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Restricting Forage is Incredibly Stressful Pt.1

This is a very interesting article from Dr. Juliet Getty about how when we restrict food from our horses, their reactions manifest in different ways. This is Part 1 – stay tuned for Part 2!

Restricting Forage is Incredibly Stressful

Choose a different method to help your horse lose weight

By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.

Stress = Obesity. That’s right. Stress is keeping your horse fat. And the main source of stress for most horses? Restricting forage. The very thing most people do to try to help their horse lose weight actually causes the same stress reaction that brings about body fat retention, and all its attendant problems.

I cannot emphasize this enough. Here are the physiological facts—they are indisputable: The horse is a trickle feeder. He’s a grazing animal designed to chew all day long. His chewing produces saliva, which neutralizes the acid that’s continually flowing in his stomach. Your stomach produces acid only when you eat; your horse’s stomach produces acid constantly, even when the stomach is empty (you see where I am going with this—his stomach should never be empty!). He also needs forage flowing through his digestive tract to exercise those muscles; otherwise the muscles get flabby, which can bring on colic from a weak intestinal tract that torques and intussuscepts. Furthermore, the cecum (hindgut) contains the bacteria responsible for digesting fiber from forage. But its exit and entrance are both at the top! In order for digested material to be pushed to the top, the cecum must be full. Otherwise colic can result from material left at the bottom.

A horse that doesn’t have anything to eat will chew on whatever he can—fences, trees, even his own manure. It’s pitiful to see. Chewing on non-feedstuffs makes a horse mentally acutely uncomfortable because it goes against his instincts, but physically he is in pain and attempting to resolve it. Discomfort? Pain? Stress! And he’s stoic about it. You might look at him and say, “Well, he’s calm.” Sure, he may look that way but it’s an ingrained survival mechanism for horses that are in pain to hide it. In the wild, a horse that shows that he’s uncomfortable often gets left behind by the herd to fend for himself against predators. So anatomically and psychologically, the horse has evolved to deal with pain by simply bearing it. Even the pain of an empty stomach.

What happens when you bring this horse some hay? Against the fear of future deprivation and to relieve his stomach discomfort, he inhales it. Then he waits again for his next meal, even while the acid resumes bathing his empty stomach. And it’s not only the stomach that is affected. The acid can also damage the entire gastrointestinal tract, even making it all the way down to the hindgut. It can lead to colic and it can lead to laminitis.

I have seen hundreds of cases of horses suffering a laminitis relapse through being placed on a restrictive diet. Here’s the scenario: The horse is overweight (maybe even develops laminitis). The well-intentioned veterinarian tells the horse owner, “Put your horse in a dry lot and feed him only a little bit of hay, maybe about 1.5% of his body weight. Give several small hay meals a day, only.” And the rest of the time the horse stands there with an empty stomach. The well-intentioned veterinarian has just given the well-intentioned horse owner the worst possible advice because the stress of that leads to cortisol increase, which causes insulin to rise, and when insulin rises you have laminitis—new, recurrent or chronic. This happens over and over again; it is the unfortunate “conventional wisdom” of the horse industry.

I adamantly protest—this practice is not based on sound science.

For more from Dr. Getty – stay tuned for Part 2.

This article is an excerpt from the book, Equine Cushing’s Disease – Nutritional Management

For the growing community of horse owners and managers who allow their horses free choice feeding, there is a special forum for you to share your experiences with each other and to let me and others know how you’re doing. It is a place for support, celebrations, congratulations, and idea sharing. Go to jmgetty.blogspot.com.

Please share this article with your fellow horsemen and women. Permission to reprint commercially is granted, provided that full credit is given to Dr. Getty and publisher informs Dr. Getty about the use of the article. She may be reached at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com. No editorial changes may be made without her approval.

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