Horses are instinctive, sensitive beings who live in the rhythm of nature.
Each seasonal change provides a noticeable structure and guideline for our horses’ overall health, specifically how they naturally maintain their health, and importantly, how they avoid illness. As a result, each season relates to different system requirements and the related major organs to be in optimum health to provide the necessary protection as the seasons change.
Although horses are creatures of habit, they instinctively respond to the changes in the seasons, adapting to the way these changes connect to their physical, emotional and mental health. These are all regulated by cycles of light (day) and dark (night), sunlight and temperature. Their Circadian Rhythm, the 24-hr cycle in the physiological process of all living beings, determines sleeping/feeding patterns, brainwave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities.
For our horses, staying healthy as each season changes is absolutely essential for their bodies to be able to respond to their changing needs regarding nutrition, movement, quality rest and play, muscle recharge - all important elements as the seasons change. One of the most obvious ways in which our horses respond to these changes is via their feeding patterns - our wild horses typically follow the feast/famine syndrome, thriving on green pastures through the summer to build the body fat stores, to enable them to manage the winter's 'hungry gap', surviving on whatever sparse forage they can find in winter. Our domesticated horses have the benefit of us humans to manage the winter hungry-gap for them, but even with us in control, we still need to adjust feed regimes accordingly to work with the seasons.
Here in the UK, even though we’ve got four official seasons, in reality we experience five - Spring, Summer, Indian Summer, Autumn and Winter. This also follows the belief within Chinese Medicine known as the Five-Element Theory, also called the Five-Season Theory.
According to the Chinese calendar, there are five seasons, which include Summer and Late Summer. The Five-Season Theory follows the Chinese Medicine understanding that all living beings are intertwined with nature, and that depending on the season, specific organs of the body require purifying and toning at that time of the year to support the body’s balance, with the body’s state of health responding accordingly.
The seasons and their related organs are:
- Spring - Liver
- Summer - Heart/Small Intestine
- Late (Indian) Summer - Spleen/Stomach
- Autumn - Lung/Large Intestine
- Winter - Kidney/Bladder
To summarise, when the body is balanced and in tune with nature, the body experiences health. When it's out of balance and 'polluted', the body experiences ‘dis-ease’ of one sort or another, the word ‘dis-ease’ simply meaning that the body is not at ease.
Working alongside the seasons with our horses can help ensure they remain healthy and happy, and stay in tune with Mother Nature.
As the earth tilts so that the sun is directly over the equator, this signifies the start of the Vernal, or Spring Equinox. Spring represents renewal and rebirth, and is the most embraced and significant of the season changes.
It denotes the start of new life and regeneration of nature, and following winter’s typical hungry gap with forage starved of nutrients, accompanied by winter’s illnesses and allergens, the liver has been working overtime to keep the system detoxed and healthy. Thus, Spring is the time of year to detox, cleanse and boost the health of the liver.
March/April – March is a time for All-Change! This is probably the most important time of the year to be grass-aware and super-vigilant when turning our horses out onto spring grass after a winter of hay. Our grazing starts to show signs of regrowth with new grass shoots coming through, which can represent a huge change to our horses’ diets signifying both laminitis and colic risk. The sweet spring grass can be a serious shock to the system, so to avoid triggering a case of colic or laminitis, our horses need reintroducing to spring grazing slowly.
In addition, spring growth represents a major change in the mineral chemistry of our grass from winter depletion to spring surges, and as a result this also brings major changes in our horses’ systemic chemical responses to these mineral changes.
As well as our grazing quality changing, the midges appear and can cause real misery to those horses affected by sweet-itch. Meanwhile, the first effects of spring pollens can cause respiratory distress to those horses sensitive to them, very often accompanied by headshaking.
And let’s not forget our mares, who know exactly when spring arrives. As the days get longer, their hormones respond by restarting the estrous cycle, and they’ll begin to show both active and passive sexual behaviours as their hormones start telling them to find a mate.
The spring sun also encourages parasite eggs to hatch, and because worms can have a dramatic impact on our horse’s digestive health and nutrient absorption, March is an ideal time to worm, followed by a fecal egg count.
May – Babies! For those of us having had mares in foal, they will likely have foaled out by May, which means our mares' bodies are now doing the hardest work of their lives. When a mare is lactating, her energy needs shoot up a full 80% over her usual maintenance requirements. Her protein needs more than double, and her requirements for calcium and phosphorus almost triple. The first eight weeks of nursing are as strenuous an activity as our mares will ever undertake and will have a lasting impact on how well her foal develops and matures.
