Decomplexicating Equine Nutrition Part 05 of 12 – Mitochondria and Making Energy

Thank you for coming back and “digesting” what I have already written. As always, a review will help to get started.

Part 1 – Grazers versus browsers – Discussed the difference between glucose, starch, cellulose and lignin. These are all made of the atoms Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen but put together in different ways to form these molecules. Glucose is the main molecule and a chain of glucose molecules joined in a specific way is called starch. Both glucose and starch are directly digested by all animals including the horse. When the chain of glucose is joined in a different way it is called cellulose and cannot be digested by animals but it is digested into short-chained fats by the bacteria in the gut. Horses with their very large colons are designed to consume large amounts of fat-producing cellulose and NOT sugar-producing starches.

Part 2 – The Basics of Sugar, Fat and Proteins – Discussed how not only sugar but fats and proteins are also made of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen but put together in different ways. Proteins add a Nitrogen atom which can be removed so that a protein can become a sugar. Grass provides for the horse both starch (which becomes sugar) and cellulose (which becomes fat). Both sugar and fat are fuels used by cells to make energy. In nature there are seasons when starch (sugar) is abundant to add body fat for winter and then during seasons when starch is not available (winter), the cellulose consumed and the stored body fat provide the fuel for energy. It becomes a natural ebb and flow of fat gain and fat loss caused by the varying forms of seasonal fuel. However, the continuous availability of starch (grains) prevents this and causes diseases in the horse (and in humans).

Part 3 – Gut Microbes – There are 8 times more bacteria in the gut, the skin and in the air around animals than there are cells in the body. The horse is really feeding the bacteria and in turn, they feed the horse. When the bacteria are fed correctly then they provide the horse with all they need to thrive. When they are fed incorrectly then the bacteria die and are replaced with bacteria that live on the bad food. While surviving, this results in materials that can damage the gut lining and create inflammation.

Part 4 – Leaking Gut – The foods eaten by horses for millions of years do not cause gut inflammation. However, the new foods introduced in the past few decades cause gut inflammation from the lectins, molds and starch (sugar) damaging the tight junctions between the one-cell thick lining of the gut. This inflammation is very likely to be the root cause of most problems and diseases of horses seen today. Removing the inflammatory foods is easier and a more holistic approach to solving problems in horses than adding any supplement, medicine or treatment.

How Energy Is Created In The Horse

This blog will start to bridge the gap that has so many horse owners confused. The missing piece of information is the process where all food molecules that make it into the horse is turned into energy. The importance of this to the health of your horse cannot be understated because when the cells falter in making energy, the horse becomes sick and dies. It is really that simple. Almost every disease or syndrome in the horse can be based on the cells of the horse not making the energy needed to stay healthy.

Remember when I said that you were not feeding the horse but that you were really feeding the gut microbes in the horse? I then said that the gut microbes actually feed your horse the fuels they get from the food, specifically glucose, fat and proteins. These fuels are transported throughout the body and enter the cells – every cell – and are converted into energy there. Once you understand this hugely important process, you will then understand WHY you need to feed the horse correctly. It will explain that messing with what has occurred for millions of years in the normal feeding process often has very bad consequences.

Mitochondria – The Generator Of Energy Within Every Cell

Within every cell of the horse’s body (and actually every animal including you) is an organelle (an organ of a cell) called mitochondria. The number of them within the cell is dependent on the amount of energy needed to perform the function of the cell. Low energy level cells may have only 10 mitochondria while others have up to 10,000 mitochondria per cell. In humans, the areas with these high numbers of mitochondria are the ovaries, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (required for thinking), the eyes and the heart.

There are two interesting facts about mitochondria you should know before I talk about how energy is made. The first is that all the mitochondria in humans come from the mother because the mitochondria of the sperm are in the tail which is removed upon fertilization of the egg. I can assume that the same is true for horses.

