Feeding a horse with Cushing’s Syndrome

As the number of horses known to have Cushing’s Syndrome increases, questions on how to feed horses with this condition also increase.  As a starting management practice, your veterinarian may recommend pergolide as an added medication for your horse.  This is available from a number of pharmaceutical sources by prescription.

When it comes to feeding them, though, here are a few tips that may help make life a little easier:

  1. If your Cushing’s horse has some joint problems, you may want to also consider using one of the chondroitin sulfate + glucosamine products that are available in supplement form.
  2. Cushing’s syndrome horses require a hay or pasture source that is low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), so you might want to have your forage tested.
  3. They do well on senior feeds that are fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and organic trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support immune response.
  4. Feeding directions need to be followed to make certain enough senior feed is being fed as these older horses may not be able to utilize forage very efficiently.
  5. If your horse is not maintaining weight, you may need to increase the feeding rate of the senior feed or add a low starch, rice bran based high fat supplement.

Most senior horses with Cushing’s Syndrome do very well on a senior feed and appropriate medication.  Cost of pergolide can vary greatly and your veterinarian may be able to direct you to the best source.  Good luck, and please let us know if we can help!

Judging Hay Quality for Horses

Because hay is such a common part of a horses diet, judging quality on visual inspection is important, as lab analysis is not always easily available.  Here are three simple things to look for to help you select the best hay for your horses and your money.

  1. The initial check that most people are familiar with is color and smell.  Horse hay should be bright green and smell slightly sweet.  Brown hay indicates either a problem in the baling process, such as being rained on, or age.  Acrid or musty smells generally indicate the presence of mold.
  2. Another sign of good horse hay is the leaf:stem ratio.  The more leaves, the better, since the leaves are where most of the nutrition in the hay is stored.  Hay that has too many hard, woody stems is difficult to digest.  Even if it cheaper, most horses will pick through and leave the bulk of the stems behind, costing more in the long run.  High quality hay is fine-stemmed, pliable, and full of leaves.
  3. Type of hay is another factor.  Grass hays, such as timothy or orchard grass, generally provide sound basic nutrition.  The higher the concentration of legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, the higher the energy content.  High quality alfalfa is generally better than high quality grass hay, but good quality grass hay can be better than average quality alfalfa hay.

The best thing, in the end, is to have hay tested.  This is not always feasible for every load, but if your hay source is consistent from load to load, this may be a good option to get a general feel for what nutrients your hay contains.

Feeding Bran Mashes to Horses

Feeding bran mashes to horses is a common tradition dating back a long time, and is often thought to be a help in preventing colic through a laxative effect. Bran is believed to be a laxative in people, but to get that effect in horses, you would actually have to feed it in quantities bigger than your horse could eat.  Some horses do produce softer stools the day after eating bran, but this probably reflects bran’s tendency to irritate the lining of equine intestines.  If fed daily over a long period of time, bran may actually contribute to the formation of enteroliths. 

The bigger danger in feeding bran to horses is the calcium:phosphorus ratio of bran.  Calcium and phosphorus work together to build sound bones and assist muscle function.  To do so, they must be absorbed in appropriate proportions (preferably 1.2 or more parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus).  If, over a long period of time, phosphorus exceeds calcium in the diet, the horse’s body will pull extra calcium from the horses bones to meet it’s needs, and eventually weaken the skeleton.

Wheat bran and rice bran contain approximately 10 times more phosphorus than calcium.  Therefore, an occasional bran mash won’t harm the horse, and he will likely relish the treat.  However, daily bran regimens in large quantity should be avoided, unless calcium is supplemented in sufficient quantities elsewhere in the diet.

What about WEG?

If you subscribe to e-newsletters from any equestrian breed or discipline organizations, or you read any horse publications, chances are that you have seen some talk of the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games (WEG) coming to Lexington, KY this fall.

So, what the heck is the big deal?  I mean, people compete in Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) disciplines internationally all the time, right?  Well, yes, but it isn’t very often that the United States hosts this kind of event. 

In fact, for the first time in the history of the WEG, this year’s games are hosted by a country outside of Europe….in our very own horsey hotspot of Lexington, KY.  Here is some info about WEG at a glance:

  1. The Games are held every 4 years,  2 years before the Olympics
  2. The games are administered by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) which has affiliations with over 130 national organizations
  3. The disciplines represented consist of eight (8) FEI internationally governed events over 16 days: Dressage, Jumping, Eventing, Vaulting, Combined Driving, Endurance, Reining, and for the first time in 2010, Para-Dressage
  4. This year’s games have attracted entries from 60 countries
  5. Organizers are expecting 600,000 people will flock to Lexington during the 16 day event

Is this a big deal?  As a rider and fan of one of the disciplines represented, I happen to think so.  To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll have another opportunity to see the caliber of horses and athletes with my own eyes, this close to home (that is to say, NOT after a 12+ hour flight). 

