There is an equine supplement recently marketed heavily to me on my Facebook profile, that generates many broad claims regarding the benefits it can provide and the various ailments it can cure; faster recovery, increased stamina, calmer and more focused mind, refined muscle condition, repaired bone, improved and advanced healing. It is helping horses with ulcers, founder, allergies, and apparently even issues that would normally be assisted by consistent training. That is quite a list, yes? It must be a miracle supplement!
But on further investigation, the supplement amounts to an amino acid stacking. And it’ll certainly cost you!
I started thinking again about how I prefer to feed whole foods to my horses, that I prefer to offer them a selection and variety of feeds in addition to quality grass hay, allowing them to decide what they need and when they need it. I do not think the more common practice of adding broad spectrum supplements to our horses’ diet is necessarily wrong and it can certainly be an easier and less time consuming option, depending how you look at it. However, I do wonder how many issues of imbalance we may be causing when we broadly force feeding supplements without consideration to individual requirements; requirements that change throughout the year and can absolutely vary between particular horses. I do prefer to always listen to my horses and respect their choices.
In the past, I have been fortunate enough to allow my horses turnout on vast acreage, during which I often spend time with the herd just walking or sitting while they browse and graze around me. I’m also a great fan of taking my horses for walks on the lead whenever it suits me, which is a lot now that I am a single mother with a son still too young to ride along on his own horse. During both times, I have always been interested to watch horses carefully select various wild plants through the changing of the seasons and through the journey of their overall health. It is quite fascinating to consider and the horses can be incredibly discerning as they walk about ignoring what we might expect them to devour (fresh blades of grass) in favor of a more unusual choice (chaparral)! When you begin taking note of the individual acquired tastes between the horses of your herd and especially if you keep records to further compare data through the years, the evidence—though circumstantial—carries even more weight.
The formal study of plants being used by animals in their native habitat for medicinal value is referred to as zoopharmacognosy and it seems to be a continuously growing field of study, which I think is marvelous. Of course, humans have observed wild animals and utilized them as sources from which to derive examples of herbal medicine since prehistoric times. But it’s nice to see that after generations of scoffing this previous association of learning, we are now returning to a relationship where we admit that we can learn something for ourselves, by understanding how wild animals survive and keep in good health. American biologist Michael Huffman, who has worked for many years in Japan at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University, described a widely used criteria for judging when an animal is self-medicating, based on his studies of primates. His evidence that African apes were ingesting food for medicinal value was based on documenting the following in his observations: plant species which are not a regular part of the diet, habit of ingestion which provides no additional nutritional benefit to the animal, restriction of plant use to seasons or other periods associated with high risk of parasitic infection, illness or parasite infection of the individual at the time of ingestion of a putative medicinal plant, a subsequent positive change in this condition following ingestion (Huffman, Michael A. WILEY-LISS, INC, 1997. Current Evidence for Self-Medication in Primates: A Multidisciplinary Perspective.). Much of the evidence for self medicating that was documented by Huffman discussed gastrointestinal upset and changing levels of parasitic infection. This is a great place to start because parasites most certainly are a common and recurring malady for all mammals and the parasitic burden or remedy can be most easily authenticated by those evaluating them. However, we can also expect that as evidence and interest in zoopharmacognosy continues to grow, we will find that self medicating in animals is being applied to a variety of illnesses and system imbalances, it is a common behavior both instinctual and learned, and it is a reliable method of healing for animals that are allowed the freedom of a natural and varied environment…an environment from which these animals have singularly adapted and collectively evolved for hundreds of years.
Of course, domesticated animals are not often allowed that same freedom. We keep them in stalls and kennels and cages, usually feeding them the same amount of the same processed foods for every single day of their life, without taking into consideration the various individual requirements and how (and how often) those requirements may change. In an effort to always best replicate a more natural existent for my own animals, I do believe that providing whole foods and allowing my animals to choose their diet is a preferable approach whenever possible. For my horses, I keep them on quality grass hay and offer soaked beet pulp with whole oats, in addition to a free choice variety of seeds, vegetables, and fruits.
Always make sure to check and verify that what you are offering is safe for your horse to consume! A complete list of plants both toxic and non toxic to horses, can be found here: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/horse-plant-list
An example of some of the most common foods I might offer my horses includes:
Papaya—high in vitamin C, which is a powerful antioxidant. We find an abundance of the B vitamins folic acid, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and thiamin in papaya too! Although horses are able to generate their own B vitamins, a deficiency might show in signs of diminished energy levels or inadequate hoof health. There are 212 amino acids and also several enzymes found in papaya. One such enzyme is papain, which has an anti-inflammatory effect on the stomach. This is why I recommend fresh papaya be added to the diet of any horse that suffers ulcers! Papaya is also high in potassium and fiber. The seeds have been used to eradicate ringworm.
Apple—especially high in antioxidants catechin, procyanidins, chlorogenic acid, ploridizin.
Banana—a good source of copper, biotin, magnesium, manganese, and fiber. Also an excellent source of potassium!
Watermelon—a wonderfully hydrating snack for hot summer days or after a strenuous workout! Full of electrolytes and vitamins C, A, B-Complex. Watermelon also contains a decent amount of fiber, especially when you include the rind!
Pear—high vitamin and mineral content.
Carrot—a famous treat for horses, carrots are particularly known to be high in beta-carotene.
Celery—a very safe addition for horses with metabolic issues, as celery does not contain high amounts of sugar. It is high in fiber, magnesium, phosphate, collagen, and vitamins C, A, and B Complex. Being rich in phenolic phytonutrients gives celery an antioxidant and anti inflammatory property that makes it a favorite addition any time one of my horses suffers a bit of laminitis!
Nettles–nettles are an excellent source of iron, in addition to many other minerals. Our equine diets are often lacking in iron, which is why nettles are a favorite of mine around the stable! They work to strengthen the entire body, but are especially helpful in soothing allergic responses. You can feed 1/2 a cup daily or offer them free choice! If you have access to fresh, let them sit in the sun for a bit or flash boil them prior to feeding. You could even toss a handful of them in your horse’s water trough!
Pumpkin—pumpkins are bursting with carbohydrates and full of fiber! They are also an excellent source of vitamin C, A, and E. They offer good amounts of minerals magnesium, zinc, niacin, manganese, copper, selenium, and iron.
Raspberry Leaf–this is an excellent option for our mares, particularly! Raspberry leaves can help to regulate the hormones in our mares, while toning and strengthening the uterus which helps to benefit fertility, pregnancy, and foaling. Like nettles, I offer 1/2 cup daily to their soaked beet pulp or I toss fresh leaves in their water trough!
Cilantro—another one that is excellent for lamanitic horses, cilantro is an excellent anti-inflammatory herb! The oils of the leaves are antimicrobial, and the plant is full of phytonutrients, flavonoids, phenolic acid compounds.
Parsley—also an herb known for its anti-inflammatory properties, parsley has shown excellent results in aiding treatment for arthritis. It is a diuretic and commonly used to control urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and gallbladder stones. I always include it if a horse is showing edema in the legs.
Beet—absolutely another favorite whole food to feed my horses! Beets are very rich in various minerals and vitamins, although they do have the highest sugar content of any vegetables. They are particularly high in nitrates, which are linked to lowering blood pressure and positive enhancement of athletic performance.
Spinach—a rich leafy green high in vitamins and minerals, but I only offer a small handful at a time. Too much can make horses gassy and it isn’t uncommon for my horses to leave the spinach to the rabbits as leftovers.
Dandelion Greens—an excellent source of vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E and K. They are also high in minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium. They are an excellent green leafy food for our horses, with a higher margin of safety than spinach or kale. This has made dandelion greens referred to as “the horse’s lettuce” by equestrians.
I also offer grapes/raisins, cantaloupe, squash, cucumber, lentils, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, garlic, turmeric, mesquite beans, sprouts, and various powdered herbs that I use for their deworming benefits.
Be creative and have fun with it! But do always check to make sure a food you might offer is not toxic to your horse and always go for small quantities of each one you include. Be extra careful about offering too many fruits at once, just because you have to think about the increased sugar intake. And for horses that have metabolic issues or insulin resistance, you have to be even more aware of what you feed.
I don’t worry too much about my horses pushing some foods aside and I usually always offer them again in the future. They change their minds and it’s all about choices! Pay attention to what each horse readily devours and take note of what that particular fruit or vegetable is most known for, as this could be a clue to what your horse is lacking or seeking to balance within its system. I do not recommend you offer them too much of any one food at once, but you can think about other ways to offer more of the ingredients they seem to be craving. They are more intelligent and conscious then we usually give them credit for, the whole idea is allowing them the freedom to make their choices as they would in a ideal wild habitat.
I recommend always having loose mineral salt available in their living environment and I even offer food grade diatomaceous earth, which is very rich in minerals, as a free choice supplement.