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Archive for the ‘horse nutrition’ Category

Raymond Geor, BVMS, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University

Dr. Raymond Geor, a veterinarian and researcher at the College of Veterinarian Medicine at Michigan State University, gave one of the first presentations I heard at the Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference.  His talk had big 6-syllable scientific terms- all delivered with the measured pace of a scientist. He packs a lot of information in his talk, and as a layperson I usually come away thinking, “What was he talking about?”

I am fortunate to have a tape recorder to help me keep track of the stuff I miss. The more I listen to his talk, the more I can skate around the moguls of language and studies: And the more I can see the landscape he is describing. There were no bunny slopes in sight; the good doctor took us to the top of the Matterhorn and it was an hour’s speed race the whole way down to the end.

The verbal description of his talk was only two paragraphs long. It stated that there are anecdotal impressions by veterinarians of a relationship between obesity, insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis. The second paragraph stated Geor would review the current diet and nutrition management for reducing the risk of laminitis in these animals.

ah, the miracles of photoshop

We start with a wee background from last year where Dr. Nicholas Frank gave a presentation that I summarize as “ Obesity in a horse is a good clinical sign that you are courting problems.” This is where Geor picks up and in a nice way says- it has been noted that the observable characteristic of obesity often indicates a predisposition for pasture-induced laminitis in horses. This, then, would be the laminitic phenotype. These horses seem to respond to changes in dietary and environmental conditions differently than other members of their herd.

We were also reminded of the fact that at the heart of laminitis is inflammation that disrupts life in the laminae resulting in its death and, in some cases, severe coffin bone rotation and the demise of the horse as well. Furthermore, there is a pretty good hunch that there is a connection between a pasture-induced laminitis episode and disturbance in the animal’s hind-gut brought on by rapidly fermenting carbohydrates that in some way (death of microbes, toxin release, gut leakage?) causes an inflammatory response in the horse that takes it over the threshold into laminitis.

Currently there are three main theories scientists are working on.

  1. there is an underlying inflammatory condition in these horses and ponies.
  2. Insulin toxcity
  3. A perfect storm of multiple colliding factors

Why would a fat horse or pony be more susceptible to laminitis? Ah-ha. That’s a good question that has no answers. But, there have been some recent discoveries in other species (us humans for one) that merit consideration (and therefore research) for the equine species.

It would seem that fat, once thought of as a simple collection of  storage cells, actually is ALIVE! ( the monster within- I sense a movie in all of this.) Adipose tissue is very metabolically active. It regulates things like pro-inflammatory cytokines, which makes the scientist wonder if the obese horse is in a constant metabolic state of systemic inflammation. If so it would be easy enough to understand why anything that would contribute more inflammation would tip the horse over the laminitic threshold.

Wondering what insulin looks like?

In other species fat seems to have a pretty strong affect on insulin. Interestingly insulin actually has two pathways, one is use (sensitivity) and the other is production. Fat appears to decrease the use of insulin while increasing the production of it with the result that there ends up being a large concentration of insulin in the blood stream (hyperinsulinemia.) That’s a very bad thing for the circulation and results in vaso-constriction: in other words tissue (such as the laminae) starvation and death.

Then there is the perfect storm theory, fat, inflammation, insulin, gut mobility, gut bio-environment, gut motility, gut permeability, forage composition factors other than carbohydrates, genetics, climate, life-style. Whew. Oh, and what about the obese mom that predisposes her foal to metabolic disorders? Happens in humans – could the same be true in horses?

And here’s my own wild card questions. How about how the whole digestion process works in these laminitic phenotypes.  Does their system empty slower or faster than their healthy counterparts? There is always talk of the role of  GI micro-organisms in creating laminitis.

coprophagia: foal eating mom's manure

Well, perhaps the genetic pre-disposition component is the foal eating mom’s bacteria laden feces.Mom could have “laminitis-making-bacteria” in her GI track. Maybe it’s not a gene, maybe it’s being in a stall with predisposed, obese, laminitic mom and the foal’s natural and needed coprophagia.

