Should My Horse Exercise on an Empty Stomach?

This is the title of an article in yesterday, 18 March 2019. The question is answered by Clair Thunes PhD, an ‘equine nutritionist’. This qualification is itself very questionable; like the veterinary reliance on the farrier, believing in tradition rather than science, the world of equine nutrition is also one based very much on tradition. Both have a passing acknowledgment of the real science but neither accept it fully. So we still see horses being fed all manner of things rubbish or unnecessary : grains, cereals, molasses, haylage, sugar-beet pulp, alfalfa etc… So what is Thunes’ answer: ‘…veterinarians now generally understand that horses should have some amount of food in their stomach, ideally, at all times. Any veterinary surgeon who DOES NOT know this, is not worth his salt – saying they ‘generally understand’ is a very poor reflection on the veterinary profession –it is not my intention to comment here on the current level of veterinary thinking, rather on the statement.
Grazing horse

Horse grazing on short grass

The author goes on to describe how food protects the stomach, explaining the existence of the protected [lower third] and unprotected [upper two-thirds of the] stomach lining and how the normal food of the horse forms a buffer, preventing stomach acid splashing onto the unprotected lining. She also explains that meal feeds will not create such a buffer.

She explains that ‘after your horse has finished eating, it takes only about 6 hours for the majority of that meal to leave the stomach‘. This is a clear lack of knowledge for an equine nutritionist. Unlike the human stomach, which plays a significant role in the digestion of food, the equine stomach has very little involvement in the actual process of digestion, nor even preparation. The main function of the equine stomach is to act as a sort of ‘holding pen’ for food. The size of the stomach, relative to the size of the animal is one of the determining factors here. For an animal so large, the stomach is of very restricted proportions and cannot contain any notable quantity of food for any significant period of time. This is in fact in keeping with the escape mechanism of the horse. An overfull stomach would be detrimental to any fast action and to this end, the horse is required to eat relatively small quantities regularly.

As a result, the time that the food remains in the horse’s stomach is not 6 hours, it is only thirty minutes. Considerably less than the ‘only six hours’ in the article. If only for this reason alone, horses must have permanent grazing access.

The author rounds up by talking of preventing ulcers. The first sentence begins ‘The best thing you can do when your horse hasn’t eaten for several hours before a ride‘…surely this is closing the gate after the horse has bolted. The fact that the horse has not eaten for several hours means that it is already exposed to the danger of stomach ulcers – recent research has identified that 80 – 85% of horses has stomach ulcers. She goes on to talk about alfalfa being high in calcium (basic) and this combating the acid of the stomach but alfalfa, also known as lucerne, is excessively high in proteins and can cause notable negative reactions elsewhere. She also notes the availability of buffering and coating supplements.

But surely there is one simple –and cheap– answer. Feed your horse as he is meant to feed. Permanent access to grazing; a mixture of grasses, weeds etc. and at times of shortage, the winter, for example, good quality hay. It is oft bemoaned that good quality hay is too expensive to feed all the time but it will always be cheaper than the enormous quantity of inappropriate meal feeds and supplements given. And if you still think the hay is too expensive, then mix it with slightly lesser quality hay…it will still serve perfectly.

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When are “Good Feet” really “Bad Feet”?

In my line of work, it is nigh on impossible to avoid visiting a stable or livery yard every now and again. And although I am almost always visiting to tend my unshod horse-clients, I cannot help but notice just one or two of the stablemates; in particular, their feet!

Unfortunately, it is tactically unethical to take photos of these hoofs, therefore I have restricted the images to one basic photo with annotation – hopefully just this one hoof will be clear enough!

Shod hoof

Fig. 1 The hoof without annotation


In this first photograph fig. 1, try to discern the actual outline of this hoof – the photograph is has been taken almost at right angles to the hoof.  Don’t cheat by scrolling down to look at the next image 🙂













Shod hoof - perceived heel height

Fig. 2 This is the perceived heel height – compare it with the next photo


So, here in fig. 2 we see the same hoof but now I have added a little annotation to help you. We can now clearly see an outline around the visible hoof and, as the orange lines show, this looks like a hoof with the oft prescribed low heels.

At a recent conformation clinic, this type of hoof was described to me as being one with low heels since you can see the distance between the coronary band at the back and the ground is quite small.






