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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ABC of Joint Nutraceuticals

It’s been about three decades since the first oral joint support supplement came on the market, a chondroitin sulfate product.  This was followed by glucosamine (as a sulfate or chloride) and hyaluronic acid aka hyaluronate or hyaluronan.  This is the big three of ingredients targeting joint metabolism and maintenance.


Credit:  Thinkstock

Glucosamine is a central player in the metabolism of all connective tissues, including joint cartilage.  It is a precursor in the synthesis of both chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronic acid.  Although normally very well tolerated, insulin levels should be monitored in horses with insulin resistance receiving glucosamine.  This is not because it contains glucose but because metabolites of glucosamine can send the signal a cell is “full” of glucose and can reduce insulin’s ability to stimulate glucose uptake.

Chondroitin sulfate is the major structure in components called proteoglycans which give cartilage it’s ability to resist compression, primarily by holding water within the cartilage.

Hyaluronic acid is best known as the compound that gives joint fluid its slippery feel, reducing friction within the joint.  It also forms a coat around each of the cells inside joint cartilage and binds with aggrecan to form a proteoglycan which, as above, holds water inside the cartilage to keep it plump and resistant to compression.

In addition to all their effects on the structure of cartilage and joint fluid, the big three also play important roles in cellular function.  They are involved in:

  • Synthesis of cartilage
  • Synthesis of joint fluid
  • Regulation of enzyme levels and activity
  • Maintenance of bone structure under the cartilage

The most recent research has even uncovered nutrigenomic effects where there is interaction directly with the DNA to influence the health of the cartilage.

This is all very interesting but it doesn’t mean much if the glucosamine, chondroitin or hyaluronic acid are not absorbed when given orally.  Early critics claimed they would surely be destroyed by stomach acid.  However, studies have shown all three are in fact absorbed. Even better, attaching a radioactive label that allows researchers to track their location after absorption has shown these compounds become concentrated in the joints after absorption. Radioactive glucosamine is used in human medicine to map out areas of active arthritis because it reliably accumulates there.

Research has shown that glucosamine and chondroitin together works better than either one alone.  Adding hyaluronic acid directly addresses levels of this key component of both cartilage and joint fluid.

While they don’t work miracles, supplementing these key nutrients provides hard working joints with added support to maintain normal structure and function.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Nutritional Advertising Hooks

The goals of customers and manufacturers are sometimes at odds when it comes to advertising.  Customers use it to obtain information on products, while companies are focused on getting potential clients’ attention.  These two goals don’t have to be exclusive, but they certainly can be.


Advertising has to grab your attention quickly, then hold it for more details.  Fair enough, but to also serve the interests of the consumer the hooks have to be meaningful, accurate and provide solid information that is actually of some use to the consumer.  The following are some examples of hooks that range from not helpful to what could fairly be called deceptive.

Natural.  The meaning seems self-evident, but is it? Is this natural as in the way it occurs in nature, natural meaning no additives, natural meaning no artificial additives, natural meaning a natural part of the horse’s diet or is it something else? It can mean pretty much whatever the company wants it to mean.  Even the FDA lacks a comprehensive definition for what natural means as a food claim, but they have been gathering comments and suggestions because of consumer pressure on this issue.  For more information, see:

Unfortunately, even if the FDA does come up with a better definition and restrictions it probably won’t apply to animal foods so just be aware that your idea of what natural means may not match what natural in an ad means.

Non-GMO.  The meaning of this one actually is self-evident, but boy is it ever being abused.  Specifically, non-GMO is being used as a selling point for things that are always non-GMO anyway, from any and all suppliers.  All hays, oats, rice bran, flax seed, wheat products, coconut, fruits except papaya, not to mention vitamins and minerals, are automatically non-GMO because there is no GMO variety.  The only ingredients of interest in feeding horses that might be GMO are corn, soybean products and beet pulp.

