"When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is right, medicine is of no need."
Ancient Ayurvedic proverb
How many of us have several bags of various feeds and a ton of plastic supplement tubs in the feedroom? How many of us feel that feedtime is more like a military manoeuvre? A scoop of this, half a scoop of that, a gloop of this, a slosh of that, oh and don't forget 79-grams of them, then exactly 853ml of water, err now which chaff did I put in because he didn't like that other one, and mustn't forget to add in that new supplement, then 30g of the other one or was it 20g, plus two capfuls of that new tincture, now where's the ACV and bluddy heck who's nicked me turmeric urgghhh ...
If my inbox is anything to go by, we're confused. No wonder we keep trying many different bags of feed because nothing's working. No wonder we feel so flipping guilty most of the time as we frisbee a feedbowl of something new at beloved Ned then leg it quickly so we don't have to watch them sniff it, then pull that face that says, "You trying to poison me again?"
When my horses became chronically sick back in 2006, and I was starting to learn/study how what I fed my horses significantly affected their health, I spent a ton of time on Dr Google and many forums. This was a post I came across on the HHO forum, around 2006/7:
"I worked for a feed company for a couple of years. We were encouraged to sell their feed of course and diss other brands. What went into them was whatever was cheap and laced with molasses, add a few aromatic herbs and Bob's your uncle, top spec feed. I don't do that anymore."
Thankfully, it now seems forever ago that my beautiful herd became terribly sick, but the learning never stops. My horses have always been my passion, so learning to keep them healthy became my obsession -- I still read every new research study and nutrition model I can lay my hands on, and one thing's for sure - natural plant chemicals found in food beneficially influence our biological systems, each and every one of us, whether horse or human,
In our human world, the standard western diet comes from over 60% of ultra-processed food, mostly from commodity crops - wheat, corn, and soya (three of the worst ingredients in most equine feed brands today), turned into thousands of food-like products that bear little resemblance to our evolutionary diet. It's what I call the C.R.A.P diet - Carbs, Refined, Artificial and Processed. Those who eat these nutrient-depleted, addictive foods are the sickest among us - this diet not only makes us sick but drives us to consume more and more food-like substances, looking for the missing nutrients. (And sadly, this is also what most shiny horse-feed bags are as well - keep reading for the heads-up).
Today our vegetables aren't bred for flavour, nutrient density, or phytochemical richness - they've been bred for yield, starch content, disease resistance, drought, shape, shelf stability, and hardiness for transport. If you've tasted the difference between a pale-red perfect-looking tomato in the middle of winter, or an organic, heirloom tomato picked from the vine in late August, you'll know exactly what I mean.
Food, it turns out, is the biggest driver of imbalances in our biological networks, and also the biggest lever for rapid change, reversal of disease, and creation of health. The longer I do what I do, the more apparent it is that vets and doctors haven't seen the power of food (mostly because they're not trained in how to use food as medicine), yet I've seen miracles happen over decades - including my own health which took a major dive in 2014 that I rescued with food. Except ... they're not miracles.
There is no other activity we do every day that has more power to change our horse's biology than what we feed them - or our own biology and what we eat, for that matter. Food carries information - molecules, instructions and codes that program a body's biology with every bite, for better or worse.
Real, whole, nutrient and phytonutrient-rich food turns off inflammation, increases antioxidant systems, balances hormones and brain chemistry, boosts the body's own natural detoxification system, increases energy, optimises the microbiome, and turns on disease-preventing, health-promoting genes.
With every bite, we literally program our horses' bodies' biology for health - or disease. Eating healthy, species-appropriate food is literally eating medicine.
So what do we need to do?
As a horse carer, we want to ensure our horses are healthy, we want to make sure their basic nutrition needs are covered, and we want to make sure they live their lives comfortably, in good health, stress-free, and sound. Of course we do!
But what can we do to go beyond the standard nutrition that's available to us in our feed merchants, to really transform our horse's health and achieve optimal performance? You may be surprised to hear that the answer is incredibly simple - we need to feed our horses what they're meant to eat, and sadly, today's feed industry isn't helping us with this. (All covered further on in our Why what we feed has to be right page).
Put simply, if we mess about with what a horse is meant to eat - and this applies to us all - food can either hurt or heal - the quality of the food we feed will either create inflammation, or not. Horse or human, what we put inside our bodies impacts everything - mood, energy and physicality; emotional health, relationships, movement, immunity and gene expression all depend on what we eat or feed.
I'm now going to show my age
How many of us are old enough to remember back to the 60's/70's? I know there's a few of us out there based on the many comments I get from clients saying that back in the day, things seemed so much simpler. I seem to remember that life was sunnier as well, but that may be because I have so many awesome childhood memories of sunny days with the ponies 😉
Anyhow, many moons ago, back in the late 1960's, I was a pony-mad nearly-teen helping out at the local riding school at weekends. I was so lucky - my family lived in the glorious Surrey Hills countryside, and you couldn't ask for better trail-riding country. After a weekend of helping taking rides out across stunning Crown Estate forest, every Sunday evening we'd ride the ponies bareback through the forest to turn them out onto endless acres of lush meadow grass, where they'd have a lovely week off until the following Saturday morning, when us helpers would bring them all back again for the weekend's lessons.
Lush meadow grass?! I know! I hear you! Proper real lush meadow grass! Yet not once was there a hint of footiness or lameness. I don't recall any of those ponies being unsound in any way, and trust me when I say we did a lot of trekking, plus riding holidays as well. And as for laminitis, let alone any of the all-too-familiar metabolic labels we have today, or the all-too-common practice today of having to keep horses off grass … these were all words and labels we'd never heard of back then. Those truly were the days.
So what went wrong?
Let's head to the next chapter, Does food matter? Because it really, really does.