and even your most basic pasture-pet model comes fully-loaded with a sophisticated, on-board mechanism to take care of this.

When he’s in his ‘thermo-neutral’ zone, this means he does not have to get rid of excess heat because he’s too hot, nor does he have to produce extra heat to stay warm.  When the outside air temperature falls below 30 oF (-1oC), the horse reaches the lower end of this zone known as the “lower critical temperature”. Here, he has to up his metabolic heat production to maintain his body temperature.  Conversely, if the outside temperature rises above 75 oF (24oC), he reaches the upper limits of his thermo-neutral zone, known as the “upper critical temperature”, and must lose heat by evaporation, so he can lower his body temperature.

The horse’s thermo –neutral zone and lower critical temperature will vary with a number of factors such as age, body condition, breed, season, climate and most importantly energy intake, but is highly regulated in the normal healthy horse.  The type of feed will also affect the horse’s internal heat production and, when it comes to that warm fuzzy glow from the inside out, forage, NOT grain, should be your fuel of choice.

Why is hay better than corn for keeping my horse warm?

When foods are digested and metabolized, they are associated with heat production; this is known as the ‘heat increment’.  Your horse gets heat and calories from hay thanks to microbial fermentation in the hindgut (another one of his sophisticated, on-board, pieces of adaptive equipment).  Feeds that are higher in fiber produce a higher heat increment because they take more work to breakdown, via microbial digestion, in the hindgut.  This heat production is much greater than that of the enzymatic process of breaking down grains in the stomach and small intestine.  So, the higher the fiber, the higher the heat increment, which means when it comes to keeping your horses warm in an economic and superbly efficient way, hay has it hands down over corn, oats, concentrates or fats.

Why is this important?

While the horse copes much better in extremes of cold, than he does heat, when air temperature gets below 30oF (-1oC), the horse has to divert food energy for maintenance, growth, performance, to produce additional metabolic heat and maintain body temperature.  For each 10oF drop below the lower critical temperature of 30oF, there is a 15-20% increase in total calories required.  When you add in factors such as wind, rain and mud, this can lead to an 80% increase in energy requirement i.e. a LOT more food!!  Good quality forage provides an economical and effective way of keeping your horse warm during cold winters, not to mention happy and healthy all year around!

11 November 2012 Kicked to death in a horsebox – a preventable tragedy or just a risk we take?

NEVER ENTER A CONFINED SPACE WITH A PANICKING HORSE…. EVER…if this is the only piece of advice you take  from this blog, then I’ll be a happy camper.  Read on, if you want to find out why.

What the story?

Some of you may have read earlier this week about the tragic accident in the UK where a 51-year old man was kicked to death after he entered the horsebox to calm his panicking horse.  Here’s the link if you missed it.  Some people have questioned if this was a preventable tragedy, or just a risk we take when working with such large flight animals.  I happen to think it’s the former, based on a full awareness of the latter.

Why did it happen?

“It’s a horse, that’s what they do” …well, yes, but they have a really good reason for doing it, and we need to understand why, so we can take measures to prevent such accidents from happening to us, and those around us.

A horse is a large, grazing, herd animal.  Grazing animals are prey species and fear motivates them to escape from perceived danger. While herd animals benefit from the safety and solace offered by their group members, when it comes to survival,  ‘get-me-outta-here’ self preservation is the primary motivator.  Cowardly and selfish it may seem to us, but taking risks and putting your mates first, does not get you 55 million+ years of unaided species survival!

How the horse looks at the trailer in comparison to humans: top photo is human field of vision, the bottom belongs to the horse (Equine Behaviour, McGreevy, 2004)

Realize that for a horse to even entertain a trailer, particularly transported alone, is an amazing testament to their adaptability and willingness to live under our imposed human constraints.  They are evolutionarily compelled to avoid dark, narrow and confined spaces, i.e. it is a hard-wired survival instinct.  Transporting horses is a convenience we give little regard to in terms of equine health, behavior  training, and safety.  As a result, horrendous accidents, as we have seen this week, are all too common, and so often preventable.

We must understand that the horse lives in the moment and reacts to his immediate environment based primarily on instinctual behaviors, he cannot reason that help will soon come in the form of a human savior and all will be well.  To waste time thinking through things would mean certain capture and death from a predator.

Like the horse, we too have instincts, but our brains are more complex.  Unlike the horse, we think many steps ahead, we predict, analyse, reason and make a conscious decision, not always based on self-preservation.  This is why we would quite happily rush in to save our panicking horse, or why people run into burning buildings to save people/animals/belongings etc…if the horse could speak he’d tell us we were crazy…while high-tailing it as fast as possible in the opposite direction!

Horses are flight animals and fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including avoidance (running away), active defense (threat, attack), or the inhibition of movement, expressed as tonic immobility, known as freezing.  Although we don’t know the full details of this particular accident, it would be reasonable to assume this horse had experienced some form of aversive stimuli that initiated a pain/fear reaction.