Shod hoof - actual heel height

Fig. 3 Here the actual height of the heels is demonstrated


OK. Same hoof, but here in fig. 3 a different annotation; this is the actual outline of the hoof. Compare it with the perceived outline in fig. 2 above and have another look at fig. 1 the original photo to see just what we have annotated here.

In this annotation it is very clear that the actual contact point of the heel is much further forward than the perceived point shown above. The apparent height of the heel seems little changed but if we look at the actual height indicated by the orange lines, then we see that the heels are in fact high.






Shod hoof - desired form

Fig. 4 The form the hoof should have


In fig. 4 we see the low heels again – but no longer on a perceived level but rather on the more ideal line of the hoof; the toe is now much shorter and although it may not become quite as flat as it appears here, the coronet should also flatten out a little if the shoes are removed.

So, just what is wrong with the heels in these photos? After all, a farrier has shod them and has obviously felt they were good enough.


Essentially, the whole weight-bearing structure of the foot has been moved forwards by – in this case – roughly 15 millimetres. If we consider the point at which the hoof is hinged with the rest of the leg, we see firstly that the weight is being carried further back than is intended and, secondly, that the length of the hoof at the toe creates a longer roll moment increasing effort – and stress – with every step.



Hoof - weight-bearing and rollover points

Fig. 5 The weight-bearing line and the rollover moments of the unshod (green) and shod (red) hoof


Here in fig. 5, the blue line () shows the centre of the weight-bearing axis and we can clearly see the extra length in the moment of the shod hoof (x) compared with that of the unshod hoof (). This extra moment costs energy and effort; although not exactly the same, you can experience the difference by lifting the end of a pole one metre long and lifting the end of one 1½ metres long. The lengths used in the analogy are not synonymous with that of the hoof but remember, the horse is rolling ±150kg over its front hoofs – with every step!

If you are wondering why the green line does not reach front of the hoof wall, the answer is simple – when the hoof is correctly trimmed (or even allowed to wear naturally), the edge of the hoof is rounded bringing the rollover point back from edge of the front wall.

If we look further at the hoof, we see yet more evidence of farrier-damage. There are holes all around the outside wall from previous shoeing and these are allied to a crumbling lower edge. It is often – quite incorrectly – said that a horse needs shoeing because it has brittle hoofs. The real case is that a horse has brittle hoofs because it is shod. No amount of care, attention and biotin is going to protect a hoof from degrading if someone has hammered nails into it. This fact is frequently overlooked or even blatantly denied by proponents of shoeing; but how is it possible that when a hoof has been given a chance to develop in a nature conscious way, that this sort of damage is never evident, compared with presence in the majority of shod horses.

Very frequently a clear bulbous coronet is visible – this is often masked in two-dimensional photographs by the hair around the coronet, as is the case here. This bulbous form is caused essentially by the incorrect distribution of weight in the periphery of the hoof. By overloading the hoof wall, the coronet is pushed upwards and distorted – sometimes very severely.

V behind hoof

Fig. 6 A V-shape below the heel bulbs caused by forces from the horse shoes.

Flatter form of unshod hoof

Fig. 7 Much flatter form of the unshod hoof (this horse has never been shod)


We can also see a V shape under the heel bulbs caused by this same abnormal pressure. Compare the photographs left and right: the horse in fig. 6 has a clear V shape whereas the horse in fig. 7 the V is much flatter – almost to the point of being non-existent. The horse in fig. 7 is 8 years old and has never been shod; the horse in the other photographs is 10 years old and has been shod since before he was bought by his present owners when he was just 3 years old.







It is very important to note here that “bad feet” are NOT a result of breed, lineage or other genetic factors – although this can very occasionally play some role – but rather the effects of shoeing allied to being kept in a box or stable and in almost all cases exacerbated by bad feeding practices. Stabling a horse restricts its movement – a horse should be able to cover 12 – 18km per day – and forces it to stand for hours on end in its own excreta which seeps between the shoe and the hoof creating an ideal, airless environment for destructive bacteria to survive. Most (stabled) horses are fed two or three times a day, a mixture of grains and cereals – products ideal for mice and birds but certainly not for the digestive system of the horse – and only have limited access to raw hay/grass and other herbs which form 100% of the dietary requirement. This access to raw foodstuffs should be unrestricted since a horse grazes for a major part of the day – taking between 12 and 16 “meals” in every 24 hours. The horse moves to eat and eats to move – remove this elementary factor and the horse is put straight into an unhealthy situation.