Why and How to Detox Your Barrel Horse for a Fresh, FAST Start in the New Year

Why and How to Detox Your Barrel Horse for a Fresh, FAST Start in the New Year

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When it comes to improving the health and performance of an equine athlete, considering whether we should implement a detox program is more a matter of HOW and WHEN vs. IF.

Today more than ever, performance horses especially are assaulted with a barrage of toxins from their environment, feed and medications, and it’s no coincidence that Veterinarians are seeing an increase in many disease conditions. Allergies, arthritis, metabolic disorders and even cancer are becoming more common and occurring earlier in age than in years past.

Back in the day, horse care and feeding programs were pretty simple. Old timers might even say that “ol’ Sorrely didn’t need all that stuff.” There could actually be some wisdom and truth in that statement! While the competition today is also tougher than ever – what performance horses didn’t need back then, and don’t need now are toxins that come along with the many tempting well-marketed options for supporting them. As we’ve evolved and our choices have grown, symptoms of the “body burden” our equine partners experience has risen as well.

When a horse’s system is already overwhelmed with toxins, it’s especially important that we know how to read the signs and take appropriate action to avoid a game of “chasing symptoms” which often includes adding even more toxic substances, further exacerbating the problem.

As we pile on immune, digestive and joint supplements, plus herbal support, injections, anti-inflammatories, steroids, dewormer, vaccinations, anti-biotics, fly control, processed feeds, refined oils, and beautiful hay that was sprayed with herbicide and fertilizer, AND make sure they have clean water (treated with chemicals or tainted with chemical runoff) all in the name of “giving our horses the best care,” we may actually be creating a barrier in the way of optimal health.

Of course there’s a time and place for many of the items mentioned above, and we can be appreciative for the advancements that are continually being made for promoting horse health and performance. However, it’s also important to understand the lesser known drawbacks that come alongside the everyday products that now seem to be a critical part of our, and our horse’s lives – and what we must do to minimize or prevent their negative effects to help our equine partners have not only successful careers, but long, happy lives.

The symptoms of toxic overload often start out so subtly that we may never notice anything different initially. Just like the frog who was boiled alive one degree at a time, it’s more difficult to perceive dangerous threats to our horse’s health when they occur gradually. Sometimes, we don’t even know our horses don’t feel their best, because they’ve been compromised for so long.

Pistol's coat glistens like melted chocolate - without refined oils or coat enhancers.
Pistol’s coat glistens like melted chocolate
– without refined oils or coat enhancers.

Some symptoms include:
– Laminitis/Sore Feet
– Lack of Appetite
– Poor Hoof Quality
– Dull, Dry Coat
– Bleached/Faded Coat
– Greasy Coat
– Sparse Mane & Tail
– Skin Issues
– Back Pain
– Inflammation
– Stocking Up
– Irritability/Poor Attitude
– Chronic Pain/Discomfort
– Arthritis
– Slow Healing
– Viral Infections
– Azortoria (tying up)
– Respiratory Problems
– Hard Keeper
– Low Energy
– Frequent Tendon Injuries
– Decreased Performance
– Weak Immune System
– Digestive Disturbances (ulcers, colic, diarrhea)
– Hormonal Dysfunction (painful heat cycles, etc.)
– Metabolic Dysfunction (cushings, insulin resistance)
– Over-reactive Immune System (allergies)
– And many more!

As an example, let’s consider our middle-aged gelding, Dot Com. What started to tip me off to his need for an amplified detox program was the recurrent sensitivity/discomfort in his lower back (through the loin area), that he stocked up when stalled, and that he’d always had a slightly greasy coat. Since detoxing his back pain diminished, his coat improved and he no longer has little wads of “ear wax” in the tufts of hair at the base of his ears – which I used to have to cut out every few months.

You might wonder exactly what happens in the horse’s body to cause these symptoms as a result of toxic overload. First consider that at a cellular level, everything that is put in the body is either food, or not food. What is recognized as food is used by the cells and what is not is considered a toxin that must be escorted out of body.

A thick, dark film on your fingers after a rigorous rub could indicate toxicity.
A thick, dark film on your fingers after a rigorous rub could indicate toxicity.

Under normal circumstances, a horse is more than well equipped to handle exposure to toxins. The liver, kidneys, blood, digestive system, skin and lymphatic system are all intricately involved in filtering and eliminating a certain amount of foreign materials. However, when we’ve overwhelmed our horse’s system with toxins, the dangerous substances can build up, be stored in the body for years and inhibit the organs from functioning optimally, and have a direct toxic effect on the tissues.

