In Fall of 1993, I shipped a small string of racehorses to a meet that was in progress at Lincoln, Nebraska to finish out my racing season. For those who have been there, you know that the Lincoln Fairgrounds is just one step above what was commonly called the leaky roof circuit. I was assigned stalls in a huge cavern of a building, housing many hundreds of horses under one roof. The stalls were old, wooden, and full of holes with no ceilings. Horses were crammed as close as possible for economy of space. Needless to say, I was not happy and found this to be a major contrast to the modern and spacious construction of the race tracks, I had previously raced.
Believe it or not, by being stabled at Lincoln, I made a major revelation of my horse husbandry life. My horses were the most comfortable and tranquil in that barn of any place, I was ever stabled. Why? My horses in that barn could peer through the perforated stalls and see their neighbors. The herd instinct was in full force. They were no longer isolated in a solid wood or cement block cubicle. They were a member of a herd! If you don't think that this isn't of paramount importance in the psychological health of a horse, then you are as blind as I was. From that experience on, I made a promise to myself if I should ever construct a new barn. My stall walls in the stable blocks would be largely separated by only chain link fencing. Not only would this type of construction be relatively cheap compared to conventional stall construction, it would probably be much safer to the horse when kicking or being cast. However, the major benefit would be enhanced psychological health for my animals. And this psychological health could very well translate into a heighten, strong immune system. It has been shown that social isolation affects how well an animal can fight infection. Race trainers are way ahead of the game if their horses are happy starting out the day, content through that day, and ending that day in a relaxing night's sleep.
This revelation of mine is only a tip of the proverbial iceberg in improving equine health by following natural protocols that have been in place thousands of years in the life of a horse. Monty Roberts in his book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, has done this and taken the horse training world by storm. Cindy Engel in her book, Wild Health, has likewise, done something similar in revealing how animals cope with health and self-medicate in the wild. For the modern race horseman to have the happiest and healthiest of horses, we need to really understand horses and allow horses to be horses.
Cindy Engel brings up some very intriguing points on animal health in her book which have significant implications to a racing stable. She writes, "...wild animals are often infected with disease-causing organisms (pathogens) without showing any symptoms. Repeatedly, animals appear to be in good condition when blood and fecal tests show infection with pathogens or parasites." She mentions Cynthia Moss's study on wild savannah elephants in an African preserve. A deadly outbreak of anthrax went through that herd with only a few animals succumbing. These were ones already stressed in poor health. Try having this occur to domesticated cattle and see what would happen. This is a very interesting observation. She is not only saying that animals lead healthier lives in natural settings, but that their immune system is so much more powerful in the wild that many pathogens are quickly overcome and subdued never to cause serious trouble. I mean, how often can we catch or find an individual horse turned out in a herd that appears to be sick? Horses that are turned out in even the unnatural confines of large pastures, seem to lead far healthier lives than their brethren inside barns. There is nothing more unnatural for a horse than to spend close to 24 hours a day in a dark, often damp, 12'x12' square of a stall, isolated psychologically as well as physically. Often times these are enclosed barns with very poor air quality and circulation. No wonder the average race horse on the average race track seems hard put to achieve long lasting health. Lack of fresh air, lack of sunshine, lack of access to a variety of plants and soils, lack of a herd structure, lack of movement-all combine to place the modern horse in precarious health straits. Combine this with modern confinement systems that intensify the stabled horse's proximity to toxins and pathogens of all types while at the same time depressing his immune system; and we have a major problem. It's a wonder that race horses perform as well as they do.
Never underestimate the power of the immune system in both our horses and our own health. Without an optimum functioning immune system, we are all doomed to poor health or death. There are no magic herbs that will overcome disease/injury in the absence of the fully viable immune system. We have been tricked by modern medicine into thinking that a pill or an injection is what is needed to overcome sickness and this thinking is often carried into herbal medicine. The pill, injection, or herb which seems to restore health directly--really doesn't. It only allows our natural immune system time to catch up and overcome a pathogen or an injury. It does not in itself cure anything. Antibiotics do not cure us of infections. They restrain bacterial growth just enough to allow our immune system time to do the job it was originally designed to do, often in less than optimum conditions. Chemo-therapy does not cure us of cancer. In theory, it slows the cancer down enough for our immune system to take over the mopping up action (sad part, chemo also suppresses immunity). You can tell, I am not a believer in current Chemo therapy practices. Chemo is billed as a cancer killer. Nothing could be furthest from the truth without an efficient immune system working in conjunction. This is a very important concept that few people grasp. Even Medical and Veterinary doctors after years of training seem to perceive the immune system as an entity that exists but little can be done with.. They view their invasive drug/surgical protocols as a means to an end rather than as a joint venture with the patient's immune system. Isn't it amazing that until of late, little has been done to directly strengthen the immune system to fight disease? No modern drugs, until the last few years, were developed to strengthen the immune system. The immune system and how it is affected by internal/external forces seem little appreciated in traditional modern Medical and Veterinary schools' curriculums.
