Blanket Rubs

Blanket rubs aren’t exactly a medical emergency but they are more than just cosmetic.  Wither rubs may cause pain when a saddle is on, as can rubs high along the shoulder.  It may resemble a shaved area but the skin is actually traumatized, like a brush burn.  Unattended rubs can easily progress to open skin or cellulitis. Repeated episodes may permanently destroy the pigment producing cells.


One turnout session with exuberant play can be enough to cause a rub.

Rubs are most likely to occur around the edges of the blanket, especially if it slips back, and areas that are pulled too snug when the horse moves.  Obviously a poorly fitted blanket is most likely to do this.  Withers and shoulders should be completely covered and remain so when the horse moves or gets up and down.  Always get and follow detailed instructions for sizing the blanket you are interested in, preferably direct from the manufacturer.  Also do some research to see what styles are best for your breed’s body type.  The blanket size (length) is only part of the equation.

Features which reduce the risk of rubs include smooth (nylon) linings, adjustable or stretchable neck closures, wrap around chest closures rather than straps with buckles, and wide gussets  over the points of the shoulders.  You can also purchase stretchable, one piece, over the head, Lycra shoulder guard “slinkies” which further reduce friction and protect the skin from potentially irritating blanket materials.

Cleanliness is very important. Mixtures of sweat, melted snow, dirt and sloughed skin cells tucked in under a warm blanket cause skin irritation and damage the coat.  Skin under a blanket should be checked daily.  Regular grooming removes irritants and stimulates blood flow.  If you are going to give yourself a high end but very useful gift this year, make it a horse vacuum.  Further help the skin stay clean by having several stable sheets or shoulder guards for use under the blanket and changing them often.

If your horse does develop a rub, a shoulder guard becomes a near necessity and you should attempt to leave the blanket off for at least 1 hour a day or replace the heavy blanket with a loose light stable sheet.  Cleanse gently if there is any obvious dirt, ooze or open skin then cover with a light salve that easily softens and sinks in a bit when rubbed on the body.  Salves are ideal for superficial skin issues in winter as they protect against excessive moisture loss with the cold, very dry air. Herbal ingredients can have some real advantages.

Tea Tree Oil is a very effective antimicrobial with both antifungal and antibacterial action.  Lavender oil is a gentle way to encourage good circulation for skin repair and hair growth. Herbals such as Aloe, Comfrey, Plantain and Calendula are soothing, analgesic and provide a good healing environment with their emollient effects.  Apply once or twice a day and gently massage in.

A little extra time invested in preventing rubs and rapid treatment if they do develop will have your horse entering spring with a smooth and healthy coat.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD



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Winter Respiratory Care

Clear or whitish nasal discharge, sometimes foamy.  Dry cough when starting exercise or eating.  When there is no fever to indicate infection, these are signs of IAD – inflammatory airway disease – and are very common in stabled horses.  A more severe condition is RAO, recurrent airway obstruction, characterized by the same symptoms plus bronchospasm, wheezing and labored breathing.  RAO is also typically more a problem of stabled horses.

For many horses, winter means more time spent in the barn with more exposure to respiratory irritants. The major offenders are ammonia from urine breakdown, dust and molds in hay or bedding and airborne bacterial products.  These are always present in the barn but their concentration in the air jumps dramatically when barns are tightly sealed up against the cold.


      If you have window condensation in the barn there’s a major ventilation problem.

A  critical first step in reducing airway irritation is to guarantee good air circulation through the barn.  High moisture levels indicated by window condensation suspend the irritating substances and reduced air turnover allows their concentration to increase.  Other measures to take, especially if you have symptomatic horses, include:

  • Pick out stall wet spots frequently and consider stall deodorizers (even kitty litter works) for ammonia control
  • Store hay in a separate building
  • Use shavings rather than straw
  • Wet hay and bagged feeds before feeding
  • Turn the horse out as much as possible

Several supplement ingredients can assist with maintenance of normal lung function in the face of these temporary challenges.  Spirulina assists in the maintenance of a normal, balanced immune response and stabilization of histamine releasing cells.  MSM supports a controlled inflammatory response.  Research has documented low levels of antioxidant vitamin C in IAD/RAO lung fluid and supplementation may help restore this.  Jiaogulan (Gynostemma platensis) is a Chinese adaptogenic herb which supports normal airway dilation for good air flow.

