Decomplexicating Equine Nutrition Introduction 2

(Above image) Clouds shroud these hilltop wind turbine generators hiding their true giant size – much like the misinformation in feeding horses creates a cloud of mystique in what is truth.

This is a series on my approach to feeding the horse. I introduced the word “complexicate” a few weeks ago which is a word I made up. I had to because it describes the actions humans do when we take something simple and make it more complex than it needs to be. It deserved a new word.

The force behind complexicating anything is the lack of understanding of the subject. This confusion leads not only to mistakes from overthinking things but it opens us all up to charlatans exploiting this confusion for their own gain. Add to this the human nature of adding an alarm to everything and the drama rises like an evening news story riveting us to our couch as we hear about someone’s tragedy.

Unfortunately due to several factors, I have stopped buying into the drama. Call it old age, the “been-there-done-that” variety of wisdom or the lack of substantial answers to the constant questions I have asked. I call this the, “But why Mommy?” syndrome where the answers don’t satisfy me and leave me with more questions. The final answer often is “Because I said so!” which in a way angers me. I’ll admit that there are a lot of other people smarter than me – by a long shot. I invite them to question what I write here if it adds to the conversation. But if it is inflammatory or adds only drama or is based on blatantly false information, then don’t bother. Everyone is a critic. However, my goal with these blogs is to decomplexicate our beliefs in the way we feed our horses.

I wrote a blog about beliefs (Rhubarb Pie, The Orbiting Earth and Your Horse) where I concluded that our beliefs or rules are what guide us in life. As a foundation, beliefs support our advanced ideas. For example, there was a time when we all believed that the sun circled the Earth. Words became actionable events such as sunrise and sunset and we based our lives around them regardless of how they occurred. Likewise, we all feed our horses without the understanding of how that food accomplishes things like survival, growth, weight gain, athletic performance, disease, mental capacity or even death. All we know is what we are told by our elders or what we read in magazines. Over time, ideas come about that are usually agenda-driven that change the way we feed our horses. These agendas include performance and looks (bigger, faster, stronger, prettier or most competitive or capable). This leads to experimenting with feeding and looking for a result often with damaging results.

Damaging results include lame horses (suspensory ligaments, tendon strain, bone chips, arthritis, muscle soreness, dropped fetlocks), behavioral issues (trailering phobias, stable vices, riding excitability, misbehavior, listlessness, unwillingness) and disease (insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, pituitary dysfunction or Cushing’s, ulcers of the stomach and intestines, anhydrosis, chronic poor body condition, skin diseases, reproductive dysfunction, unthriftiness, poor hoof condition). Yes, most if not all of these are related to how we feed our horses.

Many of these conditions either occurred much less frequently in the past or did not occur at all. Little nutritional research is being done now on horses unless it uses advanced technology that is subsidized by feed companies. Those who do have good ideas about the challenges we face in our horse care are often blocked from publishing them because print and other media are beholding to their sponsors: grain companies.

I started with horses professionally in 1973 on a Thoroughbred breeding and training farm where all horses were fed hay, oats and wheat bran and some soybean meal. Pasture for horses was abundant for some and limited for others, especially during the crowded breeding season. Lame horses occurred which included bowed tendons, bucked shins, splints and laminitis. Most of the lamenesses were training related and very few foundered. Developmental orthopedic diseases were new such as osteochondrosis dissicans (OCD) and epiphysitis and were only found on well-fed farms. Most vet visits were for injuries, colic or foal delivery problems. Also included were preventive care visits but deworming horses was just starting with packaged powders for top dressing the feed. Penicillin and tetracycline were the only antibiotics and we were just starting to use disposable hypodermic needles. Our foaling vet still used the same needle stored in a jar of alcohol. Euthanasia was commonly done with a gun.

This 45-year perspective gives me a point of view that is probably different from yours if your experience with horses is 30 years or less. Young horse owners and horse professionals have come to accept the idea that all horses become sick or lame. I laugh when I hear an owner say proudly, “My horse has Cushing’s!” They believe it is either normal or inevitable! Of course, the veterinary profession goes along with this as they find new revenue streams for the ever-increasing cost of providing services to horse owners.

In 1980 my veterinary training focused on teaching us to think and not just memorize the facts as were known then. We assumed we didn’t have all the answers but we also believed that the body had the incredible ability to take care of itself if allowed to. I have carried this belief with me and it is what drives me to ask more questions. But instead of asking from a positive perspective about how can we make the horse healthier, my questions come from the reflective perspective of why are these horses becoming unhealthier. From this, I have found a common idea and it really is not just limited to horses. The idea is simple which decomplexicates everything we know about equine nutrition. It is NOT what the horses are NOT eating but it IS what they ARE eating.