The second fact may seem amazing to most people especially if you are still trying to believe that food swallowed is then digested by bacteria before it gets into the body. Researchers have found that mitochondria replicate within the cell on their own and use their own DNA to do so. Scientists now believe that long before horses and humans existed, when we were just one-cell organisms trying to survive in an atmosphere with toxic oxygen (in the beginning oxygen was toxic and still makes up less than 20% of air), these single-cell organisms joined with a bacteria who had mastered the use of oxygen as an energy source. That bacteria is what we now call mitochondria and they are living inside every animal cell we have ever looked at on this planet. The cell provided fuels and the mitochondria provided energy thus both survived the toxic air by working together.

This information is less than 10 years old. If you are deeply religious, please look at this as only the biology of the body and not the explanation of the soul. However what is known now is that food comes into the gut to feed the bacteria, the products of that are absorbed into the body and these are sent to other bacteria called the mitochondria living within each cell. These mitochondria convert the fuels into energy to power the cell. When the mitochondria get weak and sick the cells become weak and sick, the organs become weak and sick and the body stops working correctly.

Believing that mitochondria are bacteria living within the cells is not necessary for our discussion here. But understanding how it creates energy will be essential to you understanding how to feed your horse. Think of it as an electrical generator that can use gas, diesel, propane, wind or running water to turn the device inside to produce electricity. Mitochondria can also use different fuels to produce energy. These fuels are glucose and ketones (a type of fat). These fuels are turned into a substance called Acetyl CoA which reduces a molecule called NAD making it NADH through what is known as the citric acid or Kreb’s cycle. This causes a membrane within the mitochondria called the electron transport mechanism to alter a molecule called ATP to become ADP. The result is the release of one electron which goes from one side of the membrane to the other and this is the energy used by the cell.

Yikes!!!! Hold on! Say what??

I apologize. What I meant to say is that either glucose or ketones are fuels converted into units of energy within the mitochondria used by the cell to remain alive. Better??

You are feeding the bacteria of the horse’s gut and they in turn fuel the mitochondria. Done correctly and everyone remains happy. Done incorrectly and the result is unhealthy mitochondria and from this most diseases of the horse can be explained.

Let’s Look At Fuel Efficiency

One of the two fuels is glucose which is a sugar molecule (also known as a carbohydrate or a monosaccharide) that comes from the enzymatic breakdown of starch, the form of sugar storage in all plants, or free glucose and fructose of plants. This includes all grasses as well as grains. The other fuel used by mitochondria is ketones which is a short-chain fatty acid. This is produced by the hindgut bacteria when they break down cellulose, the soft structural part of all plants found in grasses and other non-woody plants.

What is really important to understand here is simply that glucose is not a very good fuel. One molecule of glucose can produce a small amount of ATP (an energy unit) but also yields inflammatory pollution called free radicals. In addition, it requires a lengthy process to get across the gut wall, requires a hormone called insulin to transport it from the gut to the cell, requires an unimpeded coupling process between insulin and the cell (which plant lectins can interfere with), requires the coupling of glucose to the glucose transport mechanism within the cell to get it from the cell wall to the mitochondria and finally must be converted into Acetyl CoA. Using glucose for fuel is like riding a bicycle uphill – exhausting!

Ketones, on the other hand, are like coasting a bike downhill. They travel without the aid of any hormone from the gut to the cell wall and pass through that wall uninterrupted to the mitochondria. The amount of energy produced from one ketone molecule through the same energy-producing Kreb’s cycle is about 20 times the amount produced by one molecule of glucose. Additionally, there are no free radicals (pollution) produced that need to be cleaned up afterward.

Two things happen when feeding your horse excess starch (sugar, carbohydrates). The first thing is that the mitochondria are overworked and become exhausted just like you would bicycling constantly uphill. The second thing is the glucose is turned away from the cell and instead goes to the adipose (fat) cells on the horse creating excess fat. Meanwhile, the horse remains hungry while it gets fatter because the cell is not producing the energy needed to function due to the lack of fuel. The result of this one weakened cell times millions of weakened cells in the body is a weakened and unhealthy horse.