As toxins are broken down, free radicals (molecules with a missing electron) are formed. These unstable molecules seek to be stable and so “steal” electrons from other molecules, causing oxidative damage that essentially breaks down tissues and contributes to inflammation. Antioxidants are important in the diet, as they work to eliminate these free radicals, but in some cases the demand is greater that what can be stabilized and the body becomes overwhelmed.

I would venture to say that the demands and expectations we place on performance horses has changes over the years. While there are certainly lessons applicable from the more simplified lifestyle and care programs of the past, we can’t quite care for our high-level barrel horses like our great grandparents cared for their plow horses, or feed them a diet exactly like that of a wild Mustang on the plains. But at the same time, we DO need to understand, respect and learn from how horses have evolved to thrive as a species, and apply those lessons instead of providing a lifestyle and care program that is much the opposite.

Consider that when given the option to choose, most horses will avoid eating plants that are dangerous to them. In a more natural environment where a horse can graze and choose from a wide variety of plants and grasses, they are better able to instinctively eat those that meet their nutritional needs. As our horse’s guardians and care-givers, it’s up to us to educate ourselves and be their best advocate – so we can minimize the threats to their system and assist them during and after those that are unavoidable.

Before diving into the most effective and popular forms of detox, first I wanted to share a few recommendations for “cleaning up” your horse’s body, diet and environment to reduce the toxic load:

  • Allow a horse turnout as much as possible where they have access to their choice of plants and grasses
  • As pretty as manicured pastures are, try to limit the application of chemicals such as herbicides to your pasture
  • If you do vaccinate and use chemical dewormer, consider spacing it out so as not to stress the horse with toxins all at the same time, always follow with a detox protocol
  • Inquire with your hay sources as to whether, when and how often the hay is sprayed or fertilized, if so – with what?
  • Find and use a “chemical free” fly control, such as Flicks All Natural Essential Oil Insect Sprayand have used Fly Predatorsin the past
  • Follow the “As little as possible, but as much as necessary” rule when addressing health conditions – go for plant based supplements/support first and whenever possible
  • Schedule or perform regular acupressure/acupuncture and massage sessions to help horses rid their bodies of toxins
  • Keep it simple! Feed room shelves FULL of supplements may be a sign of an unhealthy horses. Do an in-depth detox, then determine how much of the rest seems necessary
  • Most complete and processed feeds have chemicals and/or additives that should be avoided. Consider buying feed ingredients without additives and mixing yourself
  • Get hay, pasture, and horse hair analysis performed to test the sources before balancing diets or detoxing blindly
  • Consider working closely with an equine nutritionist or Veterinarian to determine exactly what your horses need, to avoid administering and/or feeding what they don’t
  • Submit regular fecal samples for analysis to determine what type and how often deworming is necessary
  • Ask your Vet. to run antibody titers and talk to him/her about whether your horses are high risk for certain diseases and if any/all or certain vaccinations are recommended
  • Develop management and care practices at home and when traveling that encourage as much movement as possible and include plentiful, convenient access to water – circulation and adequate hydration are both important for eliminating toxins
  • Focus on prevention! The less often your horse gets sick, the less physical and mental stress they will experience, the fewer drugs will be given and the less body burden will be
  • From a horsemanship perspective, develop a confident and emotionally fit barrel horse who hauls and performs with as little stress as possible, which is important for developing and maintaining a strong immune system

A horse can’t be both healthy AND sick, so it pays to create a true and strong foundation of health. It’s critical that we not be tempted to create an illusion of health dependent on a lot of additives, but actually create an internal environment where the organs and bodily systems are all functioning optimally and working together in harmony as they were designed to.

Muscle pain or kidney pain?
Muscle pain or kidney pain?

Whether it’s the area of horse care or horsemanship, I try to stick to the theme of doing “as little as possible, but as much as necessary” as mentioned above. In other words – if you’re addressing a specific problem, it’s ideal to start by offering plant-based support, and only utilize drugs if necessary.

When it comes to supporting our horses in a way that minimizes toxins, it may seem as though supporting our horses whenever possible with plant-based or herbal supplements would be best, because plants are readily recognized as food and easily assimilated by the horse. However, we can’t assume that taking this route always comes without risk. Be mindful that herbs or “all natural” supplements can also contain chemicals, or “drugs”/toxins themselves.