The field of human nutrition is where the money and research are and what they have found out in the past 5 years is literally turning the world upside down. It is equal to the realization that the sun does NOT circle the Earth and because of how radical it is, there is much resistance. Before you decide to follow this blog and read future articles, ask yourself this one simple question – “How is what you are doing working for you?” If you or your horses have illnesses that you don’t understand and you don’t want to accept them as normal, then follow this blog. However, if you or your horses are perfectly healthy and happy, then let me know why so I can learn from you.

Here are the upcoming blogs on nutrition I will post weekly. I am breaking the subject into small pieces for us to walk through together. During the progression, I will build upon what we learn. But if you really don’t want to take the time to learn about the things behind nutrition and only want the bottom line, then read this. Stop feeding all grains and plant byproducts to your horses. Feed them good quality pasture, hay, salt and water. If competing or your hay and pasture are limited or of poor quality or you have older horses in poor condition then add a variety of protein sources.

That’s it! Feed a horse the way it is designed to be fed and you will get 100% of his or her potential.

Back to top


Remember, you can also start a discussion in the forums for a more in-depth experience!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Thanks Dr Tucker. I have personal confirmation of what you’re saying. My senior horse is on Bermuda pasture that goes dormant in the winter. He was supplemented alfalfa hay 2 winters ago which he usually adjusted to but that year he didn’t. Liquid to cow pie was the new normal. The ranch allowed me to put him in a dry paddock but no hay or supplement would get his stool anywhere near solid again. After a year of trying to stabilize him the ranch owner allowed him into a pasture by himself and fed him only grass hay last winter. I supplemented Intestinal heath things all along the way. As the pasture came in this year his stool improved. A lot. His white legs stay white now. Poop is now solid although not apples, more like potatoes. Currently no supplements. I have 2 questions if you don’t mind answering.
    1. How can I best help him transition this year when pasture goes dormant? He seems super sensitive to fed changes.
    2. He seems to be shedding his abdomen slower last year and again this year. He isn’t showing any other signs of Cushings and I haven’t tested. Could these two issues be related? Suggestions regarding this?
    He seems to feel good for an older guy and is a fabulous trail horse. He’s 24.
    Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!!

    1. Thanks for this study. The gut bacteria in some horses can be extremely fickle and often take years to fully return to a normal population. Other things to consider here include this – is there any additives added to the hay or pasture such as herbicides, preservatives or fertilizers. You may need to get some organic hay.

      I have seen some horses that have some toxic metals detected when tested and these need to be chelated to remove. These metals will also appear in horses with rapid weight loss as the body was storing them in the body fat. Ask you vet if you think this is possible.

      The shedding of the abdomen is actually the abdominal muscles weakening due to protein deficiency in the diet. I do not see a protein source in the food you give your horse. I am assuming that the “pasture” is really a mono-grass and you hay is also a “mono-grass.” Add soybean meal to make up for this and the hay belly will improve in about 2 to 4 weeks.

      Transitioning between seasons requires good observations from you with adjustments. First determine if there is anything added to the pasture or hay. Next remove all supplements including carrots and apples and any mineral salt licks. I have seen all of these and more cause diarrhea in horses. Be sure he is only eating pasture and hay with water and a mined salt lick (Himalayan). Slowly add the soybean meal (by handfuls) making sure this doesn’t throw off his gut. Write EVERYTHING into a journal with dates so you can collect accurate data and from this you can help yourself make decisions. for FAQ’s
      “The Horse’s Advocate” is a private Facebook group that is monitored, searchable and is a place to ask questions.

      1. You’re a godsend!! A couple questions. Can I start transitioning in the soybean meal now and if he’s already on it can he stay on while transitioning from pasture to hay? He currently has both a white and mineral block. I will remove the mineral block ASAP while I look for a mined one. I’ll start looking for organic hay.
        Thanks so much!!

        1. Yes to both questions about transitioning in the SBM. Try the handfuls and if all is well then you can be to full intake in about a week with your horses (continue to watch for things like weight gain or the return of diarrhea). Most “normal” horses start off with the full amount of SBM without a transition phase – for those reading this with “normal” horses.