Everyone needs some time off. So it is with mitochondria using glucose as a primary fuel source. Cellulose-yielding ketones are what the mitochondria need to rest and remain in a peak energy-creating state.


There are two fuels used by the horse to create energy: glucose and ketones. These fuels are used by the mitochondria within the cells to produce energy (electrons).

There are tens to tens of thousands of mitochondria within every cell whose purpose is to convert the fuels into energy.

Glucose produced from starch digestion is relatively poor at producing energy and requires a clean-up process to get rid of the waste produced. Glucose also has multiple points in the transport mechanism where interference can cause the fuel to not be delivered to the mitochondria.

Ketones produced from cellulose digestion are relatively excellent at producing energy-yielding no waste that needs to be cleaned up. It travels unimpeded through the body and into the cells assuring its delivery to the mitochondria.

When mitochondria become overworked they become weak and eventually die. When this happens to a majority of mitochondria in a majority of cells within body systems, the horse becomes ill.

Feed the gut bacteria correctly and they in turn will feed the mitochondria correctly and the horse will remain healthy. Most older horse owners will tell you of horses turned out onto the pasture all winter and come spring, they were the healthiest horses ever seen. The next blog will discuss carbohydrate dependency and how to go about giving these mitochondria some life support which will help your horse become the healthiest looking horses you have seen.

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    1. You will look at soft seeds differently after reading a future blog about lectins. This is the missing link to all nutrition. Basically all seeds do not want to be eaten and they may try to make the plant predator sick when they do. An example of a lectin is wheat gluten.

      In addition, all seeds are a source of starch as well as the oils they are fed for. Adding any seed (grain) is adding to the carbohydrate dependency (Decomplexicating Horse Nutrition part 6). The double whammy of constant carbs year round plus the inflammatory effects of lectins makes me consider that all soft seeds like sunflower and flax does not belong in the diet of the horse. The possible exception is if it is growing in their pasture. Then it is available for a short time.

      The mantra we need to start thinking about is this: Adding something to the horse’s feed is far less effective in developing good health than removing all the inflammatory food.

  1. I now understand why my riding mare started bucking, and really acting crazy. I took her off the grain, and she changed into a new horse. I had already tried everything else, so I knew it had to be in the feed. I did this last year.

    1. Perfect!! You have found what others are finding – and because of this testimony, hopefully more will discover too. Thanks for taking the time to post this. Doc T

  2. Hi Doc, I’m caring for my mare with Lyme and founder issues. I’ve decided to add lysine and Biotin hoof blast which also contains methionine and msm. Her body is week and creeks horribly. I’m hoping once I get her feet corrected with a proper trim angle and glue on shoes for support she desperately needs, I’ll be able to walk her. Grass will be sprouting in about a month or so. I can’t wait. I always look forward to your emails to arrive. Keep up the great work, we appreciate it 🙂

    1. Thanks for this. Remember that 24% of the hoof is cystine which is derived from the methionine consumed in the feed. Also remember that the remaining 76% of the hoof are other amino acids. Adding lysine is a help, but adding proteins with the other amino acids will give you a better, healthier hoof. MSM will diminish the gut inflammation that will allow for more absorption of the amino acids. Consider adding a soy bean meal and whey protein for a more complete assortment of amino acids. Or you can consider a supplement with the 3 limiting amino acids: methionine, threonine and lysine (Tri-Amino).

      1. Thank you. I’ve printed your reply and will look into all that you’ve posted. 2 things; I’ve read so many bad things about GMO soy and it’s hormone disrupting abilities. I don’t think that organic soybean meal is available in quantities for a horse and I’m on a budget. Also, what are your thoughts on DMSO? It is a stronger form of MSM as far as I remember. I heard some amazing things about it. I am aware that whatever is given with it, either topically or orally, makes that substance get absorbed deeper so caution on cleanliness etc..Thanks and enjoy the rest of your day 🙂

        1. Actually many things are genetically modified but soy beans have been given the majority of publicity. The primary purpose of GMO is to protect the plant from pesticides which is another concern.