When an acutely fearful response is encountered, both automatic neural and endocrine stress reactions occur. The nervous system goes into high alert and immediately prepares the body for flight or fight. The endocrine system triggers a cascade of events that immediately releases adrenalin and kick-starts the flight response. Once the horse is in this survival mode, his first and most preferred plan is to run and escape.  When this cannot be met, he will be forced to threaten and attack, and he will see anyone approaching as a potential predator; a threat that he has to fight for his life against. Important to remember is that once this response has been initiated, other less-important stimuli are ignored (e.g. you!) which is why he will blindly plough through everything in his path in the quest to survive. This is a hard-wired, instinct that has not been diluted due to domestication; only understanding and good training can help to avoid it.

So what should you do?

There is mounting evidence that the horse can detect human cues and attentional states, they often respond well to the familiar sound of their owner’s voice. With this in mind, the very best course of action we can take in this situation is to approach the scene in a controlled and calm manner (remember you can make a conscious decision to override your fear and react this way, the horse cannot) but KEEP OUT of the trailer, do not even lower the ramp, or open a door while the horse is panicking.  Ensure all loud noises, lights etc are eliminated and speak softly to the horse.  It may seem like an eternity before the horse regains control, or even reaches a state of  ‘freezing’, but the important thing is to KEEP OUT.  Remember, even a state of tonic immobility (freezing) can be followed by an explosive and uncontrollable last ditch attempt for self preservation.  To step into a confined space with a panicking horse, especially into his rear blind spot, not only puts YOU in extreme danger, but it may exacerbate HIS fear response and makes him panic further.

Specialist training and best practice guidelines are available to deal with this kind of emergency; all horse owners should be prepared for this kind of incident by knowing what to do.  To go into this in detail here, would be another essay in itself, so i’ll hand you over to great blog by Dr Rebecca Gimenez, considered an international leading authority on large animal emergency rescue situations.  While it pertains to an overturned trailer, it gives critical, life saving advice on dealing with similar incidents.

In the UK, we are fortunate to have all emergency responders trained to specifically deal with this kind of emergency; in the US and Australia, this is still a work in progress.  Take responsibility for your own life and the safety of others by becoming educated to the dangers of dealing with large animals.  Training is available to horse owners, across the US & Australia; more information can be found on their websites and Facebook pages, or you can contact us here at EQUIJAY and we’ll guide you in the right direction.

Take home message

BEING IN ANY CONFINED SPACE, AT ANYTIME WITH ANY HORSE, OR ANY LARGE GRAZING ANIMAL, IS ALWAYS A POTENTIAL DANGER ZONE.  Pretty much every cell in their body is about flight or fight; this instinctual body makeup is designed to override anything or anyone that may be in their path if they interpret a potentially threatening situation.

Perhaps better preparation and training may have potentially averted this accident (and this is something many people do not take the time to work on), remaining outside the trailer would most certainly have, but a better understanding of horse behavior and how he interprets the world is one of the fundamental aspects of responsible horse ownership and safe handling. Unfortunately, this came too late for this family and tragically they learned the hard way.

Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to the family for their loss; only through such tragic events can we hope to educate more people as to the potential risks of dealing with horses and other flight animals.  The responsibility for self-preservation is in your hands; please don’t become another tragedy for us all to learn from.

“Preparation through education is less costly than learning through tragedy”

20 August 2012 We’re off to a Land Down Under…

Well, we are gearing up and getting very excited for our trip to Australia here at EJ HQ!  We’ll be meeting up with several interesting equine industry contacts including their Equine Emergency Rescue Coordinator and Horses and People Magazine Editor, viewing several Equicentral (Equiculture) facilities, visiting a Permaculture project in action, and learning about the TriggerTreater – a positive reinforcement training aid….Whew!!!!   Somewhere in between all of that we will TRY to find time to soak up the wonderful sights, sounds, tastes, and hospitality of Queensland’s beautiful Gold Coast.  Look forward to sharing our trip with you in a few weeks!

13 August 2012 Supplement Sermon…part II!

Something to ponder with nutrition in ALL species is that millions of years have made mammals very good at dealing with a ‘lack’ as opposed to ‘excess’. Mammals can accommodate a temporary deficiency of anything. For example, if the diet does not provide enough vitamin A, there is a great reserve in the liver, enough to last months or even years. Not enough energy in the form of carbohydrate and fat?… no problem, the body cleverly switches to converting amino acids from protein into glucose. Calcium lacking in the blood?.. not a problem, the body will dissolve bone to bump up circulating levels (which is why Ca:P ratio is very important). Sodium scarce?…the kidneys can pretty much shut down sodium excretion, I can go on, but the point I’m trying to make is that the mammalian body is an amazingly efficient system that has a back-up allowing it to deal with lack, insufficiency, absence and shortage of nutrients. We create far more problems by over-feeding/supplementing ALL aspects of nutrition in ALL species, particularly soluble carbohydrates, than we ever will with deficiencies. Even animals on death’s door from starvation can be SLOWLY rehabilitated back to full health without any lasting deleterious effects.

