While most stallions and some breeds have a more prominent crest to start with, (eg Welshies & Spanish breeds), when horses develop EMS, the crest of their neck enlarges further– an extra ‘ridge’ appears on top of their normal neck profile – hence the term ‘cresty’.
They also develop other sub-cutaneous (just under the skin) swellings, above the eyes, behind the shoulders, at the tail-head, on the sides of the rump, these are referred to as ‘fat pads’ but they are more like ‘fluid lumps’. They give these horses that ‘lumpy look’! (See picture above)
We always used to wonder : How is it that the ‘crest’ of the neck can suddenly go from feeling comparatively soft and wobbly to ‘standing up’ and hard as a rock in a very short time, like over-night?
We learned from Dr Deb Bennett PhD (who has conducted dissections of horses with EMS), that “the horse's "crest" is made of fibro-fatty sub-cutaneous (adipose) tissue similar in texture to high-density foam”.
Like foam, the crest tissue can take up fluid like a sponge; so under certain metabolic conditions it becomes ‘turgid’ ie it fills with fluid which is ‘leaking’ from tiny capillaries, until it is hard as a rock.
This rapid hardening of the ‘crest’ tends to happen a day or two after rainfall events, potentially at any time of the year but more frequently in spring and autumn conditions which favour growth spurts of the grass.
Many people make a point of monitoring the hardness of their horse’s crest daily because it is a major indicator that a laminitis episode is imminent. Since laminitis is a disaster this is like living on the brink of disaster. The fact that the horse has a ‘cresty’ neck is reason enough to make urgent changes to diet and management.
If urgent action isn’t taken the hardening of the crest is closely followed by ‘stiffening’ of movement, the presence of a digital pulse and sore feet (being ‘footy’), tender on hard ground, ie laminitis.
The crest ‘softens’ once nutrient imbalances are corrected. This is why feeding EMS horses isn’t just about low sugars and starches. It is also about correcting mineral imbalances which cause the puffiness and swellings.
It is best not to focus on any one mineral like magnesium, there are many other equally important minerals, vitamins and amino acids which need to be supplied because they all interact and help one another. It is about lowering intake of some nutrients and increasing intake of others.
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Laminitis & EMS
Horses who show signs of Equine Metabolic Syndrome are prone to laminitis any time of the year but the risk goes up in spring and autumn.
Laminitis aside, a horse with EMS is not a healthy horse but the condition can be successfully reversed with dietary and lifestyle adjustments. Understanding the syndrome is Step 1.
Most people know these horses need a diet which is low in sugars and starches (<10%) and an increase in exercise but EMS is not the same as being over-weight.
Some EMS horses are over-weight and some are not but EMS horses are distinguishable by their ‘lumpy look’ with their ‘cresty’ neck and the extra ‘fat’ pads above the tail-head, behind shoulders and on the sides of the rump. (See picture top left) They are also prone to ‘puffiness’ in general, swollen sheaths and swellings in front of the udders.
Thus EMS is actually a ‘metabolic disorder’ due to malnourishment – not because of insufficient quantities of food - rather it is caused by not eating the right food.
This is why starving the EMS horse by keeping him in ‘jenny craig’ type paddocks does not reverse EMS and does not prevent them from tipping over into laminitis. Severely limiting forage intake (either by keeping the horse on very short grass, not supplying enough hay, or by spending long hours in a grazing muzzle) is merely reducing the amount of unsuitable food going in which is harmful to the horse both physically and mentally.
On the scale of things, EMS is relatively easy to ‘fix’ – compared to head-shaking for instance, even though it has the same basic cause – that cause being prolonged exposure to inappropriate forage, usually vegetative (short or lush) green grass especially when riddled with clover or when Lucerne/alfalfa is fed as well.
1. The number one priority is to eliminate the cause: change the horse’s basic forage by removing all GREEN feed: that is feeds which are adding to the horse’s metabolic ‘load’.
This includes all green grass (no matter how short), all clovers, Lucerne/alfalfa products, soy-bean meal, molasses, kelps, sea-weeds and fresh herbs. The purpose is to lower potassium and nitrogen intake (from excesses down to normal) as well as lowering sugar and starch intake. While there are advantages and sometimes desirable attributes to many of these items for healthy horses, they can be counter-productive to a speedy result for conditions like EMS. Inspect the Ingredients lists on back labels.
The benefit to the horse is that doing so gives his metabolism a REST from chronic over-load of these nutrients, just like wild/feral horses have for months on end every winter.
2. Feed plain grass hay, late cut is best because it is low nutrient density, most likely won’t need to be soaked which means greater quantities can be fed thereby extending chew time over more hours of the day.