          But looking at soy beans specifically, they are a legume which horses apparently have little problems with. However in humans, the lectins of all legumes have several deleterious effects. I always laugh when someone asks about the estrogen effects of soy on horses. My reply is that not only are there no reported evidence of feminization of horses from soy but if there was, I’m sure it is a lot less in potency than gelding the stallion. 😉

          DMSO is one of 3 medications I would want with me if stranded on a deserted island. Enough said? Yes, be careful when adding things to it. Years ago race horse trainers used mercury to blister the shins of horses. Some added DMSO to the mercury blister which carried into the horse the mercury resulting in the death of the horse. That was classic stupidity. Applying DMSO to the skin will take it into every part of the body where it is eliminated in the urine and the breath.

          1. So what are the other 2 meds in case one gets stranded on that deserted island ?

          2. There are three meds I find essential, yet I no longer use any of them now that I know they affect the bacteria in, on and around us. They were a general anti-inflammatory (Tylenol), an anti-diarrhea medicine (Pepto-Bismol) and a topical anti-inflammatory (DMSO). All of these are anti-inflammatories (Pepto has asparin in it). My definition of health is living without inflammation. Eating correctly should eliminate all inflammation other than trauma.

            In a book called “Gutbliss” by Robynne Chutkan, MD, the author suggests (as have others) that what we put on and around us also affects the holobiome. This includes shampoos and body soap, toothpaste, mouthwash and body sprays. The suggestion is to stop using these materials or to limit them. I have done this with beneficial effects on my skin and hair.

            So I need to amend my “stranded on a deserted island” list with the assumption that if I don’t have any injuries I don’t really need anything!

    1. I will promise you, and everyone else, that while this is a lot to think about, it is worth studying and re-reading. PLUS…… I promise to “dumb it down” in the end and tell you basically what to do in what might be called the “elevator version” (the version that is clear and can be said in 1 minute as you travel up the building in an elevator).

      Let me try it here: Stop feeding sugars every day throughout the year and start feeding more cellulose. This is found in grasses which the gut bacteria turn into fats which develops 20 times more energy with no pollution than sugar. Removing continuous year round sugar will rest the insulin system, heal the leaking gut, promote the mental and physical health of your horse as well as reduce your cost of ownership.

      How did I do?

      1. You did great… as usual. I am so grateful for this info. My two guys have been on the no grain challenge since Dec. But Titan has been on Dex for his itchiness from allergies. I finally stopped the Dex Feb. 13th and he is super itchy but I’m hoping it’s the right thing to do. They get unlimited hay, some grass since we are in FL and it’s coming in now, water and salt. I also add soybean meal, barn bag and farriers formula to make sure they get enough protein, vitamins and minerals. I have already noticed that the skin on my other guy, Magnum seems to heal so much faster than it ever did before. I don’t bother putting any products on him and I’m amazed at his recovery rate. Makes me think all the sugar he was getting before was keeping him from wound healing. Titan had slight diarrhea for as long as I can remember and that seems to have stop, too. Thanks so much. I’m looking forward to your next blog!

        1. Great observations – thanks for posting them here for others to see. Many horses with “skin conditions” have seen them resolve once they are off grains and the protein has been added for about 6 months. Keep us posted.

