When there are equine herpes virus (EHV) outbreaks, it causes great concern among horse owners. Did you know that your horse is already likely to be infected with this virus? Virtually all horses carry this opportunistic organism and it remains latent until something (usually stress) triggers it and it has an "opportunity" to show symptoms, producing respiratory and even neurological distress. Ever have a cold sore? That's also herpes and it remains dormant in our systems until we get physically or mentally stressed.
Traveling long distances, strange settings, unfamiliar horses, performance intensity, different smells and noises … the list is long. Heavy travel seasons are coming up this summer -- July and August are popular horse fair months. And stress suppresses the immune function, making it difficult for your horse to combat illness. Now is the time to get your horse’s immune system in tip top shape so he is less, much less, likely to succumb to a stress-related illness such as EHV. The key to prevention is twofold: Reduce stress and boost immunity.
One of the most stressful situations for any horse, regardless of the horse’s schedule and environment, is an empty stomach. Not being permitted to graze continually on pasture and/or hay goes against a horse’s instincts and innate physiology. This is because the horse’s stomach, unlike our own, continuously secretes acid, even when empty. Chewing produces saliva, a natural antacid, which neutralizes that acid. Left without anything to chew, and the horse will suffer, both physically and mentally. Furthermore, the motility of the gastrointestinal tract (which is made of muscles) depends of a steady supply of forage flowing through it in order to prevent colic. And finally, exercising on an empty stomach can lead to an ulcer as the acid sloshes around to the unprotected areas of the stomach’s lining.
Horses are “trickle feeders,” designed to continually and freely roam and graze. But in addition to 24/7 turnout and free choice access to pasture and/or hay, there are many helpful nutrients that can protect your horse, especially while training, traveling, and performing. Vitamins E and C, in particular, as well as vitamin A (beta carotene), magnesium, adequate protein, and Omega 3 fatty acids stabilize the immune system, allowing your horse to be less susceptible toward developing infections.
All this may sound complicated, but it's actually just the opposite. It's amazingly simple. Allow your horse to nibble on hay all day and night, and never let him perform without some hay in his digestive tract. Fill in the nutritional gaps that exist in hay with a good vitamin/mineral supplement, offer omega 3s and extra antioxidants during stressful times, and your horse will not only perform better, calmer, and more gracefully, but will come home healthy and ready to learn more.
For permission to reprint this article, in part or in its entirety, please contact Dr. Juliet Getty directly at Gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com.