Oral administration of aromatic herbs and essential oils in a soothing base of Aloe vera, apple cider vinegar and glycerin works like cough drops to temporarily soothe irritated throats and airways.

IAD and RAO are common equine respiratory conditions caused by environmental irritants.  Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce exposure to those irritants and supplements which help the body maintain normal lung function.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Hay Wars – Which is best?

Grass or Alfalfa.  Timothy or Orchard.  Grain hays.  Is Bermuda safe?  There is plenty of room for confusion in selecting a hay.


                                                            Premium Grass Hay

Legume hays, which include Alfalfa, Clover and in some areas Perennial Peanut and Birdsfoot Trefoil, are different from grass and grain hays by being high in protein, very high calcium with proportionally low phosphorus and magnesium and about 30% higher calorie yield.

If feeding Alfalfa as the only hay, the mineral profile is difficult to balance without feeding a large amount of plain grains or brans but can be brought into reasonable balance for an adult horse using those high phosphorus feeds. The mineral ratios are more critical for growing animals.  Alfalfa and grain diets are also calorie dense so the horse will have longer periods with nothing to eat unless there is a high work load needing high calories.

The extra calcium is eliminated in urine and forms calcium carbonate crystals.  Over time these can accumulate as bladder “sludge” and cause irritation, especially in aged geldings. Formation of actual stones may also result. Excess protein is stripped of its nitrogen and burned for energy. The nitrogen is eliminated in the urine as urea, which bacteria in the environment convert into ammonia.  Ammonia in stalls is a potent respiratory tract irritant. The need to eliminate the higher amount of urea also results in a higher urine output.

Alfalfa does have its place. It can be added to diets with poor quality hay to boost low protein or mineral levels.  It is also a useful addition to many diets for pregnant, lactating or growing horses which have high protein and calcium requirements.

Nitrate is a compound plants use to manufacture protein but in high levels can be toxic.  Nitrate may accumulate in grasses with overfertilization of nitrogen or manure and when grasses are stressed by drought or inadequate nutrients for growth.  Some hay types are particularly prone to high nitrate levels and should be avoided if there are options. These include Sorghum, Sudan, Johnsongrass and Pearl Millet.

High levels of simple carbohydrate (sugars, starch) are an issue for horses with insulin resistance and can occur in virtually any type of hay. You always have to analyze to know for sure. That said, more mature cuttings are likely to be lowest while grain hays (oat, barley, rye) tend toward highest levels.

Other countries have problems such as low protein in tropical grasses and several fungal toxins in some regions.  Here in North America, the major issue of that type is fungal toxins in Tall Fescue, which can cause problems with pregnancy, birth and lactation.

Otherwise, the quality of grass hays depends more on growing conditions, growth stage and curing conditions during harvest than on the type of hay. Grass hays should be cut in their vegetative stage which means they are still growing and have not started to develop seed heads.  Nutrient levels and digestibility are highest at this time.  Rapid drying/curing to low moisture levels preserves nutrient levels and avoids issues with molding during storage.

The vast majority of horses will thrive on a high quality grass hay.  Adding some alfalfa is beneficial for pregnant, lactating and growing horses which have very high protein and calcium needs.  Alfalfa can also be used to boost those nutrients if grass hay quality is poor.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Full Spectrum Joint Support Supplements

The big three joint nutraceutical ingredients – glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronate – address the health of joint cartilage but there are other types of tissues that also play key roles.


                                      Stabilizing structures of the stifle

All joints are stabilized by a medial and lateral pair of collateral ligaments. Tiny ligaments also bridge and connect the small bones in complex joints like the hock and carpus (knee).  The stifle is particularly reliant on the criss-crossing  cruciate ligaments and is cushioned by the menisci, another connective tissue structure.

