Your horse’s temperament as defined by Five Element theory could be the key to determining his dietary needs.

Have you ever wondered why your favorite snack is salty chips but your best friend prefers cake? Do you crave sweet fruits and salads in the summer but prefer citrus fruits and hearty soups in the winter? There’s a reason for food preferences based on individual constitution and season – and these principles apply to horses as well as people. In fact, knowing your horse’s temperament type can help you figure out his dietary requirements.

The energetic properties of food

We commonly evaluate foods for their nutritional value only, but they also have energetic properties. These properties include a food’s ability to build Yin or Yang energy; balance cooling or heating; disperse or contract energy; and move energy inward or outward in the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) bases the energetic property of a food on its flavor or combination of flavors.

Going by nutritional value alone, a particular food would be expected to act the same way for every horse. But when viewed energetically, the food will have different effects on different horses, depending on their Five Element temperament type.

In addition to looking at foods from the standpoint of different equine temperament types, we should also look at what we feed our horses during different seasons of the year.  However, it is important to first balance the horse’s diet according to his Five Element type, and then if needed, to the season. Never go to extremes with any flavor because too much can cause the opposite effect and weaken the organ you want to support.

The five flavors

1. Bitter

Element: Fire

Properties: Horses with excessive energy and impulsive behavior benefit from bitter foods because they have the centering effect of bringing energy deeper into the body. The bitter flavor will also drain dampness, so it is good for slow-moving lethargic horses that have damp conditions such as stocking up, or are just generally overfed and under-exercised.

Uses: Very helpful in horses with inflammation, infections and damp skin conditions.

Organ functions: Helps support the heart and blood vessels. Bitter foods like celery can be given to help clear heat and inflammation from the liver after overeating. They also help drain damp conditions such as yeast infections, parasites, moist skin eruptions, abscesses, tumors, cysts (including the aggravating ovarian types) and swellings. Bitter foods help with intestinal function by increasing motility. Along with the liver and gallbladder, the lungs and kidneys also benefit from the bitter flavor. Any condition that shows thick yellow discharges suggests dampness and heat, and the bitter flavor is perfect to break this up and get it moving out of the body.

Season: Increase bitter foods throughout the fall and winter to pull energy in and protect the body from cold temperatures, or during any season when heat symptoms appear.

Cautions: Horses that are weak, thin, nervous and/or dehydrated should be given bitter foods only sparingly.

Examples: Bitter herbs include dandelion leaf or root, burdock leaf or root, yarrow, chamomile, hops, valerian, chaparral, Echinacea and pau d’arco. Alfalfa is a strictly bitter food, celery and papaya are bitter and sweet, citrus peel is bitter and pungent, and apple cider vinegar is bitter and sour.

2. Sweet

Element: Earth

Properties: The sweet flavor is important in horse feed – if not overdone. According to TCM, sweet is a harmonizing flavor that helps slow and relax the body. This is the opposite of what most people see when they put their horses on significant amounts of typical “sweet feeds”. Grain’s bad reputation comes from the fact that it is a concentrated source of calories and not always balanced in micronutrients. The extra calories over and above the needs of the horse, combined with the lack of nutrients, create a hyperactive horse with little ability to focus. Any flavor in excess can cause the opposite effect of what it’s supposed to.

The sweet flavor can moisten and lubricate the connective tissues, and helps form a thin, healthy mucus coating on membranes in the respiratory and digestive tracts. The sweet flavor also activates the amylase enzyme in saliva and stimulates insulin production by the pancreas.

Uses: Whole grains and other sweet-flavored foods in moderation can energize and relax the body. This may seem contradictory, but because the sweet flavor relaxes the nerves and supports good brain function, the energy from proper amounts of sweet foods can give energy and still allow the horse to stay relaxed. Again, the emphasis is on whole foods that include micronutrients as well as calories. The correct balance of sugar in the blood increases amounts of the calming amino acid tryptophan, which is able to go to the brain.

Organ functions: The sweet flavor strengthens the spleen/pancreas, and soothes aggressive liver emotions such as anger and impatience. It moistens dry conditions in the lungs and slows an overactive heart and mind.

Season: The sweet flavor is good for any season and helps the body transition from one season to another.

Cautions: Overweight, sluggish horses, or any horse with excessive mucus/dampness, should avoid foods with sweet flavor.

Examples: Several sweet foods that can be used for horses include apples, papaya, carrots, celery, seeds, rice bran, and grains such as oats, barley and corn.

3. Pungent

(includes acrid, spicy, hot and aromatic flavors)

Element: Metal

Properties: The pungent flavor stimulates the circulation of energy and blood, and moves energy upwards and outwards to the periphery of the body.

Uses: This flavor stimulates digestion and disperses mucus. Horses that are sluggish, lethargic and overweight, or that have mucus/damp conditions of the lungs and large intestine, can benefit from the pungent flavor. Conditions that would fit this description include chronic moist coughs or intestinal parasites.

Certain horses with wind conditions, such as nervous, restless behavior, can benefit from the pungent flavor because it relaxes the nervous system. Horses with digestive issues benefit from pungent-flavored seeds, such as fennel, dill, caraway, anise, coriander and cumin.