          The red mineral salt licks have molasses AND corn syrup. You would be better off not feeding ANY salt in this form or even the pure white NaCl salt as they most likely have binders to keep it bound into a block. Just wait until you have the mined salt. Unless they are sweating a lot, most horses will get enough minerals from the well water and the pasture / hay until the mined salt arrives.

          1. Hi Doc T. I just finished reading your blogs on nutrition. Brilliant! Makes so much sense! My horse is adjusting well to the SBM and loves the mined salt block. I’m wanting to add a pelleted or cubed hay. Is Timothy a good choice for him or is it too much sugar? Again he’s on a primarily Bermuda pasture. No hay right now.

          2. The sugar content varies between fields and cuttings. The only way to determine sugar content of hay is to have it tested. Pasture alone is best if you have enough to support the horse. Hay is a supplement made to give to horses when there is no pasture in winter. It is a man made idea only about 60 years in common availability. It is LAST SUMMER’S GRASS so it will have starch. Only winter dormant pasture is low in starch and this usually is after a winter’s rain or the melting of snow. At this point the horse starts to lose the body fat which is actually a time of cellular healing. Adding hay then will keep the body fat on but will not allow for hormesis (the cellular healing).

            I am glad you are enjoying the blogs. Please ask to join the private Facebook group called “The Horse’s Advocate.” A lot of people there will help you with these questions.

        2. I have 17 horses and never use blocked salt, have been using Redmond loose salt forever, but we also mix with food grade
          diatomaceous earth and feed free choice.

          1. Redmond loose salt is the same as the solid salt but ground. Adding DM (diatomaceous earth) in unnecessary for most horses. It does not help control parasites (see my parasite articles). It may add calcium to the diet but I’m not sure if it is absorbed as well as the Ca in soil and water. I have no facts on this.

          2. I don’t use DE for parasite control, but I have been using it for over 30 years, sometimes experience just counts for something. I would love to see much more research on it’s use.

      2. Hi Doc T. I’m reading through your articles on nutrition now and it’s like drinking from a firehose! I have replaced my horse’s salt blocks with mined salt and am adding in the soy protein and monitoring his stool. I will be donating my remaining supply of Stable Mix to someone who wants to use it. My question if I use a pelleted or cubes hay without additives will that be an acceptable alternative to baled hay? Supply of grass hay in our area is inconsistent and ever changing. I’m wanting to be able to access something consistently as I work toward building back his microbiome so he can convert the cellulose to fats efficiently. What I’ve read so far it that horses are supposed to convert their food to fat and run on ketones if I’m understanding right, and my horse’s issue could be that he isn’t doing that based on overgrowth of the wrong bacteria. Although he wasn’t actually getting grain, he was on alfalfa which he didn’t adjust to. He’s also been fed the Stable Mix.
        All that said I am thinking of adding Timothy hay pellets to his Bermuda pasture, soybean meal and mined salt. I want to be sure I’m feeding his gut right and I’d like your input before I add that.
        Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!

        1. When feeding forage try to feed by weight. The rule of thumb is to feed about half a 40 pound bale per day to a “normal size” horse. this means 20 pounds daily to an 1100 pound horse. If you weigh it then whether it is pellets, cubes, chopped or baled – or in pasture which can’t be measured – then it should be the same.

          Unfortunately when the hay (or any raw material) is processed then the transit time is quickened and this passes the microbes. By the way, increased transit time is the reason liquid high fructose corn syrup is associated with colon polyp formation in humans while fructose from fruit such as apples is not.

          While the weight is the same, feeding only pellets may lead the horse wanting more. Cubes Arte better as the horse needs to chew it. Both pellets and cubes will have the same starch and cellulose but then you really can’t see the processed hay like you can a bale of hay. there may be more leaf in the pellets because the source for them could be the chaff swept from the hay mow.

          Pasture is ALWAYS the best but if you think he needs some pellets be cautious because some horses will choke on them if fed too much or if they are dehydrated. Cubes are better in small amounts or with water.

          1. Hi Dr T! I wanted to give you an update. I had pulled all supplements until his stool improved, (mostly apples with less water) then started adding the SBM gradually. Like you said, he shed out completely! As I worked toward giving him a pound per day (his top line still needs filling out) his stool loosened up. I backed off the SBM more and more with no change and then I found out the ranch had started giving him grass hay, which I had previously asked them to withhold, and asked them to stop immediately. I backed off to less than a cup of SBM per day but his stool has not completely recovered after about three weeks. I hate to stop it due to lack of muscle (although he’s got fat under his jawline) but will stop if you think that’s keeping his gut from healing. Or will it just take more time?
            Also considering letting him graze on just dormant pasture this winter with no additional hay unless you think it’s better to supplement with grass hay or cubes. The pasture is very short but it’s about 2 1/2 acres.

