"When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is right, medicine is of no need."
Ancient Ayurvedic proverb
Disclaimer - Rest assured I'm not in alliance with any feed company - I don't benefit one iota from any of them. So why have I put together this very long section? Because it's so incredibly important - yet so incredibly confusing out there. There's so much feed-company spin and misinformation, and it's all too easy to get sucked into it, but it's making our horses sick. Feed our horses how they're meant to be fed, and they won't get sick. Simples as that 😉
Imagine building your house out of rotten wood or disintegrating bricks. Remember the fable about building your house on sand? Or the nursery story about the three little pigs? Same with the body - structure and foundation matter, and it's the same with our bodies - human or horse. Us humans can knowingly eat all the ready-meals we want, but surely none of us want to build our horse's body from defective ingredients?
So, how does the body makes new cells, organs, tissues, skin, muscles, bones and brain cells? They're not made from thin air - the raw materials come from the food we, as our horse's carer, fuel their body with. So next time we put the feedbowl down in front of beloved Ned, maybe we should be asking ourselves if we're fine with it becoming part of Ned for the long term.
Would any of us be happy feeding our horse something that is scientifically known to damage their hormone-producing factory, or an ingredient so mutated by multiple changes in its genetics and biochemistry that scientists are now saying it's the reason behind the last 50-years' disease culture, causing an explosion of multiple autoimmune diseases?
And would we want to fill Ned full of synthetic vitamins and minerals that his gut system can neither recognise or know what to do with, or dose him up on fructose and pectins which feed the pathogen lactic-acid bacteria in his hindgut which create the hindgut dysbiosis domino effect, risking both colic and laminitis?
Just a few examples from a huge long list of questionable ingredients in many of our feed brands. But - there's a simple, and very cost-effective way to change all this - we need to ignore the spin and fake promises, and go back to feeding our horses how they're meant to be fed.
How many feeds and plastic tubs have you got in the feedroom?!
Is your feedtime 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 beyond confused. Nothing seems to work so we keep trying more different bags of feed and supplements. No wonder we feel so flipping guilty 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, then 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. 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 reason for getting out of bed every day, 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 - there's a whole lot of junk and misinformation out there that's doing nothing but keeping our horses sick while making the manufacturers rich. Actually, there's no such think as junk food - there's just junk, or there's food. It's no wonder we're confused.
In our human world, the standard western diet comes from over 70% 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 - that's not me being intentionally rude - it stands for 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 - C.R.A.P. And we’re up against powerful biochemical mechanisms created by this C.R.A.P. because they've hijacked the brain, hormones, the metabolism, and created addictive cravings.
Back to us humans, and these days 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, and 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 - human or horse - 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 - they're simply not trained in nutrition or how to use food as medicine,yet I've seen miracles happen over decades, including with my own health which took a major dive in 2014 that I rescued with food and balanced, supportive nutrition. 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. 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 beneficially influences our biological systems by turning off inflammation, increasing antioxidant systems, balancing hormones and brain chemistry, boosting the body's own natural - and very sophisticated - detoxification system; it increases energy, optimises the microbiome, and turns on disease-preventing, health-promoting genes.
With every bite, we literally program our horses' bodies' biology either for health, or sickness. Eating natural, species-appropriate food is literally eating medicine.
So what do we need to do?
As a horse carer, we all want to ensure our horses are healthy, we all want to make sure their basic nutrition needs are covered, and we all 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 - TaDah! Yet 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 how, and 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 - everything about how well we all function depends entirely on what we eat or feed. And it all comes from food that nature creates, which doesn't come with an ingredient list or a barcode.
Yes I'm an old grey mare ...
... because I'm now going to show my age. Anyone 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 us helpers (three of us) would 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 we'd bring them all back again for the weekend's lessons and hacks.
Lush meadow grass?! I know! I hear you! Proper, real, long, 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?
Well ... a lot. These days, we now support a system that promotes the growing of commodity crops using loads of chemicals, that are then turned into ultra-processed fake junk foods that evolution has said from the get-go that horses should never eat. But - the equine food industry says otherwise, with lots of fake promises of amazing health stamped on their shiny bags.
These foods also create huge amounts of healthcare costs, while also destroying the environment with glyphosate spraying (a confirmed carcinogen), poisoning our water and our air, and declining biodiversity. The true cost of the impact of how we feed our horses is much more than what we pay at the checkout.
So, let's get straight to the nitty-gritty - Why what we feed has to be right.
NB - As mentioned earlier, please be assured that I'm in no way affiliated to any feed company whatsoever. My overriding passion (and frustration) on this subject of all-things-horse-feed was borne from watching my own herd crash with near-irreversible sickness, and my non-stop studying over the last decade-plus as a result.