During 2007 Harlequin was not quite himself.
We had x-rays carried out to try and solve the intermittent lameness he had, but they revealed nothing. No arthritis, no navicular, ringbone, etc. Harlequin was always the athletic type, never obese, but he seemed to be on the lighter side as we went into the winter. Throughout the winter of 2007/08, Harlequin dramatically lost weight. Blood tests revealed very little. No obvious liver damage, and not diagnosed as ragwort poisoning or grass sickness as we had begun to worry about.
In the spring of 2008, we were faced with an emaciated horse, who despite having a good appetite was unable to keep condition on. Following veterinary advice we increased him to four small meals per day with conditioning feeds. Instead of putting on weight, Harlequin developed a stiff hind gait, and was unable to lift up his right hind leg for the farrier. We followed up with specialist veterinary treatment, physio, chiropracters, etc trying to find out if he had a muscular-skeletal problem. After months of veterinary treatment, the verdict was that Harlequin had laminitis in all four feet, with pedal bone rotation in both fronts. It turned out that every time we tried a different feed to gain condition, even those stamped by the Laminitis Trust, it was sending him straight into laminitis. The veterinary verdict was that his stiff hind gait was most likely due to shivers caused by the metabolic disease called Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (although that was not confirmed by muscle biopsy). The tests were negative for cushings. He was sent home from Newmarket to be placed on months of box rest on a severely restricted daily diet of soaked hay, a handful of alfalfa, half a scoop of convalescence mix, 25ml corn oil and a carrier bag full of ACP tablets and bute.
Harlequin was on box rest and his restricted diet for about a week to ten days, but what little weight Harlequin had left just fell off him. On the classic severely restricted diet for laminitics, it was obvious he was not getting sufficient nutrition to survive, yet giving him any commercially bagged hard feed just aggravated the laminitis. Alfalfa, soya, non-molassed sugarbeet, and fibre-based feeds all sent him further into laminitis. All he could eat was soaked hay and that was rationed. In desperation, we asked our local vet to carry out one more set of blood tests to see if he could find anything. They came back positive for insulin resistance and Harlequin was diagnosed with ‘metabolic syndrome’.
We decided that, if Harlequin’s quality of life could not be restored, then he should be euthanised. Everything was booked ready to carry out the final act.
This was a major turning point. As a research scientist with experience of genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, metabolic diseases and 16 years knowledge of the latest research breakthroughs in the human field, I decided to take things into my own hands and formulate my own feed.
I had to find a way to remove the cause of his problem, and then feed Harlequin to support optimum health. The cause? That’s difficult to prove, but all fingers pointed to chemical exposure such as pesticide, herbicide or fertiliser sprays. By keeping a diary, I noted that the times when our little herd of horse’s problems such as COPD, dermatitis, odd behaviour patterns and Harlequin’s metabolic syndrome were all at their worst when land was being sprayed. We began to take preventative measures by stabling horses when sprays were being applied, and emptying and cleaning water tanks in the paddocks afterwards. I researched into pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser usage both for hay production and hardfeed production. The results were very concerning. As a result of this, we changed all of our horses over to organic hay – one cut, late in the year. No chemical sprays used whatsoever and any noxious weeds hand pulled.
The hard feed? Well, to cut a long story short, nothing suitable was available commercially. The cells in Harlequin’s body needed clean natural ingredients to nutritionally support the healing process, aid clean metabolism and promote anti-inflammatory pathways. We needed a low glycemic response (low sugar/starch), but with all of the essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, metabolic cofactors, and phytonutrients in the correct ratios to support optimum health. The last thing Harlequin’s cells required when in a state of metabolic disease was waste by-products from human wheat and oat milling, chemically treated straw, preservatives, mould inhibitors, artificial vitamins made from petroleum products, highly refined pro-inflammatory vegetable oils, etc. Take a look at our information articles to learn about some of the ingredients in processed bagged horse feeds. Most hard feeds recommended for horses prone to laminitis are based on large amounts of fibre, using oatfeed, wheatfeed, soya hulls, alfalfa, chemically treated straw, etc to provide the fibre. As Harlequin eats approximately 3 tonnes of hay/forage each year, I concluded that there’s little justification in buying yet more expensive fibre based hard feeds – especially when there is no scientific evidence that feeding more fibre ‘cures’ laminitis. When you are poorly, you eat highly digestible, high quality, nutritious food to help your body recover. In the end, I used my nutritional and research knowledge and devised my own feed. This was the beginning of Thunderbrook Equestrian and the feed became known as ‘’Base Mix’’.
If Harlequin’s problem had been caused by chemical damage as I believed, then the latest research into hyperpermeable membrane damage of the gut lining had me thinking that he probably needed some nutritional support for healthy intestinal membranes. The cecum (main location for fibre digestion) sits on the right hand side of the horse’s abdomen, and this was where Harlequin was most sensitive and unable to lift his right hind leg.
The herbal mix Gut-Restore made a big difference to the amount of food Harlequin was actually absorbing into his body as opposed to his food just passing straight through his gut and out the other end as copious amounts of manure. Feeding Gut-Restore, he passed less manure and gained more weight. He gradually became able to pick up and hold up his right hind leg for the farrier, and the sensitivity on his right side became less.
Amazingly, Harlequin’s blood tests showed his insulin levels normalised, his laminitis resolved and he gained healthy weight. As soon as pain was no longer an issue, we had him gently walking on soft surfaces to promote his circulation and relieve boredom. (I looked into old literature about stagnant circulation caused by enforced ‘box rest’ was one of the main causes of laminitis – ie in horses shipped from England to India, etc and crated on board ships on long distance journeys). We soon had all of our horses on the new Base Mix, organic hay, germinating mature organic oats and grass chaff diet and saw many improvements that we hadn’t expected. We stopped using fly sprays and other potions that informed us to ‘wear gloves, wash hands after applying, do not inhale, or you must sign your horse out of the human food chain if you wash with this insecticidal shampoo’, etc. After all, if they have a warning on them to protect my health, it makes sense to protect my horses health too. My COPD mare who had to have soaked hay and ventipulmin or otherwise degenerated into ‘heaves’ is now fed dry organic hay and requires no steroids for her respiration – her breathing is back to normal. The mare with the ventral midline dermatitis? It cleared up. The stallion who paced and squealed and was generally uptight? He calmed down. The sarcoid? It fell off.
The moral of the story? A healthy horse is not maintained that way just through the bag of hard feed, or the small scoop of supplement that you put in his bowl – despite what the marketing on the front label is promoting. You need to consider the wider environment, his hay, forage, pasture, drinking water, and regular exercise too. Clean up each of these as much as you practically can, give your horse’s body cells the optimum environment and nutrition, and its quite likely your horse will surprise you.
*** Harlequin recovered and we had him for another 24 months, but he then succumbed to a big colic attack in 2011 ***