Access to Needed Nutrients
By Dan Moore, The Natural Vet®
Grass Muzzles for pasture horses – that’s crazy!
Or is it? Grass muzzles are a hot item these days. I see them at
almost every equine event I attend. Truthfully, I almost laughed
the first time I saw one. Then I thought to myself “that is a
great idea”, many horse owners today really need them. But
For thousands of years wild horses have lived on grass alone
and typically they ate all they wanted. There was no one to
stop them, turn them out for only a few hours at a time or
worse yet MUZZLE them. Today, colic, allergies, metabolic
issues, laminitis, hoof and other health issues are often
associated with eating too much grass.
What is different about today’s grass or perhaps what is different
about the horse? Obviously a lot has changed! If we truly look
at the way it was and, “mimic” what’s natural,
perhaps we can have healthier horses and avoid
a lot of problems.
Today’s species of grasses are totally different
from the past. Most horses today on pasture
only have one or two varieties of grass – usually
timothy, orchard grass with some degree of
clover and fescue. In the wild, they had access
to vast areas of grass and abundant species.
Equally important was access to other plants and herbs. Today
they eat what they have access to in the spaces we confine
them to. Most species of grass (and even grain) today are
genetically modified – a controversy and discussion all in itself.
By being able to “pick and choose” what they needed, horses
received a balance of nutrients.
For instance, as I am sure you know, most horses will chew on
tree bark. Of course it is bad for the trees – totally
inconsequential in the wilderness, but in the back yard pasture,
chewed dead trees look awful! Simple sugars called
polysaccharides and amino acids like methionine and perhaps
tannins are probably what they a re after by eating the trees.
Regardless, if methionine is supplemented most horses have
better hooves. Supplementing simple poly saccharide sugars
(not refined complex table sugar or syrup) will often help the
gut (sometimes stop cribbing and help ulcers, too) – the gut
being the source of almost all problems in a horse.
One such simple sugar in particular is Arabinogalactan,
obtained from the Western Larch tree. Another is Mannose –
from the Aloe plant. The Native American Indians and
“grandmas” everywhere have used these substances for
centuries. In other parts of the world they may have used Noni
fruit or Pomegranate or whatever was native to the area – and
if the horses that were there had access to them, be assured
they ate the bark, fruit (or whatever) too!
This is one of the reasons supplements are so important today
– horses just can’t get all they need from the typical diets we
give them, and the one or two species of grass they graze just
doesn’t provide all they may need. There are most likely many
ingredients or micronutrients that we have not yet discovered.
I believe we will someday classify polysaccharides as
“ESSENTIAL” polysaccharides, just like there are essential
amino acids, and essential fatty acids now.
The need for the essential fatty acids like Omega 3, 6 and 9 are
beginning to be more recognized by horse owners today. IN
the wild, horses can pick and choose seeds and grass heads
from various grasses and plants to get the fatty acids they need
– in our care they take what we give them – unfortunately, until
recently they have received very little. For
the most part, they just receive sugars (like
from corn and molasses), which, as we know,
turns to fat but are not essential fatty acids.
Today high fat is “in” but again we must be
careful. The easy thing to do is buy cheap fat
like REFINED or partially hydrogenated oils
(corn oil for instance). The problem with any
refined oil is that all the “goody” is filtered
out and sold for other purposes. Hydrogenated oils are more
stable and less likely to spoils or go rancid, which is why they
are used in almost every snack food, but they actually harden
and damage cells within the body ad make tissue less pliable.
This can actually make a situation like insulin resistance or
metabolic disease (which are often the clinical problems that
trigger the need for fats to be supplemented in the first place)
to be even more of a problem. “Hardened” cells don’t respond
to insulin and other “metabolic reactions” like more pliable
cells would. Over time “hydrogenation” causes premature aging
because more and more insulin must be produced and the
body’s cells become more and more damaged.
One of the main purposes of insulin is to regulate sugar. The
grain we feed our horses (corn, especially, and molasses) and
the “richer”, single variety grasses in our pastures (and snack
foods for us) also cause more and more insulin to be secreted.
