I’ve got a question for you: Do you have a horse who just can’t seem to stop eating? If so, there is a valid reason – you may be dealing with Equine Leptin Resistance. You know about this type of horse (I’ve got one), a horse who would probably partake of every morsel of grain and/or hay and in a very short time? Well, we have one of those who we transitioned over to a Ration Balancer (grain-free) 5-6 years ago, which resulted in marked improvement along with other “lifestyle” changes. After monitoring his progress and that of our other horses who we transitioned at the same time away from grain-based feed for over 4 years, there still seemed to be something missing. Our horses’ dietary needs had once again changed as they tend to do throughout the course of their lives.
To take this process a step further last year to address the probable existence of Equine Leptin Resistance and to determine it was possible to further improve their dietary needs, after months of extensive research, calculations and consideration we transitioned everyone over to an organic, whole food diet following our everlasting top priority of “forage first” – good quality hay followed by organic, whole food (including non-GMO coconut meal – Coolstance™ and Chaffhaye™) – all I can say is best decision ever in our case! However, this is a topic for a future blog post though…
If you’re wondering about the expense to make this change, understandably the initial transition was more expensive since it takes time to properly transition a horse’s diet and we always try to err on the side of caution and take it even slower especially since multiple aspects of their diets were being modified. The main issue was that we couldn’t (and still can’t) purchase organic, non-GMO whole food locally. For most feed suppliers, the bottom line affects the lines of products they choose to carry – just a reality. With this said though, once they were 3-4 months into the new, improved organic diet, we no longer needed to feed unnecessary supplements and the overall cost ended up being a little less with greater health benefits for our horses. Time has been the most significant expense – time well spent based on the condition, look and feel for our horses. With dapples galore and feeling great, more than a year out from changing to this new, improved diet, it seems to suit them quite nicely! I must say though that our 24-year old, 18+ hand horse just never warmed up to the whole food concept, so we slowly transitioned him to Semican™ Canadian triple-cleaned oats. He was never too hepped up on the Ration Balancer either – a bit of a persnickedy eater… That, some Coolstance and an organic kelp/mineral supplement suits his individual tastes much better – and a big plus is that he’s not leaving that precious organic whole food in his feed bucket anymore and he is healthy…
While conducting my research about making these diet changes for our horses, I came across an excellent, informative article I hope you find beneficial if you haven’t arealy come across it somewhere in your reading. I definitely learned a few new things! I’ve followed Dr. Getty for a number of years now and have found that what she proposes makes excellent sense for our horses – always forage first. With this said, I rarely accept much of anything at face value and hence I tend to research such important matters thoroughly before making a decision – just as I do for my own health, particularly since having cancer and having been caregiver for 2 family members who ultimately passed away. And expense was/is definitely a concern especially since I had been out of work for about 6.5 years at that point… The way I figure it though is to pay now or pay more later. The healthier they are on a day-to-day basis, in the long run we save money.
Not unlike us humans, Leptin plays a super important role in our horses’ lives. In case you don’t know, a decline in Leptin signals a horse to eat more, potentially gaining back all of the body fat that may have been lost at some point – not unlike many humans…
While I far prefer to write my blog posts myself 100%, I think Dr. Getty does a far better job explaining. So, without further ado, we share this superbly written education with our readers!
“Your horse is overweight. You’ve been told to feed him a lot less hay and you’re desperately trying to do the right thing. But it won’t work! It won’t work for your horse any more than a strict diet would work for people. We have known this for years when it comes to human obesity.
Why a strict diet doesn’t work
- A decline in leptin signals the horse to eat more, potentially gaining back all of the body fat lost (which also happens in humans). The reason is simple – dieting restricts calories, which lowers the metabolic rate. Weight loss may occur at first, but the body goes into “survival mode” and starts to hold on to fat and becomes sluggish in burning calories, making it extremely easy to put all the weight back on.
- Horses have an additional issue: Their digestive tract cannot tolerate periods of time without food; it requires a steady flow of forage. There are several reasons for this, including the constant secretion of stomach acid, the potential for ulcers, the need for the cecum to be full in order for digested feed to exit at the top, and more. Please take a look at my book, Equine Digestion – It’s Decidedly Different, for a complete understanding of how the horse is designed on the inside.
- Free-choice forage (hay and/or pasture) does not make a horse obese; on the contrary, restricting forage is what leads to obesity. You should reduce or even eliminate the amount of concentrates you feed (e.g., beet pulp, grains, commercial feeds, etc.) but you must never reduce forage (be sure to add a vitamin/mineral supplement to a hay diet). Ideally, you should test your hay to make certain it is low enough in calories, sugar, and starch to be fed to an overweight horse (who is likely insulin resistant) and then, feed it free-choice, 24/7, all day and all night.
