New Q&A with Equine Nutritionist, Dr. Juliet Getty
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is a former university professor and an internationally respected equine nutritionist. As an author, consultant, and speaker, she helps horse owners, just like you, to keep their horses healthy and helps ailing horses regain a fruitful, quality life. To learn more about the services and resources Dr. Getty offers, please visit her website.
It’s been over seven years since we last did a Q&A, so I’d like to start by asking, what’s new in the field of equine nutrition? Are there any discoveries or advances that you’re especially excited about?
There are two areas of research that are in the foreground right now that I find particularly interesting. The first one involves recognizing that horses can also suffer from “leaky gut syndrome,” a condition typically discussed in human health where the intestines can become permeable to harmful toxins and pathogens that would not normally reach the bloodstream. This can lead to a variety of non-specific symptoms such as changes in the horse’s demeanor, digestive disturbances such as increased colic and diarrhea, poor hair coat and hoof health, reduced performance, and just a general malaise that can be difficult to pinpoint. This is why when dealing with a horse who has endured a lot of stress, or has been on antibiotics and hasn’t “bounced back,” I address the possibility of leaky gut and treat it accordingly, generally including colostrum as part of the treatment.
The second area has to do with the benefits of CBD for horses. CBD stands for cannabidiol, one of many cannabinoids found naturally within the body that targets the endocannabinoid system. This system monitors any instability within the body and returns it to a state of balance or homeostasis. The use of supplemental CBD along with other cannabinoids is showing great promise in relieving pain, as well as modulating anxiety in horses. However, research on horses is only just beginning. Many horse owners and their veterinarians are using CBD to meet their horses’ health issues. In humans and laboratory animals, CBD has been shown to have a positive impact on several health conditions including metabolic issues, the immune system, and reducing inflammation. I am looking forward to seeing more academic journal articles on the subject. In the meantime, I have many clients who use CBD for their horses with great success.
I know you’re a proponent of free choice forage, so can you tell us more about that? What type of forage is best: fresh grass? Hay? And is there ever a time when free choice forage isn’t a good idea?
The digestive tract of the horse is designed to have a steady flow of forage going through it at all times. There are many reasons for this. The stomach produces acid every minute of the day, and the horse needs to chew to produce saliva, a natural antacid. Left with nothing to chew, the unprotected squamous region of the stomach will develop ulcers. But even the lower, glandular region can be affected, as an empty stomach loosens the pyloric sphincter at the base of the stomach, promoting the reflux of acid-containing pre-digested material from the duodenum back into the base of the stomach. Further down the digestive tract, the cecum, a large fermentation vat where billions of microbes digest fibers, needs to be full in order for its contents to exit at the top. Without enough to eat, material can remain in the cecum, potentially leading to colic.
From a psychological perspective, not having a steady flow of forage tells the horse that “winter is coming,” and he will naturally become insulin resistant in an attempt to store body fat to get him through the “harsh winter.” We duplicate this scenario that naturally occurs in the wild when we restrict forage, resulting in retention of body fat, putting the horse at risk of developing laminitis. But when forage is available at all times, this response is calmed down and the horse can maintain a normal body condition.
Fresh pasture is the most nutritious source of forage, but if the horse is already overweight or insulin resistant, it may be too risky to allow pasture-grazing. However, hay must be provided in its place. The hay should be tested to be low in sugars and starch to minimize the elevation of insulin (ESC + Starch should ideally be no more than 10% on a dry matter basis). Feeds also need to be free of any cereal grains (oats, corn, barley, wheat, rice) and sugar (typically from molasses). Treats should be low in sugar and starch. In other words, the horse needs to be able to chew on forage at will, and any concentrates that are also provided need to be free of insulin-raising ingredients.
If the horse’s metabolism is damaged from years of forage restriction, it may be very difficult to get him to self-regulate his forage intake. This is because of leptin resistance. When a horse is resistant to leptin, he does not get the signal that he needs to stop eating. Instead, the appetite remains high. To begin fixing this, every effort should be made to offer a suitable forage at all times, 24/7, all day and all night. And patience needs to be involved since it can take months for some horses to walk away from their hay and show less interest in it. But if the horse simply will not stop eating, then you can consider removing forage for two hours at a time. It takes two hours for the stomach to empty. Beyond that, acid will bathe the vulnerable stomach lining. The problem with this approach, however, is that the horse continues to remain in “survival mode.” This is where exercise, and proper supplementation with anti-inflammatory nutrients assist with reducing the inflammation in the brain that is leading to leptin resistance in the first place.
Most of us know that hay and grass is lacking in certain nutrients, but in your opinion, what’s the best way to ensure that all of your horse’s vitamin/mineral needs are being met?
