The question “Are we killing our horses with kindness?” has been asked repeatedly for many years around the globe. The answer has been a most emphatic “Yes!” Many ailments of our beloved equine companions seem to have been brought on by transferring human criteria of comfort and safety to horses. One of my favorite examples of this transference over the years is “Well, I am wearing a jacket, so my horse must be cold, too.”
A SMATTERING OF SCIENCE The door to understanding the true nature of our attempts to nurture our beloved companions is finally being knocked on by clinicians like Scott V. Dindot, PhD, and Noah D. Cohen, VMD, MPH, PhD, with their published work, Epigenetic Regulation of Gene Expression: Emerging Applications for Horses. In its simplest form, epigenetics deals with the various ways in which the biochemical environment of all cells will cause alterations to genetic expression in living organisms. This emerging knowledge begs the question for our horses: “What is the tipping point for changing their cellular biochemical environment?” One example that sheds light on this very question is the impact from ammonia toxicity on a horse’s respiration, as well as cardio-pulmonary and immune system function. Research has shown that ammonia at as low an exposure rate of 10 ppm for just a few hours daily over a period of five to seven weeks can cause dysfunction of the horse’s mucus membranes. This alteration of a natural function decreases immune response and makes the horse susceptible to other pathogens. Disturbingly, humans are not able to smell the ammonia levels until they reach 30 to 40 ppm. Hmmm, pause for thought here. That certainly sheds a clearer light on the old saw that the best place in a barn for a horse is outside of the barn.
MATTERS OF WHICH TO BE MINDFUL Limiting a horse’s exposure to their natural environment creates changes in a horses cellular biology.
Sunshine: Horses turned out at night in the summer and kept in stalls with fans blowing at them during the day to ‘protect’ them from the summer heat have been documented as being Vitamin D deficient, more prone to respiratory ailments, and suffering an increase in many lameness issues.
Blanketing: The use of blankets curtails the ability of horse hair to fluff and the skin to produce appropriate oils. A horse’s age, weight, availability of proper forage, as well as shelter, companionship and level of work expected of the horse must all be factored in to make the proper decision for your horse, but do remember that skin is a major organ for your horse. Insects: Eliminating a horse’s exposure to insect bites also denies their system of potential benefits. There is a known connection between antibody production in the form of immunoglobulin E (IgE) which plays a major role in allergic diseases and in the body’s ability to kill parasites. What other benefits are we denying them with raincoats and flysheets?
Weed-free grass paddocks: While these manicured paddocks may be the best available in a large number of cases and the only natural exercise afforded to some horses, they continue to exacerbate the disruption of a horse’s digestive system by limiting the variety of grasses, shrubbery and herbs which horse biology has evolved to utilize. Some examples would be white willow, sea buckthorn, rosehips, mullein, basil, chamomile, onion grass and wild garlic.
Bandaging: Efforts to keep a wound clean through repeated bandaging, can produce negative effects. Cold hosing, careful inspection, poultice and warm epsom soaks, although more labor intensive, can be a better alternative. Bandages tend to increase basal temperature of the parts covered, unnaturally compress the structures beneath the bandage, and provide support to the neglect of natural engineering. All qualities that are not desirable in the healthy leg.
Feeding schedules: Non-complementary (to the horse) human feeding schedules and the overuse of highly processed feeds have been well-documented as injurious to the horse’s digestive processes. By circumventing the horse’s natural trickle-feed digestive system, we also overload their digestive ability.
THE TIPPING POINT Changes in the biochemical environment at the cellular level occur to some degree with every unguent, potion and spray we use on our horses. Changes occur to some degree with every alteration to their environment and each assault on natural bodily function as well. Specific scientifically verifiable information regarding the cumulative effect does not exist as yet. Despite what appears to be the overwhelming nature of the unknowns in this regard, care that is mindful of and supportive to a horse’s natural biology and temperament will help horse lovers delay the potential toxic tipping point that sends horses into disease and death prematurely.
(Callout) Wellness and illness have a commonality for all living creatures. They are achieved or suffered through incremental change. (End Callout)
KEEP IT SIMPLE SISTER/SON (K.I.S.S.) Look first to simple, supportive solutions. Work with a veterinarian or commercial caretaker who
endorses more natural protocols and doesn’t jump immediately to chemical interventions. A whole-horse trainer’s knowledge is invaluable for promoting overall health in every healing and health scenario. And remember, there is absolutely nothing natural about what we do with horses. So, we must attempt to work within their nature to the best of our ability and K.I.S.S. their cares away.
Elizabeth Crawford’s 50 years of horse experience, observations and interactions in various venues has prompted her to become the founder of the Partnership Project, a New Jersey Nonprofit Corporation whose purpose and goal is to produce concrete data for the benefit of mindful whole-horse health as well as foster pathways to global mental health. Elizabeth’s book; Eat, Sleep, Neigh (a work of fiction), is tentatively scheduled for release in the fall of 2015. www.eatsleepneigh.com