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Friday, November 22, 2013

The last of my nutrition tidbits

Sorry for the silence - I’ve been writing posts - but they are “special” posts that are being scheduled for the future for moments that are coming up that I don’t want to miss! You’ll understand when you see them go up :).

Let’s get started on more nutrition!

A question that I’ve gotten several times over the years is, “What if my horse hits a wall during our first 50?” or it’s variation: “How do I know whether we are done or if I should work through it?”

I usually give some variation of the this answer:

It's hard to tell whether your horse is done, or if it's just a wall that they will get through. Some people are comfortable asking their horse to push through that wall, and some people have the opinion that if it isn't fun for the horse, than they don't want to ask and would rather pull. For me, asking Farley to push through the wall is a lot like asking her to go out on a conditioning ride. Farley doesn't enjoy conditioning and going away from home early on, she drags and goes SLLLOOOOWWWWW. And sometimes does a silly spook. Or flings her head. Or is just so dull I worry - is she tying up??? Is she lame????? Is she colicky????? Exactly the same things I worry about during an endurance ride when she doesn't want to be forward. I handle it much the same way. If I'm asking for forward and she's dumpy and slow and resistant I do a systems check - are her butt muscles tight? Does she feel sound? Did she eat and drink at the last check? If all the physiological systems are a go, then I insist on forward motion, even if I have to use a crop to reinforce my leg, until she knows I am REALLY serious that she continue to move off my leg. Is there a chance that something is going on that I missed that I've now made worse by my insistence that she move forward? Yes. Is it likely? No. Twice during training there were issues that manifested as slows and resistance. Once, I caught the problem, and once I missed it and didn't catch it until later. But on the one i missed I gave her every opportunity to prove to me something was going on - including lunging her in a roundpen looking for lameness - and when nothing showed, I had to conclude it was a training issue and not a lameness issue. And.....she ended up tying up at the end of that arena session. But, you do the best you can at the time with the information you have. I feel confident enough in my ability to evaluate Farley, and I have enough time with Farley that I know what is likely to be wrong, so I feel very comfortable concluding that the "wall" during an endurance ride is mental and insisting she keep moving after doing a quick "systems check". But on a new horse? I would be more cautious and while a systems check on Farley takes me ~30 seconds, I might take 1-2 minutes evaluating a resistant horse that had less experience.

I think it's still a good answer. But now, based on some new knowledge, I would ask the very important question before going any further:  “Are you carbo loading?”. 

Turns out carbo loading, or including simple carbs and starches in the diet CAUSES HORSES (and humans) TO HIT WALLS.  There’s a place for a higher carb diet but it ain’t in the endurance world.  Carbs ARE indicated for sprinting type horses (quarter horse racing, thoroughbreds) but even they need to be carefully weaned off of carbs before a race to minimize carbohydrate metabolism during the race.

The nutritionist explained to me the mechanism behind how carbohydrate metabolism impacts performance and I *think* it has something to do with increased lactate production which eventually overwelms the body’s ability to use the lactate as an energy source and causes fatigue.....but to be honest, this was 2 weeks ago, and I didn’t write it down right away and now I can’t recall exactly. :(.  If someone REALLY wants me to write the nutritionist an email asking her to re-explain, otherwise I’ll wait ‘til I see her in the spring for my next block.

The bottom line is that feeding carbs (carbo loading the day before, or using carbohydrate rich foods pre race or during the race) will cause an increase in fatigue. 

Oil is still an excellent energy source for endurance horses. It doesn’t have the fatigue effects of carbs, adds lots of calories while minimizing risk to horses sensitive to non-structural carbohydrates, and the research suggests that feeding oil for at least 6-8 weeks prior to an endurance ride can boost aerobic performance. Horses are very good at utilizing fat (as compared to cows), especially if you introduce and increase the amount gradually.  Starting at 1/4 c. per day and increasing it 1/4 cup per week until you reach 1 c. or so is a recommendation I see commonly, and is what I do. Just remember not to use corn oil (pro-inflammatory - and yes, I used to think that was a bunch of BS, but it isn’t and is actually being taught in vetschool :). 