So many of these conditions are tightly intertwined that it will be a galactic challenge to investigate. And, of course, there is very little money to support this research.

I have an insulin resistant horse and another overweight pony. After listening to Geor’s presentation I renewed my efforts to reduce their weight as I have seen and heard the devastation of laminitis.

And, personally, I’m going on a diet lest I become even more inflammatory in my remarks.

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new research on livestock nutrition

One of my annual March sojourns is to partake of the Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference. I come away filled with adrenaline and excitement: my brain neurons firing away at all the paths those little research tidbits lead me down. None of my conjectures  have any scientific backing, but they are still worth a moment  or two of wonder. I noticed some interesting directions from the conference this year.

It might help for you to understand what this conference is all about–– livestock nutrition. Primarily dairy cattle, poultry and equine. This is where the academic researchers, feed mills, veterinarians and large livestock producers go to find out what are the newest research studies and theories on animal nutrition. You are not going to get razzle-dazzle slides here; you are going to get charts and ugly photos. But you walk out with a good sense of what isn’t known, what needs to be studied and a few sentences of something that has finally been proven.

It always reminds me the road to knowledge is a long one and that the body is blessedly complex.  I hope to post a number of entries over the next several weeks on specific topics covered at the conference along with my thoughts and questions. But for now I am still cogitating on a number of overall directions and impressions from my time in Maryland.

  • There was a new word thrown around quite liberally phenotype. Phenotype refers to the OBSERVABLE characteristics of an organism that has resulted from the interaction of its genotype and environment. It is an old word, but is being picked up and used more regularly in the scientific community. One might say that I am a phenotype for heart attacks; I have a chicken physique. (we’re using silly examples here, folks.) All fat lands in a plumb Buddha belly with nary an ounce going into my legs or butt. Observable characteristics are the belly fat. My mother and father had the same structure. This predisposition is most likely a genetic code of where my family line should store fat. Environment characteristics are the incessant putting of a full fork into my mouth. And now we have research to show that belly fat is hormonally active and a leading cause of heart attack. So I could stand as a phenotype for humans courting heart attacks. Or I could be a fat horse and the phenotype for laminitis.

There was a lot of discussion of the laminitic, IR and obese horse phenotype.

  • I think this word is being used more often because of another trend- the researchers are looking really small. Better technology has helped here as well as directions in human medicine. And in looking really small they are finding that the organism is REALLY connected. A cure for laminitis isn’t going to come by just looking at the inflammation of the feet. That is a sign, but now they are realizing that there are a lot of things on the cellular level that might cause inflammation in a body structure that might send hormone signals to other parts of the body that might start another cascade of seemingly unrelated events that end up in the feet. In looking really small, researchers are broadening their horizons.
  • Researchers are starting to whisper in the hallways about the failures. No one studies the failures in a research project. Part of that is due to the “system” of publishing papers where talking about failures is likely to result in a failure of the paper to get published. One of the speakers mentioned that in a clinically induced challenge of horses with genetic predispositions for laminitis, 20% of them never get laminitis. Their results are left in the paper trail that hits the circular file. Yet, this researcher had the strength to pause and say, folks someone should study these failures- what have they got in their systems that the other horses don’t have. (Please remember a failure is what does not prove the hypothesis. So if the hypothesis is that lush green grass will produce laminitis and these predisposed horses didn’t get it. Well, they “failed” in that they did not prove the point where as the other 80% did get it and proved the hypothesis.- Okay, okay- it’s a very simplistic explanation to help get across a very complex point.)

I’m not a scientist, but I find this thrilling stuff.  Finally the research industry is connecting the smaller dots that make up the larger ones. I also find it overwhelming- the amount we now know we don’t know. Dr. Raymond Goer from the University of Michigan School of Veterinary Medicine said it nicely,

“I know a lot less than I did a year ago. And I know a whole lot less than I knew two years ago.”

We are having to step back to go forward, but it is putting us on a better path.

Oh, and that word “phenotype” bet you see it everywhere now.


