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Do you know what’s really underlying the conditions we see in horses - let’s dig deeper than what we’ve all thought previously …

Posted on September 20 2022

To our frustration and distress, we see our horses becoming increasingly susceptible to a range of common diseases and we don’t understand why - especially when you have done everything you were told to do and it’s becoming an expensive problem.  In this blog we’ll look at some of the common conditions, and what the real underlying reasons for them can be.  Let’s take a moment to ponder whether we are actually addressing underlying causes or just the symptoms because we can treat our horses better, with a bit of savvy education.

It’s important to look at how we can take natural, preventative action to improve the diet, eliminate negative lifestyle factors, and strengthen your horse’s immune system, which at the end of the day, is what should be protecting your horse from these diseases.  At the root, all disease is caused by two factors - deficiency - and toxicity - so we are looking at why and what else surrounds these issues. I will not be mentioning the basics today, we all know it’s important for example to ensure adequate hydration, feed regularly, minimise stress in your horse etc, so instead I want to delve deeper and explore some crucial areas you may not be aware of that can make a huge difference to the health of your horse.

For those of you who don’t need to look at the specific symptomatology of the main equine skin and hoof conditions, you can skip these five subheadings and go straight to the heading below, ’Can you see the common theme?’

HORSE SKIN AND HOOF DISEASES

Mudfever

Mudfever, a type of dermatitis in horses, is commonly found in the lower limbs and the back of the legs, causing inflammation and scabbing.   It also affects the heels causing them to crack, and usually there’s matting of the hair.   Horses with lighter pigment, and ‘white socks’ are more susceptible.  It is also contagious, spreading between horses, so hygiene is very important, as is isolation from other horses whilst treating.

What causes Mudfever? 

Mudfever is caused by the anaerobic bacteria Dermatophilus congolensis which is found in the soil.  During the rainy season when the horses skin goes from wet to dry continuously, and usually in the presence of low immunity, the skin begins to crack, which give pathogenic bacteria the opportunity to enter the skin.  In this instance, the beneficial bacteria and the immune cells cannot overcome the ‘invader’.  We will look at reasons why shortly.

With Mudfever you will often be told you are to remove all scabs and exudate before you begin treatment, because behind the scabs is where the pathogenic bacteria live, and with conventional treatment, its often recommended.  However, when using a spray-on, commensal microbial formula of probiotics, the clever, live microbes will naturally migrate under the scabs to heal, negating the removal of the scabs first.  During the treatment period it is preferable to keep your horse in a stable, under dry conditions.

Rain Scald

Rain Scald in horses, also known as Streptothricosis or rain rot, is also caused by the bacteria Dermatophilus congolensis.  The bacteria thrive in hot and humid conditions and are highly contagious. It is recognizable by matted hair and scabbing on the back and rump of your horse.  As with Mudfever, horses with lighter pigment are more susceptible to Rain Scald.  Again, you will often be told you are to remove all scabs and exudate before you begin treatment, however as stated above, the clever, live microbes will naturally migrate under the scabs to heal, negating the removal of the scabs first.  If the mud fever or rain scald looks severe the horse can develop a fever, become lethargic and lose their appetite, so watch out for this and contact your vet if the symptoms dictate. 

Seedy Toe and White Line Disease

Seedy Toe and White Line Disease are also caused by bacteria entering the hoof wall through cracks.  However, both of these two conditions are actually secondary diseases, initially they’re caused by mechanical hoof problems such as long toes or wall flares.   These mechanical problems can cause cracking and splits which allow an entry point for the bacteria to invade, so a good hoof care provider is essential to prevent this occurrence.  General poor health will show up with other symptoms too, hopefully pointing you in the direction of returning to the ‘foundations to good health’ and investigating root, or underlying causes for this. 

Because there is no oxygen under the hoof wall the bacteria are provided with the perfect environment to propagate.  Seedy Toe can be identified by the cracks along the edge of the hoof where the hoof wall meets the sole.  This infection usually occurs at a notch on the coffin bone and can recur in this area.  White Line is when the bacteria break down the keratin in the inner hoof wall.  Both Seedy Toe and White Line Disease are more prevalent in horses with Laminitis.  Laminitis, where the keratin in the hoof degrades, leaves the horses more vulnerable to the diseases because of the inflamed laminae.  This again emphasizes the importance of a healthy hoof, but not just that, as its important to see greater processes at play - and more about this shortly.  Importantly, if the overall health is good, there is no opportunity for these bacteria to invade and thrive.

