Who Do You Choose to Surrender To?

Wild horse, blue skyAs I’ve aged, I’ve slowly come to realize I’m the captain of my ship, mostly. The effort I put in is rewarded in kind. But grace is there as well, that unfathomable ocean of kindness that rewards me from time to time with sweet feelings for the greater reality that I have yet to visualize. When I turn my attention more inward, I reap more of this and it seems to support my outer efforts.

Surrendering to that inner reality, ironically I become more powerful in the outer.

Our animals mostly have us humans to surrender to, having been born with minds that don’t contemplate divine phenomena as we humans can. What we give them, they take. How they are sheltered, what they are fed, how they are treated, these are all things we manage on their behalf. It’s as if we’ve been given live gifts to culture and nurture, and the efforts we put in have dual rewards: the animal benefits and we in turn are fulfilled in their thriving and loving us and serving our needs.

Horses and surrender

As a lad, I was graced with the opportunity to be with horses. Lots of them, in a herd that I grew to love and later nurture. 

There was mutual surrender. They to our reins and bits in their mouths, and we to their massive size, that could crush us or stomp us to a pulp if they chose to rebel.

Those of us lucky enough to feel some affinity for these fine beasts got more from them. Without asking, we received recognition, service, warmth and a chance to grow in ways that were incalculable.

Where I am today I owe to horses.

Well, more than horses, certainly, but they clearly shaped who I am today. They taught me what it means to care for others, to take responsibility for the wellbeing of another, and in so doing, to reap benefits that would be impossible in one focused solely on one’s own needs. My appreciation of them ultimately helped me choose the path to veterinary school.

Unlike the dogs I grew up with, horses, by their very nature, have unique needs due to the bodies they inhabit. It’s well and good to invite a dog or cat or other small creature into your dwelling and even into your bed. The sheer size of this equine species necessitates a greater environment. For those of you who interact with these special animals, that means you either have a large tract of land and a barn or you find someone else who does to house your companions.

And therein lies the rub.

Management is given over to another in such situations. You have to surrender to the house rules where you board your horse, in order to keep him there. Very different than boarding your kid at camp for the summer or your dog or cat in the kennel while you travel, horses live their entire lives in a boarding situation, more often than not.

When Management Lives in Fear

Horses have a value that humans perceive to be greater than some other things they own. You may have heard the joke about how horses and boats are quite similar: they are both holes you throw your money down.

By sheer size, their food needs are measured in pounds or tons, not ounces or cups. They require equipment to ride and transport, and equipment to clean up after them. Vets examine them and treat them, farriers help keep their feet in good health, and breeding animals may have a team of reproductive specialists harvesting eggs or artificially inseminating the mares.

Those entrusted to manage their housing, those folks you pay to “horse sit” on a monthly or life long basis, often live in fear of the responsibility that comes from managing an expensive animal for someone else. Lawsuits have become a part of modern life, and I expect they happen all too regularly in the horse world.

Fear drives bad decisions. In health care, those decisions can be downright disastrous.

The Most Dangerous Decision a Barn Manager Makes for You

One “prevention” decision that horses suffer under at least as much as pets and maybe more is repeated vaccinations throughout their adult lives. Unless you have your own plot of land and barn, you are often up against inane vaccine requirements where ever you board your horse.

It’s a common practice to “have the vet out” annually for this purpose, if not twice yearly. Every horse on the premises gets vaccinated for what ever is all the rage that year. Commonly, this includes:

  • EWT: Eastern and Western Encephalitis virus and tetanus, a bacteria that lives in manure.
  • Flu: influenza, a virus related to our own version.
  • Rhino: a respiratory and reproductive tract virus.
  • Rabies: while there’s no law mandating it, horses do get the disease and its vaccine.

Here’s an example of a recommended vaccine schedule, by a university (!) who should know better. Do you think the average barn manager will think outside this crazy box? Or question her equine vet, who’s likely following similar misinformation? Not likely.

Now, remember how virus vaccines confer long-lived duration of immunity? Probably life long, say veterinary immunologists.

Are horses an exception to this rule? No.

And how often is it recommended that you repeat tetanus injections for yourself? Every 10-12 years, right? There’s a very long duration of immunity here as well.

Are barn managers up on their immunology enough to question this common knowledge? Heavens no. The vet pumping these in yearly isn’t even paying attention enough to stop doing it year upon year!

Decisions Made in Fear: Health Havoc Results

The herd I grew up with through my formative years had one “cold” that I can recall, in over ten years of hanging close to them and paying attention to who was having what challenges. This cold provided us budding teen boys plenty to laugh about, as the cough had a concomitant burst of flatulence, but the horses weathered it in a few weeks. Not one went off feed or acted sick.

And that was it for infectious disease. And they might have had a tetanus vaccine given every several years, but certainly nothing annually.

We never had a horse founder, there may have been one colic, and there was the usual assortment of cuts and scrapes that we took care of ourselves. This was in the 70’s, largely.