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percents, percents, percentsI was thinking about who gets to control the standards, the terms, the customs. How do things start and take hold. Why do we refuse to accept some new ideas and are quick to incorporate others. My guess would be it all comes back to a comfort level, or following the lead of someone you believe to be smarter than yourself.

I ponder this whenever I think about feed and it’s terminology. In the horse world, we talk percents. What percent protein, what percent fat? Never heard anyone say a horse should take in 20% moisture. (that’s a fake figure folks, don’t get excited.)

Percents all have to relate to something and are useless by themselves.  Horses, by the way, have yet to figure out how to eat a percentage, they eat nutrients that weigh something. So do we. I need about 40 grams of protein a day. I can count it up by the grams of protein listed on all my foods. Sometimes they will tell me it is X% of my daily allotment of protein, but it always has the actual grams listed. The FDA requires it on the labels.

Feed manufactures have to list the protein content too, but they always do it as a percentage. Why did the “powers” decide to do it that way? It’s a pretty easy calculation to figure the grams per cup or pound of the feed. It would make it a lot easier to determine if you are giving a horse enough or too much of a nutrient.

So why and when did feed mills initiate the use of percentages? Did it start a thousand years ago when horses only ate oats – did every horse get the same amount of oats? Is that it? Did it work centuries ago and just never changed? Why do we still hold onto the concept? Why to we rate the value of the feed according to its protein percent? People say a higher protein makes a horse hot in spirit. But is that true? Is it the protein or the fact that the grain used for the higher protein also has more calories or sugar? It seems we are very focused on nutrition for our animals- a good thing- but still dealing with antiquated terms and ideas.

And while we are preening ourselves for our choice of protein percentage, do we really know anything about the quality of protein we are feeding. Not all proteins are equal, and different proteins are more important for different life cycles.

The protein amount on the feed label is determined by the amount of nitrogen produced in a standard test. Well, there are a lot of things that can produce nitrogen, including urea, which is really cheap and useless in the horse’s body and melamine, which is really cheap and tends to kill animals. Urea and melamine in a feed is a cheap way to produce a target protein percent on the label.

This brings me to another point of confusion. Why are we so focused on protein? No argument that bodies need it, but the body needs it for growth, reproduction and repair, not energy or bulk. So sick horses, mommies-to-be, nursing mommies, and growing foals need protein considerations. The rest of the horses are probably going to get enough protein out in the field or from their hay. Protein is not going to make them run faster, jump higher, pull harder, or slide longer. In fact if a horse has to use protein for fuel he’s at a real disadvantage; it takes longer to convert, gives less energy, and creates a lot more heat.

But let’s get back to relying on the protein percent on the feed label. If we want to do it right, we need to figure out how many ounces or grams of protein our horse needs to eat daily. I can hardly feed my guys anything without them blowing up like ticks.  I have to severely restrict the amount of food they eat. I need a feed with a really high percentage of protein, because I can’t feed them much, they are going to get a cup, not a quart. My neighbor runs 3-day events on Thoroughbred horses. They eat 12 quarts of grain a day and alfalfa. They can do with a lower percent of protein because they are eating more.

If a pound of horse feed is 10% protein then each pound has 1.6 ounces of protein in it. But we need that number in grams, which will be apparent in a moment. Every ounce is equal to 28.35 grams. So grams times ounces, that pound of 10% protein feed is giving my horse 45.36 grams of protein.

The very important part of the feed puzzle is the nutrient requirements of horses. The Bible on this is the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses, sixth edition. You can find their reference charts reprinted in feed books, or contact a mill like Purina or go to your library.

My 800-pound horse in moderate work needs 614 grams of crude protein a day. The NRC doesn’t tell us what percentage of the diet should be protein because it doesn’t know what or how much we are feeding our horses. They are respecting our intelligence, pocketbooks, and resources. I wonder if we are doing the same to ourselves.

