These Are Not True Symptoms

There has been an insidiously growing trend to label certain observations as indicators of a disease/disorder when actually they are really almost universal aspects of normal equine behavior. If you are trying to convince an owner to buy a product or service based on these observations you are set to make a killing.  If you are the owner being targeted, you could be wasting a lot of worrying – and money – for nothing.

Sensitivity to touch is too nonspecific for a diagnosis

Girthiness:  Resistance to having the girth tightened, or even reaction to pressure along the midline of the lower abdomen, is typically blamed on gastric ulcers.  This makes no sense anatomically since the stomach sits high in the midline of the abdomen with colon between stomach and lower abdominal wall.  Higher up it is flanked on either side by the spleen and the liver.

Furthermore, you have to search far and wide to find any horse that does not react in some way to having the girth tightened. Some just pin their ears. Some take a deep breath and hold it.  Others actually kick or snap.  In short, horses don’t like having the girth tightened.

Flank sensitivity to touch:  Sensitivity to touch in the flank is similarly blamed on a gut problem, typically hind gut “ulcers” or “leaky gut”, sometimes ovarian issues, but once again this is a very common reaction even in normal horses.  The flanks are a vulnerable area.  They lack the thick skin and dense fat layer that protects the hind quarters and without the ribs are a direct portal to internal organs for a predator.  All  horses are protective of their flanks and reactive to touch here, especially if they do not know it is coming.

Weak going to the right:  Weakness traveling to the right or trouble holding the right canter lead, falling to the inside on the right lead have been blamed on a problem with the cecum (usually acidity) or even neurological disorder.  Horses, like people, have a strong and a weak side.  The vast majority of horses are stronger going to the left and similarly most riders are better going to the left.

Kidney pain:  Sensitivity to pressure along the topline of the back is sometimes said to indicate kidney disease.  However, the kidneys are well protected underneath the ribs/spine and with a layer of encompassing fat.  Kidney disease is extremely rare in horses.  When it does occur, pain on pressure in this area is not a part of the picture.  With back pain look for bone or muscle disorders as the cause.

What if these findings appear suddenly; are a change from the horse’s normal behavior?  Those are valid observations, and important ones, but it’s also important to remember that increased sensitivity to touch/not wanting to be touched is a common and very nonspecific indicator that the horse is in pain or does not feel well.  It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about why.  Poor concentration and resistance to cues under saddle are also common nonspecific changes.

With any question about how the horse is moving you should start with a good old-fashioned thorough lameness and neurological examination. Always rule out a training or musculoskeletal issue before buying into more esoteric explanations.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


Posted in Equine Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring Grass Laminitis

Spring is the peak time for grass-associated laminitis in most parts of the world. You can effectively treat or, better yet, prevent it but only if you understand the mechanism.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Scott

A fat pony is the pasture-child for grass-associated laminitis

First, what it’s not.

There is zero evidence to support the idea that naturally occurring spring pasture laminitis is related to fructan and hind gut fermentation.  In fact, all research points to it being caused by high sugar/starch and insulin resistance.  Therefore, products like the antibiotic Founderguard or hind gut buffering agents will not be effective.

Animals at risk are ponies, minis, donkeys, full size horses of breeds prone to insulin resistance and pregnant mares. There may be a history of prior episodes of spring grass laminitis in the individual or their relatives.

Although there is a desperate need for well designed studies to look at this in horses,  a factor in addition to sugar/starch levels in rapidly growing grasses is their magnesium content. In all species studied, low magnesium status worsens insulin resistance while replacing it results in improvement.

Grasses with magnesium less than 0.2% and potassium 3% or higher can cause magnesium-related problems in ruminants.  This is most likely to occur in rapidly growing grasses and made worse by fertilizers containing potassium.  If animals cannot be removed from pasture, supplement with 8 to 10 grams of magnesium/day for an average size horse. However, there is no guarantee this will actually be protective.

Limiting grazing time is not always an effective preventative, at least in part because horses given restricted grazing time have been shown to consume grass at 3 times the normal grazing rate.  As owners of affected animals can tell you, it does not take a long grazing time for susceptible equines to eat enough to cause laminitis.

The best prevention is to avoid access to spring grass completely. You can still turn out for 2 to 4 hour intervals but with a completely sealed muzzle. Feed only hays known to have a combined sugar (ESC) and starch level of less than 10%.  Have minerals analyzed and properly balanced.

If you are dealing with an active case, the above measures still need to be implemented immediately.  The key to stopping the process is eliminating the cause.  If unsure whether your hay is safe, soak it for 1/2 hour before feeding.  A supplement that specifically targets only magnesium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, selenium and iodine will cover the most frequently found mineral deficiencies until a hay analysis can be obtained.  Chromium is useful for hays grown on alkaline soils.