For the bacteria to be able to propagate, the conditions need to be right, that’s why having the healthy bacteria to ward them off can be the best preventative treatment.  Making sure your horse’s hooves are well groomed is also very important in the prevention of Seedy Toe and White Line disease.  There are cases, especially in immune-suppressed or immune-compromised horses, where overcoming pathogenic bacteria can only be achieved by, primarily at least, a change in diet and re-establishing the commensal microbes with the diversity required.  Not only this but, the number of specific microbes within that diversity, is a crucial factor indeed.

Thrush

Like the other diseases, thrush in horses is also caused by anaerobic bacteria, and sometimes fungi.  It affects the area of the horse’s hoof called the frog, which is the triangular area located underneath the hoof.  You can usually smell this before you see it - as this type of bacterial thrush can be identified by its terrible smell and a black discharge.  Cleaning the area daily with a spray-on, commensal blend of microbes enables the pathogenic bacteria and possibly fungi to diminish in the presence of the ‘native’ commensals which out-compete the ‘baddies’ so to speak, however twice daily spraying is recommended to remove the infection.

Allergies in Horses

Allergies have become more prevalent in horses and, along with the diseases we’ve discussed, there are measures we can take to prevent allergies in horses.  Allergies cause horses a great deal of distress due to the reactions in the horses’ skin or airways.  Horses can struggle with itchy skin, rashes and discomfort, or the respiratory system can also be affected, so it’s common to see coughing, sneezing or wheezing in allergies. In fact, any mucosal surface in or on the body can be affected by a compromised immune system that leads to allergies.

The superficial, external ‘causes’ of allergies in horses can include insects, parasites, pollen, chemicals such as medicine or insecticides and even their natural environment where certain vegetation can bring about allergic reactions.  Deeper underlying causes are what must be treated however for complete, long-term resolve, and we can cover this shortly.  When a horse has an allergic reaction to one of these elements, it is essentially the body reacting to the ‘allergen’ that is causing the reaction.  When we go deeper though, we will uncover a number of factors that are crucial in understanding the role these factors play in disease.  After all, your horse has lived with those external factors all its life and yet why is it only recently that it’s started ‘reacting’ to the external, and (sometimes internal) environmental factors?

Can you see the common theme?

In all of the above cases, the bacteria and fungi has been able to gain access and survive, without being ‘taken out’ by the commensal microbes, the microbes that are ‘native’ to the horse, both on the skin, on the hoof and within the body.  Why is this - why do the pathogenic bacteria survive?  What has happened to your horses immune and microbial systems such that they have failed to protect your horse from these conditions?

In order to answer that we must first understand that nothing happens in ‘isolation’, all of these diseases have taken predisposing factors to be present and how those have been able to play out has resulted in the ‘dis-ease’.

Your horse is an incredibly complex system of multi-faceted and inter-connecting systems so why is it when a horse gets sick - we just treat the one symptom, without looking at the whole horse and determining what led to that one symptom?   Take a headache as an analogy, where we take a paracetamol to get rid of the headache but don’t consider why we got the headache in the first place.  It wasn’t from a lack of paracetamol, was it?  No! However, it could be a lack of magnesium, the ‘relaxing’ mineral that’s used up under stress, or it could have been from the alcohol we drank the night before creating dehydration, or maybe it was the build-up of chemicals from the lollies we just ate, or maybe it was the lighting causing eye strain whilst reading, or bad posture.  There’s usually a multitude of possible causes but as a horse-owner learning to use your intuition will be highly valuable in reversing dis-ease.

Of course we need to treat the isolated symptom to put the horse out of its discomfort, however, alongside this we need to think about what’s really going on at a deeper level, because to do otherwise would be a disservice to the beautiful soul you love.  So, dig deep my friends when a ‘symptom’ arises until you have ‘treated’ your beautiful horse in its entirety. 

We do this for our car - take it in for a ‘warrant of fitness’ every six months - why would we not use the same principle for our horse because we definitely care more about our horse than our car right?  So, consider spending that little bit extra in order to address the deeper systems that may need therapeutic or psychological support in order to regain the vitality of life force your horse had as a youngster (but loses over time).