          2. This is a difficult situation but the first order of business is to get the gut working correctly. My belief is to NOT add something but rather to remove all possibilities first. In other words, limit the intake of food until he forms feces without water. I do NOT mean starve him but rather limit what he eats to just pasture and if this doesn’t work, limit the diet to only a hay. It could also mean limiting the amount of time spent on pasture or the amount of hay given (no excess in either case). Through this process you can determine if there is a seasonal weed / plant causing the inflammation or if there is too much starch in the diet.

            Many would prescribe a probiotic here. Some would add a prebiotic. But the “NPO” (nothin by mouth) approach is used in all species with diarrhea to allow the gut to rest so I would assume this would also work for horses. You should see an improvement within a few days if you fine the right combination. An alternative would be to ask your vet to administer activated charcoal to bind to any toxins he is inadvertently taking in. He just may be more sensitive than the other horses.

            Once the manure firms up you can add back in small amounts of soybean meal over a week or two until you get to 1 pound a day. If the watery manure returns then back off and let him adjust. At this point you may need to find another protein source though there are few available with the efficiency of SBM.

  2. Hey Doc!My horse in the morning receives a healthy portion of pangola grass.Then it´s off to pasture where he feeds on mulato grass
    which I planted,as well as native grasses.He´s healthy,alert and full of energy.I don´t feel the need for suppliments(at least not for now).
    Is it true that the blades of grass will increase in their sugar content due to photosynthesis?This would also depend on the the amount
    of day to day sun exposure.As you know I am speaking of my situation here in DR.
    One last point.Upon my tour of the largest horse operation here in DR.,I had time to see up close over several days over 5,000
    horses(all hard keepers) and there wasn´t a sick or poor conditioned horse in the lot.They eat native grasses(such as pangola)and
    mulato grass…..PERIOD! Just doing what´s natural seems to do a fine job of as you say….decomplexicating things

    1. A perfect example John – that eating like a horse works.

      The object of photosynthesis is to create energy in the plant which stores it as starch. When the sun goes down the starch is converted into cellulose and the grass grows “overnight.”

  3. The problem may also be the pasture and hay grasses. I have a pasture that has always been on this farm, not planted, and I can put the hoses out there in spring and they will lose weight. My other pastures which I seeded with “Hose pasture” seed, (is basically hybrid cow pasture seed,) that is high in sugar. I can not find, non Hybrid seed, expect maybe prairie grasses.

  4. My horses are healthy & happy! My basic philosophy is to feed, & train according to each of their individual needs. I have my vet vaccinate, & perform a real basic health exam, i.e., teeth, eyes, sounds, etc., every autumm, & spring. My training program does not adhere to any specific training method, but is guided by the training principals as outlined by Alois Podhajsky, former Director of the Spanish Riding School. I guess, in a nut shell, it’s about awareness, & empathy. Still hunting for a qualified shoer, but that’s a whole nother story.

  5. I agree 120%. I have been working with horses for the last 30 years. I have firmly believed for a long time that horses do best on grass and grass hay. Love reading your articles!

  6. Hi Dr. Tucker. You recently visited our horses at Heart Song Equestrian in Gig Harbor, WA. It was amazing watching you work on our horses teeth and we are truly appreciative of your knowledge and look forward to your next visit!
    Several of us are starting your Grain Free Challenge, I am especially excited to see how this works for my horse who has suffered from gas colic episodes for the last 13 yrs – he’s 21. He’s an active boy ( dressage, light jumping), good weight, but always has a “ bloated “ type abdomen; and now I believe he’s been a victim of overcomplexcating! He was on Strategy and rice bran. I’ll be looking forward to see how he does on the plan.?

  7. I am one that used to complicate things when feeding my horses. It was easy to fall into the trap years ago. Glad I am out of it! I can’t wait to read more!

