It’s Fall! How You Can Support Your Horse for the Seasonal Shift

September 28, 2023

By Sarah Griffiths, DCH

Fall is here! We’re watching the temperatures drop, the leaves changing color and a little fuzz starting to develop in your horse’s coat. Your horse’s body knows winter is coming. It’s shifting every day as the daylight hours change – this means it’s time for a little extra TLC.

Providing seasonal support for horses for fall is important to avoid unnecessary stress. Just like we need some extra support for winding down into the winter season, our horses need some extra help too. So let’s dive in!

Why Fall Seasonal Support for Horses Is So Important

There are so many things that start to happen for our horses in fall. Studies have shown that the light and the darkness, especially in our northern hemisphere, drastically affect the metabolic system of our horses.

Since they spend the majority of their time outside, horses are exposed to the elements and are in sync with natural light all the time. As soon as the light begins changing, we can see the affects:

  • Summer coat shedding & winter fuzz growth
  • Increased hoof growth
  • Hoof abscesses (wetter weather)
  • Behavioral and hormonal changes – increased cortisol with more confinement (shelter seeking behavior and/or coming in from the fields) and heat cycles in mares, for example.
  • Skin issues – skin infections from fungus or bacteria can start to appear with the increase in wet weather
  • Changes in foraging patterns. For example, where I am out in British Columbia, where we have a lot of rain at this time of year. We don’t usually turn our horses out in the big field in these seasons because it can be slippery and damages the fields for grazing in the good months. We shift them around as the seasons change and offer large paddocks with good drainage and free-flow hay nets. This changes hormonal values (1) and what microbes (2) your horse comes into contact with from their diet and environment.
  • Digestive disturbances including diarrhea and colic

All of these factors are signs of internal stress that can be supported and sometimes even avoided altogether. So let’s talk a little more about the mechanics of what’s going on and how to support!

How the Circadian Rhythm Works

The circadian rhythm is the biological clock that all mammals have. It’s a 24-hour cycle that’s affected by light and darkness and other environmental factors. It helps keep the body in sync with the patterns of each day and night to keep the body systems working as efficiently as possible, create healthy sleeping patterns and to mitigate stress, control growth factors and inflammation.  These processed are directed by the pituitary gland.

The Mighty Pituitary Gland

There is a tiny gland at the base of your horses brainstem called the pituitary gland. Though small in size, it is known as the “master gland” of the body and helps control and delegate what other glands in the metabolic system do. It controls the release as well as the up and down regulation of other important hormones including:

-cortisol (the stress hormone made by the adrenal glands)

-TSH (made by the thyroid)

-growth hormone (pituitary)

-oxytocin (brain)

-serotonin (gut)

-melatonin (pineal gland)

-PLUS many other important metabolic cascades

The circadian cycle is also largely directed by the pituitary – being stimulated by light signals coming to the eye and then into the brain when changes in daylight occur.

It’s VERY important to take care of this little organ and its associates (basically the whole body) at all times of the year but especially during seasonal changes.

Melatonin – The Hormone of Darkness

At this time of time the of year, the body is starting to “wind down”, to get less active and sleep more. This is largely due to an increase in melatonin – known also as the “hormone of darkness” – released by the pineal gland and circulated into the bloodstream. Melatonin is the hormone that helps your body get ready to go to sleep each evening and production increases in the 24-hour cycle as dusk comes earlier and earlier in the day and our daylight hours shorten in autumn.

Melatonin is made in the body from another hormone called serotonin, best known for its role in mood and sleep disorders when it’s not present in healthy amounts. And, what’s most interesting, is that the majority (90+%) of serotonin is not produced in the brain, it’s produced in the gut! (3) (4) And if the gut isn’t healthy, there could be inadequate melatonin production. Furthermore, gut disease is one of the most common diseases found in the modern horse, affecting 80-90% of performance horses and 35-55% of pleasure horses. (5) (6).

As the years role by, repeated stressful circadian and seasonal events can lead to disease and dysfunction and with the prevalence of diseases such as Cushing’s disease (PPID) in aging horses (an oxidative disease of the pituitary gland), it becomes even more important to support during seasonal shifts.