The reason we recommend oil be eliminated from the diet about 1 week before the race is also related to why you want to increase amounts of oil gradually. 

Have you ever accidentally overfed oil?  I haven’t, but I’m told they will get nasty diarrhea.  Oil suppresses the microbes of the hind gut (ie makes them just a bit unhappy).

An excellent way to think of the horse hind gut is the horse’s “rumen” - a giant space where good bacteria and microflora are busy digesting and breaking down nutrients and making food stuffs available to the animal that normally could never be utilized by mammals. Keeping the bacteria in the hind gut happy is PARAMOUNT to keeping the horse happy.  Lots of things can piss the bacteria off - overload grain, not enough forage, too much oil, antibiotics....If you mildly insulting the little buggers perhaps you get some diarrhea.  REALLY pissing them off (which we will touch on in another related nutritional issue) could cause an “environmental” shift where a bunch of the gram negative normal bacteria flora dies, releases endotoxins and poisons the horse as the ultimate act of revenge.

So.  Happy microbes = happy horse. 

If you’ve fed oil properly, you’ve slowly built up the amount over time without the microbes protesting - they’ve adapted to each weekly increase. 

The problem is, even though there’s no overt signs of unhappy microbes, feeding oil/fat is still slightly “depressing them”.  The benefits that you get feeding oil is worth this, and at home during normal training and athletic effort this minimal amount of depression isn’t worth a second thought. 

However, when you go to do 50 or 100 miles, it is crucial that all the systems of the horse - including the critically important microbe community of the hind gut - are in absolutely the best shape they can be - and that means pulling the horse off oil for the week prior.  Fortunately, even though the horse isn’t consuming oil in that last week, you still retain all the benefits of feeding oil over time on race day :).

Moving on to particle size. 

The “length” of forage or feed that your horse eats is important.  In the horse gut, large particles “pass” (ie go into poop) and small particles “stay”.  (FYI in cattle it’s the opposite - large particles stay in the GI tract while small particles pass - which makes sense if you think about the difference the length of fiber you find in each species’ poop, but I digress).  Various parts of the horse’s gut have these “saculations” or pouches.  Small particles settle out into these saculations and create a little micro acidic environment, while the larger particles keep moving down the GI system. 

Accumulate enough of these small particles and you will create a more and more acidic environment within the gut.  Note that this isn’t a systemic acidic effect - this is localized within the gut.  At some point the pH drops (acid) enough that it makes the gut environment less hospitable to the normal bacteria/microflora....which start to become unhappy.  The “new” lower pH of the gut makes it much MORE hospitable to DIFFERENT bacteria that LIKE this new lower pH and decide to make it even LOWER - which of course makes the old resident bacteria even LESS happy and they die. 

This is not good because the old resident bacteria are mostly gram negative which have  “endotoxin” as part of their outer membrane which is then released as they die.....Endotoxin is a potent stimulator of the immune system and unfortunately horses are EXQUISITELY sensitive to endotoxin. 

It’s the revenge of the microflora :).

During this whole process of a new lower pH, the GI tract lining is also becoming ulcerated, which allows the dying gram negative bacteria and the endotoxin to be released systemically. 

And then you have a dead horse.

Well, not actually - I’ve just spent 2 weeks learning how to deal with endotoxemia in horses - all of which bores me and so I will not bore you with it. 

The moral of the story (besides don’t piss off the bacteria in your gut) is that feeding little particles of forage is not as good as feeding it in a longer form.  Obviously pasture forage or baled forage is good, but how small is too small? When you do you have to start worrying about how small the particles are?

Apparently cubes contain fiber lengths that are borderline OK.  Pellets are too small.

I immediately started thinking about all the pelleted mashes my horse gets leading up to a ride and at a ride. There are some folks who won’t let their horses eat hay at all during the last section of a 100 because of worrying about choke and their horses only eat pelleted mashes at that point.  Am I acidifying my horse’s gut and setting it up for GI ulcers and potential microflora issues?  On top of all the other stressors the horse experiences at a 100?