Radiographs and a trim to make sure the hoof wall is tightly aligned to the internal structures is very important in both comfort and preventing any further damage.

Pain control is always understandably a major concern but important to realize you can’t control pain without removing the cause (above). NSAIDs like flunixin, phenylbutazone or firocoxib are reasonable for a few days but actually are not very effective for pain relief because features of other types of laminitis such as inflammation, enzyme activation and endotoxemia do not apply to grass induced laminitis.

Once the correct diet and trim are in place, very good results have been obtained by supporting circulation to the feet with Jiaogulan, L-arginine and L-citrulline to fuel production of the vasodilator, nitric oxide.

Preventing spring grass laminitis is certainly preferable to treating it but effective measures are available if you are faced with this challenge.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

Posted in Equine Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Designer Salt

Salt, sodium chloride (NaCl), is arguably the most important mineral.  Animal life is believed to have emerged from the sea. Blood has many similarities to sea water, including a high concentration of sodium and chloride.

                                                             Salts of many colors

Salt is the only mineral for which the horse has an innate taste. Feral horses will make periodic pilgrimages to areas of natural salt deposits. The importance of salt to health, even life, is not debatable.

Without a doubt, your horse needs salt. Does it matter what type of salt? Not to his health.

Concentrated salt deposits are the beds of ancient seas which have dried up. They may be on the surface (salt flats) or underground, including under the ocean floor. Like all natural mineral deposits they are contaminated to varying extents by other minerals.  The table salt you buy in the supermarket has been purified of the contaminating minerals.

This is no different from calcium, magnesium etc. supplements you buy. They are mined, cleaned of most if not all contaminating minerals then packaged and sold.

Raw salts have different colors depending on their contaminating minerals. Somewhere along the line someone got the bright idea that these basically dirty salts were more desirable, even offered a health benefit because of the myriad contaminating minerals they contain.  Problem is, the mineral profile of raw salts has virtually nothing to do with the mineral requirements of your horse. When beneficial minerals are present it is in miniscule amounts. There are also many other minerals present, even in larger amounts, that are not nutritionally important or are downright toxic.

For example, a typical analysis of one popular “natural” salt’s trace minerals shows silicon (no deficiency ever noted), aluminum (potential toxic) and fluoride (potential toxic) as the three with the highest levels.  It would take 150 kg (330 pounds) of this stuff to meet the average horse’s daily zinc requirement.  Of the nutritionally important trace minerals, iodine level is highest but 2 oz would provide only 17% of the minimum daily requirement, much less than regular iodized salt.

Bottom line is that unrefined salt has zero health advantage over refined table salt. Despite this, you will be paying at least three times more for this raw material than you would for the purified version of exactly the same thing.

The bogus health claims and inflated price are bad enough but some places are turning things up another notch. It is claimed that standard loose salts and salt blocks are almost useless and potentially dangerous. They are also said to be bleached and altered with chemicals, among other things.  There’s simply no truth to this.

Cooks often use different raw salts in their recipes because they have a subtle different taste.  If you are using one because your horse likes the taste better and you don’t mind paying the outrageous price, fine.  Be sure to read the label carefully though. Some of this stuff has other things added (including flavorings) and is only 40% salt.  Otherwise, think hard before buying into the advertising hype. It really is bogus.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

Posted in Equine Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mud Woes

It’s really hard to come up with anything good to say about mud – except that it’s not ice!  I want to focus on two challenging skin issues which are made worse by mud.  Scratches/Mud Fever and Thrush.


Scratches/mud fever is a skin condition of the back of the pastern, sometimes extending higher up the leg.  It is characterized by heavy, tightly adherent scabs over raw, red and inflamed lesions.  While fungi are often blamed, this is almost exclusively a bacterial infection.  Dermatophilus congolensis is often present, the same organism that causes “rain rot” skin disease on the upper body.

Thrush is an infection deep in the recesses on either side of the frog, in its central sulcus and/or in the space between the heel bulbs. Again, fungus is often suspected but this is really a problem with anaerobic bacteria – organisms that thrive in areas of low oxygen tension. Other bacteria can also be cultured and it is believed some of these create conditions that make it easier for the anaerobic organisms to invade.

Physical measures you can take to help prevent or treat these problems include:

  • Clip the hair on the back of the pastern and fetlock to expose the skin to sun and air
  • Keep the frogs trimmed of flaps (moisture and low oxygen thrive under these)
  • Maintain a balanced trim to avoid shearing forces at the heels which can tear the tissue
  • Check the feet and skin daily
  • Do not keep the horse standing in mud 24 hours a day

There are many, many different treatments for these conditions, both off the shelf and homemade formulas.  I prefer to at least start with herbal ingredients because they can be highly effective and have good residual activity for at least 24 hours, adhering well.

