Wellness Wednesday - The Horses Who Inspired my Passion for Nutrition

As you know, Uckele Health & Nutrition recently welcomed Dr. Eleanor Kellon, the highly esteemed and accomplished Veterinarian, to our team in the role of Staff Veterinary Specialist. Dr Kellon will contribute her considerable experience and talent to the formulation of our products as an established authority in the field of equine nutrition for over 30 years. She is a person who has focused her entire career path around her passion for horses and nutrition. Here, she shares her 'Down the Aisle' story with us. I must have been born with the horse-crazy gene. Horses have fascinated me for as long as I can remember and I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian since I was 5 or 6 and found out what a veterinarian was.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I had very little contact with horses. The first one I was close enough to touch was a Philadelphia Mounted Police horse in Fairmount Park. He bit me! Otherwise, summer camp, lessons and riding at public hack stables when I could were the only contact. I was determined to get into vet school and spend the rest of my life working with these creatures.

I'd like to say my passion for nutrition began in vet school but the truth is that nutrition is largely glossed over. However, I did get very interested in biochemistry and physiology. This is basically the study of how cells and organ systems work and interact. It would eventually intermesh nicely with a growing focus on nutrition.

I managed a fox hunting and breeding operation while doing an internship and residency at New Bolton. Without really knowing too much about what I was doing, I mixed our own feed using oats, corn, soy, wheat bran, alfalfa and split peas. It was fascinating to see the effects of different mixtures on coat quality, hoof health and foal vigor.
The real incentive to get serious about nutrition came a few years later, with one of my husband's race horses. He was a young trotter with tremendous speed and will to win; and he usually did. The horse had an odd history though. He had been bred locally in the Pocono Mountains. His last owner said they didn't race him too often because he had always had lameness issues.

His conformation was good. He had not had many races and they reported he was never trained hard. He was a young horse (4). None of this provided an answer as to why he would have so many lameness issues. In addition to back and joint problems, he had frequent tendon and ligament injuries, again without hard work or an accident to explain them. He had some odd pigmentation to his skin and the ends of his black mane were red. There was a ring of light pigmentation around his eyes. Nothing I had been taught in school could really explain this collection of symptoms.

We had this horse back in the glory days of vitamin C, when free radical damage and antioxidant supplements were a relatively recent topic and very much in the news. I decided that after his next race I would put some vitamin C into the intravenous fluids that we routinely gave after racing at that time. (This was before I learned how to effectively prevent dehydration!).
Shortly after the fluid started running into him, he began to breath very heavily, trembled violently and looked like he was about to go down. Fluids were stopped immediately but he remained distressed for hours. The vitamin C had been used on another horse with no problem and the fluids were from the same batch I had been using, including on this horse but without the vitamin C. Problem with an isolated bottle is a remote possibility, but I really felt there was another reason.

Vitamin C allergy is impossible. What could have caused this reaction? I began a search for adverse vitamin C reactions. The only thing that made any sense was a paradoxical pro-oxidant reaction because of iron overload. I tested his transferrin saturation (a test for iron overload) and sure enough it was very high.

An iron overloaded horse? I knew that it was fairly common to find livers blackened by heavy iron deposits in older horses, but this was always dismissed as an incidental finding of no consequence. It's a different story in humans, zoo animals and even cattle. Excess iron can cause a host of problems, often beginning as arthritis, culminating in life-threatening liver disease. I also learned iron can cause secondary problems of zinc and copper deficiency by interfering with absorption. So began a career-long quest to educate about avoiding excessive iron, and make sure minerals in the diet were in correct ratios to each other.

It wasn't long before another incident drove home the importance of diet. The racehorses had been moved to a new training facility. Before long they started showing fine twitching/fasciculations in their triceps and quadriceps muscles. They were more jumpy and sensitive to sound. Blood chemistry panels showed mildly elevated muscle enzymes. These were not problems we had ever had before. Their hay and grain was the same as at the other farm.

Another trainer on the farm said he was having similar problems and had even had a horse tie up. His feeding regimen was different from ours. He had also tried a high fat diet for the horse that had tied up but the horse got even worse. It wasn't the feed. It wasn't an individual problem. It certainly wasn't in the air. That left the water.

The farm manager had a water analysis on file which didn't show anything unusual. However, I had noticed that faucets, shower heads and toilets in the grooms' quarters were heavily scaled. On digging a little further, the water analysis turned out to be for the house and office, which were using municipal water while the barns were on well.

As expected, the water was very hard. Calcium was 530 ppm, magnesium 23 ppm. It was summer and the horses were drinking about 30 liters/day. Calcium intake from the water alone was 30 x 530 = 15.9 grams; magnesium 23 x 30 = 690 mg. The high calcium intake was causing a relative magnesium deficiency. The ratio of calcium:magnesium should be between 3:1 and 2:1. The water ratio was 23:1.
Supplementing magnesium corrected the problem.

I could easily fill a book with nutrition stories. Some are very common, like mysterious cases of poor performance where nothing they have tried has worked and the problem turns out to be nothing more than inadequate salt intake. Another common issue that really amazes owners is dramatic changes in coat color which occur when trace minerals are both adequate in amount and correctly balanced.

Less run of the mill cases also come along, like a yearling thoroughbred filly in Australia that was given injections of arsenic (causes a temporary bloom in coat) and possibly iron before a sale. Her owner had had her for 2.5 months but had never seen her even trot. She was very depressed and had bald spots in her coat, which regrew slowly and instead of black were a mottled brown color.
She was already on a good diet but not improving. I put her on supplements designed to nutritionally support the body's detoxification pathways. A week later a report from her excited caretaker said the depression was rapidly clearing, she looked happier and was now actually galloping around her paddock.

I have been greatly influenced by the late Tom Ivers, first by his newsletter and later the internet group Horsescience. Tom was devoted to applying the principles of physiology, nutrition and training to horses. Human data does not always apply but it does far more often than not. These are ways to greatly improve performance both efficiently and legally.

For the last 10 years I have been very involved with helping horses that have insulin resistance, IR. IR horses do not respond normally to the hormone insulin, which is required by muscle and fat cells for the uptake of glucose, a critical cellular fuel. My journey began with a Horse Journal field trial looking at the effects of magnesium supplementation on laminitic horses and ponies. Magnesium is an old British folk remedy for laminitis.

Much to my surprise, it helped. Abnormal fat deposits like cresty necks were reduced and laminitis pain improved. Why this would be the case was a bit of a mystery so I began researching magnesium and quickly found magnesium deficiency is linked to insulin resistance in other species. I had never  heard of this in horses, but a literature search turned up a few previous studies linking laminitis to insulin resistance.

After that article was published, I was asked to join the Equine Cushings group, soon renamed to Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance. We now have easily the largest database of case histories. Because the most effective treatment for IR is diet, I was eager to tackle this problem. With the input of professionals and the invaluable feedback from owners, we learned what did and did not work. It's been an exciting journey.

All of this has led to what I feel is a perfect match and next step – association with Uckele Health & Nutrition. I am very much looking forward to working with them.