The Gut

It’s important to understand that the gut is interfacing with the environment whenever your horse is eating (so, pretty much their entire waking life). Seasonal changes in pasture access and forage type changes the composition of the microbial community in your horses’ gut. (2) It is imperative that the gut is supported for a smooth summer to winter transition.

Can you see how the puzzle pieces fit together?

Here are some of the areas our horses are affected by the changing circadian rhythm:

  1. Hormonal pathways – melatonin, dopamine and cortisol (can affect the health status of Cushing’s horses and ponies).
  2. Allergies/histamine regulation – the circadian clock is an allergy/histamine regulator
  3. GI function – affects intestinal biogeography, metabolite regulation, gene transcription
  4. Liver function – gene transcription in the liver
  5. Musculoskeletal system – affections regulation of locomotor activity and skeletal muscle gene expression
  6. Hoof and hair – stimulates the growth of both

So, as the seasons change, all of these systems need to be supported.

  • Endocrine System
  • Reproductive System
  • Musculoskeletal System
  • Immune System
  • GI System
  • Portal System (liver, kidney, pancreas, etc.)
  • Skin/Haircoat & Hooves

So, pretty much the entire body…

How Do We Pick the Best Support for Horses During the Fall Transition?

For seamless transitions into the new season, support is definitely warranted! But how do you know what’s necessary and what the best fits will be for your horse? It’s easy to go overboard and it’s good to use your intuition to determine what is needed for individual horses. To determine what to do consider factors like age, health status, behavior, workload, diet and housing.

Some of the easiest ways to help your horse thrive in the fall are with nutrition, environmental management and homeopathy. So let’s dive in to solutions!

Seasonal Nutrition for Horses

There are a million foods and supplements out there. How the heck do you chose the right ones? The best place to start is “what support am I trying to offer?” In this case, we want to target the gut, the pituitary and the nervous system.

Whenever possible, I like to start with species-specific options. This means that it’s a type of food that a horse would naturally seek out during the fall months: seasonal food! Aside from daylight, seasonal eating is another way that the body can interface with the environment in real-time. Think of your horse’s body as the hardware and the food as a software update. Pretty cool, right?

Seasonal nutrition can help to educate the gut (and therefore the rest of the body) about what time of year it is and also support it so it can do the jobs of helping keep the immune and nervous systems in homeostasis regardless of environmental changes.

Herbs for Horses in Autumn

Let’s start with the most natural foods for horses: plants! There are a number of herbs that grow at this time of year that are not only packed with nutrients but also have therapeutic and antioxidant values too. The following are all found in North America and enjoyed by foraging horses. If your horse isn’t in a situation where they can pick these herbs themselves, they can be foraged by you or purchased in a whole, dry form to be fed to your horse. All are safe to use for nutritive and therapeutic benefits and can be found in nature during the fall season:

  • Dandelion Leaf and Root – One of the most nutritious herbs on the planet for humans and horses! Horses naturally dig up these roots in the fall and in winter too. It’s highly nutritive and supports bile secretion, blood sugar regulation, digestion, liver/kidney function and inflammatory modulation. It has also been shown to be highly protective against cancer processes. (7)
  • Blackberry & Raspberry Leaf – Specifically useful for mares – reduces uterine inflammation and helps modulate hormonal function. Also a nutrient-packed herb (especially vitamin C and E) that has protective effects for the skin, haircoat, gut lining, reproductive and immune systems for both males and females. (8)
  • Rose Hips – An antioxidant-rich herb with tons of calcium, vitamin A & C, polyphenols and essential fatty acids. This herb protects the body against oxidative stress and has been shown to be antiarthritic, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, immunomodulatory, gastroprotective and beneficial to skin tissue (9).
  • Plantain – plantain naturally grows in summer and fall and is a powerhouse for equine health – antidiabetic, antidiarrheal, antibacterial, antiviral and high in antioxidants too. (10) Great for horses with insulin resistance and seasonal fecal water syndrome
  • Peppermint – Horses absolutely love peppermint. They greatly enjoy this addition to their diet. Not only does it taste good but it also has strong digestive, immune and benefits (11). It can also be brewed into a tea and poured over food which al lot of horses love.
  • Chamomile – Chamomile is well proven to protective against ulcers (as effectively as omeprazole! (12), reduce stress and mood disorders (13) and has also been shown to increase melatonin production (14)
  • Willow Bark – bark is not only an important prebiotic for horses but willow also contains salicylic acid – the natural aspirin – working as both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory for the joints and skin