So, although there are seven pillars to health, for today we are only going look at the first three foundations in order to address the bare basics - the basic WOF!

  1. Good nutrition

There is plenty of information on this and NZ now boasts a number of equine nutritionists, so I am not going to dwell here too long at all …. Having said that, be aware that your feed needs to be sourced, if at all possible, from somewhere that does not use glyphosate spray or Roundup Ready weedkiller and desiccant (used in the ‘drying’ process of hay). 

In the study ‘Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases III’ it was determined that ‘… gut bacteria are harmed by glyphosate as evidenced by the fact that it has been patented as an antimicrobial agent’.  Literally like using an antibiotic permanently then if your feed has been sprayed and you feed hay daily - and of course the same applies to other grains and cereals often fed to horses if it is also ‘sprayed’.  Thats not the worst of it though and let me tell you why.  Glyphosate will bind nutrients such as metals within the plant’s tissues rendering iron, manganese, copper, zinc, magnesium and cobalt unavailable in that plant, that may then be ‘fed’ to your horse, leading to deficiencies of those same minerals for your horse.  Bear in mind here that corn, alfalfa and soy ingredients (look for soybean meal in your horse feed) which may all be GMO’s too - genetically modified organisms, may also have glyphosate or Roundup-Ready sprays on them. If you feed beet pulp at all it would be extremely wise to check it’s GMO free as most are not.  And for those who are not aware of Monsanto - you would do well to do a little research to discover that glyphosate also disrupts liver enzymes so impairs detoxification, and it can impair biliary excretion, causing increased excretion of haem (part of haemoglobin in blood) which can lead to multiple chemical sensitivity disorders.  It’s also neuro-toxic affecting nerves and the nervous system as a whole - seen any nervous or jittery horses? 

In addition, studies are now showing Glyphosate may be a player in the recent epidemic of antibiotic resistance.  Glyphosate can also influence the uptake of arsenic and aluminium, not really metals you want in abundance in your horse, and especially accumulating over time.  It’s implicated in manganese deficiency which can lead to a reduction in Lactobacillus in the gut, not really something we want happening when a horse’s gut crucially relies on a fine balance of the Lactobacillus bacteria and without which, can lead to colic.  So, the moral here - ‘organic’ means no glyphosate or GMO’s, good heh.  Alternatively, you may like to ask a quick question of your hay supplier or farmer, ‘is your hay tested for glyphosate?’ It may be a very wise question, especially if your horse is unwell.   If you can’t change your horse feed then at the least invest in a good vitamin & mineral supplement, a probiotic containing commensal microbes and look to detox your horse every six months.  You think I’m joking?

  1. Microbial balance

Diversity of commensal or ‘native’ microbes - what can I say …. crucially important for good health!   It begs the question why are there more microbial cells in the bodies of all living creatures including ourselves than there are host body cells.  Do you think they might be important?  They sure as heck are!  Especially in a horse - as I am sure we are all aware, even the smallest variation in this complex and diverse gut microbiome, particularly in the hindgut can lead to colic, or other health issues. 

Not many people know this, but the gut microbes live in the mucosal layers or lining of the gut carrying out crucial tasks in combination with the part of the immune system called the lymphocytes (gut protection immune cells), that also reside in the mucosa.  So, both the microbes and the immune system live and work extremely closely in a totally symbiotic relationship where they actually ‘need’ each other to do their jobs, and do them well.  The accumulation and function of the lymphocytes depends on the commensal and beneficial microbes and likewise the immune system as a whole takes very good care to keep the microbial communities in balance.

Certain medications such as antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, hormones, proton-pump inhibitor drugs such as Omeprazole used in ulcer treatment - and often used pretty much permanently in racehorses, exert an ‘anti-biotic’ effect too so literally once again, disrupting and destroying the fine balance of commensal, beneficial microbes in and sometimes even on, your horse.  So, you might be thinking yeah but so what if the microbes are disrupted or killed off for a short period of time.   In answer I would say there is no aspect of horse health that is not totally dependent on the commensal, beneficial microbes to work closely, alongside all body systems and especially the immune system to maintain good health. 

If this is disrupted for any period of time there will be a consequence, seen or unseen.  From improving digestibility of food critical to proper digestion, to producing lactic acid in the hindgut, to maintaining the pH at the correct level conducive to beneficial bacteria only, to attaching to the gut wall to block pathogenic bacteria, to stabilizing the micro-flora throughout the body, to metabolizing and utilizing dietary nutrients, they are critical to the health and wellbeing of your horse.  When we consider how many things can disrupt the balance we can understand why it’s a good idea to supplement with commensal probiotics.