There are two general categories of ingredients to look for.  These are antimicrobial, typically essential oils, and those that condition and support healing.  Salves are better than ointments or creams because they seal better.  To get them into deep spaces like between the heels or the depths of the frog sulci, gently heat by placed a few spoonfuls in a small cup then float in hot water until the product thins.

Antimicrobial ingredients include Tea Tree, Oregano, Calendula, Eucalyptus, Thyme and Rosemary.  For healing support look for Golden Seal, Calendula, Aloe, Comfrey, Oregon Grape, Lavender and Plantain.

To treat skin, remove all surface dirt, clean with warm water and if necessary a gentle, nondrying soap like castile or green soap.  If very thick scabs are present allow lather to sit in place for several minutes before rinsing. This can be repeated to loosen scabs. Rub gently with a wash cloth to attempt to loosen scabs.  If scabs persist, apply your salve then bandage the area. Once scabs come off you can leave it open to the air.

For thrush, clean and wash as above.  Salves should be heated to a thinner consistency that can be injected into the cleft between the heel bulbs and soaked up by cotton balls for packing around the frog.  Keep the horse in a clean, dry area until healed.

Worse than mud is the problems it can cause but with diligent treatment your horse will be healed and ready to go in short order.

Eleanor Kellon,  VMD

Posted in Equine Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conditioning the Older Horse

I remember quite well the time when a show horse over the age of 8 or 10 was considered “old”.  Those days are long gone as appreciation for the experience and levelheadedness of older horses has become appreciated.  Nevertheless, there are some special considerations with exercising an older horse.


It’s a win-win when an older horse can get basic conditioning taking care of a novice rider. [Photo NickaJack Farm]

What constitutes “old” can be highly variable.  One of my favorite mounts, a grade palomino named “Snoopy”, was being used to pony pretty fractious racehorses at the trot and canter across open farm fields when he was 35.  For most horses though, when they hit their late teens to early 20s there are age related changes that need to be taken into consideration.

The best way to keep a horse going well into their teens and twenties with no special conditioning considerations is to keep them moving all year.  Layoffs longer than 4 weeks are associated with measurable changes in muscle mass and fiber type, muscle biochemistry, exercise capacity, etc.. Regular formal exercise, even at a reduced intensity, will largely prevent this.

Whether barefoot or shod, start with a meticulously maintained physiologically sound trim.  A properly functioning hoof is a major shock absorber while one that is not in correct form creates abnormal stresses on the joints and tendons/ligaments.

One age-related concern is sarcopenia, loss of muscle mass.  This is largely preventable and even reversible with exercise but there is also a nutritional component. In both humans and horses, exercise effects are magnified by supplementation with either high grade protein (whey) or specific amino acids (lysine, threonine) even if the diet is not obviously protein deficient.  This is cheap insurance, especially if you go the essential amino acid route with 10 to 20 g of L-lysine and 2.5 to 5 g of L-threonine supplemented.

As the horse ages, tendons and ligaments become less flexible and repair capacity diminishes, to the point that it is “normal” for aged horses to have core lesions in their flexor tendons.  Older horses with Cushing’s disease are at particular risk because this weakens tendons and ligaments.  Avoid extreme up or down inclines, speed work over rough ground, slides, etc..  Conditioning cannot reverse these changes but a fit horse with good muscle tone and flexible joints is far less likely to have an injury.

Speaking of joints, few horses that have led active lives reach their later years with no issues.  Things like ringbone and hock arthritic changes are extremely common.  These may interfere with activity at times but the best management for joint issues is to keep the horse moving.  Exercise stimulates the production of growth factors and antioxidant defenses which help protect the joint cartilage.

If you find yourself faced with the task of conditioning an older horse after a long layoff, let take it slow be your mantra. Never push the horse to the point of heavy sweating and heavy breathing.  Avoid very rough ground and extreme inclines. Long walks are a great place to start. Introduce trotting in 5 to 15 minute increments and no cantering until that is well tolerated.  As with any horse, routinely check the legs for heat or swelling and palpate muscles.  Remember a negative change in attitude is often caused by pain.

Riding an older horse is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  With a little extra care and attention to detail, an older horse can continue to serve for a very long time.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD




Posted in Equine Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Speed Up Shedding

Wouldn’t it be great if horses just slipped out of their winter coat like a snake shedding its skin?  Unfortunately, at best it’s not even close but there are factors that can slow it down which you should be aware of.