So I have to figure out how much protein is in my horse’s grain, his hay, and do some hemming and hawing on the pasture to determine if he is getting enough or too much protein.  8% hay, okay that’s 8% of every pound or 1.28 ounces but he eats 4 pounds a day so that’s 5.12 ounces of protein per day – each ounce equals 28.35 grams so 5.12 times 28.35 equals 145.15 grams of protein from hay. Hmm, he’s an air fern. I can’t feed him a lot of grain, or much more hay, he can get too fat. This is when I see the value of a 32% protein pellet that is feed by the cups (ounces) not pounds. Well, I think you see where this is headed.

I think I may have answered my own question here. People really like things to be simple. It’s a lot simpler to say “give me a bag of that 10% protein feed,” then to consider all the other aspects of the protein puzzle.

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Just a reminder that elections are coming; vote horse friendly

Just a reminder that elections are coming; vote horse friendly

In the past 40+ years we have learned an awful lot about horses’ health. Colic surgery, which was all but unheard of, has pretty high success rate numbers. Wounds have better potions, lotions, and dressings. There are many newer and more effective vaccines and we have made Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA, what the Coggins test is for) a side issue instead of the dominant state it held in the ‘40s.

But we still don’t know a lot, and what’s amazing, when you listen to us talk, is that we don’t know we don’t know! The snake oil is still out there and out there with endorsements, official looking labels and massive amounts of shelf space.

I was reminded of all this recently at a Rutgers Equine Science Center meeting. Rutgers is not a veterinary college, but is involved in a large number of equine studies. Their aim is prevention rather than cure and they have done a lot of research on performance enhancing drugs and nutrition.

What don’t we know about what we do? Lasix is a good example. The race industry sought a cure for bleeding out the nose during a race. Blood dripping out the nose or wandering around the lungs gets in the way of air-flow and you need every hemoglobin molecule to deliver oxygen during a race. Lasix became the miracle cure. But there was still evidence of bleeding.

Dr. Kenneth McKeever of the Rutgers Equine Science Center

Dr. Kenneth McKeever of the Rutgers Equine Science Center

Enter Dr. Kenneth McKeever, who is massively tall, you know when he has entered a room. He and the Rutgers Equine Science Center started doing treadmill studies on how Lasix works. Turns out it doesn’t harm the horse –– doesn’t stop the bleeding either. But it does act as a diuretic, dropping pounds of water before a race so the horse runs lighter and faster. Voila! Now everyone uses lasix to make a faster running horse, or you could just watch the animal’s water consumption pre-race.But people still think Lasix stops bleeding.

The evidence for clenbuterol and albuterol was different. The medication was found (being used off label) to build a horse faster, so a yearling would look like a 2-year-old and fetch a better asking price. McKeever again researched the evidence. He found that indeed it does build a bigger horse, with a faulty heart. So while that horse looks like a prime athlete its performance will suffer and the very real possibility of a heart attack looms.

Now let’s look at those shelves of nutraceuticles and advertisements from feed producers. NRC 6th editionLet’s step into the world of the National Research Council. They are the defining body of nutrition requirements for humans and animals in the U.S. and many other countries. All the information on the foods in your refrigerator is based on the NRC requirements. The  equine folks over there (all with extensive initials after their names) review the world-wide base of scientific research. They look at the quality of the research, size of study and consistency among results. They’re good at what they do. So it was a wake-up call in March of 2008 when I attended a conference addressing the most recent revisions to the equine recommendations. Dr. Laurie Lawrence, chair of the project, started by saying how little they actually know about the equine’s metabolism and use of nutrients compared to other livestock.

The reason is simple; we don’t feed and euthanize horses to study nutritional effects. It is a moral taboo. Despite the outcry of horses used for human consumption in other parts of the world, it would appear it is not a significant dietary mainstay, because worldwide there is a dearth of information on nutritional effects on a horse.

Progress is being made. Clever scientists and better imaging equipment are allowing peaks into blood markers and invisible organs. But it is still expensive to run trials on horses because it is expensive to keep horses. So progress is slow. When engaged in “What do you feed” talks, it always makes me stop and ask “how do we know this.” The answer is usually because the trainer, who is on the Olympic list, or the feed supplier said so. Alas, thhey have no initials behind their name. And vet schools are just now catching up on the nutrition angle, but they can’t teach what isn’t known.

