Bring Back the Horse’s Instincts

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I respect and honor the way horses are made--they are different--unique, really. In a suitable, native environment, they are quite capable of taking care of themselves. They are free to eat and roam and, well, be horses. Domestication involves removing them from their natural setting, but that doesn’t change who they are. Horses have physiological and mental needs and those needs are being ignored.

I have very deep convictions on allowing a horse’s instincts to take hold. Many horses have lost their ability to express them, but they can resurface. Last month, I wrote about the stress of forage restriction. Some have said that what I am describing appears to be a road to increased obesity and an increased risk of laminitis. But they are grossly mistaken.

When we see images of wild horses running free, we all experience the hush, the chill, and the awe of their power and majesty. That is Nature at her best--allowing these incredible animals to live as they are intended. Why is it that we don’t see our own domesticated horses in the same way? Why is it that we think we can confine them to a small area for hours at a time, give them a few “square meals” each day and expect them to be right, physically and mentally? Are they not the same horses that long ago lived a different life?

It’s been said that our horses have become different--that horses living in the wild don’t suffer from the ravages of insulin resistance, the main cause of laminitis. Yes, it’s true--we don’t see laminitis when horses are free to feed themselves. But we do see insulin resistance, and that’s a blessing. Insulin resistance is the body’s way of avoiding starvation. During a harsh winter, when the food supply is sparse, horses will hold on to body fat to help them survive. They do this by having an elevated blood insulin level. When insulin is high, the cells cannot release fat. This is a survival mechanism.

We duplicate this when we restrict forage. The horse responds the same way--he is in survival mode! And he holds on to body fat.

Anything that causes insulin to rise will keep a horse fat. Hundreds of studies with humans confirm the connection between elevated insulin and obesity. Stress causes obesity in humans. Why? Because cortisol (the stress hormone) causes insulin to rise. At the cellular level, the same is true for horses. We have equine studies to show how insulin rises during stress. So why isn’t this being extrapolated to obesity in horses?

Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t seem to make sense that eating more causes weight loss. But we know that humans best lose weight by eating small meals throughout the day--grazing, if you will. And we also know that starving oneself will result in weight loss (mostly muscle loss), but will slow down the metabolic rate so dramatically that the weight comes back on with far fewer calories than it originally took to maintain one’s weight. Yet the studies we choose to do using horses involve starving the horse to get him to lose weight. Which he does. And we celebrate.

The conventional advice appears to work: Give the horse hay equal to 1.5% of his body weight, keep him in a stall much of the day so he cannot graze, and he loses weight! And if he doesn’t, reduce the amount of hay to 1%! The idiom “not seeing the forest for the trees” comes to mind. What is the big picture? What are you left with? A horse with less muscle mass, stressed to the max, with a sluggish metabolism so he will never live a normal life of grazing on pasture again. Never.

We have forced our horses to abandon their instincts.

They no longer get the inner signal that tells them to stop eating. To help you appreciate this, I’d like you to think about your childhood. When you were a toddler, you ate what you needed, and when you were no longer hungry, you stopped eating. Yes, you were coddled to finish your green beans, or no dessert! So you ate more to get that reward. But your instincts (yes, you had them back then) were to eat only what your body required.

As you grew, you discovered that eating has more rewards than just getting dessert; eating is comforting, it cures stress, boredom or disappointment, and is just plain fun! You likely don’t eat only when you’re hungry; you eat whenever you gather with friends or celebrate a special occasion. And guess what? Now that you’re grown, those instincts to eat only what your body needs have long faded.

Horses are a different story. They do not succumb to the pressures of society to influence their appetites. But when they are forced to eat on our schedules, they quickly become out of touch with that innate ability to eat slowly, a little at a time, and stop when satisfied. Instead, they eat quickly, ravenously, with barely a breath in between each bite, because they do not know when their next meal will be available. When it gets close to feeding time they pace, bob their heads, paw the ground and make strange noises. This is not normal; it is a result of what we have done to our horses. We, well-meaning horse owners and caregivers, are putting our horses into survival mode!