Other herbs of importance:

  • Medicinal Mushrooms – Mushrooms are perfect addition for fall. They are known as adaptogens because they help the body adapt to changes in the environment and they happen to be abundant in the fall months! Great mushroom additions for fall include reishi, maitake, chaga and lion’s mane. Micronized powders are highly absorbable and contain great prebiotic fibers for the gut. There is a ton of scientific research to dive into on mushroom benefits including healthy sleep patterns, neurological health, cancer prevention and metabolic disorders. (15) (16) (17)
  • Ashwagandha – This plant is also an adaptogen, helping your horse adjust to the changing environmental conditions of fall. It helps reduce cortisol, stabilizes blood sugar, supports immune function and more. (18) (19)
  • Milk Thistle – This plant is not native to North America but similar types of thistle are. Milk thistle is well studied and has been shown to stabilize liver cell membranes and support liver function/detoxification which can slow in the fall and winter months if not tended to. It has also be shown to be protective against laminitis in horses (20)
  • Barberry – Inhibits the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the gut, supporting the GI lining (helpsulcers/gastritis) – useful for forage changes in the fall, protects the circulatory system from stress and has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties (21)
  • Licorice – (Deglycyrrhizinated is best – DGL) – supports intestinal mucosa, improved intestinal circulation, better turnover/repair of the intestinal cells and has a plethora of other benefits (22) (23)
  • Marshmallow Root – Supports the skin, respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems – with high levels of mucilage (a type of fibre), it is also a blood sugar regulator.

How to Use Herbs to Support Your Horse

Herbs are best used in a whole form for horses, either fresh or dried. Tinctures may be indicated for medicinal purposes but I prefer to offer the whole plant to horses since this is how they would consume it in nature and it adds a wide variety of prebiotic fibers into the diet while tinctures do not.

You also do not have to use all of the above herbs. You can choose and assortment that you feel is appropriate to individual horses. Choose 2-3 that best suit your horses needs and observe how they do on those. You can add, subtract or modify as you see things unfold.

With herbs in general, I like to rotate. Don’t use them all the time. Herbs work best when you cycle them. Use what’s in season to mimic how horses would forage in nature.

Feeding amounts: For dried loose leaf and root, start with 1/3 cup and with powdered herbs and extracts, start with 1-2 tbsp. Increase or decrease for desired effects. Work with a professional if you’re unsure about how to manage herbs correctly.

Important Nutritional Support

Healing foods and nutraceuticals are also important. Obviously really good forage is number 1 – and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but these are also really valuable.

  • Omega 3 Fats – These are really important, and many horses are lacking in them. As they get older they become even more beneficial. Omega 3s support digestion, hormonal shifts, immune modulation (inflammation), skin, eyes, haircoat, hooves, and joints. For horses I like plant-based versions (NO FISH OIL): flax seed, flax oil, flax meal, camelina. Eliminating omega 6-rich grains and oils is an important step to reducing inflammatory response as well.
  • Pre & Probiotics – A must, especially for horses that are not getting a lot of pasture turn-out, aren’t eating dirt, etc. Find a variety of strains, preferably with equine-specific strains, as well as a high quality prebiotic fiber (herbs are a great addition for that). I use probiotics all year round with my horses, but you can fit them in whenever they’re most seasonally appropriate
  • Melatonin – The best way to support melatonin production is to make the gut as happy as possible and reduce stress for your horse during the changing season by using a combination of the above support options. Supplementing with melatonin may not be nearly as effective as getting down to the “roots.” Pun intended!