The human species has long lost the conscience awareness of what is good for them and what needs to be sought out in the environment and selected as food. Animals, on the other hand still have this ability and can do it very well given a largely un-restricted environment that closely matches their natural surroundings. Our $$$, time and energy would be much better invested in gaining a better understanding of animal behaviour and how we can adapt our management practices to better mimic those the animal has evolved to thrive in, than purchasing a bag or bucket of what we believe to be a ‘quick fix’, for a problem we don’t even know exists.

18 July 2012 SUPPLEMENT SAVVY– Time To Re-Think Your Feed Room!

When I walk into a feed room like this, I know I’ve got my work cut out for me.  As an independent equine nutritionist, to be honest, this is the stuff my nightmares are made of, and it serves as a frustrating reminder that in the real world, we are still getting equine nutrition so very wrong.

Over the past decade, the world has seen an explosive growth in the dietary supplement industry, human and animal.  In fact, despite the global recession, this industry reports substantial continued growth, and is estimated to be worth US$90 BILLION by the end of 2015.  Given the impressive display of heavily marketed beneficial effects and eye-catching packaging, this isn’t at all surprising.

As conscientious horse owners, we want to provide the “very best” for our equine companions.  As a result, we often turn to supplements, ranging from high-tech chemical formulas, to ‘all natural’ mixtures of herbs and plants, to try to “improve”, or make our horses “better”…but what are we trying to ‘improve’ or make ‘better’?  Here are a few of the ways supplement companies claim they can help us in our quest for the perfect balanced diet:

  • “Improves performance!”
  • “Improves disposition!”
  • “Improves mental stability!”
  • “Boosts the immune system!”
  • “Improves digestion!”
  • “Promotes better general health!”
  • “Supports joint health!”
  • “Eliminates toxins!”

Such claims are impressive and alluring, but behind the words, the products sit in their attractive packaging remaining unproven, and protected from discovery by top-secret, ‘proprietary’ formulations.  Would you trust a stranger who offered you something to eat, but wouldn’t tell you what was in it, even if it was in a pretty packet?  Admit it would be just a little concerning!

What’s worse, the claims can be ingeniously misleading.  For example, take the word ‘performance’.  This is a vague concept that will vary depending on multiple inherent and external factors influencing how the horse performs, at a given moment in time.  Consequently, ‘improving performance’ is highly subjective, impossible to measure, and cannot be proven.

Support” is another popular term supplement companies like to apply to important bodily systems, such as the musculoskeletal system – think of all those wonderful, and largely unproven, joint supplements.  A recent review of all of the scientific literature concerning the effectiveness of osteoarthritis supplements in horses, dogs and cats concluded, “Evidence of efficacy…is poor”.  In objective, measurable, medical terms, ‘support’ has no meaning either.

Eliminates toxins” – the liver is the workhorse behind the processing and removal of toxins from the blood; think of it like a chemical processing plant, rather than a ‘filter’.  Primary liver disease in horses is rare, unless they ingest something toxic.  Horses do not have toxins casually floating around in their blood that need ‘supplemental’ help to be removed.  If they did, you can most likely guarantee their feet are going to be the first to tell you about it…. at which point, you have way more of a problem on your hands in the form of laminitis.  A serious and potentially life-threatening disorder that will require veterinary attention, not the ‘support’ of unproven, unregulated dietary supplements.

Boosting’ the immune system (implying we want it to work better than normal) is not necessarily a good thing – just observe how miserable the horse is suffering from a ‘sweet itch’ problem, or your riding buddy suffering from seasonal allergies.  Additionally, if a product tells you it can ‘boost the immune system’ and ‘treat allergies’ at the same time (probably my all time favorite asinine claim), this is an alarm-bell-ringing, red-flag-flapping, guarantee they are conning hard-earned cash out of your pocket!

Undeniably, these claims are all favorable qualities we would all want in of our horse health program.  However, such qualities remain scientifically undefined, and are therefore impossible to measure.  With no defining start point from which to ‘improve’ upon, or make things ‘better’, it is impossible to obtain scientific evidence to support any of these products do what they claim to do…exactly the way the supplement companies want it to be!

IF specific claims were made for supplements, such as “This product is proven effective for the relief of joint pain associated with osteoarthritis”, then it would fall under the rules and regulations that govern the manufacture of drugs.  Supplement manufacturers would then have to actually PROVE that their product worked, and they would be upheld to strict quality and efficacy standards.  So instead, they divert their energies into shrewdly promoting their product.