Gluten-Free.  Like non-GMO, this statement plays on people’s fears about something they perceive might be harmful, but it is being applied to products where gluten simply isn’t an issue.  Only grains contain gluten.  Any company’s grain free product is just as gluten-free as one that uses a gluten-free hook to try to attract customers.

The only supplement your horse will ever need”.  The claim may also be that if you feed XYZ you don’t need to, or should not, feed any other supplements.  This has been applied to feeds, vitamin/mineral supplements or multipurpose (e.g. hoof, coat and joint) products.  The bottom line here is the claim is impossible.  There is simply too much variation in diets, horse weights and in the requirements of various categories such as inactive, pregnant, growing, endurance, etc. to ever say that one supplement can do it all in every circumstance.

Low in Sugar and Starch.  This one is a real mine field. Sugar and starch are primarily an issue for horses with insulin resistance, in which case the sum of sugar and starch should be below 10%.  For many products, low only means lower than the usual sweet feed levels but not low enough for an IR horse.  If you have an IR horse, get the actual number to make sure low is really low enough.

Patented.  Having a patent sounds impressive but it is no guarantee the product or feed does what it claims to do.  For example, a company could hold a drug patent but never be able to get the drug to market because it failed FDA requirements.  Patents are granted primarily on the basis of the idea being novel.  It must also be intended to do something useful but, again, does not necessarily have to submit rigid proof that it actually does what it says it will.

The above are only examples.  There are many others.  To avoid swallowing a lot of hype hook, line and sinker, know exactly what you need to be looking for in terms of ingredients and amounts when you shop for nutritional products.  If you are unsure about something, ask a professional you trust.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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Fall Laminitis

There are many possible causes of laminitis but the vast majority of cases have a hormonal/endocrine root.  There is a peak in the spring, related to grazing young high sugar growths of grass.  A second peak occurs in the fall, but the cause is more complicated.


             Spring laminitis cases are often grass related but fall is more complicated.

Grass does undergo a period of regrowth in the fall in some areas, but many cases of fall laminitis aren’t even on pasture.  There is a natural rise in the hormone ACTH from late summer through end November in all horses.  ACTH stimulates release of cortisol.

In older horses and horses that are early cases of Cushing’s Disease this rise can be very exaggerated and causes or worsens insulin resistance, often pushing the horses into laminitis.  Reversing this means attacking both on the dietary end and also using medication, pergolide, to control exaggerated ACTH release.

Insulin resistance is managed with the same dietary adjustments whether it is a primary insulin resistance built into the horse’s genetic makeup or caused by hormonal changes with Cushing’s disease.  The horse should be fed primarily grass hay with a combined sugar (ESC) and starch level below 10%.  A good starting point is to feed 2% (20 pounds per 1000 lbs) of ideal body weight or 1.5% of current body weight, whichever is larger.  This can be adjusted up or down to maintain a lean body weight but do NOT starve the horse.

There are several vitamins and minerals that play key roles in insulin function.  Keeping mineral intakes at correct levels and balanced is one thing completely within our power to control.  Ideally, supplementation is based on the results of hay analysis.  If that is not possible, regional average analysis figures are often available.

For example, it has been well documented that normal magnesium status is important to maintaining cellular sensitivity to insulin.

Avoid supplements with any added iron in the ingredients list (look for both iron and ferric).  Also check for mono and dicalcium phosphate in the ingredients list.  Those minerals are typically very heavily contaminated with iron.  Iron is already adequate if not excessive in virtually all hays.  IR horses not on mineral balanced diets can be iron overloaded.  Iron has been shown to worsen IR.

Hays from many areas are also deficient in copper and/or zinc but with adequate to high manganese so most people need a supplement to correct that – i.e. low to no manganese.  These trace minerals can compete with each other for absorption.

Vitamin E is needed because this vitamin is always deficient in hay.  Feed 2 IU (international units) per pound of body weight daily.  Vitamin E requires fat for absorption so either use a liquid E in oil or mix a powdered E into some oil before feeding it.

