It is truly amazing how the diagnoses and treatment of equine maladies has changed in recent years. Those of us who have been around longer than a horses full life span remember a time before the common horse owner used terms like PSSM, IR, EPM, and Cushing’s when describing their horses health. These conditions were certainly present, but usually classified under broader generic terms, and only really understood by their vet. To yesterday’s horse owner either the horse thrived and was healthy or it was a “hard keeper”.
How times change. Access to extensive research information, both in print and on the internet, has elevated the understanding of underlying health challenges to a new level by the average horse owner. Today, we seldom hear the term “hard keeper” while working with our customers. Instead, many informed customers ask how to best feed their horses while taking specific health conditions into consideration. While some equine health issues can be genetic or injury caused, many are related to the horse’s environment. Activity levels, exercise regimen, available turn-out time in an open area, stall size, interaction with other horses and nutrition all influence a horse’s health. Taking all of these factors into consideration can help minimize the effect of otherwise debilitating conditions.
Looking at feeding programs for horses with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM), one form of tying–up in horses, versus a feeding program for something not directly related like Insulin Resistance, we see clear similarities between the two. In both cases the horse can benefit from a normalized digestive system that avoids high starch level concentrates, resulting in better utilization of the roughage (hay) in the diet by improving hind gut efficiency. This results in more consistent utilization of available nutrition and pays large dividends for these horses.
If you expand your attention to many of the other chronic health issues that affect todays domesticated horse, you see that most current research will lead you to the same basic conclusion. Speaking broadly, feeding a horse in a way that better utilizes its roughage as the primary energy source, while providing any needed additional energy with the smallest footprint in the digestive system, will usually result in a horse that is more likely to be and stay healthy.
This basic type of forage based diet properly fits the way the equine digestive system was made to function and provides a better starting point to address chronic health issues than just about any other management practice you can undertake. It provides a base line that removes potential conditions that may mask what is really going on in the system. Excess starch and sugars overwhelm the small intestines ability to process them, this allows those starch and sugar excesses to move on to the hind gut. The result is the disruption of the delicate environment that supports beneficial bacteria needed to properly break down the roughage portion of the diet, create needed water soluble vitamins and support a proper immune system. I have often called this the domino effect. One inefficiency, here the feeding of excess starch and sugars, leads to the next inefficiency, which leads to the next, until much of the nutrition that the horse ate ends up on the ground behind it.
The goal of our feeding philosophy is this. First, feed the appropriate type of roughage for the condition you are trying to address. Some horses need a grass hay as the base of their diet, some can benefit from some alfalfa in the mix. Remember, many grass hays are higher in both starch and sugars than alfalfa, while alfalfa is usually higher in both calcium and protein. Second, feed the highest quality hay that you can buy. Third, avoid overpowering the upper GI tract with more starch than it can handle. Fourth, normalize the PH in the hind gut so that the digestion of the roughage source is as efficient as possible. The result will be what we are all looking for, a horse that thrives.
I once heard the story about a person who, trying to make a point about avoiding confusion, said “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify”. Upon hearing this, his mentor said, “I think one Simplify would have sufficed”.