There are some health conditions associated with delayed shedding including parasitism, pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (Cushing’s) and an underfunctioning thyroid.  Definitely get diagnostics done if the horse has any other indicators he may be suffering from one of these.

Exercise is your friend. It increases blood flow to the skin as well as production of sweat and sebum which help shepherd out those old hairs.  Turning the horse out in an area where he can get a good roll will also reduce the level of sheer labor you have to put into getting rid of that hair.

If you find the horse starting to lag behind in shedding and the coat turning a burnt orange color, especially if there are also issues with dry, flaking skin, consider nutritional support. Several key nutrients for skin and coat health have been identified.

Hay begins to lose vitamin A activity 6 months after baling.  By 1 year it is often too low to meet requirements.  This typically coincides with late winter/early spring, before the grass has come in well or that year’s hay has been baled.  The more faded from bright green the hay has become, the more A loss there has been.  Target supplementation until the horse goes on pasture or that year’s hay is available is 20,000 to 40,000 IU/day.  If the horse is not already getting this much from supplements or grains, add it separately.

The amount of fat a horse requires in the diet to support life is considerably less than what will give you optimal skin and coat health.  A shiny smooth coat, supple moist skin and good local immune defenses result from supplementation of as little as 4 to 6 oz/day.

Biotin is also extremely important for skin health and skin cell division.  Dry, flaking skin can signal suboptimal biotin intake.  No specific daily requirement has been established but research into the effects of biotin on hoof quality have repeatedly demonstrated an intake of 20 to 30 mg/day provides best results. [Note: The hoof wall, sole and frog are specialized forms of skin.]

Finally, inadequate intake of protein in general or specific amino acids will adversely affect hair growth.  If your hay is of poor quality or a very late growth stage cutting you may need more protein from high quality sources like soy and whey. Otherwise it may only be lysine and methionine you need to supplement.  Give 10 g/day of lysine and 5 of methionine.

Whether you have a horse  hanging onto a horrible looking old coat or you just want to support skin and coat to make the process as smooth and quick as possible, plugging the nutritional gaps in your horse’s hay should do the trick.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

Posted in Equine Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sneaky Small Strongyles

Currently the most popular management strategy for the control of intestinal parasites is to deworm based upon fecal egg count results.  This developed because of concerns that the prior approach of routinely deworming at regular intervals was increasing the number of parasites with drug resistance.

The rationale is that if you decrease exposure to deworming drugs you will slow the appearance of resistance.  An integral part of the new approach is to not deworm horses with only low fecal egg counts, to keep unexposed parasites in the population.  Theoretically this will slow the spread of resistance but there may be a price to pay.


from University of Pennsylvania

For one thing, there are reports that large strongyles are making a come back.  These parasites, aka “bloodworms”, were a very significant scourge in the days before ready availability of paste dewormers.  Their immature forms migrate extensively for months in the gut wall and the blood vessels, often causing damage that results in chronic colic for the life of the horse, acute colic from obstructed blood flow or crippling clots in arteries feeding the hind legs.  Now that many horses are only being dewormed once or twice a year, they have a better chance to do damage in that untreated interval.

A more immediate concern is the small strongyles (cyathostomes); recognized as the major intestinal parasite of today’s horses. Infective larvae hatch from the eggs. Inside the horse, the larvae may mature immediately or enter the wall of the intestine to go into a dormant state.

We assume the fecal egg counts are an accurate reflection of parasite burden but that is just not the case with small strongyles.  The encapsulated dormant forms do not lay eggs. Even the adults have highly variable egg laying activity.  Research has shown that egg laying picks up shortly in advance of the time of year when larvae will have the best survival chances on pasture and drops off or stops when environmental conditions are either very cold or hot and dry.

Dormant larvae also seem to adjust the timing of their emergence and maturation to coincide with favorable conditions for the larvae.  Cyathostomiasis is a condition of colic, loss of appetite, weight loss, intestinal ulceration and loss of blood proteins into the intestinal tract.  It is caused by a mass emergence of small strongyle larvae and can actually be fatal.  This is typically observed in late winter in areas that have freezing temperatures over the winter.

Your horse probably doesn’t have enough larvae for a full blown cyathostomiasis episode but could very easily be harboring enough to cause a puzzling colic episode.  Parasite burdens can also delay shedding.

To avoid these issues have a talk with your veterinarian about the timing of fecal exams and drugs used to deworm.  Only moxidectin will reliably remove the dormant forms since there is currently widespread resistance to the five day, double dose fenbendazole (Panacur).  Adults can be killed by moxidectin or ivermectin but if your fecal is taken at a time of year when egg laying could be low you may see a deceptively low egg count.

Don’t be outfoxed by a worm!

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

Posted in Equine Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment