Feed more hay to laminitic horse, equine nutritionist says

Restricting Kurt's food intake has not reduced his girth.

Restricting Kurt’s food intake has not reduced his girth. Quite the opposite. During the first half of 2015, Kurt was given a flake of hay during the morning and evening and another overnight. He did have access to pastures, but there was no grass from January to March and the flies drove him into the shed from April to June (despite him being fly sprayed).

Guilt drives a lot of my laminitis research. I’m always looking to clear my conscience. Did I cause my horses’ laminitis? Or did something else do so?

Since 1998, when my first laminitis case occurred, I’ve routinely paid vets to heap on more guilt. Each farm call has led to the same conclusion: My horses are obese; thus, I must be overfeeding them and causing the insulin resistance and laminitis.

Now, a new article suggests my horses are obese because I’m underfeeding them.

I’m still guilty, just of a different crime.

The article is written by equine nutritionist Juliet Getty, Ph.D., who makes her money consulting so she’s not going to go too far out on a limb unless she’s convinced she’s correct.

The article is titled, “Can the Damaged Insulin Resistant Horse Be Fixed?”

It’s long, and I’m just picking out a few things, but the whole article is worth reading at least twice.

Getty says we’ve created the insulin resistant horse by doing all the wrong things in the name of helping.

She urges owners to give horses free choice, low-carb hay, so horses eat constantly and slowly, as they were intended to eat. As in, horses should never be without hay.

To those, including me, who blurt out, “That’s going to cost a lot of money,” she says it will save money in the end because the horse will eat less. My horses poop on their leftover hay so I have issues there, but she would probably say I need to work on how I feed my horses.

She also suggests turning horses out on pasture (preferably after testing the sugar level in the grass, which I personally think is a waste of time since the sugar level in pasture rises and falls all day long).

Getty says, “Horses who graze on pasture 24/7 will eat far less grass than those who are only allowed to graze on pasture for a few hours each day, with hay provided the rest of the time.”

She includes caveats such as it might be good to ease a horse into having hay full time by using a couple of slow feeders that are always kept full.

She suggests not stalling a horse, which may be out of the question for a lot of horse owners, but Getty feels that’s a big factor for horse health.

Getty doesn’t address calories. I would argue that today’s hay seems to have an excessive amount of calories (about 2,000 calories per flake), but I’m guessing she feels a horse will stop eating when it has enough calories.

She concludes that the only way to fix an insulin resistant horse is to help it return to its natural state. She emphasizes that continuing down the same path of restricting food will get the same results: more insulin resistance.

I would add that it is possible to get a horse to lose weight by limiting its food and exercising it like crazy. But the result is temporary. The horse is not healthy, and adding a little more hay will make that horse balloon up.

Other factors that Getty mentions are addressing inflammation and lowering iron intake.

I worry that a horse with insulin resistance from excess iron may not improve if it is given free-choice hay and it continues to shovel in the hay. The horse may get worse.

My takeaway from the article is it needs to be embraced in its entirety. Helping an insulin resistant laminitic horse requires addressing all the possible issues that are causing the insulin resistance, not just forage intake.

Getty’s suggestions are revolutionary. She’s going against the advice of perhaps all leading laminitis researchers and vets.

Some of the top speakers at conferences have visited my farm (as friends of my former vet) and advised:

— Kill the grass on the pastures completely;
— Dry lot the horses on the existing paddocks and rent out the pastures to thoroughbreds (my horses would have loved that);
— Break up the 2-acre pastures into tiny pastures to limit access and improve the grass;
— Move.

Over the years, I found that restricting the horses’ food and dry lotting them made them fatter. And miserable. And the laminitis continued.

I refused to listen to laminitis researchers who were anti-grazing.

Horses closely related to my own were on bigger and much lusher pastures within a few miles of my farm, and those horses were thin and healthy. It convinced me that the grass itself was not the problem.

I wanted my horses walking constantly, covering a lot of ground, taking in a steady stream of forage and keeping busy.

In 2007, I fenced my two ungrazed lower fields (an additional 4 acres to the overgrazed 4 acres already fenced) and turned my remaining horses loose. I felt even more guilty, if possible, but at least my horses didn’t hate me. In the end, there was no uptick in laminitic cases. If anything, the bouts dropped.

I haven’t seen a groundswell of criticism of Getty’s article. But it is a study in contrasts with advice from other experts.

Kathryn Watts, plant scientist, creator of the safergrass.org website and a hugely popular speaker, has a PDF on her consulting page that starts out:

“If you insist on keeping an obese, non-exercised, laminitic horse on pasture at least 12 hours per day all year long … I cannot help you or your horse. My pasture management advice will include limiting grass intake, increasing exercise and completely eliminating access to pasture during periods when environmental conditions make it impossible to control grass sugar content by cultural practices. If you cannot or will not limit intake, it will be a waste of your money and my time to give you a complete pasture management program.”

Thehorse.com posted an article June 8, 2015, on feeding the laminitic horse that offers tips from Jennifer A. Wrigley, CVT, of New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The school founded the international laminitis conference in 2001.

Wrigley’s tips include restricting hay for the laminitic horse and perhaps dry lotting the horse.

Those of us who dieted heavily in our teens and 20s will attest to the counterproductive effect of restricting food intake. It makes one want food more. I never looked at the science behind why dieting made me crazy, but the craziness was undeniable. Getty has provided the science.

Laminitic horses already go through hell.

After reading Getty’s article, I realize we have been keeping our horses in that hell perpetually.

No guilt there.

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