Nutritional Support of Equine Disorders

Many equine disorders or chronic diseases can be managed with nutrition to keep the animal comfortable and in many cases still useful as a mount. Proper nutritional management would include providing the basic needs of water, forage and concentrates and to control the amounts/intake using various methodologies. In certain circumstances some supplemental therapy may be warranted.

Story originally posted by: Eve Rejman

This article will provide some guidance and suggestions on how to use nutrition to reduce various equine disorders. However, this article is not intended to provide “cures” for any chronic or acute disorders. In part one we discuss disorders caused by food intake, or lack thereof.


In well-off countries many horses, like their human counterparts, are overweight. The health significance of obesity in horses is unknown, except in the areas of reproduction. Obese mares have more trouble conceiving and foaling, while obese stallions have lower sperm counts.
However, opposed to other species that have obesity-related problems, the horse seems lucky in this respect. The obese horse does not appear to be prone to heart disease, diabetes, etc. As expected, overweight horses will not be as tolerant to heat, humidity or exercise as a normal weight horse. In addition, obese horses, especially the pony breeds as a broad generalization, are more prone to founder.

Lack of attention to body condition, an oversupply of palatable feed, and inadequate exercise will all contribute to obesity. Horses do not need a measured amount of feed every day unless in a training regimen. Even in these situations, they will not be compromised for a day or two. Horses, if healthy, love to eat 80% of the time. Also they can be greedy, consuming concentrates and highly palatable legume forages with great relish, then look around for more. Loving your animals and exhibiting this by pet-related activities, such as plying the horse with multitudes of grains, legumes and treats every time you visit, or at the start and end of a ride can slowly lead to an obese condition. Keep the carrots coming, but limit the amount per interaction with the animal that is obese. Always keep a fresh supply of water available, preferably at the other end of the pasture if the animal is out 24/7. This will provide some much needed exercise.

Spare the concentrate ration and try to feed grass hay, not legumes. Obtain a body condition chart from your extension agent or feed dealer and keep check on the horse’s body condition at least every three weeks. Do not neglect trace minerals, which can be fed with salt. You should strive to maintain a body score of about 5.5 to 6.


Under times of stress, pain, disease or just plain neglect, horses may consume less than the feed they need. Unfortunately, in many cases, starvation is caused when inadequate amounts of feed are available. Insufficient feed intake will affect all body systems. The result will be a horse that is less resistant to disease, have slower recovery rates, and not respond quickly to rehabilitation. The gut of a horse is very sensitive to food depravation. Unlike carnivores, the gut should have feed moving through it constantly. Acute and violent diarrhea was seen in horses that were experimentally denied feed (allowed water and salt) for a period of two or more days. High rates of mortality occurred from the ensuing dehydration. It must also be noted that attempts to re-feed these horses with a full diet immediately can result in rapid death.

A starved horse is also a dehydrated horse. In order to correct starvation the horse should have free access to clean fresh water and salt. These should be placed easily within his reach especially if he is down from exhaustion and muscle wasting. Feedings should be small and frequent, ideally up to 6 or 8 times per day. The diet should be comprised of 50% of the normal energy intake of a healthy horse. These feedings should comprise the very best alfalfa or legume hay and/or grain pellets containing at least 12% crude protein. If the horse is very weak, a full-pelleted feed can be mixed in water and fed as a mash.

This rather rich diet seems to get the gut and the large cecum “jump started” into performing its function again. Microbial populations reinstate themselves quickly, peristalsis of the gut picks up, nutrient absorption is at its maximum, provided you feed the horse frequent small meals. After 4-6 days on this type of diet, the horse should be noticeably more active and more interested in meals and its environment. A SLOW increase over the next 4 to 6 days of upping the energy level to the needs of the horse in its healthy state will start building up muscle and fat stores without compromising the previously starved gut. During this changing phase, legume hay and concentrates should be slowly cut down and high quality grass forage substituted. By the end of the second week or so, the horse’s intake is at its normal level, and it’s energy needs met by grass forage and concentrate, with a full complement of vitamins and minerals and a crude protein level at about 12%.

Small amounts of exercise, according to what the starved horse can handle should also be worked into the re-feeding program at this time.


The pain that is created from contracting founder (laminitis) is from the swelling or inflammation of the hoof wall (laminae) between the foot bone and hoof wall. This soft tissue swells, as it is compresses between the hard bone and overlying hoof. Severe swelling my cause blood flow to stop, and the tissue can die. If this is the case, the laminae separate. The foot bone (coffin) disconnects and rotates downward and the hoof wall curls upward.

Many cases of laminitis are nutrition related, and may be related to single or a combination of factors including, grain overload, ingestion of large amounts of cold water after a workout when overheated, or turnout on lush spring pasture after months of dry forage.

If any of the above scenarios has occurred with your horse, an immediate call to the veterinarian is warranted before any clinical signs occur. The longer the swelling persists the harder it is to treat and save the hoof, or even the horse. As a rule, keep your feed bins locked away or in locked containers, cool out hot exercised horses completely before offering fresh cool water and always offer forage before their grain meal.

Gradually introduce horses into fresh pasture a few minutes a day after many months on dry forage, until they can be worked up to an hour or more on grass without any problem.

Some heavier breeds and pony breeds should always be monitored on grass pastures. It is simply too rich for their genetic makeup to be on all the time, and they are more predisposed to laminitis than more hot-blooded animals as a general rule. Horses recovering from a bout with laminitis should be have the trace minerals copper (formation of normal connective tissue), zinc, manganese and selenium (cofactors of antioxidants systems) added to the diet. Some flax seed oil (source of essential fatty acid-gets the gut moving in the right tract of normal digestion) and vitamin C, which appears to have some effects on the inflammatory process could also help, and not do any harm.

One-eighth to one-quarter cup of flax oil and 1500 mgs of Vitamin C should suffice.

In part two of this series, (Monday, Sept. 30) we will discuss nutrition-related diseases and illnesses, and how to treat them.

Eve Rejman is an Equine nutritionist and Dairy biochemist living in rural Poland, ME. She can be reached at