In 2006 my beautiful horse herd collectively became very sick due to their then-unknown toxic environment. I didn't know why, and neither did my vet, so I had to figure it out myself. Getting them fully better took me around 2-years, as I began to learn how - and why - their health had become so compromised.
I studied everything I could find on equine and human health, and immersed myself in every nutrition model out there. To bring my horses back to wellness became my obsession - the more I learned, the more it became very clear to me how crucial it was to feed them right, optimising their diet and nutrition levels with species-appropriate food alongside bioactive phytonutrients, in order to balance their gut health, support their metabolisms, and above all, make sure their natural, inbuilt, and very sophisticated detox system stayed functioning.
EquiNatural evolved from that educational journey, and led me towards The Institute of Functional Medicine, which understands that the body is a complex, dynamic, adaptive system; in order to optimise health we need to nutrify the body with intelligent, natural components that function, that know what to do in the body, that the body’s already familiar with, and repair the body in ways that conventional medicine can’t.
Functional Medicine is about helping the body naturally regulate itself to support its own innate repair systems, and not about a single drug with a single action with a single outcome for a single disease.
So how did I get here?
It all started . . .
. . . back in the 1960's when mum took me for my first riding lesson as a child. I was so lucky to spend my early childhood in the beautiful Surrey Hills countryside with its magnificent never-ending Crown Estate forest and hills to play in. It's no wonder that I became a committed tomboy - nature was my world. My early childhood was literally spent outdoors climbing trees, hanging off rope-ladders, and taking off into the woods to make camps with my brother.
My poor mother had tried every girlie hobby for me to make something stick - swimming, ballet, you name it. I kept saying 'Ponies!', but she kept resisting - turns out she was allergic to pet hair and pollens so needed to avoid ponies at all costs. She tried to sign me up for the local Brownies, which I actually quite enjoyed but 'White Horses' was on TV at the same time - anyone remember White Horses? So I sulked and Brownies came to an abrupt end.
Eventually mum stoically gave in. On a lovely summer's day, aged 7, I was introduced to Wichy, a beautiful white Connemara Princess-Pony, with a long flowing mane, a coat soft as cashmere and warm, sweet, breath. My heart melted; she was my real life 'White Horses' white horse. I can still remember every second of that day.
From then on I never looked back. I was the typical pony-mad kid, spending every spare moment helping out at that same riding school, which by shere fluke just happened to by run by one of today's esteemed equestrian families, Marion and Peter Larrigan and their daughter Tanya, who at the time was an Olympic junior team-member and became one of Britain's leading international dressage riders and classical trainers. Talk about lucky me.
By the mid 1970's and now aged 16, I became a live-in Working Pupil with the Larrigans to train for the 1-Year BHSAI exam, and became Tanya's show groom. I didn't only just learn the AI syllabus from them though; the Larrigans were very unique communicators with their horses; there was no control or dominance that we sadly see so often today.
Once out in the big world and thanks to the Larrigans, it wasn't hard for me to lean towards what is now generically known as 'natural horsemanship'. As the 'natural' concept grew over the years, I dipped in and out until I found my own natural direction. How I tumbled into EquiNatural, however, was quite by chance.
Fast forward to 2007 . . .
. . . I'm in my 50th year, and for the last couple of years I've watched, helpless, as my beautiful herd of horses have metabolically crashed in front of me.
But first, let me introduce Kelso, a truly charming and beautifully bred, former show cob, whom we'd originally met a couple of years previously via our trainer. (Trainer?! Me needing a trainer?! Aha, read on ...)
In August 2006, Kelso joined our family as my husband's horse. We knew Kelso well as we'd fostered him for 6-months when our trainer had previously been unwell. We also knew he came with baggage - 'Allergy' was his middle name. He had chronic sweet-itch with deep-rooted habitual red-raw scratching. He was also a major-league head-shaker, but I was perfectly happy to manage this with the usual paraphernalia of fly rugs and face masks. (Oh if only I knew then what I know now ... if ever there was a KPU candidate, Kelso was that man.)
However, he also came to us with previously not seen seriously brittle and crumbling hooves, plus a worrying hacking cough which, back then, for August, was unusual - the now well-recognised 'seasonal pollen allergy response' hadn't yet been acknowledged; the only respiratory term banded around then was COPD, which as far as everyone knew only came about during winter.