Horses are unlike humans in one very significant way.

Their digestive tract is not the same as ours. The biology that drives the horse’s digestion is indisputable: The horse’s stomach produces acid continuously, necessitating the action of chewing to release acid-neutralizing saliva. The digestive tract is made of muscles and needs to be exercised to prevent colic by having a steady flow of forage running through it. The cecum (the hindgut where forage is digested by billions of microbes) has both its entrance and exit at the top, thereby requiring it to be full so material can exit, lest it become impacted.

I appeal to you to look at this logically.

You should not put your horse in a dry lot or a stall with no hay. You should test your hay, make sure it is suitable for the horse (low in sugar, starch and calories) and put it in lots of slow feeders, placed everywhere you can--encouraging your horse to move! Exercise, even a small amount, will make a difference. A larger amount will make a bigger difference.

When a horse loses weight the right way, his metabolic rate stays sound and he will be able to graze on pasture again. Perhaps you will have to limit it a bit, but maybe not. Some supplements may be helpful. I have seen hundreds of cases over the years where horses have returned to a normal life--healthy, full of vigor, with no grass restrictions.

Let your horse tell you how much he needs to eat.

Show him that he can start trusting his instincts--that’s the strong message you want him to understand. And you do that by being invariably trustworthy about feeding. Start by giving him more hay (that you’ve tested for suitability) than he could possibly eat--enough to last all day and enough so there is some left over in the morning. That means he needs to always have forage available. If he runs out, he will never get the message and will continue to overeat and continue to be fat.

Let me repeat that…If he runs out, even for 10 minutes, he will never get the message and will continue to overeat and continue to be fat. And worse, the hormonal response to this stress can induce a laminitis attack or relapse. I’ve seen this more times than I can count.

It may take a few weeks (though most of the time it is far shorter than that) for the magic moment to occur--when he walks away from the hay, knowing that it will still be there when he wants it. And then, watch his instincts start to return…just like yours were when you were a small child…where he will eat only what his body needs to be healthy. (You’ll notice a beautiful change in his behavior, too.)

I have many, many clients who have put their trust in me and done this for their horses with success. It is not easy to do at first--I understand that. But when done properly, it works--the overweight horse loses weight. The horse with chronic laminitis doesn’t suffer any more. The horse with Cushing’s disease can live a longer, healthier life. Equine metabolic syndrome becomes a thing of the past. And the owners…ah, the owners…can throw away all that worry and experience the sheer joy that horse ownership can bring.

I know that I am a trailblazer.

This seems like something new. Actually, if you think about it, it is so old, that it is new! But that’s how change happens. We used to feed oats to horses--gallons of oats every day. We now know that a large amount of starch is detrimental. I am encouraged by this change, not only because of its own value, but because it tells me that there is every likelihood that feeding forage free choice will also come to be accepted as mainstream.

I am doing everything I possibly can to help horse owners and professionals understand this basic, foundational concept. I have seven years of post-graduate study in the field of animal nutrition. I work completely independently of feed, supplement and pharmaceutical companies. My approach is based on observation and years of excellent results. There is no better science than that.

For the growing community of horse owners and managers who allow their horses free-choice feeding, I have set up a special forum for you to share your experiences with each other and to let me and others know how you’re doing. It is a place for support, celebrations, congratulations,and idea sharing. Go to jmgetty.blogspot.com.

Juliet M. Getty, PhD, is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. She is the Contributing Nutrition Editor for the Horse Journal, and is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.

Keep learning with Getty! At www.gettyequinenutrition.com, sign up for her informative, free monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her informative teleseminars. You can also pick up copies of her books, including Getty’s comprehensive reference, Feed Your Horse Like A Horse along with the various volumes in her Spotlight on Equine Nutrition Series, the latest of which—on horse digestion—will be published this fall. Getty will be presenting at Equine Affaire in West Springfield, Massachusetts, on Nov. 9-10. For schedules and other information about Equine Affaire visit www.equineaffaire.com/massachusetts. Contact Getty directly at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com.