Nowadays, chronic disease is the norm for the horse, as it is in our pets and ourselves. Diseases include Cushings (adrenal gland disease, associated with a tumor in the pituitary gland — yes: in the brain), insulin resistance, chronic colic, asthma aka heaves, chronic laminitis, and a host of tumorous growths, from sarcoids to melanoma.

Some of this comes from mistakes in feeding management, like overfeeding grain vs forage, but anything with an immune basis makes us think immune confusion, most commonly caused by vaccination.

What’s a Caring Horse Guardian to Do?

Short of buying large tracts of land and erecting barns, horse guardians need to be proactive, learning about options like titer testing (and its proper interpretation) and duration of immunity.

As with groomers and kennels in the small animal realm, you need to initiate conversations with barn managers about the vaccine side of their requirements, and, when possible, vote with your pocketbooks for those enlightened stables.

Horses can be shining examples of Vital Animals that can change the world, as much as any pet. But to achieve and maintain that status, you need to avoid the potholes and ditches along the Natural Path, like repeated vaccinations.

Have any knowledge of enlightened barns and managers who “get” how important all this is? Tell us in the comments. Perhaps we’ll be able to build a database for future use.

Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt

Print This Article

Click below, press print, and enjoy offline reading.


  1. Carrie on February 11, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    This is definitely one of those “hot topics” for those who want to provide care as naturally as possible, and have to consider vaccination requirements. The same goes for dogs and cats that may have to be boarded from time to time. For my own horse, I have been lucky to find a barn that does require vaccinations, but after talking with the barn owner and explaining that my horse has chronic lyme, and reactions to vaccines, she talked to her vet, and the vet recommended that I vaccinate for those diseases my horse could spread directly horse to horse. This really only meant Flu/Rhino. EWT, West Nile, Potomac, tetnus are all diseases the horse is exposed to in their environment, and don’t necessarily spread directly horse to horse. I’ve had multiple vets conclude that the strangles vaccine was worthless, and fortunately, this one agreed.
    Basically, I’m quite lucky at the moment, only having to vaccinate for flu/rhino. Most general boarding barns do require a lot of vaccinations, but it’s the show horses that are constantly moving that really get hit even harder with exposure, and more vaccinations. It’s a double whammy as their immune systems are quite often weakened from the constant moving around and stress of being a show horse.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on February 11, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      Hi Carrie,
      Thanks for joining the discussion. It sounds like the next step, for those who really feel immunity must be constantly reawakened to allow a horse to stay in a barn (even though there’s no evidence this is needed or even works), is to get the vet to ok nosodes. A colleague in NY state uses them in cases where she sees no other choice.
      While a reduced number of vaccines required is a step in the right direction, it’s certainly a significant risk every time this guy is vaccinated yet again.
      I wish you all the best in finding your way through this morass, Carrie. Not a straight path, I appreciate that.

  2. Allex on February 7, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    I don’t know of any barns here in Texas who do not vaccinate. However, I have my horse on a friend’s residential barn. I am lucky that I have not had to submit to any vaccines since I got him. Forgive me if you have already written about this but I have a question. We talk all the time about dogs and cats being on the raw diet, but what is the best diet for a vital horse?

    • Will Falconer, DVM on February 8, 2014 at 10:53 am

      Hi Alex,
      It’s sounds like you’ve got a good thing going where you are. Bravo.
      Thanks for the great question! I’m going to ask my new employee, Lizzy Meyer, to guest post on my blog about the best equine diet. She’ll know better than I, as she’s been intimately involved in this area for several years.
      Stay tuned!