Use caution before using both herbal remedies AND drugs to address a specific problem at the same time, which creates potential for significant and dangerous interactions. If drugs are required for a condition, herbs may no longer be advised (some of which are very strong). Always consult your Vet., and in either case, never administer more than the recommended dosages. Just like with many other substances – just because a little is good, doesn’t mean a lot is better!

There are a lot of options out there developed to help your horse’s body rid itself of toxins. One of the most popular is CLAY. For many years detox products made primarily with bentonite clay combined with detoxifying herbs have been used successfully with horses.

Technically with all this talk of “detox” and “cleansing,” what clay and many other “detoxifying” products do is assist in absorbing or latching onto and then flushing out existing toxins, which helps restore the liver, kidneys, lymphatic and digestive systems, etc. to their normal, healthy functioning state.

Another popular mode of detox comes through adding a natural mineral known as zeolite to your horse’s diet. Formed where volcanic rocks and ash layers have reacted with alkaline groundwater, the zeolite particles feature a matrix of tiny open cells. Because they have a negative charge, heavy metals and other toxins typically have a strong positive charge, so they are attracted to and caught in the tiny spaces and effectively excavated out of the body.

I’m not a Veterinarian or an Equine Nutritionist, but below are a few products I feel confident recommending and will link to for further exploration:

Dynamite Miracle Clay or Daily Gold Stress Relief(Bentonite)

Foundation Equine Detox by Animal Element (with Zeolite)

Silver Lining Herbs Liver Support and Kidney Support – Enter ‘healthyhorse’ at checkout for 10% OFF!

Also consider feeding Bragg’s raw Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) to assist with the detox process. ACV has shown to be effective for cleansing the digestive tract and colon, clearing funguses and skin allergies, and helping to restore the acid/alkaline balance in the body.

Dosage: Start with a tablespoon added to your horse’s feed and work your way up to a 1/2 cup daily.

How long or how often your detox program is depends on your horse’s past and their current exposure. As a general rule, we can assume that the older the horse is, the greater the toxic burden. Although we have to keep environmental toxins in mind, the less “natural” their care and diet has been, the greater their need for detox may be (ie. feed-through fly control, daily dewormers, frequent medications, etc.). It’s best to detox a new horse for the first time gently and slowly to avoid a “healing crisis,” which can cause health issues as the body is cleansing and resetting itself.

A good rule of thumb to know when the detox has been effective is when the entire horse has shown a noticeable change in hair coat. For example, our semi-retired gelding Frosty started a detox program a month ago and so far his coat has drastically improved on his head and neck, but not yet his whole body. This can take anywhere from one to six months the first time, and can be repeated twice a year or after a threat to the horse’s system, such as extreme stress, illness, surgery, or after administration of drugs, vaccines and dewormer, etc.

We get out of our horses what we put in - make sure it's ALL good!
We get out of our horses what we put in – make sure it’s good!

With any supplementation or detox protocols – always do your homework! Avoid detoxing pregnant horses, and use caution with especially older, or very fragile, already-stressed horse, or those with potential or known metabolic dysfunction. Do your research, inquire with a trusted Vet. or nutritionist and if in doubt, take it slow and easy while paying close attention to the horse during the duration of the detox.

It’s easy to get caught up in treating symptoms rather than identifying the cause of health problems. When problems arise, instead of asking “WHAT disease does my horse have?” ask yourself “WHY does my horse have a disease?” and create or adjust your health and nutrition program as a solution around the answer.

Today, the spread of diseases is prevalent and in some cases even the most advanced pharmacutials have proven ineffective. Prevention then, is the name of the game. Just like a strong educational foundation holds up no matter the circumstances, we want to create a strong foundation of health that allows every part of the horse’s body to work in harmony for our benefit on the patter, but especially for the horse’s well-being!

When a balanced state of health and well-being is achieved, our horses will look good, think clearly, learn, respond and run quickly, and essentially perform at their very best with greater consistency. In the end – keep things simple when possible, listen to your horse, and trust your ability to make good decisions for enhancing your barrel horse’s health and performance.

In the comments below, share YOUR experiences with detoxing and the steps you take to minimize “body burden.”

