Growing up, I spent quite a few of my summers at a horse ranch down the street from my home. I didn’t care if I was riding the horses, cleaning up after them, feeding or washing them, I was happy to just be around the beautiful and wise creatures. I will always remember this one particular horse, Billings. He was the oldest horse there, and in some ways he was also the most playful. He was retired from riding, and given full range of the entire facility. Billings would roam around, watching young children and horses alike, working together as a team to take on trails or obstacles put in front of them by our instructors. His favorite game to play with us was a bit risky. We had to tickle Billing’s chin until he stuck his tongue out; that’s when you knew it was on! Our goal was to grab his tongue before he slurped it back up his big old mouth; however, his goal was to squish our little hands between his big block teeth. A cruel fishing game, but we loved it! I still have all of my fingers, in case you were concerned for my phalangeal health.
My path in life has brought me to working with animals. I often have friends and family contacting me for advice about their pets; mostly dogs, cats, sometimes lizards and the occasional birds or rodents. As much as I love horses, my knowledge about their health is not as strong as it is for smaller animals. There is so much buzz in the pet industry about nutrition, diets, and what feels like quite a big influx of pets developing allergies and intolerances to food in the last ten years or so. For this reason, I’ve decided to do some research about common food sensitivities and intolerances that horses experience.
First off, it is worth noting that I am specifically talking about intolerances, and not full blown allergies. What’s the difference? An allergy occurs when the immune system is triggered, resulting in a rapid onset, and life threatening reaction. An example of this would be anaphylactic shock. To test for true allergies, a blood sample would be taken to test Immunoglobin-E (IgE) antibodies. On the other hand, an intolerance is not life threatening, but does cause an unpleasant reaction or varying degrees. If I eat wheat or gluten, I risk causing a migraine to hit me hard a few days later. My life is not in danger, but I will be bed ridden until the symptoms subside. The testing process that we do at 5 Strands Affordable Testing, uses only a hair sample. The DNA in hair, is exposed to possible triggers to determine what food and environmental factors could be causing sensitivities and intolerances in the body.
Symptoms that horses may experience if they have an intolerance could include hives, hair loss, fizzy and excitable behavior, swelling on the body, digestive upsets, and a decrease in energy. These all make sense, because many overlap with gluten sensitivities in humans. In my research, I’ve found that many believe the common culprits of food intolerances in horses to be barley, molasses, and alfalfa. Barley is a member of the gluten family, eh? I avoid it at all costs, so I can see why horses are having reactions to it. It seems like every other day I get a news article pop up on my phone about how bad sugar is for us. In humans, sugar has been linked to acne, depression, and low energy levels, so it’s not so outlandish to say that molasses would be responsible for reactions in horses too. I was under the impression that alfalfa was a grass or grain, but it’s not! It’s actually in the legume family. In humans, legumes and beans are known to cause bloating and other unpleasant symptoms. All of the pieces of this little puzzle are making perfect sense to me. I did not find any reports about these ingredients causing life threatening reactions, so I would confidently say we’re still in the realm of intolerances.
As far as environmental factors for horses, I could not find any specific items that I could talk about in this post. However, I will say that anyone (horses included) can develop a reaction to outside irritants. If your horse is experiencing symptoms and you’ve exhausted all diet-related possibilities, then it could absolutely be an environmental issue. My cat’s environmental test revealed his top problem-causing factors were wool, leather, and ragweed. He’s a (primarily) indoor cat and I don’t own anything with wool or leather, so luckily he is safe! But, those are very common materials for many people. If you are someone who travels with your horses, you may notice they develop some of the symptoms listed above in certain regions, or that their symptoms subside in other areas, then you may want to consider our test to help you narrow down what could be causing such reactions.
Before writing this article, I reached out to fellow animal acupressure practitioners who work on horses, to get an idea of common issues they see with their clients. The lovely Sam MacLean at Red Dog Ranch in Hartford, Wisconsin responded. She practices equine massage therapy and equine acupressure, and has a great background in bodywork with horses. She recently started her own blog, so for those interested in the topic I highly suggest reading her first entry. She tells a beautiful story. Click here to read it! Sam informed me that she witnesses a lot of horses with vitamin E deficiency. Because I love researching, I dug deeper.
I learned that horses cannot produce vitamin E naturally themselves. As horses age, their requirements for vitamin E increases as well, and it is essential that it’s provided to them through their diet (I’m seeing parallels with taurine deficiencies in cats and dogs, but I digress). Vitamin E benefits nerve and muscle functions. It is a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent muscular diseases. When is the last time you stood next to or put hands on a horse? All you feel is muscle! They absolutely need vitamin E to keep those robust figures. If a horse experiences a vitamin E deficiency, their muscles will be poorly oxygenated and lead to muscular dystrophy and poor immune system. This in turn, could lead to chronic and recurring health issues.
If horses are receiving the proper amount of vitamin E in their diet, adults are only able to store about four months supply in their bodies. This means they need a consistent and continuous source of vitamin E to maintain their health. They can acquire vitamin E through fresh green foliage. I can’t speak for you, but I automatically think of hay. When hay is harvested, there is a wide range of 30-75% loss of vitamin E, so it is actually better for horses to forage and graze naturally. To help battle this, there are high fat feeds on the market that have vitamin E added to in order to prevent oxidation of the fats in the food. Creating a balanced diet of natural foraging, harvested hay, and high fat feeds may be a solution to keep horses healthy and happy. Keeping variety in diets also helps prevent overexposure to any one ingredient, which could lead to an intolerance developing in the body.
To inspire myself to write this, I spent a day at Noah’s Ark Animal Habitat in Locust Grove, GA (a short drive south from Atlanta). They have a wonderful sanctuary for animals who have been rescued, retired, or surrendered from less than ideal conditions, many with physical or mentally challenges. There are horses, goats, pigs, monkeys, peacocks, and more! There’s even a habitat with a lion, tiger, and bear that are all best friends. My heart just turned to mush. Going down there for a visit a really great experience and way to support what the facility does!
I talk a lot about our human, cat, and dog tests at 5 Strands Affordable Testing, so I’m grateful to give all the equine folks out there a shout out, because we also have a food and environmental test for horses! If you think your horse suffers from the symptoms I spoke of in this article, have a look at our tests and let us help you narrow things down.