Healthy, growing pasture grasses are generally nutritious enough so that additional supplementation is not required. But once that grass is cut, dried, and stored, it loses many key nutrients. The one nutrient that I find many people neglect is the need for supplementing essential fatty acids. The word “essential” means that the nutrient cannot be produced by the body and therefore, it absolutely must be in the diet on a daily basis. Most people know essential fatty acids as “omega 3s” and “omega 6s.” And there are two essential fatty acids – one is an omega 3 – alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and the other, an omega 6 – linoleic acid (LA). Pasture grasses typically offer these two in a 4:1 ratio of ALA:LA. However, if your horse gets fat from a commercial feed that uses “vegetable oil” or “soybean oil,” he is getting way too much LA, which increases inflammation. It is important, therefore, to supplement ground flaxseeds, or chia seeds to the diet to provide enough ALA in the proper proportion to LA.
Other nutrients missing from hay include vitamins A (from beta carotene), E, and perhaps vitamin D (if the hay is many months old). Even B vitamins can be lost, and the horse’s hindgut may not produce sufficient amounts. Finally, adding a source of protein is a good plan if hay is the only protein source, in order to improve the amino acid pool from which the horse can produce and repair tissues. I prefer hemp seeds over soy because soy is typically sprayed with glyphosate, the herbicide found in RoundUp.
It seems that insulin resistance and obesity continue to be common problems with horses today, so what suggestions do you have for managing these conditions? And do you believe environmental and dietary toxins play a role either of these?
We are overfeeding our horses, plain and simple. We buy bags of commercial feeds filled with sugar, starches and harmful chemicals, when all the horse really needs is a source of forage 24/7, a good vitamin/mineral supplement to fill in the gaps, a source of essential fatty acids, salt, and some added quality protein, and you’re done! If the horse is exercised, in training, or performing, then more nutrients may be required. Or if the horse is aging, ill, or suffers from arthritis, ulcers, and any other ailment, special attention should be given to improving those situations through the diet. But in general, we need to remove the sugar and starch from our horses’ diets, offer them forages 24/7, up the activity by increasing movement (even if it’s just putting hay in lots of places to encourage their movement to eat), avoid putting horses in a stall as much as possible, reduce stressors, and simply allowing the horse to be a horse. By doing this, the horse will tell you how much he needs to maintain his weight.
Lately, I have been avoiding feeds that contain glyphosate from being sprayed with the herbicide, RoundUp. Most of the soy in this country is genetically modified to withstand being sprayed with Roundup and we are feeding this poison to our horses at an alarming rate. It has been shown to damage the microbiome, leading to immunity issues, as well as hormonal problems. It may also bind several minerals that are required for a vast variety of biochemical reactions within the body. And we are seeing more cases of cancer in horses (as well as in dogs and cats) as a result. When in doubt, you can test your horses’ urine and even his feed for glyphosate content by contacting a lab such as Health Research Institute Laboratories. But even without soy, many chemicals can still be present. Opt for non-gmo, and better yet, organic, where possible.
Laminitis is another common and often deadly issue many horse owners deal with. Is there anything new information you can share in regards to preventing or treating this condition?
Most laminitis is caused by an elevation of insulin as a result of metabolic conditions such as equine metabolic syndrome and PPID (equine Cushing’s disease). Much of the cause is genetic, but that doesn’t mean that a genetically predisposed animal is doomed to develop laminitis. Extra care needs to be in place to remove sources of excess sugar and starch from the diet. It is a good idea to educate yourself on how pasture grasses behave in your climate and under what conditions it is dangerously high for your particular horse. Alfalfa hay is typically low in sugar and starch, but because of its high protein content, it may be too high in calories, potentially leading to excessive weight gain. Too much body fat can exacerbate insulin resistance.
So prevention first. But if your horse develops laminitis, do what you can to remove stress, since the stress response can make things worse. Appropriate hay should be provided 24/7. Use slow feeders if necessary but don’t just give your horse a slow feeder without first taking the time to get him accustomed to it. Slow feeders can be excellent tools but can also induce frustration, a form of stress.
Anti-inflammatory nutrients can relieve pain. These include CBD, curcumin extract (from turmeric), and herbs such as boswellia, and jiaogulan. Omega 3 fatty acids can also reduce inflammation. They can also reduce circulating insulin. Magnesium,and buytric acid are beneficial, as well, in reducing insulin.
Use bute sparingly, if at all. It can interfere with healing. And all NSAIDs have the risk of ulcers, so adding a lecithin/apple pectin preparation (such as Starting Gate) is very important when offering an NSAID.
Can you share some of your favorite equine nutrition resources for anyone interested in learning more?
I rely on various research publications such as the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science and the Journal of Animal Nutrition. But I also read magazines, such as EQUUS, The Horse, Equine Wellness, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and many others. Websites abound that are worthwhile, including the Equine Info Exchange and Horsetalk Equestrian News and Research but there are many others.