For even more information on developing and supporting healthy, high-performance barrel horses with quality, balanced nutrition, follow the links below:

16 replies
  1. jplumbum
    jplumbum says:

    Heather, I’m trying to eat more naturally and stay away from preservatives myself, so it makes sense to do the same for my horses. I currently run a horse that has PSSM and since I’ve been feeding Renew Gold with Co-Mega Supreme (coconut and soybean oil) and Vitamin E and selenium crumbles, the tie up has been a non-issue. Last summer though my horse bled a few times. I got lasix, but decided to just give him time off, so I haven’t ran him on that yet. Are there any supplements you would recommend for a horse that bleeds and/or any to stay away from?

  2. Heather Smith
    Heather Smith says:

    Hi ladies, I have to say that I have very little personal experience with bleeders, although I AM confident that a bleeding issue can be resolved at least to a point where it’s manageable, but if it’s happening it’s certainly something to take seriously and cause a swift jump to action!

    When I Googled “natural support for bleeders” there was a lot of information that came up for herbal blends, so that is worth exploring and asking your Vet. about.

    Also, here are a couple other things to consider – one is a horse’s emotional fitness. The higher their blood pressure is, the more stress is on the vessels. And the way we go about developing and preparing our horses has an effect on that.

    Another thing we can control is how well-conditioned they are. You might checkout this article for more on that topic as it relates to bleeders – EPIH – If You’re Not Breezing, You’re Bleeding.

    In addition, it’s my understanding that heavy use of injectables like Adequan and Legend for joints can cause thinning/weakening of blood vessels.

    All things to consider… again it goes back to asking “WHY does my horse have this problem?” instead of “What problem does my horse have?”

    • jplumbum
      jplumbum says:

      Thanks,I will definitely check out that link. My horse is pretty laid back, calm at the gate and after I run, but I honestly have no idea what his blood pressure is. I will discuss with vet. Separate question: I am intrigued by the raw vinegar. I have read of its many perceived benefits for humans. Just wondering what your take is on whether it might exacerbate ulcers in horses that are prone to them, since it is very acidic. I don’t have an ulcer horse, but I am curious. What are your thoughts?

      • Heather Smith
        Heather Smith says:

        We can assume that the more ‘on the muscle,’ wound up, emotional and anxious a horse gets, the higher their blood pressure will go. So if that was also an issue for horse that is a bleeder, it would be something to address from a horsemanship perspective. If your horse is very laid back, it’s probably a non-issue.

        ACV acts as a pre-biotic so can actually help promote the growth of healthy microflora. Even though it’s acidic to taste, it becomes alkaline once in the body and is believed to help restore acid/alkaline balance.

          • Heather Smith
            Heather Smith says:

            You’re so welcome! I thought I’d add another article from BNH that explains EPIH -> The Red Flag.
            From what I understand, quite a few folks have had success controlling bleeding episodes without Lasix by using Oxy-gen’s Bleeder Stop or Equidite’s Bleed Block (which have similar formulations) – those products seem worthy of further research and/or trial!

  3. DianaCory
    DianaCory says:

    I am feeding enrich plus by Purina . Low Starch.
    1 lb with alafa pellets topped with rice bran plus grass hay
    Doesn’t seem to b giving energy. Hair anayslas is no immune . What would u feed.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I generally try to steer clear of processed feeds (including Triple Crown), with Renew Gold being the exception – it’s made of rice bran, flax and coconut. How much grass hay is your horse getting – as much as he can eat like a round bale or how many lbs.? Any turnout on pasture? Has the hay been tested for nutrient content?

  4. horseshoeme
    horseshoeme says:

    Thank you for this article. I am so overwhelmed with feeds 🙂 I have a big boy that is not an easy keeper and we switched to steam rolled 1 1/2 lbs & alfalfa pellets 1 1/2 lbs twice a day. I did add rice bran (stabilized) 1 1/2 lbs a day. He is a bit nervous type horse so have him on equi-sure when I work him. Any suggestions?

  5. Claire
    Claire says:

    Hi Heather. I was wondering out of the detox supplements if you could only give one which would it be? I too have noticed some of the symptoms you have experienced. I have one horse that a nervous guy that’s in good shape but occasionally his coat looks weird and he get the ear wax. Also he smells like roux in the spring. Yes weird. My other guy is a hard keeper that is constantly plagued by feet tenderness. Dispite me and my farriers best efforts.

  6. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Hi Heather,
    Thank you very much for sharing your journey and passion with us!!!

    Question on the clays.
    Although I’m finding a bunch of great stuff on them, I have read some about the negativity of the make up which has aluminum and lead. I am also concerned about entrolithes. Any thoughts?

    Thank you for your time!


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