Collagen, the most abundant protein in the body, is the ground substance of all types of connective tissues, including joint cartilage, ligaments, menisci and the joint capsule – even the lattice for mineral deposition in bone.  Research has shown that hydrolyzed collagen supplements can strengthen bone and have an anabolic effect on joint tissues.  Vitamin C is also required for the formation of connective tissues.

A relatively new addition to the structural support ingredients is egg shell membrane.  This is a thin translucent membrane attached to the inner surface of (chicken) egg shells. It is composed of 25% collagen as well as hyaluronic acid, glucosamine, chondroitin and other connective tissue proteins.

MSM, methylsulfonylmethane, a metabolite of DMSO, is a common ingredient in joint supplements.  Recent research has found MSM interacts with enzyme systems and DNA activation involved in the normal cytokine cascade of inflammation that can be triggered by exercise and training.

Inflammation is a normal part of day to day tissue maintenance.  It is the clean up crew that removes old or damaged cells and participates in tissue remodeling and strengthening.  A healthy joint has the tools it needs to keep a balance between the forces of breakdown and repair.

Normal weightbearing and exercise generates free radicals which in turn trigger the inflammatory cascade.  Dietary antioxidants can assist in the management of this oxidative stress.  There is a host of options for antioxidant support, from single compounds like Quercetin or Resveratrol to the antioxidant powerhouse fruits and berries to a wide range of herbs such as Boswellia, Golden Rod and Cat’s Claw just to name a few.

With all the joint supplement options out there it’s difficult to make a choice.  As a general guide, upper level athletes and horses working on hard ground or over difficult terrain are good candidates for the more comprehensive approach to joint support, as is any horse known to be prone to joint stress or with an incomplete response to the usual joint cartilage nutraceuticals alone.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD



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Hay – Much More than Fiber

Hay used to be widely viewed as having little or no nutritional value beyond being a source of fiber which provided horses with chew time and made them feel full between meals.  That has largely changed but even those who recognize hay’s place in the diet may not appreciate how really vital it is.


If you think commercial grain mixes are the most important thing in your horse’s diet, think again.  Let’s say your horse is in moderate to heavy work.  If you follow the feeding directions of a top of the line 14% protein feed you will supply 40 to 45% of your horse’s protein needs using NRC guidelines (which may be too low).  Where does the rest have to come from?  The hay.

Substituting grain calories for hay calories always cuts protein intake.  Grain mixes have easily 2.5 times more calories than hays so to equal them in protein they would also have to have 2.5 times more protein.  A good quality grass hay is typically around 10% protein but commercial grains are 14% tops for premium products, not 25%.

Vitamins and minerals aren’t as expensive as protein and feeds do better there.  The top of the line feeds provide at or close to the minimum recommended intake of correctly balanced minerals, vitamin A and vitamin D when fed at the full recommended amount.  The A and D are not necessary with a quality hay.  The minerals would be a nice insurance package if minerals in hays were also balanced.  The fact is that while hays can also provide minimums or more of many minerals, they are rarely, if ever, balanced and the feeds do nothing to correct this.  These imbalances can interfere with absorption.

The B vitamins come predominantly from bacteria in the intestinal tract, as well as hay. The horse can manufacture vitamin C and if more is needed it will have to be supplemented separately since C in a grain mix is not stable.  Neither is vitamin E and this too needs to be supplemented separately.

Hays lose about half the fat that was present in the fresh grass when they are cured.  Commercial grains certainly add plenty of fat but it’s the wrong kind.  The fat lost in curing is the omega-3 fatty acids which are not stable in a grain mix and need to be supplemented separately as flax or flax and Chia.

The energy that comes from hay has unique advantages.  Unlike starch and sugar calories, which peak quickly then bottom out, fermentation of fiber and complex plant carbohydrates that are not digestible in the small intestine produces a steady, uninterrupted flow of volatile fatty acids (VFAs).  The horse uses these VFAs to fulfill a large percentage of his calorie requirements.