- At first the horse will overeat, but once he gets the message that the hay is always there, that he can walk away from it and it will still be there when he returns – then, and only then, will he start to self-regulate and eat only what his body needs to maintain condition. If you let him run out of hay, even for 10 minutes, he will always perceive that as a shortage, and will continue to overeat.
But why does self-regulation take forever to occur in some horses?
- It often has to do with the way he was previously fed. If the horse had been enduring periods of time where there was no hay, his body went into starvation mode; that is, his metabolic rate severely declined. Now that you’re feeding free-choice, he will gain weight (which is temporary for most horses, especially if you are providing him opportunities to move). But for some horses, the drive to continually eat seems to never end and self-regulation appears impossible. The reason? Leptin.
Leptin comes from body fat
Excess body fat, especially regional fat deposits along particular areas of the body, is a clear indication of the tissues’ reluctance to recognize insulin. Insulin is required for glucose (blood sugar) to enter the cells. When the fat slows down the tissues’ recognition of insulin, the pancreas will continue to produce more and more in an attempt to finally get glucose to enter the cells. Elevated insulin tells the tissues to hold onto body fat, making the horse even fatter.
Leptin is a hormone that is secreted from body fat. It is a good hormone; it tells the brain that the horse is full and he can stop eating. This mechanism works perfectly for the horse of normal weight. But the overly fat horse does not get the message that he is satisfied; the signal that the brain is supposed to get that says I’m no longer hungry doesn’t happen. He has become leptin resistant.
- In an effort to help the horse lose weight, more times than not the horse owner will be advised to severely restrict the amount that the horse eats, and this starts a vicious cycle: The horse will likely lose some body fat and hence, the leptin level will drop. A decline in leptin signals the horse to eat more, potentially gaining back all of the body fat lost (which also happens in humans) combined with a decreased metabolic rate making it very easy to put back the pounds. Forage restriction, in particular, is extremely detrimental because the stress involved will increase cortisol, which subsequently induces elevated insulin, which promotes fat storage, and you’re back where you started.
- But that’s the key! The more body fat, the more leptin is produced. That should be a good thing, no? The higher leptin level should tell the brain that it has had enough to eat, right? That’s what leptin is supposed to do. But it doesn’t.
It has to do with inflammation. Body fat produces inflammatory molecules known as cytokines. These substances have two negative impacts: First, cytokines disrupt insulin action, reducing the cells’ insulin sensitivity, making your horse store more body fat. And second, and very important, cytokines impair the neurons in the brain’s hypothalamus —the area that normally responds to leptin!
What’s the solution?
Reduce inflammation. This can be accomplished through dietary changes and adding anti-inflammatory nutraceuticals to the diet:
- Improve protein quality by feeding several sources: Mixed grasses and legumes, as well as whole foods such as ground flaxseeds, split peas, copra meal, whey protein isolate, hemp seeds, and organic chia seeds.
- Avoid added sugar and starch by eliminating sweetened feeds, cereal grains, wheat middlings, and rice bran.
- Avoid high-omega 6 oils, which are highly inflammatory (e.g., soybean, vegetable, corn, wheat germ, and safflower oils).
- Increase omega 3s by feeding ground flaxseeds (I added a note here: preferably non-GMO if you’re going to use flaxseed) and/or organic chia seeds. Fish oils can be included for high levels of inflammation.
- Look for a vitamin/mineral supplement that provides high amounts of antioxidants, particularly vitamins E, C, beta carotene (or vitamin A), and lipoic acid.
- Offer anti-inflammatory herbs such as grape seed extract, green tea extract, spirulina, curcumin, and boswellia.
By reducing inflammation, the brain will likely become more responsive to leptin, allowing the horse to stop eating when he is full. Stress needs to be eliminated through unlimited grazing on an appropriate forage. Slow-feeders can be useful in reducing intake. Combine all this with increased movement, and you have a formula for success.”
The author of this excellent article is Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D., who is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.
Well, we hope you found this post beneficial! We’d love to know what dietary changes you have implemented that have worked for your horse or horses. As we know, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” for our horses (or ourselves). The one constant in our equine companions’ diet and health though is “forage first.”
The Team At HappyHorseOfAmerica.com
Feel free to check out the super resources below – it’s a great time to begin holiday shopping for your friends and family – and yourself not to mention these are excellent resources in which to refer again and again!
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