The Earth assumes its most direct tilt into the Sun at the Summer Solstice, and energy levels are now at their highest, thriving at this time of year. To support the energy demands, this is the time of year to cleanse and tone the heart, purify the blood and stimulate circulation.
June – The hay season starts, not only time for the first cut but one of the most pivotal times for our horse’s dietary program, as the hay we harvest or purchase now will affect our horses’ nutritional balance for the following year.
July/August – High summer, and it’s hot out there! On the hotter, more humid days, summer pasture allergens can trigger respiratory havoc for some horses. The muggy conditions increase the pollen count because there's more growth in the warm humid air, with the wet air holding more particles. Consider a face mask with a nose-net, or even bringing in during the day to give respite from the muggy air, and turning back out at night when the air is cooler.
In addition, horses can lose substantial quantities of minerals in sweat, so the addition of quality sodium in the diet is all the more important. Studies have determined that horses can voluntarily consume an average of about 50g of sodium a day if made available to them. Horses do not store sodium, potassium, or chloride in their tissues from one day to the next so electrolyte supplementation is essential when horses sustain high sweat losses every day.
Meanwhile the laminitis risk rumbles on.
Indian Summer days are hotter and muggier, high in humidity and with a feeling of heaviness in the air. This often mirrors the way the body feels during this period. This is the time to boost our metabolism and cleanse the stomach.
This is also the time when the effects of summer pasture allergens can hit the hardest.
August/September - Late summer is prime time for drought conditions. When our pastures dry out, we may need to supplement the poor grazing with hay to help maintain weight during the dry season.
Gathering and elimination are the traits of this season - this is the time to tone the lungs and large intestine.
October – As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, the nutritional value of our grazing plummets. The omega and Vitamin E values deteriorate so replenishing these is important to maintain the forage mineral balance.
Beware autumnal falling leaves and acorns as they can represent a toxic risk. Oak trees can be poisonous to horses and if grazing gets sparse, they might eat both leaves and acorns. Time also to check pastures in readiness for winter, and have hay supplies in place.
November – In some areas in the UK, we may get the first hard frost, or 'killing frost’. This is of huge benefit to our equines as it can kill many equine parasites including the botflies whose larvae can live very comfortably in our horses’ digestive systems. Keep an eye on the weather news because worming just before a killing frost can be an ideal time; once cleaned out, our horses are likely to remain pretty much parasite-free until spring.
For our respiratory-challenged horses, November can bring on the symptoms of compromised winter respiratory issues with the change in air temperature and stable allergens. Consider including a mycotoxin binder (binds to fungal moulds in damp areas) into the feedbowl. Equally, the cold and damp weather can cause stiff joints to become more pronounced.
The colder, wetter weather also brings on the unwelcome return of mud, and hence chronic pastern dermatitis, aka mud-fever.
Some horses may also have trouble adjusting back to a hay diet, which means they might be at higher risk of impaction colic. Focus on hydration with added sodium to the diet to encourage drinking.
The cold and darkness of winter forces us to slow down, replenish our energy and conserve our strength. Winter detoxification is all about improving the function of the kidneys and bladder, for which sodium in the equine diet is important.
December – The UK weather in December tends to be more wet than freezing, and on top of the wet November weather, mud fever stays prevalent for those horses prone to it.
January - Considered the ‘depths’ of winter, we’re now experiencing freezing temperatures, so keeping our horses hydrated is essential. When the temperature drops, horses drink less, and in areas where water sources can freeze over, dehydration and impaction colic become very real concerns.
Studies have shown that horses drink substantially more water in the winter when it’s lukewarm, so if you can, adding warm water to buckets before a feed will encourage horses to drink deeply. Also consider soaking hay or feeding soaked feed with warm water to aid hydration.
February - Time to check body condition - how have our horses fared throughout winter? Winter rugs can hide a multitude of winter weight-loss sins. Horses burn up to 15-20% more calories trying to maintain their internal body temperatures, with older horses in particular having to work harder to thermo-regulate in the winter months.
Don’t be misled into thinking you need to up the content of a feed bucket - the best way to help your horse keep his internal furnace burning is to increase the amount of forage he receives. Fibrous feeds are digested in the cecum of the hindgut by bacterial fermentation, and this process generates lots of warmth.
The good news (yes, there's good news in February!) is that we're getting more daylight again. From just 7 measly hours in December, we're up to 9 by end Jan, and a fabulous 11 hours by end Feb, where it's light at 7am right through till gone 6pm. Spring, thank goodness, is just around the corner!