  8. My 30 yr old Morgan welsh e z keeper mare only had grass grazing and grass hay , she was my 3 day event and ranch /cow horse and worked daily til 28.5 yrs ,retired due to my own injury . Lives on 16 acres free roaming she is fed soaked Timothy cubes due to aging dentition ,recently diagnosed w kidney failure via blood/urinalysis . Dvm also px prascend for appearance of ppid, dec / 17 normal acth test . Any suggestions to appropriate feed/calorie needs ? Thanks Sheila in langley BC Canada

    1. I can’t comment on your horse – sorry. However some horses in their 30’s and just on grass / hay are missing many essential amino acids. Ask why your horse has renal failure and why it has PPID. No one offers any substantial answers. But horses that stop eating feeds with lectins (grains, grain by products) and add protein have seen some really good results.

      A future blog will discuss this so stay tunes.

      1. thank you and it’s true,,, no one knows why horses become ill with these bizarre dis-eases. I ‘ve been advised that increasing dietary protein and Ca. (i.e. via alfalfa) can (?) accelerate renal failure. so would love to know of a healthful & safe protein source. bcz she has always been a thrifty keeper and a ‘go-er” I’ve not supplemented her with milled feeds or grains, but with soaked ground flax and 3 lbs alfalfa/timothy cubes, soaked, when she was working hard, and again when dentition deterioration required.

        1. 1 flake of alfalfa usually won’t cause a problem. It is NOT the increased protein that causes renal failure if it is used. Only when protein is converted into sugar (gluconeogenesis) during either starvation or when sugar is the prime ingredient of the diet. In the conversion the amine group is detached and converted to urea which can damage the kidney.

  9. Brilliant! I’ve believed for a long time that many of the currently common dis-eases of horses have been caused by (mis)management rather than something that was going to occur in that horse anyway. It’s wonderful to hear a professional saying the same thing. Looking forward to the future blogs. Any chance you could do them twice a week, I don’t want to wait that long, lol.

  10. Hi Doc T – as I was reading your blog about how horses have become sicker and sicker and how veterinarians don’t think anymore, it reminded me that the same is true in human and small vet (dog/cat) practices of medicine. Gone are the days of simple, clean nutrition and the body healing itself, all replaced with over-vaccinations, drugs and junk food from big companies. Anyway, you wanted to hear from people with healthy horses, so here is how I keep and feed mine. I have two senior geldings, late 20s/early 30s – one I still trail ride. They are not kept in stalls and they are kept together. They are free-fed Bermuda hay 24/7 in Porta-Grazers (they wad some of it). Because their molars all almost completely gone, they are fed a mix of alfalfa (~25-33%) and timothy grass pellets (~66-75%) soaked in water. They get a mineral supplement (Arizona Copper Complete by Horse Tech), a little flax meal (organic ground flax), a joint supplement (varies, but currently AniMed (AniFlex GL), and mineralized loose salt (Dynamite NTM), plus they have a Redmond Salt Rock in the paddock. They have to wander around the very small property (their area is about 1/4 – 1/3 acre and split into three areas – small arena, large run, area with a few trees – gates to all open most of the time) to get to their hay bins and water troughs. Because the footing is sand/pea gravel/quarter minus, I give them EQUUS pelleted psyllium (once a month for 7 days). My horses’ weights are good, they don’t colic, they don’t have ulcers, and they don’t have behavioral problems. It took me a long time of experimentation to get to this protocol, but have been doing it for long enough to be confident that it is working well. My barefoot trimmer, vet, friends, people I meet on the trail all say they can’t believe my horses are as old as they are. The only thing that gives away their age is all the white hair on their faces and necks. Lorraine

    1. Interestingly, psyllium is now considered by some to be a resistance starch that actually feeds the healthy gut bacteria. The colonic gut microbes become healthier producing more short chain fatty acids that increase the efficiency of energy production. Horses remain lean and muscular but will also increase the movement of feces and remain “regular.”

      Thanks for this. I am a big fan of adding other sources of protein to help lost top line and poor hoof and hair growth. It is also helping with many other diseases. If in the future there seems to be something missing, think of adding protein.

  11. I’m very interested in this blog. My mare gets fat when turned out on my Bermuda mix pasture. My hay is not nutritous per my nutritionist. But I feed no grains, just balancing supplements. I would love to allow permanent turnout for her own mental good.

  12. It’s so hard being the odd man out in the horse world… So many people give in to peer pressure and this even with older adults! I applaud you for continuing to try and educate people, the backlash was too much for me. But if you’re interested my horses are happy AND healthy using the old ways 🙂

  13. Here are two you might add…”Economics and Veterinarian Care” the driving force preventing natural healing…and…”Movement and How the Horse Should Heal”…the dangers of stall rest.