With time, this causes “insulin resistance” – requiring more
and more insulin to get the job done. The higher the resting
insulin overall, the quicker all species age and subsequently
die – period! High resting insulin is rarely detected because
usually just blood glucose is checked. Simply relying on blood
glucose (sugar) levels alone is not enough – sugar or blood
glucose can be normal but resting insulin levels can be
extremely elevated – even high enough to kill you or your horse.
Many horses (and people) are insulin resistant with high resting
levels of insulin, but because the body is such a miraculous
machine it is still keeping the sugar normal. Most fat and
overweight “easy keepers” are insulin resistant. Certainly
hypothyroid, Cushings, and chronic recurring laminitis or
foundered horses fit this category as well. Lush green grass or
stress (as in people) is often associated with, and generally
what get blamed for acute occurrences – but the underlying
metabolic situation is usually at cause. Horses need good fats,
By now it should be clear that except in a free wild range
situation with thousands of acres, it is impossible to have a
perfect pasture today – but there is a “next to perfect” answer
to the perfect pasture question! A perfect pasture is one that
has a bucket (free choice access) of natural salt and naturally
sourced minerals hanging in it – AT ALL TIMES. And I stress
NATURAL source here and at ALL times. Even white salt and
most minerals are chemical, often other industry’s leftovers,
full of heavy metals (lead, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum,
mercury). And salt blocks are just simply
useless because horses are not lickers – they
can not get all of what they need from blocks –
period! They just can’t lick fast enough.
Once again – in the wild, horses have access to
all types of salt and minerals where they can
pick and choose and balance themselves as
needed. Today we fortify the feeds with various
minerals and fortify our pastures with fertilizer.
The problem here is that we may actually be
causing an imbalance of nutrition. Mineral
supplements, though well intentioned, may give
them too much of what they don’t need. Hoof supplements are
especially bad for this – massive amounts often, chosen by man
and based on an RDA (recommended daily allowance standard)
that is 15 years old or more. Natural minerals and salt like
colloidal minerals and sea salt (often from desert sources that
used to be the ocean millions of years ago) contain other
micronutrients as well, and are balanced by mother nature, not
The confusing issue here is that if you compare mineral amounts
to man-made products, natural sources often look like they
contain very low levels. But what they do contain is so much
more usable or bio-available that it packs a much greater, yet
balanced punch! They literally contain every nutrient and
mineral that was once in the “living oceans”. Often with manmade
our horses over-consume what they don’t need while
trying to get what they do need. AND what they really need
may not even be in the mix because man is not aware of it –
Natural is better!
Pasture horses must have access to loose salt and minerals at
all times. If they don’t, they can colic, founder, abort and die
almost without warning. It all comes back to the health of the
horses’s gut. Any sudden change, as we well know, can be
disastrous. Obvious concerns are getting too much grain or
sudden exposure to lush green grass – but a weather change
without free access to loose salt and minerals can be just as
deadly to a pasture horse.
Grass is a living, breathing organism (it just breathes carbon
dioxide rather than oxygen) and it changes hour to hour. If the
grass “thinks” it is going to die or has less chance of survival,
it conserves and prepares – just like we would. Conservation
of water would be a likely action. Grass does this by actually
drawing potassium up from the ground, and if the soil is heavily
fertilized, it can draw a lot, because a major part of fertilizer is
potassium. Potassium allows the plant to attract more water.
This is good for farmers who sell hay and crops by the pound
but bad for the actual nutritional value because the grass, crop
or whatever, is mostly just water. Devastation can occur if
horses, cattle or other creatures are exposed to too much
potassium at one time.
If you are a cattleman, I am sure your are
familiar with Grass Tetany and Milk Fever, and
the sudden death associated with its
occurrence. These were once thought to be
magnesium and calcium deficiencies. We now
know it is from high potassium forages and
grasses. Similar situations causing abortions
and gut problems often occur in horses. What
happens is that the potassium spikes during
cool, we conditions and especially after long
droughts followed by rainfall and rapid growth.