      • Lizzy Meyer on February 10, 2014 at 9:27 pm

        The best diet for a VITAL HORSE! Not a short reply-sorry in advance.
        Excellent topic and my favorite one! This has been a passion of mine so hold on tight! You can get as minimal or as fancy as your heart desires!
        When in doubt think of what they would eat in the wild and mimic that. Forage, forage, forage. Not too rich, not too high protein, not for racehorses (unless they are), and variety! Make sure your horse eats free choice hay/fiber. They should not go more than 4-6 hours without hay-ulcers can develop. Remember, horses secrete stomach acid ALL-THE-TIME….bicarbonate in saliva buffers it.
        Find a variety of grass hays and feed them all (introduce gradually). Avoid the ones super high in sugar like rye “founder fodder.” Beware of the super-green hays or the ones that are a bit moist. Ask the grower if your hay is GMO and if it has been sprayed much. Most will be fertilized and sprayed-but some are not so bad, others are so bad the horse will not eat. Do the best you can and make friends with people who have access to non-sprayed native grass hay. Learn to be a hay hunter.
        Try your best to find native grasses, the very best choice of all-usually lower in sugar and more nutritional variety. Sometimes these mixes are called meadow mixes, grass-mix, wild grasses, or local grasses. See what you can find locally.
        Most alfalfa is GMO now unless the grower states it is NOT. Alfalfa is fine if it’s making up under about 20% of total diet. I go way under that amount even as personal preference.
        Other forages are beet pulp (I do not feed if the horse is a non-sweater, or if the source is GMO-which is pretty much all BP in the US). Speedi-Beet from the UK is not, but it is hard to find and has a high carbon footprint. Timothy pellets, alfalfa pellets (make sure non-GMO source), orchard grass pellets, etc are all fine options to soak with water and add variety and excellent fiber to your horse’s diet without adding too much sugar.
        Let your horse eat weeds! Take your horse for a walk and let him pick what he needs. Country roadsides can be full of medicinal weeds/herbs. If that’s not an option, plant horse-safe tonic herb gardens if your pasture does not already grow these. You can get creative and plant them along your pasture edges or corners. (nettle, dandelion, chickweed, peppermint, cleavers, rosehips are just a few).
        The grain portion of a horse’s diet is always overrated and overstressed in my opinion. If you feed the average horse correctly-as an herbivore who eats 95% forage, the amount of grain in their total diet is trivial. Their nutrition is coming from grasses, both fresh and dried, and other forages
        Grains that are safe for non-metabolic types include whole oats. For the elite athlete who is sweating daily, a little rolled barley (small amounts as in a couple cups) might be used. This really depends on the horse (personality, condition, energy needs, energy level).
        Fats I think should be used conservatively given that horses don’t have a gallbladder, but are better than too much starch. If the horse needs energy-you are safer feeding a fat than a starch. Yes, they can digest fats in the small intestine, but I do not like to use very much. When I do, I use small amounts as in a couple ounces, of hemp oil (good for ulcer horses, and ones that need muscle) or coconut oil (good for immune system).
        Other foods you might add for variety or treats in small amounts: peanuts (unsalted and shelled), almonds, papaya, sesame seeds, banana (no peel), pumpkin seeds, grapes, oranges, squash, celery, pomegranate, basil, sprouts, blueberries, strawberries, pumpkin, the list goes on.
        Good omega 3’s: chia seed and flax seed. I feed whole seeds and add some water before feeding.
        Vitamins MUST, I stress MUST, be from non-synthetic sources. I like to either make my own from herbal recipes or use a pre-made herbal mixture, or use a pre-made whole food supplement.
        Horses do wonders with plant digestion and nutrient extraction with their 14 inch diameter fermentation vat aka, the cecum. They are built to get their nutrition right out of plants-minerals are naturally chelated (that means bound to an amino-acid that enhances digestibility) When horses are fed their vitamins/minerals via plants/herbs, their body instantly recognizes the food and all of the co-factors that go with it ensure complete digestion. That’s 100% and no stress on the body!!
        My pet peeve is synthetic vitamins and minerals-if you research how they are made, it is pretty awful. Here are some classic examples: B-vitamins are from coal-tar, vitamin C is from sugar hydrogenated with acetone, and vitamin D is from irradiated cattle brains.
        Even better, feed companies (and supplement companies) regularly add much more than the horse actually needs since well, they are not very digestible. They have to ensure a certain percentage of absorption which is only possible with a mega-dose. The horse absorbs about 10% of a synthetic (made in lab of chemicals). The rest is detoxed from the body, daily.
        THAT takes up a lot of energy over the life of your horse. That’s energy that could have been used for healing a micro-tear in a tendon….or growing more hoof, or healing that itchy skin.
        Minerals-there are some good free choice loose powdered ones on the market, but some do have synthetics and sugars to avoid. Selecting the right one is the “do the best you can category.” Good unrefined sea salt is a good additive in times of need such as winter to ensure hydration and summer to replace electrolytes lost in sweat. This can be free choice or added to feed (max 1 tbsp per feeding).
        Adding water to feed is amazing for digestion-best digestion comes from a hydrated gut. If you have a chance to add hydration to your horse, do it!
        You can use foods to help your horse recover from illness. For example a uveitis horse or a chronic inflammation case, I might use foods high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
        Recipe might be: blueberries, pomegranate juice (no added sugar), fuji apple (highest source of quercetin), whole orange or half a lemon, and strawberries.
        I put this in a blender and feed a little less than a cup a couple or more times a day. Food is medicine and the body knows exactly what to do with it.
        Learn to read labels above all else-remember feed companies market and make alot of money this way. If horses have free choice clean hay (not the high octane super-lush type), just good basic hay that they can munch on all day, they will likely be on their way to a healthy gut-their foundation for health.
        I do not go by the NRC guidelines-I go by what works for the horse and their basic needs as a foraging, trickle-feeder, herbivore.
        I did not intend to write this much but I just can’t stop once I start! Feel free to ask me specific questions!

  3. Elle on February 3, 2014 at 10:40 am

    Wow, what an enlightening article. Had no idea that horses were getting jabbed by these toxin-filled syringes, too. Although we have no horses of our own, we sponsor a horse at the Wild Mustang Sanctuary in Hot Springs, SD (http://www.wildmustangs.com). Sure hope none of that vaccine nonsense takes place at that beautiful and loving preserve. Will have to check.
    The photo of the horse is absolutely captivating. S/he is just beautiful. Thank you for these awesome and amazing articles, Dr. Falconer.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on February 3, 2014 at 10:46 am

      Thanks, Elle. She’s a wild horse from France, akin to your mustang compadres, who I’d be surprised if anyone was vaccinating. Let me know what you find out, eh?

Leave a Comment