Variety is the Spice of Life

Take a Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach When Feeding Horses

By: Joyce Harman, DVM

Horse feeds tend to have only a few ingredients, however, in various parts of the world many different foods are actually fed to horses. It is possible to try some of the variety of foods listed to see if a horse likes to eat to eat them; they are not harmful. In parts of the world where horses commonly eat different foods, they learn from a young age to like that food. For example, in England’s root crop growing areas, it is common to see oversize parsnips dumped in a field for the horses to graze on. In the USA, the author has seen random selections of vegetables and fruits from the discards at grocery stores fed to happy, healthy horses. This is an excellent way to add variety to a diet.

Chinese Approach to Selecting Food

In Chinese medicine, foods’ energetic properties are taken into consideration. This approach has gained little attention in the horse world. Prepackaged, processed equine feeds are just as bad as bagged pet foods are for the small animals and just as detrimental to health. Whole food material is best to feed, with attention to the actions of each food.

Apply the principles of the Chinese body and personality type to lead you to the correct foods. The Earth horse is the perfect school horse, quiet, sweet, easy to handle, friendly, likes food, and tends to gain weight or be deficient in his spleen. The Fire horse is the typical, happy chestnut Thoroughbred mare, bouncing off the walls, sensitive, friendly, and is likely to have skin problems or mental imbalances. The Wood horse is the workaholic, driven racehorse or performance horse, does not like to be confined, and is prone to ulcers and anger issues. The Metal horse is obedient, does not like to be fussed over, will do his job well and is prone to respiratory and skin problems. The Water horse is flexible in his body, fearful in his brain, and prone to mental issues (the kidney and bladder imbalances do not occur frequently in horses).

The time of year also helps determine which feeds to select. In the hot summer, a warming food such as oats may adversely affect the Fire horse, even if oats can be tolerated in the winter. Conversely, in winter, a cool food such as barley may not work well for an older arthritic horse.

Foods have those same basic properties as Chinese herbs. They have a temperature, a flavor, a direction, and a meridian they mainly influence. The basic principle of Yin and Yang apply to foods; a balance between the two is essential. Yin foods are cooling, salty, bitter, and sour, have downward energy and build body fluids and blood. Yang foods are warming, sweet, pungent, energizing, and have rising/upward energy. Yin conditions are cold, interior, and deficient, while Yang conditions are hot, exterior, and excess.

Food Samples to Feed in Different Conditions

Offer these foods in small amounts to see if the horse likes them. They will eat some things and not others. Feed them what they like.

Hot, warm diseases: Ulcers, laminitis, uveitis, inflammatory diarrhea, hepatitis, urinary tract inflammation, pituitary hyperplasia (some), Insulin Resistance (some), Yin deficient arthritis, inflamed skin, itchy skin, colic (some), uterine infections, anhidrosis.
Foods that are cooling: Alfalfa, amaranth, asparagus, barley, barley bran, barley grass, broccoli, buckwheat, cantaloupe, cauliflower, celery, citrus, cucumber, eggplant, flax seed (oil), grass, lettuce, millet, pear, peppermint, persimmon, radish, soy bean oil, spinach, strawberry, summer squash, sweet corn, tomato, watermelon rind, watermelon, wheat, wheat bran, wheat grass, zucchini.

Cold, cool diseases: Arthritis, many diarrheas, Insulin Resistance (some), hypothyroid, colic (many), male infertility, Cushing’s syndrome (PPID).

Foods that are warming: Apricot, banana, cherry, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, garlic, ginger, horseradish, kale, kelp, leek, lettuce, maltose, mustard greens, oats, olive oil, parsley, parsnip, peach, pumpkin, quinoa, seaweed, sesame seed, spelt, squash, sunflower seeds (may not be as good with the shells), tangerine peel, turmeric, winter squash.

Neutral foods that could be used in many conditions: Apple, apricot, beet pulp, buckwheat, cabbage, carrots, Chinese cabbage, corn, fig, grape, papaya, peanut hay, peanut oil, radish, rice, rye, sweet potato.  
Food therapy can be used to enhance the healing process for many equine conditions. Broaden your horizons by looking past the traditional foods and experiment to add variety to the diet. 

Other Foods to Add Variety

Currently, one company worldwide sells a coconut-based concentrate for horses. CoolStance® Copra is made from the white part of the coconut, which has been dried, baked and ground. It is a totally natural product and is chemical and GMO free. This is a very effective feed because it is low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) (NSC<11%) and contains less than two percent (<2%) starch so it is safe for Insulin Resistant horses and for many horses who become too hot to ride on regular grains. The oils in it do not become rancid. Research has shown that coconut oils have significant health benefits. Less common feeds include peas and beans, which are very nutritious and are often used in organic feeds as the protein source, though they contain carbohydrates also. These can include fava beans and chickpeas. Some foods are useful as a supplement to the diet, some can replace the concentrates in a diet, especially for horses that do not need extra carbohydrates. *Roots The addition of something juicy to food makes the meal more interesting and tastier for the horse. Roots provide bulk and some minerals and vitamins, add variety and satisfy a natural need in the horse for this type of food. These can be fed at a rate of up to 0.5–1.5 kg (1–3 lb.) per day, depending on the food and horse’s tolerance. Different parts of the world will have different roots and other vegetables available, so use what is easy to get and local whenever possible. *Carrots Carrots are the traditional root crop fed to courses choose three generally like them and they are readily available, often in large quantities. They supply carotene, which is changed into vitamin A. Carrots are higher in sugar than some vegetables and should be limited in IR horses and those with a tendency to get fat easily. Some horses that are prone to founder should not have carrots, or just have a small piece for a treat.

Feed fresh, firm carrots, whole or sliced lengthwise. If horses bolt their food, it may be best not to cut medium size slices as carrots need to be well chewed. Carrots are easily digested by horses. Carrots added to the feed per day can tempt fussy eaters.

*Beets, Parsnips and Turnips
These roots are also enjoyed by horses. They should be well scrubbed under a running tap to remove sand and can be sliced lengthwise depending on the size and shape. These can work well as treats or as part of the diet. Certain species (not the sugar beet) can be lower in sugars than carrots and can be useful in a low carbohydrate diet.

*Swedes (rutabaga or Swedish turnip) and Beetroots (sugar beets)
Beetroots can be high in sugar, so be very careful with carbohydrate sensitive horses. Swedes can also be high in carbohydrates.

1.Pitchford P. Healing With Whole Foods. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA. 1993.
2. Ward, M. Horse Harmony. Myriah Press. 2008.
This article originally appeared in Holistic Horse magazine Issue 121Dr. Joyce Harman graduated from Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and became a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. She is certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic. She has completed advanced training in homeopathy and herbal medicine and in Chinese medicine. Dr. Harman has served as president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, chairman of the Alternative Medicine (Therapeutic Options) Committee for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and has been a member of the task force on alternative medicine for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Since 1990, Dr. Harman owns Harman Equine Clinic, a holistic veterinary practice, in Washington, Virginia. Visit

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