Natural health boils down to two factors in animals, their ability to detoxify and their ability to keep a strong functioning immune system. Evolution over the eons have perfected natural health in wild animals to amazing lengths by concentrating on these two spheres. Evolution has closely linked the strength of the immune system to that animal's surrounding environment. Separate the wild animal from his wilds and often that animal will become psychologically depressed, physically sick and, perhaps, even die in captivity. This may be a combination of mental stress plus a lack of free choice in eating/roaming habits. The animal's natural environment and his immune system are tightly intertwined. Separate a race yearling or two year old Standardbred or Thoroughbred from his pastures and his buddies, put him in a barn under unnatural stress, and you will have that animal catching about every known sickness on the race track. Any race horse trainer knows that half the battle at getting a young horse to the races is the overcoming of simple infectious diseases without complications. You combine the unnatural environment of a stable with the unnatural stress of race training and you have horses that are compromised in health. The problem with man's domestication of livestock is that animals now are forced to passively endure sickness in an unnatural setting, presuming man does not attempt to intervene with questionable treatments. This passivity is opposed to how animals may fend for themselves against sickness in natural surroundings by naturally detoxifying and strengthening their systems.
Cindy Engels talks of nutritional wisdom in her book which is defined as an animals innate instinctual need to eat nutrients required by its body to maintain health. If animals are say, low in sodium, copper, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, etc., they tend to seek out foods containing that nutrient. If they are low in energy stores, they tend to seek out high carbohydrate foods. If they are low in protein, the same would be true for the preferred high protein foods. As an example, we as humans find juicy pieces of fat much more appetizing in very cold weather while the consumption of the same fat may bring a gagging reaction in the heat of summer. There seems to be an innate directional finder in many mammals that point that animal toward foods that satisfy its body's needs. In the evolutionary scheme of things, this is good engineering.
As Engels points out, this is not to say that wild animals cannot be poisoned, but they do tend to be able to distinguish toxic substances from non-toxic ones under normal environmental conditions. Those species that do eat toxic plants and those that are occasionally poisoned have detoxifying systems that seem crucial for good health. They also seem to know how much of a toxic plant can be acceptably eaten for the desired affect. Many animals will counter-balance a toxic plant with another plant which detoxifies. For instance, those plants that are high in cyanide, can be detoxified by the consumption of plants high in tannins, but animals must have free access to the appropriate plants. Animal poisonings seem most rampant when nature is out of wack, such as in drought conditions or when animals are confined to limited grazing space.
The consumption of clays, ash, and charcoal are other means used by animals to detoxify. Many of you that have been in the horse business long, know that old timers often advise putting a spade-cut square of sod into a horse's stall. Horses seem to like to eat dirt. Graze one out in the open and it won't be long until your horse is pawing up the grass and taking mouthful bites of dirt. Most of us won't let them continue which may or may not be a big mistake. Top soil is seldom the preferred soil of wild animals. Top soil tend to be high in parasites, bacteria, and a host of other not too healthful substances. Wild animals and many native peoples will seek out the subsoils high in clay and much too deep to be contaminated by parasites and harmful organisms for their consumption needs. To be more precise, many of the volcanic ash clays are preferred, like montmorillonite or bentonite clays. These are considered the desirable medicinal soils. Such earths absorb many toxins, sooth gastro-intestinal irritations, relieve gas, and have anti-parasitic properties. Some are high in needed minerals which may be an added benefit. I have for years packed my race horses' hooves with bentonite. I should have been feeding it in their daily feed ration as well-live and learn. The feeding of clays could prevent horses from suffering bouts of colic, increase feed absorption efficiency, protect the lining of the intestines, prevent gas formation. Horses know they need to consume soils, do we?