Acetate is the major VFA produced from hay.  It is immediately available as an energy source to be burned in the mitochondria.  Aerobic (with oxygen) generation of energy in the mitochondria is the most efficient pathway.  Glucose and fatty acids can also be burned this way but require processing first.  Acetate can enter the reactions “as is”.  Because it substitutes for glucose, glucose can then be used to keep blood levels up or replace glycogen after exercise and glycogen is not broken down as quickly during work when acetate is available.

Propionate is another VFA.  Propionate feeds the organisms in the bowel and is converted by the horse’s liver into glucose.  Glucose will be released into the blood if needed or stored as glycogen.  The VFA butyrate is an important fuel for intestinal lining cells and directly stimulates cellular turnover.  It also has a stimulating effect on the immune system and favors the growth of beneficial organisms over pathogens in the intestinal tract.

In summary, hay of good quality can meet or exceed protein needs.  It has a full complement of vitamins except E, which drops with curing and storage.  It is a major mineral source but will need some supplementing and balancing because domestic horses do not have the same plant variety in their diets.  VFAs from hind gut fermentation are a source of calories and provide unique health benefits.  Hay also satisfies their drive to eat almost continuously, for digestive and behavioral health.

It’s much more than just fiber.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Feeding Weanlings

Weanlings have intensive nutritional needs and you shouldn’t start feeding them like a smaller version of an adult.


Nutrient dense diets are those that have high levels of protein/amino acids and minerals per calorie. As you might expect, mineral requirements are extremely high during periods of rapid growth. At 4 months, the horse has higher daily total mineral needs than they do as a yearling despite having lower daily calorie needs. If you really think about this, it is immediately clear that trying to feed weanlings the same diet being fed adults is going to be severely inadequate.

Calories:  Calories are actually the easiest part of feeding weanlings.  In fact, most are too heavy and this has been linked to developmental orthopedic disease.  A 6 month-old weanling requires 7% fewer calories than he will at maintenance at this full adult weight.  If feeding him 93% of the adult diet, he will also get 7% less protein and minerals.

Minerals: The foal’s diet can’t create the minerals it needs for growth and stores at birth are minimal to none. This is where the needs of the weanling and those of the adult show the greatest difference.  For example, the 6 month-old weanling needs almost twice as much calcium and phosphorus as he will when an adult.  Obviously 93% of the adult diet won’t get the job done.  The weanling may be falling short by as much as 20 grams of calcium.

Protein: While calorie requirements were lower, protein needs are 7% higher and lysine 10% higher.  If you are feeding the adult diet at the 7% reduction, the gap gets wider.  For a horse that will mature to 50o kg this amounts to a deficit of 90 grams of protein overall and 4 grams of lysine *if* the adult diet was adequate for lysine (many are not).

The Solution:  What to do about this? You can scrap the idea of feeding your regular adult diet entirely and go with a specialty mare and foal feed according to directions.  If you do that though, the diet can be 50 to 60% grain based with much of your protein and minerals tied to grain calories.

It is well known that overfeeding in general is linked to early orthopedic problems across the board and high grain feeding rates put some horses at higher risk for osteochondrosis.  It also used to be believed that weanlings had to have a high percentage of grain in their diet because they couldn’t handle a high fiber diet as well as an adult.  Recent research has proven that false.

Going back then to the adult diet with modest levels of grain/concentrates, how can it be fortified for the weanling?  Assuming the adult diet meets minimum protein and mineral requirements, look for a supplement with about 25% protein, lysine minimum 1.5% and 5% calcium with a balanced mineral profile.  Feed 1 pound per day of this.

If you are already feeding supplemental minerals and don’t need to add more, it’s very useful to have an unsupplemented high protein source.  Look for 40+% protein, at least 2% lysine and a mixture of milk/whey protein with vegetable sources.  Feed 1/2 lb/day.  If total protein is adequate but all or most from hay with unknown lysine content, supplement with an amino acid supplement containing 10 grams lysine and 2 grams threonine per dose.

