Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. has been called a “pioneer in free choice forage feeding,” and her articles and interviews often appear in national and international publications. Based in rural Waverly, Ohio, Dr. Getty runs a consulting company, Getty Equine Nutrition, LLC, through which she offers private consultations and designs customized feeding plans to promote horses’ health, reverse illness, and optimize performance. A former university professor and recipient of several teaching awards, she is a popular speaker, and is author of the book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, based on the premise that horses (and other equines) should be fed in sync with their natural instincts and physiology.
Horse owners and caretakers hungry for knowledge have several resources, offered by Dr. Getty, for dependable information on feeds and feeding: a growing library of articles and recorded lectures, quizzes to test your nutrition knowledge, a monthly teleseminar series on nutrition topics that concern you, plus her e-newsletter, Forage for Thought, all available through her website. Dr. Getty serves as a distinguished advisor to the Equine Sciences Academy, and she is also available for individual consultations. Her teaching and advice are based on sound science and her more than twenty years as a respected consultant and practitioner in the equine nutrition field.
What do you believe are some of the biggest mistakes horse owners make when it comes to feeding their horse?
The biggest mistake is not feeding in sync with the way the digestive tract is designed. Horses must have forage (hay and/or pasture) flowing through the digestive tract at all times. This requires free-choice feeding of forage. If the horse does not have something to graze on, there are several issues that can affect him.
First, the horse’s stomach secretes acid (nearly 14 gallons per day!) at all times, even when empty. If the stomach is empty and all that acid is bathing it, the horse will likely develop an ulcer. If the acid then travels down the digestive tract, ulcerations can occur anywhere along the entire tract. And when it reaches the hindgut, where the bacterial population live, it can cause hindgut acidosis, which can lead to colic and even laminitis.
The horse needs to chew to produce saliva, a natural antacid, to neutralize this acid. Often horses will chew on wood or fence posts, or eat their own manure in an effort to produce saliva. They are physically in pain when they have an empty stomach.
Secondly, they are mentally stressed, because they are not allowed to be horses; they are not allowed to eat the way nature designed — all the time grazing on forage. This mental stress leads to a hormonal response that can elevate insulin levels. When insulin is elevated, the horse can develop laminitis (more later, in your next question). He also stays fat.
And lastly, the digestive tract is made of muscles and needs to be exercised by pushing forage through it. If forage is not provided, the muscles can become “flabby” and torque, twist, and intussuscept, leading to colic.
It seems like insulin resistance and laminitis are on the rise in horses. How important is diet in caring for the insulin resistant or laminitic horse?
Insulin resistant horses can be overweight. In an attempt to help them lose weight, many horse owners will restrict forage. This is the worst thing you can do. Forage needs to be always available. If not, the stress hormone, cortisol, is released, leading to insulin elevation. And when insulin is elevated, it tells the body to store fat. It is as if the horse is in “survival mode” and is holding on to fat.
When forage is always available, the horse will eventually get the message that he can walk away and the hay will still be there. Then, and only then, will his hormonal levels start to calm down and his body will release fat. The key is to provide hay 24/7 — all day, and all night, and he should never run out, not even for 10 minutes. If he runs out, he will not get that message. But, if it is always there, he will overeat for a few days, and the “magic moment” happens when he walks away from it. He will then start to self-regulate his intake and eat only what his body needs.
I’ve seen many laminitis relapses occur when a well-intentioned horse owner puts the horse in a dry lot with nothing to eat. The stress (both physical and mental) will lead to elevated insulin, and elevated insulin causes laminitis.
It is very important, however, to test your hay before feeding it free-choice. The Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) should be less than 12%. This is a measure of sugars and starch. Send a hay sample into a lab that does horse-related testing, such as Equi-Analytical Labs. When you get back the report, add WSC (water-soluble carbohydrates) plus Starch, to get NSC.
Sugar and starch also needs to be reduced wherever possible. That means, no sweet feeds, no cereal grains (oats, corn, barley, etc.) or feeds that contain them. No sweet treats that are made of cereal grains and molasses.
And pasture grazing also needs to be monitored since grass tends to be highest in sugar/starches when the night time temperatures stay below 40 degrees F for many hours. This typically occurs during the early spring and mid-Fall.
Many owners are concerned with the condition of their horse’s hooves. What nutritional advice would you give for a horse with poor hoof quality?
When the horse’s hooves are in poor shape, it tells you that he is suffering from a variety of nutrient deficiencies. This is because the horse uses nutrients in order of priority — the priority being to stay alive. So, he will first feed his vital organs — heart, liver, pancreas, lungs, etc. Then, if there are nutrients left over, he’ll feed his less “life-supporting” tissues, such as hooves, hair, skin, eyes, etc. So, the goal is to have a balanced diet with high quality protein, vitamins and minerals, and omega 3 fatty acids. (see next question). B vitamins, in particular, biotin, is helpful for hooves, along with copper, zinc, and manganese, and omega 3 fatty acids.
In your opinion, what is the ideal equine diet?
Hay is missing many vitamins, in particular vitamins E, A, C, and D, as well as omega 3 fatty acids. Fresh, healthy grass contains all of these, so if your horse has access to fresh, healthy pasture that contains a variety of grasses and legumes (not all one type of grass), then this is all he needs, along with salt and water. But this time of year, we rely on hay for forage. Therefore, supplementation is necessary. I like feeding a flaxseed meal based supplement that has added vitamins and minerals, along with B vitamins. There is one on my website called Glanzen Complete, which is excellent.
Protein needs to be of high quality, and one type of grass will not provide this. Therefore, mix alfalfa into the picture. And add other feedstuffs to boost protein quality such as beet pulp, other grasses, flaxseed meal, and my favorite – split peas.
If a horse is underweight, would you suggest feeding more concentrates, more forage, or both?
More calories are very important, and are best provided by fat. Choose fat wisely since something like soybean oil promotes inflammation. Hay should be free choice, add concentrates that are nutritious (you get what you pay for) and feed a pro and prebiotic to boost hindgut microbial population. These bacteria are responsible for digesting fiber and if their numbers are lacking, you can feed the best hay in the world and your horse will not get calories from it.
If a horse is overweight, what your nutritional recommendation be?
As I mentioned above — low NSC hay, offered free-choice, all the time. Exercise is very important!