By Rhoni from Horseward
What's the problem?
One of the biggest problems faced by modern horse owners is metabolic compromise leading to a constant "battle of the bulge". A complex combination of factors has brought the leisure horse population to nothing short of a crisis. Obesity and fat pads are perhaps the most visible indicators of an epidemic of chronic inflammatory conditions such as EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome) which, for too many, culminate in the horrors of laminitis, even in horses that would traditionally not be considered high-risk.
At Horseward, our standpoint is that what I've come to call "metabolic meltdown" is a consequence of a complicated combination of factors and circumstances that cannot be managed by calorie crunching or focussing solely on starch and sugar levels. Many modern horse owners have very little say in the way their horses are kept, squeezing their dream into a hectic 21st century schedule by depending on a fairly regimented full livery regime and working two and three jobs to pay for it. However, an awareness of potential problems can suggest different ways of tackling the issues and making changes that can bring your horse's system more closely in tune with a more natural way of life and therefore systemic balance.
What are the causes?
Some factors that can contribute to metabolic meltdown include:
- modern management practices which restrict turnout and impede normal equine behaviour patterns
- a widespread reduction in actual workload
- a tendency to overfeed rather than feed according to work being done (I call it Chinese baby syndrome - far more horsefolk regard their horses as companions and pets these days and spoil them accordingly!)
- the prevalence of high-yield monoculture agricultural grasses being used for horse grazing and conserved forage
- a lack of diversity of species in grazing and forage
- chemical spray cocktails that disrupt countless body functions and cause systemic inflammation
- the increasing use of ultra-processed inflammatory ingredients in commercial horse feeds
What can be done?
As a supplement company we are often approached to provide a quick fix for a physical or behavioural problem. My first advice is always - and I cannot emphasise strongly enough how much difference this can make - that the first and biggest change you can make is to base your horse's diet on ad lib high fibre forage and stop feeding highly processed commercial feeds. Totally. Altogether.
Instead of fixating on sugar and starch levels, look at the actual ingredients! The body is a far better and more sophisticated food processor than a feed mill. If you let the body actually do its job and function on a minimally processed, high fibre, diverse, wholefood diet, you will make a tremendous difference to your horse's overall wellbeing and longevity. It's unfortunately very common to hear "oh but my horse looks wonderful on XTC Crunchy Nuggets", posting up a photo of a shiny fat horse and not making the connection when same horse starts to exhibit signs of systemic failure in early middle age. SO so many good doers are developing EMS, and the more "lean machines" manifesting other systemic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, at a shockingly early age.
Fortunately it is relatively easy to satisfy busy modern horsefolks' need for convenience feeds without buying that McTucky ready meal in a glossy bag with an alluring name and a famous sponsor. Unfortunately, even a lot of the more "natural" feeds are not ideal. For example, a lot of "fast fibre" feeds are highly processed to the extent they are pretty much pre-digested. They operate very differently in a horse's gut to the species-appropriate "slow fibre" it is designed to digest. And a lot of plain grass nuts and grass chaffs are made from - you guessed it - high-yield monoculture agricultural grasses but are at least considerably less processed!
The Vanguard - "It's All Weeds!!!"
Companies such as Thunderbrook and Agrobs are in the vanguard when it comes to offering minimally processed, less chemicalised and more diverse forage-based bagged feeds and have a range of feeds to cover the needs of equines in all sorts of circumstances. They are also available online by mail order if you've got a grumpy old fashioned feed merchant! I cherish an anecdote from a "horse-woke" feed store employee and Horseward client who told me the store manager proclaims: "It's weeds, it's all weeds!!!"
Small Moves Big Impacts
You may not be in a position to easily change your horse's accommodation, turnout arrangements or grazing but at the very least you can make sure that the forage you feed is mixed meadow hay and the bucket feeds you provide are appropriate to his actual needs. "Feed for need and deed, not greed!" And never leave your horse stabled for long periods with no forage. That is nothing short of cruelty for an animal designed to be on the move and nibbling herbage with low nutritional value for between 15 and 20 hours a day. If you are in a yard that is more like a prison camp and a yard owner who is completely unresponsive to horses' actual needs then you really must vote with your feet. Your horse needs you to do the right thing if your yard owner won't or can't. It is slowly getting easier to find a good track or equicentral livery but it's still all too common to hear about yards that don't even offer daily turnout. I can't think of anyone who keeps a horse that doesn't love horses, and most people are trying to do their very best by them. It's well worth think carefully about the life you are offering and how to make it better. There is always room for improvement.
Vote with your feet!
Way back in the early nineties, I moved a youngster to a competition yard in Cheshire. It all just seemed so wrong - horses screaming and banging at feed times and standing for hours and hours without as much as a blade of hay to occupy them. It was like an army boot camp and the stress levels, both equine and human, were sky high. I couldn't get my head round how anyone could think that this was acceptable, far less a supposed top professional method of producing the animals who provided your livelihood. I didn't stay there long.
Metabolic meltdown is exacerbated by stress. Stress CAN be relieved, in all sorts of little ways - not always easily perhaps, in our modern day setting, but the onus is on you to do what you can to remove it.
I have clients who have switched their whole yard onto forage-based, minimally processed feeds and ad-lib forage. They can hardly believe the change in atmosphere to one of calm and content, combined with improved performance and a significant reduction in vet bills.
"My horse will just gorge himself and get fat!" ("even fatter"??) - There are ways out of that conundrum which will be the subject of another blog post coming soon. The vast majority of horses really will self-regulate if you set them up to succeed.
Certified Organic minimally processed ingredients
The supplements we make at Horseward are made with certified Organic, minimally processed ingredients. They are extremely effective. However, if you intend to use them as a plaster to cover up an ongoing systemic failure, you are simply, unfortunately, missing the mark. If you do really want to change your horse's regime but don't know where to start please do get in touch, I'm not as ranty in person! I'm absolutely passionate about working to find the best solution for the individual and I will never try to sell you a supplement your horse doesn't need. Get the lifestyle and the diet right and you may well find you don't need any supplements anyway!
However, if you are struggling with a metabolic or laminitic horse and looking for a supplement that can give meaningful support, we're proud to introduce both GG MetaMix and GG Lamin8. They contain key ingredients we have used with great success on clients' horses in emergency situations. You can find out more about them click on the links below.