Hooves recovering from laminitis need balanced minerals too, as well as adequate protein. Biotin supplementation supports hoof growth and pyridoxine is needed for amino acid/protein metabolism.  The hoof wall is composed almost entirely of protein.  Nitric oxide production inside blood vessels counteracts hoof blood vessel constriction that can occur with IR and Cushing’s.  Jiaogulan provides potent support for nitric oxide production in the vessels.

There is no quick fix or magic bullet to prevent or reverse laminitis linked to hormonal disruption.  Even pergolide can’t do the job on its own.  Fortunately, the nutritional tools needed to win this battle are available to anyone who takes the time to learn what is needed and implement it.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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The Heart of the Immune System is the Gut

The function of the immune system is to protect the body from outside organisms and substances that may harm it.  It should be no surprise then that mucus membranes lining all the portals of the body open to the world have high immune capacity.  The most important of these is the digestive system.

The immune system of the intestinal tract is called GALT – gut associated lymphoid tissue.  Throughout the intestinal tract there are immune system cells, macrophages and lymphocytes, under the intestinal lining cells. Structures called Peyer’s patches are very similar to lymph nodes and are located in the small intestine. They have been called the tonsils of the intestinal tract.  Specialized immune cells also line the liver.


Microscopic view of Peyer’s Patches lying under the lining cells of the small intestine

Microfold cells, or M cells, are located over collections of lymphoid tissue along the intestinal tract. The M cells reach out to engulf bacteria and other material from the intestinal tract then pull it inside and present it to immune system cells. This material is processed through T and B lymphocytes, eventually resulting in the production of IgA antibodies, which remain in the local tissues to protect them. However, it doesn’t stop there.

The lymphocytes that will eventually produce local IgA antibody are released into the bloodstream before they come back to home in the intestinal lining again. In the process, they can share this information with the entire body’s immune system so that the rest of the body can produce circulating antibodies (IgG, IgM) to the same organisms the local IgA targets.  A good example of how GALT interacts with the rest of the body is oral vaccines. Several human oral vaccines have been developed, including against polio and malaria. Oral rabies vaccines in bait have been used to successfully battle rabies in wild animals.

Research has found that interactions between the immune system and the bacteria colonizing it can have profound effects. Probiotics are defined as bacterial strains capable of colonizing and surviving in the gut which have a beneficial effect on their host by suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria and interacting with the immune system.

Documented effects of probiotics to date include directing activity of immune cells, encouraging production of protective mucus, reducing inflammation and increasing the production of IgA antibody, which in turn decreases the risk of allergy related IgE antibody forming.

Prebiotics support the growth of probiotic strains of bacteria by feeding them or maintaining an environment in the gut that is favorable for proliferation of probiotic strains. Some also have direct immune system effects.

The diet itself plays a major role in the health of the intestinal tract and the beneficial probiotic strains inhabiting it.  Quality hay free of mold and other easily fermentable dietary ingredients like beet pulp feed these beneficial strains.  Avoid overfeeding of grains as this can bypass small intestinal digestion to upset the balance of organisms in the hind gut.

In summary, the intestinal tract is a major player in the immune system. It has been estimated that 70% of the body’s immune system cells originate there. Immune activity in the gut has a body-wide effect. One of the best ways to boost and balance the immune system is through the oral administration of probiotics, prebiotics and other substances documented to support and balance immune function.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Hay Analysis

If you could pick between a feed with a balanced complement of vitamins and minerals, known adequate protein or one deficient in several minerals, excessively high in others with unknown protein which would you choose?


When you feed hay without the benefit of a hay analysis you are feeding an unknown.  It is well established that hays across the country, around the world in fact, vary widely in protein, digestibility, mineral levels and mineral balance.

The advent of vitamin and mineral supplemented feeds, and later “balancers”, was a very positive development in equine feeding but you can’t rely on them to solve all the issues in a horse’s diet.

