Food Therapy for Horses: Q&A with Dr. Fenton, Part 1

The following post is Part 1 of a Q & A series with holistic veterinarian, Dr. Rhiannon Fenton. This series will focus on food therapy for horses from a holistic veterinary standpoint.  Please check back weekly to read the rest of the posts in this informative series!


Rhiannon Fenton, DVM of Vital Equine Veterinary Services, is based in Calabasas, California. Dr. Fenton earned her doctorate of veterinary medicine from Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine.  She is also certified in Animal Chiropractic, Veterinary Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Food Therapy, and Reiki Energy Healing.

Dr. Fenton specializes in custom-tailored specialty treatments for horses and other species and believes in unlocking the body’s own potential to heal itself through holistic modalities.



Q & A with Dr. Rhiannon Fenton

Part 1: TCM Food Therapy for Horses

Q: Can you explain how food therapy is viewed from a Traditional Chinese Medicine standpoint?

Food therapy from a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) standpoint is the art and science of using selected food ingredients and/or superior herbs to feed each individual based on his or her inborn tendencies, age, species, geographical location, personality and current disharmony or disease processes.

Each recipe is created using these factors along with the TCVM theories and proper Food Energetics. The most commonly used TCVM Theories used in Food Therapy are The Five Element Theory, Yin-Yang Principles, and The Eight Principles. I will briefly explain these TCVM theories for a basic understanding of their role in Food Therapy. Then I will touch upon Food Energetics to wrap it all together.

The Five Element Theory

The Five Element Theory consists of five constitutions: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Every animal belongs to one of these five constitutions and sometimes a blend of more than one. Each of these constitutions have many associated attributes, too many to list them all, but the most important ones needed for purposes of understanding TCVM Food Therapy are the Yin-Yang organs, life stage, season, climate, emotions/personality traits, orifice, sense, tissues, controls, functions, common physical ailments, color and flavor.

Download (PDF, 125KB)

Determine which constitution(s) suit your horse best. I encourage owners to figure this out. It will help provide an understanding of their individual horse and a foundation for preventative medicine. Let’s take all of this information to the next level and consider how it can be applied to our horses:



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In TCVM Five Element Theory, Wood (green bubble) is the “mother” of Fire (red bubble). Fire is the mother of Earth (yellow bubble) and so forth if you follow the solid black arrow on the diagram. In this cycle, the mother is supposed to nurture the child because that is the relationship between mother and child. If the mother is Deficient and unable to do her job, the child will suffer because it is not getting the support it needs. Essentially, sick mother equals sick child.

An example of this is if there is Deficient Fire (i.e. red bubble – Heart not pumping properly leads to chronic illness. As a result, the Earth (yellow bubble – Spleen/Stomach) may be affected and the animal may stop eating, experience fatigue, and develop muscle atrophy and weakness. Remember to look at the chart with the constitutions as well as the “bubble” diagram in order to understand how everything is related as I proceed with these explanations.

The reverse cycle can also happen—a chronically sick child creates a sick and drained mother. A good example of this is Metal (gray bubble—Lung/LI) being Deficient which causes Earth (yellow bubble—Spleen/Stomach) to suffer.

In Western Medicine, the equivalence is a horse with chronic asthma/COPD/heaves that doesn’t want to eat and gets worse over time. An easier way to think of this is if you have had pneumonia or severe respiratory distress. Not only is it hard to breathe, but coughing creates many sleepless nights. Eating is almost out of the question because your throat is so sore and painful from coughing. You become weaker from not eating or sleeping which then depletes the immune system.

This cycle is vicious and can have lasting effects. Excessive, chronic coughing creates scar tissue. Scar tissue is permanent and prevents optimal oxygen utilization even once the animal has recovered. I have seen this specific TCVM pattern of sick-child-creates-sick-mother happen in horses; Lung Qi Deficiency leading to Spleen Qi Deficiency.

Before I move on, I am sure some of you are wondering, “What is Qi?” Qi is our life force energy. It is what makes everything in the body function properly. When we run out of Qi, we die. So when an animal has Lung Qi Deficiency leading to Spleen Qi Deficiency, it means the Lung and Spleen are unable to perform their respective jobs. (Please review the Five Element Chart).

The areas of the body that they govern, control or rule will not function properly. This is why we can see coughing coupled with anorexia, weight loss, phlegm accumulation and even diarrhea in severe cases when there is Lung Qi Deficiency leading to Spleen Qi Deficiency. This applies to the other internal organs as well. Remember that everything in the body is connected!