Late-cut hay provides the COARSE, FIBROUS MATERIAL essential to keep the hind-gut flora healthy. Excesses of potassium and nitrogen also affect the microbiome so mature, stalky grass is more suitable because it has completed the growing cycle, no longer requires potassium or nitrogen and the manufacturing of sugars has all but ceased.
3. Supply their essential nutrition in a simple daily hardfeed, split am & pm where possible:
* Non Lucerne/non clover chaff
* Crushed Linseed
*Sunflower meal or seeds
*Feeding these two together in the ratio of 60 Linseed to 40 sunflower, not only supplies the correct type of protein but also the omega fatty acids 3, 6 and 9 in the right ratios
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(Minerals, vitamins and amino acids)
This supplies all their daily essential nutrients including selenium along with the high levels of vitE required when on high hay diets. MVA also supplies the lysine methionine and threonine which are lacking in all protein sources.
Start with a little and build up to the correct amount for their weight, do not vary as it delivers the correct amount of selenium and other daily essential nutrients.
Make sure it contains ALL the Vitamins – because late-cut hay will not meet daily requirements of any of them, (not just vitamin E)
Mineral licks definitely don’t cut the mustard, horses only lick them for the salt and/or molasses, they don’t deliver enough to keep a horse healthy under these circumstances.
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4. Amino acids for protein – necessary because late cut hay is not a good source of protein either.
Horses who have lost muscle/topline have obviously been lacking proper protein for some time, to the point their body is breaking down its own muscles/tissues to fulfil daily requirements of the amino acids.
Edema’s (swellings/puffiness) are also a sign of a lack of ‘proper’ protein. We recommend using pure amino acids (preferably a comprehensive range with added lysine, methionine and threonine) because this supplies everything the horse needs and nothing he doesn’t need.
Horses do not get ‘proper’ protein from green grass and/or legumes like clover and Lucerne because of their NPN content (Non-Protein Nitrogen or ‘spare nitrogen’) component. The process of excreting excess nitrogen has the effect of ‘robbing’ the horse of precious calcium and magnesium.
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Electrolyte imbalances between sodium, chloride (salt) and potassium are also a factor in the appearance of swellings/edemas. Electrolyte balances are inseparable from fluid balances. By concurrently lowering potassium intake (feeding hay) and increasing salt intake via their daily feed, we are in effect lightening the load on the horse’s compromised metabolism so his self-regulating mechanisms can work.
6. There is not one single mineral, vitamin or amino acid that on its own will turnaround EMS.
It is not about analysing the horses forage and supplying what is lacking, excesses are equally as relevant as deficiencies and analyses don’t include vitamins.
It isn’t about providing a ‘bio-diverse’ diet.
It is a proven fact that horses DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE.
Neither do they self-regulate.
They eat what is available and palatable.
‘Meadows’ are ‘too rich’ for metabolic horses, they need a more ‘spartan’ approach for now. Feral/wild horses can eat what they like because, by comparison to just letting gravity lower their head like our domestic horses do in their green field, they have to cover the country to find food and water.
7. Because horses have no awareness that what they are eating is not good for their health, to get their EMS under control YOU have to take control of every aspect of their diet for them.
BUT, people say, surely it is more healthy for horses to derive their nutrition from consuming ‘whole plants’ – yes AFTER the horse’s metabolism has had sufficient rest and maintaining homeostasis (equilibrium) is easy for him. Then you can gradually introduce more variety and SOME plants at a younger stage of growth. Doesn’t necessarily mean the horse can go back out onto the same grass that caused the problem in the first place!
8. Implementing appropriate exercise regimes for these horses is extremely beneficial and will speed up restoration of good health. If the horse isn’t ridden then there are other options for giving them exercise. At CHH we have a purpose built ‘exercise track’ where they trot/run/hoon around at liberty because we have taken on a bunch of horses and don’t have time to ride them all!
9. Once the horse is no longer ‘metabolic’ you can carefully introduce access to mature grass. Work out a regime that is suitable for the individual horse. How many minutes or hours per day they can be out there will depend the individual horse and what sort of grass is available. Put thought into it before allowing the horse out to graze at all. It also means having some kind of ‘Dry Lot’ option available on which to keep the horse on hay during times he is not grazing.
10. Time frames will vary obviously but while the horse is not out grazing his field, the grass out there can mature and will be suitable for him to go out for his designated grazing time.
11. A significant, extremely important benefit of ‘undoing’ Equine Metabolic Syndrome is that of pulling the horse farther away from a laminitis episode. Not that you can ever be complacent.
Fundamental changes to the diet/lifestyle need to be permanent in order to be safe long term.