One problem is calories, particularly a problem for horses that are not performing significant work on a regular basis. These products contain 2 to 3 times more calories than hay, so for every 5 pounds of grain fed you deprive the horse of 10 to 15 pounds of hay.  This is less of an issue for balancers fed in 1 to 2 pound amounts but because of the starch content even balancers may be inappropriate for insulin resistant horses.

Protein can be an issue with feeds.  Even fed in full recommended amounts, feeds and balancers do not fulfill protein needs and hay must supply 50% or more.  For 1 pound of the more calorie dense feeds to supply as much protein as 2 to 3 pounds of hay they would have to have 2 to 3 times more protein than the hay.  They don’t.  If the hay already had extra protein enabling you to feed less it’s not a problem but you can’t know that without a hay analysis.

On the mineral front, when fed as directed most products will result in an adult, not pregnant or lactating, horse getting at least close to the minimum required level of each individual mineral.  However, the feeds and balancers cannot reliably correct for imbalances that influence how well these minerals are absorbed.  Even if they are used as directed there’s a good chance a hay analysis will identify areas where you still need to adjust to achieve balanced ratios.

A common example is a horse getting fortified grain or a balancer that still has issues leading to buying a coat or hoof supplement.  A major thing many of those coat or hoof supplements do is to target imbalances commonly present in hays.   You can avoid all that double supplementing by getting a hay analysis and using a mineral supplement that correctly addresses both imbalances and total amounts in the first place.

If the mineral profile of your fortified feed or balancer does not correctly address the issues with your hay it could even actually do more harm than good.  Do the job right for best results and save money in the process with a hay analysis.  It can be the best investment in solid nutrition you have ever made.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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There’s a saying that opinions are like noses – everybody has one.  Not very respectful but not a bad place to start in evaluating opinions, including our own.


Another good one is that the right to have an opinion does not make your opinion right.

By definition, an opinion is not fact.  For something to be fact, it has to be verifiable as true.  Paper will burn in fire is a fact, not an opinion.  Opinions can rarely measure up to that level of certainty, and if they did they would technically cease to be just opinions.

Opinions are a blend of what we believe to be true based on our experiences and what we think/feel/suspect is true from our reading, education, cultural influences or just personal preference.

If you are about to have a “Duh!” or “So what?” reaction about now, remember that opinions no matter how strong are not facts.  Then think about how many of your horse care decisions are based only on opinions.  If we’re honest, it’s a very high percentage.  It doesn’t matter a whole lot for something like halter styles or colors, but when you get into the realm of  diet and health care it certainly does.

Should you just trust your gut or your instincts?  I hope not.  That’s not a very strong foundation on which to build an opinion.  We’re not born knowing instinctively how to correctly care for a horse.  When asking others for advice and guidance you’re likely to get a hefty dose of opinion too, but not all opinions are equal.

Equine nutrition is an area where everyone seems to have an opinion.

Working the cash register in a feed store, or answering the phone, doesn’t make that person any more capable of correctly advising you on nutrition than a school crossing guard, or your plumber, but that won’t necessarily stop them from telling you their opinion.  Equine professionals with unrelated specialties like trainers or farriers might be free with their nutrition advice too, but without any real background or training to back it up.  In fact, many people like to fancy themselves as knowledgeable about nutrition when actually they’re not – or at least not as widely as they think.

Someone who has spent decades raising or successfully training thoroughbreds can tell you a lot, but if your goal is to work with minis their advice is potentially disastrous.  Rule #1 is to seek out people familiar with your specific circumstances.  If your horse has, or is prone to, any health issues it becomes even more important to narrow your focus.  If your Arabian is only used very lightly for occasional trail rides you won’t be able to feed her the same as an Arabian actively competing in endurance.

Veterinarians don’t receive much in the way of formal nutrition training in school but they are uniquely qualified to study and apply nutrition in a clinical situation if they develop an interest in doing so.  Even if your vet does not focus on nutrition he/she should be able to refer you to an independent consultant whose opinion really is based on solid facts and experience.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD



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