I asked the nutritionist specifically about this situation and she said because I am suspending the small particles in an emulsion (ie a mash) that the impact of small particles on the gut was less, and because I only fed mashes over a very short period of time (only at rides, mostly in a 24-48 hour window), that in her opinion I wasn’t causing an issue. It would be more of an issue if I was feeding significant amount of mash made with pelleted feeds daily. Like most things in nutrition, there doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rules - more general guidelines that are applied to individual situations after weighing the available options.  I do give a pound or two (works out to about 1-2c) of soaked pellets daily for vit E administration etc.  but I think that is a small enough amount, combined with a diet that is almost 100% forage (makes the microbes very happy!) that I won’t worry about it.  But it’s something I’ll definately keep in mind if I find myself feeding more mashes than usual for some reason. And because there ARE additional stressors on the gut at ride, even more reason to wean off that oil during rides so the microflora are as healthy as possible.

It’s quite interesting (and difficult!) to stay up on what’s happening in the nutritional world, but I’m always so grateful when I get to have a conversation with some one that does it for a living.  I always learn so much and come away with some many tidbits that are practical and I can use to tweak my horse management.

It can be easy to get lost in the sea of information, but I think if you start with some basic fundamentals (ideally horses should live on a large amount of acreage and eat good quality pasture forage), it gives you something to base the new information in, and help you make a decision of whether it’s something makes sense and might be worth implementing.

The oil is counterintuitive to me - but there’s a large enough body of research on the subject, that I’m willing to do it. 

The rest of the new information makes sense to me if I look at horse management as “managing a horse that is varying degrees from the ideal (ie on pasture)”. The further from the ideal, the more intensively the horse probably needs to be managed and the more attention to detail is needed.


  1. Great, informative post! I do have a comment about oil, though. Through my work at the Department of Agriculture, I've come to learn that, in general, oil sold in grocery stores is chemically derived and is often a waste product of another process (that usually isn't related to food). The oil is rancid and the processor "deodorizes" it so that the consumer doesn't know it's bad. That may account for why diets that are high in oil (for people and animals) often cause a variety of negative health effects. It may also explain why corn oil is particularly detrimental to horses, because it is one type of oil that is most likely derived through an industrial process.

    Anyway, my purpose in commenting isn't to say that supplementing with oil is bad. I just wanted to let people know to be careful about the type of oil they buy and where they buy it. The $2 special at Costco may not be the best source for your horse (or you). Cold pressed oil that is created by a smaller company may be the best bet. I like to use Tropical Traditions coconut oil, but there are other good sources, if you look. (The other benefit of using a saturated oil like coconut oil is that it doesn't go rancid as quickly as unsaturated oils and the oil is quite nutritious. And for those of you worried about causing a heart attack for your horse, I believe that recent research is debunking the theory that saturated fats are bad for your heart. It's actually the hydrogenation that generates trans fat that is what is bad.)

    The other thing that I've recently become aware of is that olive oil sold in stores, even the super expensive kind, is likely part or all counterfeit. The "fake" olive oil is often good enough to fool the experts, even though it includes really low quality vegetable oil in many cases, so again, your best bet is to find a smaller company to buy from where you can verify the source of the oil. If there is any interest, I'm happy to give some sources for better quality oils.

  2. Thanks for the oil comments. It echoes some stuff I've heard other places. Sigh. Not encouraging. In school we are taught that vegetable is good from an omega six/omega three standpoint and corn, canola etc are not good choices. Other oils that might be good are considered cost prohibitive.

  3. And I would like reccomendations on companies that sell good oil!

  4. Here are what I think are good sources for fats/oils. I will say that they are not cheap, but I think you can have a reasonable expectation that they are what they say they are and they are processed in a way that maximizes the benefits. And if someone is just doing a 6-8 week buildup and then taper before a ride, they might not be that expensive (especially given some of the hay prices I've been paying lately...).

    For coconut oil, I go to They offer different grades of coconut oil and do a good job explaining which one you should choose. The biggest reason I get my oil from Tropical Traditions, though, is because if you pay attention, you can take advantage of their not infrequent 2-for-1 sales, which brings the cost down quite a bit.

    The other place that I get oils from is They offer a variety of oils, including Bariani olive oil. The other oils like sesame, sunflower, pumpkin seed, walnut, red palm, etc. are way pricey, but if you're looking for something for you or to add a small amount to even out an Omega 3/6 ratio for your horse, they can work nicely.