A common marketing tactic is to state the individual ingredient in the supplement, and then explain how it benefits the horse.  From here, the supplement company can either directly, or indirectly, lead you into believing your horse may not be getting enough of that specific ingredient.  For example, “A highly concentrated source of amino acids.  Amino acid deficiencies can result in poor growth and development of young horses and poor overall health of adult horses.”  This is a factual statement, however, in practice, protein or amino acid deficiencies are rarely reported, unless the horse is on a sustained diet of poor quality foodstuffs…. in which case, your money would be better invested in good quality forages and feeds that can be measured, and proven, to result in the desired effect!

The fact of the matter is, while we have come a long way in equine nutrition research in the last decade, we have still not elucidated the perfect, ‘balanced’ diet for horses, or arguably any species.  Even if we did, it would vary considerably from horse to horse, depending on a number of physiological, genetic and environmental factors affecting the nutritional demands of the animal, at any given time.  Our best estimates come in the form of scientific publications such as the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements for Horses, but even these are based on recommendations for a broad classification of horses, & are supported by reliable, but largely incomplete, data.

So, supplementing to prevent or treat a problem we don’t really know is, or was going to be, a problem, is not only nonsensical, it’s a complete waste of money.  More importantly, it risks exposing the horse to overfeeding and dietary imbalances, some of which can induce life-threatening conditions, such as obesity & laminitis from excessive energy intake, or sudden death from selenium poisoning.  But, before you start to panic you may be unintentionally killing your horse with supplemental kindness, recent research on several of the leading supplements in the US, revealed they didn’t actually contain enough of anything to be of any use, and thankfully of any detriment to the horse….just your wallet!  However, the serious side of this is, if your horse really does have a genuine nutritional deficiency, it may mean your supplement cannot be relied upon to make up the difference.

Do not dismay!  There is a way to at least begin to work towards the afore mentioned claims of dietary bliss, and more encouragingly, it’s a tried and proven method that’s been around for millions of years.  But first, assimilate this.  The horse has evolved over 55 million years (maybe even more according to recent findings), and still thrives to this day in situations where little or no human intervention is encountered.  Their survival would not have been possible if they were unable to fulfill their nutritional needs.  If the horse had such a precise requirement for a nutritional component, such as Cobalt for example, that he could not get in his normal diet, he would not have made it.  It makes absolutely no evolutionary sense to have such strict demands on nutritional requirements.  So contrary to what we are led to believe, or maybe even want to believe, it turns out your horse is actually pretty good judge of how to get enough of the nutrients he needs to sustain himself (remember he’s been been practicing for millions of years), provided he is in a supportive environment that allows him a varied and free-choice to do so.  Here’s a little insight into his secret to health and longevity (by the way, this is the feed room of my dreams!):

By doing this (eating), in a well maintained pasture with a varied selection of forages and shrubs, for the majority of his day, he not only “improves his disposition and mental stability”, but he also greatly “improves his digestion”, “supports his joint health”, overall he will be in much “better general health”, and will therefore more likely to ‘perform’ better…if only he is managed, and fed, like a horse.  It really can be that simple.

Bottom line is SUPPLEMENTS DO NOT MAKE A HEALTHY HORSE HEALTHIER.  It is evident from the escalating incidences of nutrition and management related health problems, our current horse care practices are failing to meet the demands we place upon our domesticated horses.  Quick fix, empty supplement promises will not solve the problem, in fact, they may not even help us alleviate the symptoms, and may make matter’s worse.

Break your unproven and unnecessary supplement addiction, the shelves will look bare…but it will be liberating!  Think of how much easier feed time will be and all that extra time you will have to ride!  Your horse, your wallet (and spouse), and me personally, will thank you!  Start with the fundamental basics, i.e. forage, and supplement only where necessary.  Invest your time into gaining unbiased,  informed knowledge of economical, practical, and sustainable nutritional and management methods that WILL benefit the health and welfare of your horse; your returns will far exceed those of any self-proclaimed, ‘proprietary’ concoction.  In the meantime, I will continue to digest and eliminate my feed room nightmares a bucket at a time, in the hope my dreams will become somewhat absorbed into reality.

If you do suspect your feeding and management regime may not be meeting the needs of your horse, or you just want piece of mind you’re on the right track, consult an independent, qualified equine nutrition professional.  They can discuss with you your individual concerns, and tailor a program suitable for you and your horse.

(Thank you to Dr David Ramey who always helps to provide a common sense, no-nonsense approach to all matters equine)

In The Arena

ABC Radio
ABC Radio
University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The Horse
The Horse
Red Hills International
Red Hills International
Horses and people
Horses and people
hoofbeats magazine
hoofbeats magazine
Chris stafford radio
Chris stafford radio