Literally within a week of Kelso coming to live with us, he was now coughing and wheezing so badly, with such extreme heave lines and nostril flare that he literally couldn't get enough breath to walk. His respiratory system seemed to be in meltdown. The vet diagnosed secondary chest infection, and he was prescribed the usual cocktail of bute, antibiotics and Ventipulmin.
Two weeks later and Kelso was no better; in fact he was much worse, now completely confined to a stable because he literally couldn't find the breath to walk out of it. The vet prescribed a further 2-weeks' worth of the same meds. They didn't work either.
After a month of veterinary drug intervention Kelso was now in a critical state. Having now banked £1500 of my hard-earned cash, the vet suggested glibly that as Kelso was an old chap, it would be best to have him put to sleep. Old? He was only 17! Plus we'd only had him for a month!
Having gone through the wringer of every desperate emotion for the last month, I now turned into a fire-breathing dragon-woman. Flatly refusing to accept the vets' suggestion, and with my instincts screaming that the vet had got it badly wrong, I did what any reasonably educated woman on a mission to get her horse healthy would do. I hit the World Wide Web.
I knew I was clutching at straws but I had this mad idea that maybe those whacky things called herbs could help our big man - they were meant to be medicinal weren't they?! I hit every online Herbal Medica I could find, and lost sleep researching every herby web page I landed on. Finally, in the small hours, I'd put together a list of apparent bronchial-busting herbs that said they could fix our man. I'd bought the lot one minute after the shops opened for around £30.00, mixed it all up, gave him a double dose for breakfast, and crossed everything I had to cross.
Kelso's response was astonishing. Seriously. Remember, this was a horse at death's door, and if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it. Within 48-hours, his nostril flare and wheezing were significantly reduced. By Day-3 his wheezing had completely stopped and his eyes had life in them again. Within 5 days his heave lines had vanished and he was able to get enough breath to step slowly out from his stable. Within 7-days he was back out with his buddies. Within 2-weeks he was going out for gentle walks on the flat with me on his back. Kelso not only survived, but thrived for several more years.
The EquiNatural seed was sown
The stress of watching Kelso worsen for a full, long, month, had turned me into an almighty angry, middle-aged woman. Kelso had been through hell and back, yet the vet's brief 5-minute glib attendances had not only robbed me blind, but had made Kelso significantly sicker, ending in a PTS prognosis.
No surprise, I had lost all confidence in our vet, especially considering a bit of research on my part and a simple blend of herbs had not only given Kelso immediate symptomatic relief but got him completely better within days, and at a fraction of the cost as well.
Life went back to normal for me and my horses, but as we headed into winter a couple of months later, a yardie pal had a COPD horse who was no longer responding to Ventipulmin. She asked if I could put together some 'Kelso Herbs' for her, so of course I did. A couple of days later, her horse was much improved.
Soon I was bagging up more and more bundles of Kelso Herbs, and as people kept asking, someone casually said I should sell them on Ebay. Seriously? I didn't know much about herbs, but inspired, by December I had an Ebay page. Kelso's Herbs were given a new name, BreathePlus, so named because those herbs had literally got Kelso breathing again.
To my huge surprise the Ebay page went nuts! So much so that I had a funky idea to start a website. By end end of Jan 2008, and thanks to Kelso, my life was starting to change. The learning, however, had only just begun. 😉
The bit in the middle - when our horse-world went horribly wrong
From the Surrey Hills for my childhood, to the South Downs as an adult - it didn't get much better than that for trail riding. Then, early 2000's, me and my Connemara, Murphy, moved to Wiltshire, where the newly acquired husband and I rented 7-acres of (what we thought were) perfect grazing. Unkempt, overgrown, unfertilised - and private!
Right on the edge of Salisbury Plain, we were tucked underneath the White Horse of Westbury, with sweeping landscape surrounded by miles of agri-crops and heady yellow rapeseed. The only blot on the landscape was a concrete factory a couple of miles west of us with a huge eye-sore chimney that belched out its smoke cloud over us with the westerly winds - the air always smelt of kids cap-guns.
Within 6 months we started to notice small changes in our horses - lethargic, less friendly, just generally out of sorts. Bromley, my husband’s schoolmaster and beautifully mannered New Forest cob, became positively evil; he started lashing out as us - he bit, kicked, rear-ended and started refusing to leave the yard. He threw the nastiest naps imaginable, many of them on the main roads just when an articulated truck was going by. It wasn’t long before we were referring to him as ‘dangerous’. When husband finally ended up with several cracked ribs, he threw in the Bromley towel – understandably.