    Here are some other brands that the Weston A. Price Foundation recommends. I haven't tried them personally, but I'm pretty sure their standards are higher than mine:)

    For olive oil, Chaffin Family Orchards, DeLallo, Essential Living Foods, Good Stuff by Mom & Me, Live Superfoods, Living Tree alive, McEvoy Ranch, Miller's Organic Farm, Mountain Rose Herbs, Natural Zing, Olea Estates, Olio Beato, RawGuru, Spectrum, T.G.L. Organic, The Pure Olive Laconiko, Tehama Gold, The Raw Food World, Tiburtini, US Wellness, and Vom Fass.

    For coconut oil: Alpha, Barlean's, Garden of Life, International Harvest, Jarrow Formulas, NOW, NSI, Spectrum, and Trader Joe's.

    For other types of oil: Barlean's flax oil, Camelina Gold camelina (wild flax) oil, Century Sun sunflower oil, Driftless Organics sunflower oil, Flora organic sunflower and sesame oils, Hain cold-pressed oils, Loriva cold-pressed oils, Mitoku sesame oil, Mountain Rose Herbs sesame, safflower, macadamia, and avocado oils, NOW macadamia oil, Omega Nutrition sesame and flax oils, Rejuvenative Foods sunflower and evening primrosse oils, Spectrum palm shortening, Wilderness Family Naturals palm and sesame oils.

  5. OK, and not to pester you more, but do you have more info on the fiber length? I got to thinking that I feed beet pulp in pelleted form, either as part of a "grain" like Pennfield's Fibregized or as part of a beet pulp food like Speedi-Beet. I think beet pulp is considered more like a fiber, so could I be causing problems by feeding the pelletized version?

    1. I'm not sure - I will email the nutritionist and ask.

    2. Here's the reply!!!!!: "There are really two components to acidosis. one is particle size the other is the composition of the particle. We are really most concerned about small particles with a high starch content because they have the combination of high surface area, available starch for fermentation by strep bovis (the primary lactate producer) and small size which decreases passage rate. Beet pulp in general even the pelleted stuff has advantages in that starch is low - its higher in soluble sugars- and the combination of sugars and soluble fiber content (which is high) has an almost 'emulsifying' effect on the gut. Think metamucil and its ability to bind cholesterol because it forms a pectin type gel that serves to bind and pass though the gut. It will have these properties whether it is in a pellet or soaked as a 'shred'."

    3. Awesome - thanks for posting the info!

  6. Totally fascinating. I waited, hoping to come up with a meaningful comment, but I got nothing (other than not feeling guilty about not graining.)

  7. Super interesting info. Oil is just so messy, especially when I have pre-made baggies for the barn to feed (only contains mineral supplement, flax, and beet pulp). Any way other than liquid oil that us still a good source of the right stuff?

    1. There's a feed company in elk grove that makes a "freeze dried" vegetable oil (blue ribbon something?) that I fed for a while and I liked it - much less messy, smells nice and is palatable. I'm not sure what the quality of the oil is - but the finished product is stable and bioavailable. Bascially it's a process where the oil is sprayed on a thin sheet, dried, and collected. I went to a liquid oil for cost and convience (I dont' have to go to the feed store to get it) but I did like the product.

  8. What type of oil do you end up using Mel? And where do you generally purchase it to be the most cost effective?

    1. So.....I purchase vegetable oil in 1 gallon containers in the grocery store. I store it in a cool dry place, and it lasts me 3-4 weeks. Storage is a big issue with oil and although I can't be sure that it's been stored well at the warehouse/store - it's probably better than the feedstore (I used to work in the human food industry so I know the regs for temp and rodent control etc.), and it's better than the barn. I'm broke and can't afford a premium oil so I hedge my bets by buying smaller quantitiy human grade vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is superior to canola, corn for the omega 3/6 and tends to be moderately stable. So that's been my choice over the last couple of years.

    2. I do a lot of shopping at Winco, so usually buy the vegetable oil there.

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    1. Your comment double published so removed one copy :)


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