Finally, for fall and over the winter with no pasture available you need to think about essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are fragile and largely destroyed when hay cures and during storage.  Adequate supply is required by the eyes, heart and may even influence disposition.  Flax and Chia are good sources, 4 to 6 ounces/day.

Tweaking your diet to fill weanling needs is not terribly difficult or expensive but the pay back in terms of growth, health and soundness can be enormous.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Selecting Good Hay

Many people still consider hay nothing more than filler, a boredom buster, but it is much more than that.  Even if feeding a highly fortified commercial feed, hay will still provide the bulk of your horse’s protein, minerals and vitamins.  Hay also has a powerful influence on hind gut health – for better or worse.


The first step in selecting good hay is the physical inspection, and it can tell you quite a lot. Ask permission to open up and closely inspect a bale or two.  If you have to, purchase them first.

General appearance includes the leaf to stem ratio. The leaf/blade portion of the hay has the most nutrition and is most digestible.  A handful of the hay should bend and compress easily in your hand. The hand-feel is going to be similar to mouth-feel for your horse.  Abundant seed heads in a grass hay, or flowers in alfalfa, indicate a very mature cutting which will have lower protein and calories but also lower sugar and starch.

Pass on hay with a lot of weeds or leaves. Although most are not harmful, some are.  They also are an unknown nutritionally and weeds often do not cure at the same rate as grasses so their higher moisture can contribute to mold formation.  Internal inspection may also reveal sticks or rocks, which means a lot of dirt was baled into the hay.  These bales are considerably heavier so some of your hay dollar is wasted.

Color is important, the greener the better. Green color is a good indicator of vitamin A content, as well as vitamins E and C although these are always low.  It fades to yellow then brown with age and/or exposure to the sun.  Surface discoloration only is not necessarily a deal breaker but should make you ask how old the hay is and if it was kept exposed to the elements (which means the bales could also have been rained on).

Aroma.  Good hay has more than just a distinctive smell; it’s a delightful aroma similar to the scent of freshly mowed grass.  It is most often called “sweet”, which is impossible to describe but unmistakable once you smell it.  The aroma fades with time.  An off-odor, musty or earthy indicates mold.  This may be present without visible molding.

Dust/Mold.  A hay that produces a cloud of particles when you pull apart the flakes or shake a flake should be rejected.  The dust may be dirt, which decreases palatability and is a respiratory tract irritant, or mold.  When visible, molding causes the center of the bale to be matted together.  There will be black, grey or white deposits on the hay.  At best, molding robs of the hay of carbohydrate calories and damages protein.  At worst, digestive tract irritation and altered digestion with gradual weight loss and poor coat quality also occur.  In the most severe cases, damage to internal organs and the immune system could develop.  Hay molds are a very potent cause of RAO, recurrent airway obstruction commonly known as “heaves”.

Hay Analysis.  The only way to know the calories, protein and mineral levels in your hay is to have it analyzed.   There are many web sites which give detailed instruction on how to properly sample hay.  You can check with your local state agricultural extension agent on the availability of hay testing in a state lab (least expensive) or check the National Forage Testing Association list for a certified lab:

Hay analysis is essential for horses with insulin resistance or equine polysaccharide storage myopathy where intake of ESC (sugars) and starch should be less than 10%.  Horses with the problem of passing liquid along with their manure often have low tolerance for fiber and can benefit from hay analysis to make sure the acid detergent fiber (ADF) is below 40% and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) below 60%.

Another important indication for hay analysis is to check for nitrate levels.  Nitrate is a naturally occurring precursor to protein in plants which converts to toxic nitrite in the horse’s body.  It can accumulate during drought or heat stress and when hay is overfertilized with nitrogen.  Several years of manure application to hay fields can increase nitrate levels because manure nitrogen sources break down slowly over time and nitrates accumulate.  Check nitrate if hay is known to have been grown under drought/stressful conditions or if the protein level in the hay is higher than expected for the hay type (usually over 12% in a grass hay).

Hay is a large monetary outlay and the major component in your horse’s diet. Selecting it carefully is just good sense.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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