Situations like frost and freezing are especially
bad – have you ever had horse colic after a frost? Probably so-
–the reason is a sudden mineral change in the grass, not just
frozen grass! During these times sodium, calcium and
magnesium decrease, while potassium increases. This spike in
potassium is often deadly. A major problem like this occurred
in 2001 in the Midwest where reproductive losses occurred in
thousands of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. This was severe
in Kentucky as well. Often cattle were found dead just a few
hours after frost and freezes. Mineral blocks just cannot provide
the minerals fast enough for such rapid changes in weather.
Free choice, loose salt and minerals must be available to
pasture horses at all times if such problems are to be
It is also important to consider that since sodium (the Na part
of NaCl, or salt) is so similar to potassium, horses often think
they have enough sodium (but really have too much potassium)
so they stop eating salt. This is especially so in the winter when
they need it most. Force-feeding salt is a viable solution
particularly in pregnant mares. This should be in addition to
making it readily available free choice. (Always be sure to put
any salt product near readily available water).
One further point is that fescue alone is usually blamed for
abortions in mares when it is actually the fungus like organisms
on the fescue that cause the problems. BUT again it is elevated
potassium that generally makes these organisms more deadly! The
bottom line here is that less fertilizer is better and fescue should
be avoided for pregnant mares. It would also seem obvious to me
to avoid hay that has been grown on heavily fertilized fields –
especially for pregnant mares.
Now the big question is how can I make my
field better if I can’t fertilize? The answer is
to avoid the typical types of fertilizers – those
that are salt based. Salt fertilizers are
destroying our environment as well as our
soils. Year after year of fertilizer use kills
beneficial earthworms that oxygenate the soil
with their tunnels. Lack of oxygen kills the
soil just like it would us.
Fortunately, there are “time tested” ways to fertilize that are often
even more economical and certainly more beneficial.
Unfortunately because of all the “politics” involved, major
universities seldom teach their use. One of the healthiest ways to
make good pastures and again, often the most economical is to
heavily lime your fields twice per year. Lime is Calcium Carbonate.
Calcium keeps the soil basic rather than acid. Basic soil is healthy
just as a more basic pH is healthier for people. Calcium in the
form of lime is cheap and I promise if you have many weeds at all
growing in your pasture, you need lime. Don’t expect immediate
results however, because it take time for the lime to be absorbed
and utilized. But it will help tremendously over time.
While your pastures are improving, it is important to supplement
the diet. Most horses I have found, at least in the eastern US, are
calcium deficient. Typically, soils in the western United States
contain more calcium – which is why the buffalo once flourished
there and not in the east. Tremendous calcium is needed for the
buffalo’s huge bones.
For many years now, ring neck pheasant have not
grown in the southeaster United States either,
simply because there is not enough calcium in the
soil to support their egg shells. Most horses have
plenty of phosphorus in their diets, so I don’t worry
too much about balancing the calcium to
phosphorous ratio. An exception would be older
horses, which occasionally can use more
The answer to perfect pastures is simple – do not
use fertilizer and if you do, use liquid, non salt types, plenty of
lime for the pasture and keep a bucket full of NATURAL salt and
minerals readily available to your horses at all times! Consider
the use of crude unrefined essential fatty acids because horses
today just can’t get them naturally and because they are so
important to overall health.
One final suggestion: If your horse does not have access to grass,
such as in the winter, or if the grass if poor, always supplement
with Beta Carotene. Green grass generally provided plenty of Beta
Carotene (vitamin A, by the way, is not enough) but hay provides
hardly any. Beta Carotene is crucial for reproductive health,
lactation, immune function and hundreds of other benefits.
I believe it too, will be considered “essential” in the future.
“All horses especially those pastured horses must have access to loose (preferably naturally
sourced) salt and minerals at all times! In my humble opinion, RED CAL is the single most healthy
thing you can give your horse to prevent problems. Just hang a bucket on a fence post and make
sure there is always some in it.”