Will it be expensive to attend?  Well, compared to heading to my regional championships, you bet it will be expensive.  But will the experience become more fuel for reaching my dreams?  I have no doubt I’ll be saddling up the day I land back home…..well, maybe the day after.

If you are heading to Lexington, KY during the games, be sure to stop by and say ‘hi’ at the Nutrena booth inside the International Equestrian Festival.

Management Practices: Reducing the Risk of Colic

Colic is one of the leading health problems facing horse owners. According to the USDA’s National Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Equine Study 1998, about 4% of the horse population experiences colic each year. Colic rated second only to old age as the cause of death in equines. The same study indicated that horse owners most commonly identified “unknown” causes for colic, followed by gas colic and feed related.

Feeding management and non-feeding-related management practices can all have an impact on reducing the risk of colic.

The following management practices can aid in reducing the risk of colic:

  1. Parasite Control: Includes proper sanitation and regular deworming per program.
  2. Dental Care: Be sure to schedule regular dental exams as needed.
  3. Fresh Clean Water: A lack of water in both cold and warm weather may increase risk of colic.
  4. Consistent Diet: Avoiding sudden changes in either hay or grain may help reduce risk.  A survey by Dr. Noah Cohen et al in Texas indicated forage changes are associated with colic more frequently than changes in the grain portion of the diet.
  5. Avoid Starch Overload. Starch overload, or allowing undigested starch to get to the hindgut, is a major cause of gas colic.  Limiting meal size, maintaining equal feeding intervals, and selecting controlled starch feed products for a feeding program, may help reduce the risk of starch overload. 
  6. Feed Additives. Some feed additives, such as direct fed microbials and yeast culture, may also be beneficial in improving forage utilization and digestion.

Colic prevention—rather than colic treatment—is clearly much better for both the horse and the horse owner.

Feeding Senior Horses

Gayle's 23 year old Arabian, Scooter

I recently visited a horse owner that wanted to know when it was time to start feeding senior feed to her horse. She currently had him on a 10% protein sweet feed mix. She said he was underweight and not sure why, as she was providing the horse about 20 pounds per day, but he was not eating it all.  I explained that we often begin to watch horses for signs of being a “senior horse” around age 15-18.  Some may go much later in to life before showing signs, but somewhere in this age range is when we watch for signs of decreased muscle mass, decreased quality of hair coat, and an inability to maintain weight on their “normal” diet.

With this horse, I found small clumps of chewed hay on the ground around his feeder, or “quids” as they are called. This happens due to dental deterioration or loss, which inhibits the horse’s ability to chew his hay. Upon examining the horses manure, we noticed a lot of undigested grain. I suggested that the owner have the horse’s teeth floated, as well as have blood work drawn to check for Cushing’s or other metabolic issues. Once the horse’s teeth were taken care of, and any metabolic issues ruled out, we could move toward a more suitable senior diet.

As horses grow older their ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients becomes less efficient. Senior horse feeds will generally have the following elements to make sure older horses are receiving all the nutrition they need:

  1. Increased protein level in order to provide proper amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, for metabolic functions, muscle maintenance and hoof quality.
  2. Elevated fat content to provide extra calories, with the benefit of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
  3. Yeast cultures & direct-fed microbials (more commonly known as prebiotics and probiotics, respectively) to support nutrient digestion.
  4. Organic trace minerals that are more highly bioavailable than traditional trace mineral sources.
  5. Enhanced calcium and phosphorus levels to help guard against bone demineralization.
  6. Manufactured as a soft, high fiber pellet that is easily chewed. In cases where dental loss is extreme, the feed can even be mixed with equal parts warm water to form a mash.

Also, with senior feeds, if the horse is unable to chew any hay, the diet can be adjusted to 4 or 5 feedings of senior feed per day, to meet caloric requirements.

An Ode to Our Equine Trainers

Do you remember the  horse that taught you so much?  Maybe he belonged to a friend or neighbor, maybe he was a lesson horse at a barn you went to, or perhaps he was the first horse you ever owned.  These horses, our equine trainers, played a unique role; they set the foundation for who we have become as horse-people. 

They taught us the meaning of respect.  They gently made us responsible for our actions.  They even improved how we communicate.  Through their generosity, these horses endured our clumsy pursuit of balance in the saddle, our requests of them that weren’t clear even to us and countless experiences that are on our ‘first’ list (my first canter, my first jump, my first show).

 They showed us the joy of accomplishment and humbled us just when we needed it.  They started us on a path to learning and our lives wouldn’t be the same without them.

Perhaps you are still enjoying your equine trainer, or maybe your education has surpassed their abilities.   Maybe they have passed onto greener pastures, but you will always remember them for what they brought to your life and how they shaped who you are today.  So this is an ode to those horses who have given us so much and asked for so little in return.  Thank you for all you have done for us.  We are forever in your debt. 

Farewell to Widgy, my equine trainer: May 1982 – June 2010