Additional Tips for the Fall

  • Make sure that your horses are getting adequate minerals in their diets. Mineral deficiency in horses is more common than you think, even when they are receiving fortified feeds. If you’re not sure, have a mineral/vitamin analysis done (via boodwork) and hay analysis too. Good sources include humic and fulvic acid, sea kelp, free-choice natural salts, make sure they are getting enough calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper and selenium.
  • Do a stress assessment to see if there are any areas where you can help your horse feel more comfortable. Make sure they are getting enough movement, socially content and mentally stimulated. If you can recognize any stress points, make an effort to address them to reduce cortisol (a stress hormone).
  • Eliminate glyphosate (AKA RoundUp) – many horse owners are unaware that this chemical is prevalent in extruded horse feed. Unless it’s certified organic, it most likely contains ingredients that were sprayed with glyphosate. The most highly sprayed crops are beet pulp, corn, wheat, soy. Eliminate this harmful chemical from the diet completely. It’s a scientifically proven hormone disruptors and a patented antibiotic. If they’re eating it every day it’s really detrimental to hormone and gut health, and thus overall health.
  • Sugar and starch should also be eliminated or fed in species-appropriate forms and amounts with lots of fiber. Starch/sugar disrupts (increases) the hormone insulin. And we probably all know a horse that is insulin resistant!
  • Employing homeopathy is another great way to help your horses. It’s gentle, has no side effects, and you can use it even if your horse is on other medications. You can use it with all herbs and supplements listed above. If you’re not sure what your horse might need, speak with a homeopath.
  • For barn management, if you use lights – ensure that they are blue and red lights specifically designed for circadian cycle balance (don’t just use fluorescent lights which are blue/will upset the circadian cycle).
  • When it comes to grazing and increasing or changing hay rations, make all transitions slowly to avoid GI stress.

Consider how the changing seasons affect your horse and cater your support regimen to reflect it. Taking a little extra time to customize a supportive care plan can go a long way to minimizing the impacts of the darker months. Here’s to good health for your horse this winter!

References:

  1. Animals: Do you think I am living well? A four-season hair cortisol analysis on leisure horses in different housing and management conditions, 2021
  2. Animals: Seasonal Variation in the faecal microbiota of mature adult horses maintained on pasture in New Zealand, 2021
  3. Nature: Modulation of serotonin signaling/metabolism by Akkermansia muciniphila and its extracellular vesicles though the gut-brain axis in mice, 2020
  4. Biochimie: Serotonin in the gut: blessing or a curse, 2019
  5. Merck Veterinary Manual: Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers in Horses, 2019
  6. Animals: Equine gastric ulcer syndrome: An update on current knowledge, 2023
  7. Nutrition Reviews: Diverse biological activities of dandelion, 2012
  8. Integrative Medicine (Fourth Ed.): Raspberry leaf, 2018
  9. Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: Rose hips as complementary and alternative medicine: Overview of the present status and prospects, 2012
  10. Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy: Chemical constituents and medical benefits of Plantago major, 2017
  11. Phytotherapy Research: A review of the bioactivity and potential health benefits of peppermint tea (Mentha piperita), 2006
  12. Comparable efficacy of chamomile against omeprazole in aspirin-induced gastric ulcer in rats, 2013
  13. Therapy in sleep medicine: Chamomile, 2012
  14. Biomedicine: Study on the effect of chamomile extract on melatonin hormone levels in subjects suffering from insomnia and anxiety, 2022
  15. Foods: Exploring the potential medicinal benefits of Ganoderma lucidum: From metabolic disorders to coronavirus infections, 2023
  16. Nature: Ganoderma lucidium promotes sleep through a gut-microbiota-dependent and serotonin-involved pathway in mice, 2021
  17. Behavioral Neurology: Neurohealth properties of Hercium erinaceus mycelia enriched with Erinacines, 2018
  18. Nutritional Neuroscience: Modulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis by plants and phytonutrients: a systematic review of human trials, 2022
  19. African Journal of Traditional, Complimentary and Alternative Medicines: An overview of Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda, 2011
  20. Toxins: Milk thistle extract and silymarin inhibit lipopolysaccharide-induced lamellar separation of hoof explants in vitro, 2014
  21. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: Anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects of barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and its main compounds, 2019
  22. Plants: Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice): A comprehensive review on its phytochemistry, biological activities, clinical evidence and toxicology, 2021
  23. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science: Prophylactic. Effects of Glycyrrhiza glabra root extract on phenylbutazone-induced equine glandular gastric disease (EGGD), 2022