So, moving on to the underlying reason of many, many health issues in your horse, many of which can be persistent or recurring?

  1. Leaky Gut

Have you heard of the term Leaky Gut?  Some have, some haven’t.  In essence, the gastro-intestinal tract becomes ‘too’ permeable due to an assortment of factors that damage or create a mucosal barrier ‘break’.  Once this occurs, the area where the ‘break’ occurs, starts the ‘leaking’ process where the contents of the gastro-intestinal tract, leak into the bloodstream of your horse.  The immune system, that sits at the mucosal ‘interface’ between the inside of the gastro-intestinal tract and the bloodstream, and under normal circumstances monitors and communicates with the microbes, will be alerted if anything enters the bloodstream that should not, and literally will ‘attack’ it.  It may be fungi, bacteria, endotoxins (which are the waste by-products of the microbes in the gut), all of these things should be blocked and be excreted as faeces.  However, in the case of Leaky Gut, they gain entry to the bloodstream, set off an immune reaction and this continues on an ongoing basis until you ‘repair’ the gut.  This reaction and subsequent inflammation is what you then see as ‘allergy’ symptoms.  Over time this weakens the immune system because there is so much inflammation initiated, that the whole system becomes overwhelmed and ill-health begins.  Wham - your horse’s immune system is now compromised, and if the microbial balance is also low, and lacking in diversity, that’s a double whammy, and to add insult to injury, if you are feeding say glyphosate sprayed feed, that’s a lot of factors from which to recover!

So, you see why taking the single pill - for us it might be paracetamol, for your horse it might be Phenylbutazone (Bute), is not going to fix the multitude of ongoing and possible factors that may be going on for your horse contributing to ongoing, compromised health.  Bute, as one of the leading medications used for horses has also been shown in studies to cause gastric ulceration, kidney and liver damage and occasionally colitis depending on the dosage and duration. 

We need to look at the bigger picture, take a step back and approach it as if it was your horse’s WOF - let’s spend the time and the money and get the job done properly.  This is the approach we need to take with our horses if we want to stop the downward spiral of ill-health and progress your horse back into optimum health.

 

Boosting the Immune System

It is important that we understand the role of probiotics in the horse’s gut.  They provide the body, not just the gut, with the tools that it needs to fight off the pathogenic bacteria.  What we are aiming for is to increase diversity and species count, such as the ones mentioned above, so the body has the necessary natural tools at its disposal to be able to fight off the infection. 

Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to the ‘quick fix’ options available today through symptom treatment only.  The natural course of action, through a healthy diet including healthy bacteria, and addressing gut integrity and the highly prevalent Leaky Gut, is a slower but more foundational approach.  It takes time, but it’s so much more beneficial for your horse. We want to assist the healing through natural means, rather than relying on chemical pharmaceuticals to do the job that the good bacteria are capable of and do so well.  Why kill off the beneficial commensal microbes too - let the good microbes kill off or ‘out-compete’ the pathogenic microbes because that’s why Nature has them in abundance everywhere - to maintain balance, particularly where imbalance due to human intervention has become the norm.

 

Embracing natural remedies to help maintain this balance goes a long way in preventing diseases such as the one’s we see above.  With gastro-intestinal issues being the second leading cause of death in horses we definitely want to make sure the gastro-intestinal tract is nourished and repaired on a routine basis.  There are Leaky gut treatments, and many herbal preparations can assist with this too.  Meadowsweet is a wonderful herb for ulcers and dandelion contains many beneficial nutrients along with being helpful for liver detoxification, or slippery elm to help rebuild the mucosal lining and soothe and repair the gut!  Even psyllium seeds are helpful particularly if you live on sandy soils as it helps to shift the accumulated sand out of the gut and back onto the land! (50g of psyllium seed added to feed to 100kg of body weight and repeat for four days each month).  Nature has all the answers to the imbalances we often see in our beautiful horses and as the saying goes ‘all disease starts in the gut’ so it’s definitely a good place to start. 

 

* Do check with your vet after doing your own research too, that its ok to go ahead with these treatments, based on the specifics of your horse.