Ash and charcoal have been eaten in the wild though not to the extent of the clays. This is probably due to availability more than anything. Engels documents many animals that will consume moderate amounts of charcoal and ash produced from wild fires or stolen from camp fires. Charcoal has long been a mainstay in the Medical professions for use as a detoxifying agent. Few substances can match the absorptive qualitites of charcoal. It has been used to absorb fermenting gases and acid of the GI tract. Charcoal will remove toxic amines and organic acids of decomposing foods. It can in certain circumstances even absorb bacteria, producing a germicidal effect. Charcoal has been used in poultices and wound dressings in cases of suppuration and gangrene. It is heavily employed in poisonings of mercuric chloride, phenol, strychnine, atropine, oxalic acid, mushrooms and all poisons of unknown origin or antidote.
Lastly, how does an animal generally respond to illness out of man's sphere of influence? Many will seek isolation, go off feed, drink large amounts of water, lick wounds, rest, experience a fever or seek warmth, vomit, and scour (diarrhea)-all or in part, appropriate for the illness being experienced. Most of these mentioned responses are a part of the natural human reaction to illness, as well. What one of us, at some point in our life, unthinkingly not licked a wound on our arm or hand? It is a response we somehow know is appropriate. Saliva has many wound healing properties along with being an antiseptic liquid. Many animals are no different. The animal system's response of fever, vomiting, diarrhea, pus formation are self serving devices that tend to stimulate healing. Man in his debatable medical wisdom often tries to curb these same responses in the name of health. Big mistake. Man seems to be too quick to bring fevers down, inhibit nausea and diarrhea, and clean out pus formations. Fevers are experienced for a purpose. Often times, just a few degrees of generated body heat is enough to discourage optimum growth of the infecting agent. Perhaps, even more important, it has been shown for every degree raise in the human temperature, white blood cell speed doubles. As Dr. Schulze points out, "At a 104 degree fever, your white blood cells are moving 64 times faster than normal. They kill things faster, eat them faster, and travel faster." Another aspect of body heat or fever was discussed by Phyllis Evelyn Pease in her book, L-Forms, Episomes & Auto-immune Disease. In this text, she writes: "Influenza virus particles actually adhere to the surface of the cells, and cause them to clump together. This adhesion is attributed to the action of an enzyme neuraminidase upon the muscopolysaccharides of the cell surface. This probably represents the normal mode of attack of the virus upon susceptible cells. The reaction takes place most freely at temperatures below that of the body, and as low as 10*C in some cases. If returned to 37*C, the virus particles lose their adhesion and elute away from the cells which cannot thereafter provide attachment for the same type of virus, although it may do so for others. The virus particles themselves retain the power to agglutinate fresh corpuscles, if brought into the contact with them at an appropriate temperature." Stop this natural heat of the fever from occurring and you are helping the infecting organism. Same holds true for the body's exudates on infected wounds. This pus is there for a reason, to combat the infection, remove it and you are disarming the body. Of course, infections and toxic substances should be cleaned from any wound and disinfectants are a boon in many cases, but be aware that the white pus in itself is only the body's own defense mechanism and not in itself a bad thing. It is like killing the messenger for the bad news being carried. Vomiting and diarrhea are other body mechanisms designed to clean toxins from the body post haste. Interfere too soon and you are hurting only the system trying to cleanse itself. Peace found in isolation by the sick animal aids healing and protects it from possible predators. Consuming large quantities of water helps on many levels. Water allows the animal to cope with the high fevers being experienced, helps the kidneys and other internal systems to flush out toxins far more efficiently. Fasting is another instinctual response not to be underestimated. There isn't a race horse trainer alive that does not consider feed left in a feed tub a good sign. Lack of appetite is not only an excellent first warning signal but, initially, the body's own way of combating problems. The nutrients we eat can sustain the infective organisms as well as us. In the general scheme of things, we can often starve out the infection to good advantage. Fasting can be an interesting therapeutic practice not to be disregarded. The Grand Dame of Veterinary herbal medicine, Juliette de Bairacli Levy has fasted horses for up to 2-3 days. This and more will be considered in detail in my book, A Race Horse Herbal.