Season: The pungent flavor along with sweet flavor helps attune the horse’s body to spring. Hot pungent flavors such as cayenne and fresh ginger are helpful in the summer. Dried ginger and cinnamon can be used for overcoming signs of coldness because they warm the body for an extended period.

Cautions: Very dehydrated, thin horses may not be able to handle much pungent flavor and should avoid spices such as sage, cayenne, or any hot pepper. Foods with a hot pungent flavor should be avoided in the case of heat conditions anywhere in the body, such as abscesses or active infections of any kind. For example, cinnamon can help lower high blood glucose levels in a horse with Cushing’s, but if he has an active hoof abscess, secondary to laminitis, cinnamon would be contraindicated.

Examples: Warming pungent foods that might be used for horses include rosemary, garlic, cinnamon bark, fresh and dried ginger root, cayenne, fennel, anise, dill, basil and nutmeg. Cooling pungent foods include peppermint and marjoram.

4. Salty

Element: Water

Properties: The salty flavor moves energy down and inward to help center it deep within the body. Salty foods moisten dryness, soften hardened lumps and loosen stiffness. They support digestion and help detoxify the horse’s body.

Uses: The salty flavor helps soften hardened lymph nodes, glands and muscles. Salt breaks down toxins in the body and stimulates appetite. Good quality salt or salty foods are best, but overuse of poor quality table salt or cheap electrolytes can cause problems. The salty flavor helps calm thin, nervous horses.

Organ functions: The salty flavor supports healthy kidney function and strengthens digestive function.

Season: The salty flavor brings energy away from the body’s surface and helps keeps the interior of the horse warm during cold weather.

Cautions: It is best to avoid excessive use of salt, including electrolytes, for horses that are overweight, lethargic or have damp conditions such as stocking up. Salty seaweeds can be used in these horses because their iodine and trace mineral content support the metabolism.

Examples: Salt, seaweeds, barley and millet are examples of salty foods that can be fed to horses.

5. Sour

Element: Wood

Properties: The sour flavor has a Yin cooling effect; and although Yin is usually considered moistening, sour foods have a drying or astringent action on the tissues (think of the way your mouth feels when you suck on a lemon or lime).

Uses: Horses that sweat excessively or have a tendency to hold fluid in their tissues can benefit from the sour flavor. Loose manure may also firm up with a bit of sour flavor added to the horse’s food.

Organ functions: The sour flavor helps support the liver, especially if the horse is on a high fat and protein diet, since it helps the liver break down these nutrients. The acid content of most sour foods is helpful in dissolving minerals so they can be assimilated more easily. The sour flavor helps strengthen weak lungs. Interestingly, the sour flavor can also help with mental focus.

Season: The contracting quality of this flavor helps the horse prepare for the cooler months, so fall is the perfect time to add some sour foods to his diet.

Cautions: If there are already signs of tightness in the body, such as constipation or tight muscles and ligaments, the sour flavor should be used cautiously.

Examples: The most common examples of sour foods for horses would be those containing vitamin C. Natural foods such as rose hips are the best sources of vitamin C. Hawthorn berry is a nutritional herb with sour flavor that can be given safely to horses. Vinegar is considered sour and bitter, which makes it a good supplement for cleansing and tightening tissues. Apples are sour and sweet.

Each Element in TCM has a flavor associated with it (see sidebar) and this flavor is often needed for the associated temperament type when it gets out of balance. For example, a Fire horse benefits from a bitter food such as alfalfa on a regular basis, but the amount could be increased in the winter. This is because the cooling effect is offset by the bitter food’s property of moving energy inward to keep the body’s core protected during cold weather. During the summer, the Fire horse needs some sweet, warming foods to help his energy move outward to the periphery of the body, dispersing the heat from the environment.

Therapeutic use of the Five Flavors

Bitter (Fire) – heart and small intestine, yin, cooling, moves energy inward

Sweet (Earth) – spleen/pancreas and stomach, yang, warming, moves energy outward

Pungent (Metal) – lungs and large intestine, yang, warming, moves energy outward

Salty (Water) – kidneys and bladder, yin, cooling, moves energy inward

Sour (Wood) – liver and gallbladder, yin, cooling, moves energy inward

Benefits of pungent flavors

  • Clears mucus out of the lungs, but should be used with caution if heat is present in the form of an active infection.
  • Improves digestion and helps expel gas from the intestines.
  • Warms and relaxes the kidneys, increases the production of saliva and sweat.
  • Increases circulation and supports the heart.
  • Improves sluggish liver function.

Thinking about your horse’s Five Element temperament, along with the season of the year, will help you design a feeding program that will help keep him balanced year round.


Madalyn Ward is trained in Veterinary Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Bowen Therapy, Network Chiropractic and Equine Osteopathy. She is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners and American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Ward has authored three books: Holistic Horsekeeping, Horse Harmony, Understanding Horse Types and Temperaments and Horse Harmony Five Element Feeding Guide. Holistichorsekeeping.com, Horseharmony.com.

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