These foods and herbs can help keep your horse’s vision sharp.
We have a general idea of what to eat to benefit our own eyes, but it’s not as obvious when it comes to our horses. While carrots are great for our eyes (yes, it’s true!), we are less certain if they have the same effect on horses. Good eye health starts with a good immune system, and a good immune system starts with great nutrition. Short of trauma, most equine eye conditions can be avoided through good nutrition. Once an eye condition has developed, feeding specific, high quality foods and herbs can greatly reduce recurrent issues.
Studies from the 1950s, first with Pottenger’s cats, then when Dr. Weston Price studied native peoples, showed that patients who eat what grows naturally have fewer health issues. For horses, this means the ideal food is in the pasture. The next best option is nutrient rich, leafy hay. Lower on the immune building scale are stemmy hays, pelleted feeds, and sweet feeds (worse if they contain GMO ingredients). Because most of us don’t live where we can provide fresh pasture year-round, we are forced to feed the best hay we can find and provide supplemental nutrition for what is missing from the hay.
The purpose of this article is to discuss supplemental food sources that help build eye health. Because our goal is prevention, it’s best to select a supplement that rounds out your horse’s nutrition. The supplement will preferably be non-GMO and whole food-based, like chia or flax seed. However, because many of us do not consciously search for foods to build great immune or eye health until there’s already an issue, we’ll also cover foods and herbal formulas that can assist in building good eye health.
Feeding for overall health
General food items that have been used to help the eyes are anything that provides Omega-6 fatty acids (like GLA – gamma linolenic acid). Omega-6s are usually provided in the carnivore’s diet by eating meats, but horses must find other sources. Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of GLA. However, due to potential risk of colic, it is not advisable to feed nuts to horses. Therefore, seeds such as chia or flax are the best source of GLA for horses. Black sesame and feather cockscomb seeds are other less well known sources of Omega-6s for horses. Chia and flax seeds are commonly available and usually eaten whole, while other seeds, such as black currant, borage or evening primrose seeds, are fed/eaten as oils. Any of these oils, which are high in GLA, can help with general immunity and eye health. Feather cockscomb seeds have been used for centuries for equine eye health.
Solutions for swelling
Swollen eyes, regardless of trauma or infectious causes, can be treated with several different foods. As a reminder, if your horse has swollen eyes from rolling due to colic, treating the eyes first is not the priority. However, once colic is ruled out, you can try applying a poultice of grated apple or potato on the eyelid (do not feed potato to horses; it can be dangerous in high quantities). Just as humans take down swelling by applying fresh slices of cucumber to their eyes, cucumber slices can also work for horses. Adding parsley, mint or chrysanthemum to the diet can help reduce the swelling associated with conjunctivitis. Chrysanthemum and mint are especially helpful for allergic conditions. They can be fed either as whole flowers or leaves, fresh or dried, or made into a tea. Chrysanthemum and mint are both easy to find as tea bags; for topical use, boil water, dunk the tea bag until moistened, and place the slightly moistened tea bag as a poultice on the swollen eye.
Moonblindness, or ERU, is a condition often addressed through foods high in vitamin A. Such foods include spinach, sweet potato, watercress, and spirulina, which works synergistically with the spinach or sweet potato. Sweet potato is somewhat controversial – while sweet potatoes look like potatoes, they are not from the nightshade family and in conservative amounts, are safe. Other foods that help with night blindness are carrots and dried raspberries. These should be fed as treats on an empty stomach and not to excess. Sometimes a little goes a long way. An excessive intake of carrots can upset the normal bacteria in the horse’s intestines and potentially lead to colic. Carrots are also high in sugar and can be a problem for horses with metabolic syndrome.
The eyes and liver function
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the eyes are windows to liver function. In early liver disease, the eyes will start tearing/discharging, the third eyelid will protrude, the eye may become red or hazy, and then you will see a progression to more serious eye illnesses. Treating the underlying weakness – the liver – will clear up the eyes. Traditional herbs/foods for the equine liver/vision connection include gentian root, phellodendron bark, clematis root, tribulus, fresh rehmannia root, feather cockscomb seed, lyceum, and chrysanthemum.
More modern foods that treat the liver include dandelion, milk thistle, turmeric, lavender, mugwort, chicory, wood sorrel, and wormwood to name a few. What’s great is that a lot of these grow semi-wild in pastures. For the more organically-minded horse owner, it’s fun to see your horse selectively eat from these plants when they are needed.
For the horse owner without a lot of pasture options, many of the aforementioned plants can be purchased as dried herbs or powders. They can be bought as individual herbs, or as herbal formulas/remedies. The quality of herbal formulas varies, as do the impurities in each brand. Surprisingly, tablets have more fillers that can cause intestinal upset than loose powders do. Read the ingredients to see what fillers, if any, have been added. In some patients, herbal formulas can cause diarrhea – build up slowly and your horse is less likely to have an issue.
There are many classical Chinese herbal formulas that treat the eyes, either directly or indirectly through the liver. These formulas include You Gui Wan, Bu Zhong Yi Qi Wan, and Liu Wei Di Huang. Regardless of what herbal formula you select for your horse’s eye issue, work with a properly trained health care provider to pick the right formula for his specific concern. If selected inappropriately, the herb will do nothing, potentially adding to your frustration.
Ideally, we all want to prevent eye problems before they occur. By feeding the best food we can, given our horses’ living circumstances, and supplementing as needed with non-GMO whole grains, we can make great strides in building the eye’s immune system. Good food feeds the whole horse – including the liver and eyes. And, if issues develop, food is again the basis for improving eye health.