Dinky, husband's daughter’s pony, literally crashed overnight with unexpected laminitis in all four hooves. Meanwhile, Murphy's gut went into overdrive - regularly colic-y, projectile faecal-water and liquid gas, pounding pulses, and mega-spooky. My beautiful, calm, laid-back sociable boy changed to a wide-eyed fearful psychotic, and he frankly started to scare me when riding out, which for me was unheard of.
Our once-gentle herd had partnered with the Devil within months of moving. At the time I was clueless - as the saying goes, 'if only I'd known then what I know now', but back then all I could see were the symptoms. We spent a fortune on every specialist we could find; backs, teeth, saddles, bodyworkers, but nothing changed. Eventually tunnel-vision set in - I couldn't even think within the box, let alone outside of it.
All I had left was to get a trainer on board and try to out-school these 'behaviours' that Brom and Murf had developed. This was tough for me; after all, I'm a qualified instructor, trained with the Larrigan's, and here I was feeling like a fearful novice, making pretty much every excuse not to ride, and now ringing round for a trainer.
Knowing what I know now, when I think back to that time of forcing Murf against his will in the school, when all the time it was me not listening to him while he was brainfogged with deep systemic toxic inflammation and pain, I am still mortified with guilt. I think he's forgiven me. I hope he's forgiven me ...
Definition of Co-Incidence
'A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection' Wikipedia
Kelso's illness had been the start of my starting to question - then demanding - answers for what was going on in my horse world. Him getting seriously ill took me towards herbal therapeutics and created a fledgling business which got me studying again, which in itself started to effect profound changes in how I kept my horses.
That same summer Kelso came to live with us, we also moved house to be nearer husband's daughter's new school. We swapped to the Somerset side of Salisbury Plain, a very different landscape with dairy and sheep, and not a crop in sight. In time I began to notice that our horses were becoming more like their old selves again - Murphy seemed back to his former laid-back self, seemingly happy to be with me again, and his gut seemed much more settled. Life was getting back to normal.
It was now time to address Kelso's crumbling hooves. He was constantly tripping and unable to keep a shoe on, so I decided to scratch my itch and have a look at this thing I'd come across called 'barefoot'. The mid-2000s were still very early days in barefoot-ville with very little information around, so I hit the search engines and discovered Nic Barker of Rockley Farm, a barefoot lameness rehab facility.
Nic had also created a barefoot-practitioners school (UKNHCP - UK Natural Hoof Care Practioners) with its own forum, full of advice and support for people who'd taken the barefoot plunge. Not out of whimsical desire, let me assure you - back then only an idiot would do so as 'barefoot' was a very dirty word, pronounced 'cruel' and a 'cult' in the mainstream, conventional, unenlightened horse-world - the H&H forum was not a friendly place.
As I soon learned, the H&H mob weren't appreciating that the reason people were turning to barefoot was because they were literally in Last-Chance-Hoof-Corrall. Alongside wrecked hooves, the 'navicular' word also kept cropping up and many horses were crippled with it. Owners were desperate - it was either PTS or trying this thing called barefoot.
Invaluable for barefoot advice, I learned early on from the UKNHCP forum that diet and environment were two key factors - Nic even wrote a book on it all. I became aware of the damaging metabolic effects of the numerous chemical treatments used on feedbag ingredients, which led me to study more about toxicity overload in our horses' systems.
As everyone on the forum was doing, I promptly dumped the shiny feedbags that I'd been drawn to by their fake promises, and stripped my horses' feed back to a more natural grass forage-based feedbowl. Track systems became the buzzword to keep horses off grass, so I put up a simple track system to enable natural and constant movement for my horses with lots of hay stations. With his shoes off, a change of diet and a track system, Kelso's hooves made a miraculous recovery.
On the strength of Kelso's success, I took all my horses barefoot. Happy that we seemed to be heading back to the good old days before Brom and Murf became sick, I put the positive changes down to my new knowledge - going barefoot, better understanding of feed and the novel track system - it certainly seemed that everything was coming together. However, the final part of the jigsaw was about to reveal itself when I started talking with another horse owner who had also, like us, watched their herd metabolically crash after moving.