  3. As always, excellent article. Here in southern Ontario, Canada, pasture year round is a dream We are fortunate to have June to November. And in June, and last fall the sugar in the grass is high, which can cause other issues. Hay is our biggest source of food, and with the amount of rain last year, the hay is extremely poor quality. Do you have any suggestions on how to create the correct balance of nutrients for good gut bacterial? Thank you

    1. It is more difficult in the northern latitudes. The best thing is to look at your horses. Not looking at the body fat, determine if they are healthy – acting normally, great hair coat, not shivering, no colic, etc. If they are but you need something “more,” you should first look at adding some protein (soy, whey, alfalfa, and combinations in commercial mixes avoiding grains and grain byproducts if possible. Next consider adding noninflammatory oils. A great source for this is Coolstance, a commercial shredded coconut meal. Finally, count the days until the sprin grass comes and makes them fat again.

      You may find that in the northern winters, it may take a full year or two for the horse to adjust the gut to have the normal flora of good gut bacteria. Remember that it is more important to eliminate the things that cause the bad gut bacteria to overrun the good bacteria. When these are eliminated, the good bacteria will return especially after a summer of no grain and good grass.

      1. I have one old guy who has “the squirts”. Used to be only when back on hay in the winter. Now it is year round. Age is undetermined, sway back, cranky, but good BCS and muscle tone. He is on Previcox due to arthritis but generally in good form, except the squirts.He also has cushings. I did your three weeks without grain as I was giving them carrots/apples and a handful of oats during the -20 to -30C weather, and it seemed to work for awhile. But all they get here is alfalfa/timothy cubes and optimal (a Purina mineral supplement). and hay of course, free loose salt and lots of water. The squirts came back and I have not repeated the oats, carrots, apples. So scratching my head over the cranky old man. I do use an oil, called Bionic Oil for my hard to put weight on Friesian. Would oil help settle the gut? I can certainly try it. Again thanks. I have spoken to my vet about this, she too is scratching her head as she is not a specialist. I have also spoken to a nutritionist, same problem. So, as you have some great ideas I am certainly interested in your point of view, and as I said, have tried and still do, the no sugar/grain for the horse.
        Thanks, Chris

        1. Let’s assume that the gut microbes are not functioning properly and this is the cause of the squirts.

          First – eliminate all ingredients that may be disrupting these delicate microbes. This includes Previcox, any Cushing’s medicine, the Optimal, oils and the salt. Only hay and water plus any pasture that might be coming out this spring. Give this a few weeks to help reestablish the gut microbes. It does take time and if you get worried at any point you can always add something back. But time and the removal of the inflammatory ingredient plus the reestablishment of the good gut microbes is what you and your vet can try here.

          If this doesn’t work, try a few days of psyllium as directed on the package. The thought here is that some believe it is a pre-biotic (not a pro-biotic) which translated means it is a resistant starch that is food for the good gut microbes – at least in humans. It might be worth a try here.

          Another thought is to do a fecal culture. There may be a bacteria that should not be in the gut. You vet can do this.

          Please keep us all updated with this.

          1. Okay, will eliminate salt (he drinks well so no worries), cushings med (a bit scary to do), previcox (have done that for 1 week now in my testing of what to do, so will continue), and as I have not given him oil yet, won’t start. I have been giving all the horses a scoop of mixed pure yeast and ground flax but will stop that too, and the optimal. Will do all for 2-3 weeks and report back.
            There will not be any grass here for many months and we are heading toward mud season. But only mid Feb, lots of winter still ahead of us.
            Fecal will be done for worms soon, so can do it with an extra “look see” about bacteria.
            I just read about psyllium and will consider that if nothing works above.
            Thanks for your help!

        1. Hi Christine, I have had 3 horses on Cushing medication. I first I thought I was doing the very best thing each time a new horse had to go to medication. Each horse was approximately 25. I really never saw any improvements but I convinced myself I did.Especially on my Grand Prix horse which I wanted to keep alive forever. When did I see improvement? When I took them off of it. They became more alive, brilliant, shiny, and there personalities came back. They ate better and they would gallop around even with a little arthritis and one founder from Chushing’s. You know your horse the best not the vet. It sounds like you observe your horse closely. Listen, watch, and use your sixth sense. You are your horse’s advocate.