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They Are What They Eat

It was getting towards noon, and three cups of coffee that morning had me on the lookout for relief. The problem was that I heading south on the Maine Turnpike and the next exit was 10 minutes away.   There is a small rest stop just below Gray that I was happy to pull into.  On my way out of the building I walked by the Starbucks coffee counter and many snack racks. Trying to be efficient, I decided to grab some lunch there. The only “real food” was a personal size prepackaged “Chicago style” pizza.   The clerk offered to heat one up in their small 5 minute oven.   I told her to go ahead and was soon sitting down with a drink and a pizza that had way, way more dough than cheese. Looking at it I thought, “Do they really eat these things in Chicago?” My first bite told me that this had been a bad idea, but it was lunch time, so I wolfed it down anyway.   I walked back to my truck feeling like I had swallowed a small, but heavy bowling ball. The afternoon was busy, and when I got back to my farm about 6:30 PM there was a trailer in the drive with the last horse of the day waiting to be seen.   My wife quickly assessed the situation and as I drove up the driveway to the barn, she was headed out to our local Mom and Pop store to get us a quick supper. She came back a half hour later with the one thing I did not want to see, a great big cheese pizza. I climbed into bed that night feeling like the Pillsbury dough boy.

We can get away with days like that occasionally, but doing that day after day will cause health problems. We tend to feed horses the same diet every day.   If we don’t feed them the right stuff, they will pay the price. Here are a few examples of how improperly feeding our equines can put them at extreme risk.

There are two extreme body types in horses, one typified by the Shetland pony, and the other by the racing Thoroughbred.   Shetlands are built like boilers; short and chunky with all body bones well covered.   They do just fine in the severest weather conditions without blankets.   Thoroughbreds are built like radiators, lots of rib evident, and because they lose heat easily, don’t do so well when the weather turns cold. As Thoroughbreds age, it’s harder and harder for them to keep weight on, but those ponies just keep getting rounder. These two types have to be fed very differently.   Thoroughbreds need lots of good quality roughage, and often need grain as well. Ponies do just fine on less leafy roughage and, for extras, maybe a handful or two of hay stretcher.

Ponies have been described as having a “thrifty gene.” Their metabolism is incredibly efficient. Many Morgan horses are the same.   The condition is exaggerated even more if they also have the condition called Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). In terms of management these “easy keepers” are best kept in dry paddocks far away from green grass. Some well-designed grazing muzzles will slow them down to the point where they might be able to graze, depending on how lush your grass is. Equines exhibiting signs of EMS shouldn’t be fed high carbohydrate grains or even treats like apples or carrots.  Treats to an EMS animal is like putting a Type 2 Diabetes person on a diet that includes daily candy. Fortunately, all of the major grain companies are aware of the problem and can steer you to their low starch and carb feeds.   If EMS animals are over fed they develop harmful fat deposits in all the wrong places and are likely to experience the terribly painful foot condition of laminitis. Another metabolic disease is Cushings.   Horses with Cushings also do best on low carb feeding plans with the addition of daily medication.

Improper feed can also cause respiratory problems.   Hay quality varies tremendously.   You can feed hay that has some poor qualities such as less leaf and more stem, but no horse should ever be fed musty hay.   When you open a bale and see a cloud of dust come up, you aren’t looking at dirt; you are seeing thousands of air borne mold spores. Horses inhale those spores while they are eating, and react to them with an acute allergic bronchitis.   Keep feeding that musty hay and they will become “heavey”, which is similar to COPD or emphysema in people.  Mold spores have the same effect on horses’ lungs as smoking does to ours. Horses with the condition can have their symptoms eased with medication, but there is no cure. All it takes is a few bales of bad hay and you can cause a horse to become a lifetime respiratory cripple.

The draft breeds, and many Quarter Horses, are likely to develop a feed related muscle situation called Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy, or EPSM.   The Quarter Horse Association calls it PPSM.   This is caused by a gene mutation that results in sugar in the diet (glucose) being stored as glycogen which the horses can’t use. Debilitating muscle stiffness and pain can follow. Just like the chunky ponies, these heavily muscled animals must be kept away from carbs.  Their proper feeding involves substituting carbs with fat. Veterinarians in New England often recommend adding Vitamin E and Selenium to their diet to help the stiff muscles. As you might know, out west there are areas where there is too much Selenium, and supplementing it could be potentially harmful.

I titled this article “they are what they eat” because if horses are fed too much or too little of the wrong things, they will become something other than what you want, and in fact do become a reflection of what they eat. In my opinion it is important to know the type of horse that you have in your barn and what feeding restrictions or supplements are recommended for each breed and individual. If you have questions about this, spend some time with your vet the next time he or she is in the barn. Have them assess your horse and possibly run lab tests to come to a diagnosis and diet plan. Most of these animals can be managed to live long useful lives.

David A. Jefferson, DVM

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