The only factor they could pinpoint was that they’d chemically sprayed their own fields for the first time. They also noticed they could taste chemicals in the air when the local farmland was sprayed and the air drifted over their property. Coincidence! Just like us back in Wiltshire with the local agri-crops and that darned chimney.
Everything started making sense. Our previous home environment had slowly been damaging every fibre of our horses' systems, caused by the local crop-spraying chemical exposure with fertilisers and the full buffet of the 'ides' - pesticides, fungicides, herbicides - alongside that chimney dropping its sulphur cloud onto our grazing land. I recalled reading the Letters page in the local paper from angry locals demanding answers from the Environment Agency on the air quality, and gradually I began to put it all together.
This was a major turning point for me. I now realised the importance of 'environment' as a whole - it wasn't just about having a nice field and a stress-free yard for my horses to live in; it was also very much about the actual environment - the very air, water, soil quality and - the grass they were grazing on.
Thanks to a series of coincidences, I'd finally found the answers to my horses' mystery syndrome. Thanks to moving, getting chemicals out of their environment was absolutely key, and thanks to going barefoot, I'd also learned some eye-opening facts about the chemical processes on processed feeds. With the growing body of evidence I was building from my somewhat obsessive research, together with my newly acquired herbal studying, I had a fair idea of the direction I wanted - needed - to take to ensure my horses never experienced such devastating effects on their health again.
I've since completed many training programmes, including:
2007 Equine Herbal Medicine & Remedies
2007/8 Equine Nutrition as a Therapy
2009 Nutrient Digestion in the Equine Gastrointestinal Tract
2009 Feeding the Metabolic Syndrome Horse
2011 Equine Soundness Hoofcare programme
2012 Coursera Equine Nutrition, University of Edinburgh
2016 School of Herbal Medicine, Medical Herbalist, Advanced Diploma
2017 The Truth About Cancer (from a Naturopathic, functional medicine perspective)
2018 The Real Skinny on Fat (from a Naturopathic, functional medicine perspective)
2018 Ancient Medicine for Modern Illness (studying Naturopathy, Western Herbalism, Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine)
2021 - Feed your Horse Fit (Dr Christina Fritz), Biologist with a PhD in Animal Physiology/Neurobiology. Dr Fritz has been treating horses since 2006 focusing on metabolic therapy using holistic feeding methods. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDHEg71_-04
. Incorporating: Domesticated horses VS. wild horses/Digestive physiology/Food, all possible raw materials, ingredients and types of food are reviewed/How the metabolism work and how the substances in the food used by the body/What is healthy food for the horse (hay management, mineral nutrition, balancers, concentrates)/Why our horses develop "lifestyle diseases“ like excess weight or skin afflictions/How does "detoxification“ work on a physiological level?/Liver and Kidney function explained/Kryptopyrroluria (KPU) - a common health issue underlying many metabolic symptoms like sweet itch, laminitis etc/How to see if your horse has health problems and what are the early markers for metabolic problems/Different primal types of horses and the influence of the primal qualities on the contemporary horse/The difference between storage of waste in fat or connective tissue (and the consequences)/The difference between fat, lymphatic or muscular horses (and how to manage them)
Finally, my own beautiful horses ...
... who have given me the opportunity to extensively research their individual predisposed syndromes - EMS/IR (Murf/MacAttack/Cookie), KPU/sweet itch (Kelso/MacAttack), PPID (Cookie), KPU (MacAttack) and ... the importance of detoxing.
However, I'll be the first to put my hand in the air and say I'm no qualified nutritionist or vet, nor am I here to replace professional veterinary advice. For me it's all about keeping an open mind, with a foot in both the conventional and natural camps, and knowing when to use what.
At heart I'm still that pony-mad kid - I'm just a normal person speaking with normal horse people just like me who are struggling with their horse's health, and if my experience can help another owner help their horse, this is what it's all about for me.
My life's overriding passion are my horses - they were my first love. Over the years I've watched my own horses grow and interact with as natural a lifestyle as I've been able to provide for them always at the forefront of my desire for them. Each one of them has been responsible for many of the blends that we’ve put together under the EquiNatural banner, and they in return have told me over the years whether I've got it right or not.
Without doubt, my horses have been, and will continue to be, my greatest teachers.