If we really want the scoopy on that new feed or additive it is worth a call to an equine nutritionist associated with a university or the government. Ask them if research has been done on the component in question. If the answer is no, you may still decide to use the product, no doesn’t always mean bad, just that we have no idea how the component affects the animal. Sometimes, though, no can mean danger – you get to decide.

But at least you will be able to smile and listen to others talk and know what we don’t know.

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sitting on artillery in Iraq

hot and tired in Iraq

On warm days a good nose can tell which stall the smell of ammonia is coming from. Today it’s in T-man’s and Moke’s. We’ve had spring-like pasture all summer and I just got a load of new hay. The combination tipped the scale on protein. For once my mind didn’t hang around grazing with the horses, instead it shot to the container of protein supplement I just sent my soldier son in Iraq. His unit is always working out and trying to build muscle so he bought out the store when he came home for his two weeks R & R.

His unit is stationed in the south of Iraq and has lived the summer in 120-130 degree heat. Add in 50 pounds of full battle-rattle and their socks are soaked with sweat running down their body before they walk out the door. Dehydration is a serious enemy where they are.

maxing out the thermometer

maxing out the thermometer

And do you know what your body does with most of the excess protein you eat? It gets rid of it, washes it right down the toilet.  So I’m concerned about my son taking a protein supplement in the heat and becoming dehydrated. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to educate him about protein and heat and that brought me back to the horses.

Because they handle protein a lot like we do.

Some excess protein goes into fat, but most excess protein is broken down in the kidneys and excreted in the urine. One of the elements protein breaks into is ammonia. Anytime you get a strong ammonia smell in the barn, someone is most likely gobbling more protein than they need. It’s a pretty effective indicator.

Normally I don’t obsess about that. But thinking of my son made me realize I need to do a better job of regulating my horses’ protein through the hot summer months. The Army can and does mandate how much water my son needs to drink each day in the field. But I can’t do that with my horses. Unless I syringe the water into them, I am at the mercy of their thirst indicator and urinating doesn’t always trigger the idea to drink more water.

My guys lose buckets of water in sweat during the summer. Being Icelandics with thick skin and deeply embedded veins, there are weeks when they are drenched in sweat just standing still in the shade. I rinse them off, put them under fans, elect not to work them on “Bermuda High” days, ride in the cool of the day, ride in shady routes, and ride in the river. I do everything I can to cool their body–– yet I never think about the excess protein they are eating and how much liquid they are urinating because of it.

I’ll keep it simple. Just imagine their body as a big bag of water. If water is oozing out through microscopic pores AND through a small hole in the bag, the end result is less water in the bag at a faster rate. Now the bag needs a certain volume of water in it to make it function at its maximum. All that water loss compromises the bag’s function. Not even going to think about the way that changes the concentration of electrolytes and blood ph.

I don’t know of too many riders, aside from the endurance folk, who even think about dehydration as a contributing factor to a poor performance in the ring or on the trail. A number of riders add electrolytes when their horses are sweating. I sure do, and do you know how I add those electrolytes? I add them with a cup of high protein grain so the boys will eat it. I feel my head molding to the shape of Homer Simpson’s –– DOLT. I just gave them a supplement to help them keep and retain water in a supplement that will make them eliminate water.  ( for the science bent- I am well aware of the other functions of electrolytes- I’m just dealing with hydration at the moment.)

We are heading into our cold months here in Jersey. Indian Summer will keep the grass strong and growing for another 2-3 weeks and then the rich green will die off and the smell of ammonia will dissipate. I’ll have the whole winter to ponder the problem. A lot will depend on the climate. Another great growing season means I really have to do something. If the rains stop early and the sun dries up the grasses, I’ll be able to skate by. Whatever the outcome, I am putting “Hydration” on my list of suspects next time my guys just aren’t “right.” I hope my son does too.

Feeling worn out in Iraq

Feeling worn out in Iraq

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