Back to TCVM Five Element Theory, there is also a relationship between grandparent and grandchild (dash-lined arrow in diagram). Wood (green bubble) is the grandparent of the Earth (yellow bubble). Earth is the grandchild. The job of the grandparent is to control the grandchild so it remains respectful and doesn’t get out of control. But if there is excessive control by the grandparent, it causes disease of the grandchild.

A very common example of this that I see regularly is when there is Excess Wood (green bubble) in the form of anger, irritation, or stressful lifestyle (performance horses). Excess Wood can affect Earth (yellow bubble) and cause colic, diarrhea, gastric ulcers and the list goes on. Think of all those performance horses you know that are dominant, show their teeth at their stall or paddock mate/neighbor, and boss the other horses around. Those are some of your candidates for Wood over-controlling Earth which leads to gastric ulcers, GI upset or sensitivity, and diarrhea especially during stressful events. This is not the only situation in which these ailments can manifest, but it is one clear example.

Again, the reverse cycle of the grandchild-grandparent relationship can occur. Think of it as the grandchild being rude and running all over the grandparent until exhaustion. If the Water (blue bubble – Kidneys/Bladder) fails to govern the water in the body correctly because he is “rebelling”, the Earth (yellow bubble – Spleen/Stomach) may have watery stool or diarrhea.

If I lost you at all during the last four paragraphs, read them again and follow the Five Element chart and the bubble diagram. It can get a little complex and confusing upon first encounter with this information so take your time!

The Concept of Yin-Yang in TCVM

Yin and Yang is all about balance. Balance in the body depends on three things¹:

  1. Balance of the body and the environment (nutrients, stress, breed and geographical origin…)
  2. Balance between a body and other bodies (social environment in the herd, loneliness, loss…)
  3. Balance between all the internal organs and the processes of the individual body. (All organs working together harmoniously.)

There are five principles of Yin and Yang¹:

1) Everything in the Universe has two opposite aspects, Yin and Yang.


  • Cold is Yin, Hot is Yang
  • Still is Yin, Active is Yang
  • Night is Yin, Day is Yang
  • Blood is Yin, Qi is Yang
  • Anatomy is Yin, Physiology is Yang
  • Wife is Yin, Husband is Yang
  • Solid Organs are Yin, Hollow organs are Yang

Yin Organs (Wife)

  • Liver
  • Heart
  • Spleen
  • Lung
  • Kidney

Yang Organs (Husband)

  • Gall Bladder
  • Small Intestine
  • Stomach
  • Large Intestine
  • Bladder

2) Any Yin-Yang division can be further divided into Yin and Yang aspects:

  • Day is Yang
  • Morning is Yang within Yin.
  • Afternoon is Yin within Yang.

3) Yin and Yang control each other.

  • Heat warms Cold, Cold cools Heat.

             Heat <————————–> Cold

The body seeks a balance between Hot and Cold.

  • Activity seeks rest, rest restores activity level.

            Activity <—————————-> Rest

    Proper amounts of activity and rest support a healthy body.

4) Yin and Yang mutually create each other.

  • Yin (nutrients) creates Yang (activity) which is needed to create more Yin (nutrients).

            Nutrients (Yin) <————————> Functional Activities of the Body (Yang)

                Chronic Yin Deficiency causes Yang Deficiency and vice versa.

5) Yin and Yang may transform into each other in certain circumstances².

            Winter Night–Cold (Yin) <————————> Summer Day–Heat (Yang)


The medical application of Yin and Yang is that it maintains health and prevents disease. The goal of TCVM is to keep Yin and Yang balanced. When there is balance of Yin and Yang, this is the state of best physiological processes. It optimizes the environment so these processes can occur and allows health.¹

Example: Prednisone suppresses tissue regeneration and creates or contributes to Damp Heat in the body. This is a type of treatment that doesn’t help balance the body so normal physiological responses can occur.

Example: Soybean oil (organic ONLY) clears Heat, moistens the Lung and Large Intestine.
Remember, Lung rules the skin and exterior surface. Supporting the Lung supports all
its attributes and what it governs. Soybean oil also helps make Blood and moves Qi in
the body. This promotes healing of wounds versus suppressing tissue regeneration. It
clears Damp Heat and resolves dandruff and or itching. In any skin condition, Damp
Heat must be cleared for healing to occur.


Stay tuned for more posts in this Q & A series on Food Therapy for Horses with Dr. Fenton!


Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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1 Response

  1. Vance Leithead says:

    I have a couple horses with arthritic conditions in th hind pastern. Are there any supplements to remedy this condition?

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