Volume 6 Issue 6

Learning From Mariah

By Catherine Ritlaw


I lost my 31-year-old Arabian, Wetarez, this past February. I have had serious health problems for ten years due to chronic, undiagnosed Lyme disease. I decided to adopt a BLM burro as a companion for my other older horse. I had always dreamed of one day adopting a mustang but, considering my age and health, I knew a burro would be more sensible. On my 50th birthday, I visited the local BLM facility. While driving there, I asked Wetarez for guidance in my adoption choice.

Mariah, with severe mineral imbalance. Alfalfa hay can impose severe mineral imbalances on a growing horse due to its excess calcium in relation to phosphorus.

At the corrals, all the newly captured burros ran from me and formed a defensive huddle on the far side of the pen. I decided to stroll around and check out the horses. One small corral housed the mares and fillies. I walked past five times and, each time I did, a plain brown yearling would come over and reach out towards me with a plaintive expression. She was small and her shaggy coat was matted, but she had kind and intelligent eyes. So much for the burro plans. I brought the filly home and named her 'Mariah' - like the wind.

Mariah immediately bonded with my old Morgan mare. I had never had a horse younger than two years, so I got out my books on feeding to see if the alfalfa-Bermuda hay pellets I used contained sufficient nutrition for a yearling. The analysis showed the levels of protein, vitamins and minerals to be acceptable. My allergies to mold and dust make using pelleted hay better for me, though I would prefer to feed hay.

During the first two months, I spent a lot of time gentling Mariah and teaching her basics such as leading, tying and having her feet handled. She loved the large corral I have and did a lot of running, playing and bucking. One day, I noticed she was acting unusually calm and quiet. She was standing as if she had discomfort in her hind end. In the past, I had dealt with a horse with a chronic back injury for five years. This has made me ultra aware of noticing horses with any small discomfort or unsoundness.

I called my vet, studied my lameness and horse care books, and consulted with other vets and experts. I called BLM and they accessed her history in their computer system. She had lost her mother during the roundup when she was only five months old. She lived in a large northern Nevada facility for three months and was fed free-choice alfalfa hay. Twice, within the first month in captivity, she was dewormed and vaccinated for eight diseases. She was later sent to an adoption 'event" in southern Arizona, where she was not adopted. At eight months of age, she was then sent to northern Arizona where she spent another three months. She was in a rather small enclosure and was still fed free choice alfalfa hay.

Mariah 2
Mariah on the mend after dietary changes and balanced mineral supplementation

Mariah was suffering from developmental orthopedic disease, or DOD. DOD is a term used to describe a variety of conditions affecting the bones and joints of growing horses. Some of these include epiphysitis, wobblers syndrome, angular leg deformities, joint cartilage damage, leg flexure deformities, osteochondrosis and osteochondritis dissecans. Even the horse's spine may be affected. Often, the signs are subtle and can be easily missed by the caretaker. The youngster may appear stiff and may not be as lively as other youngsters. Sometimes, problems don't become obvious until the animal begins its training, at which time he may buck, rear, and be labeled as 'difficult' or 'badly behaved'. I wonder how many horses may be blamed for bad behavior when they are actually in pain.


Through my research, I learned the factors believed to be responsible for causing DOD. They include genetic predisposition, growth spurts, rapid growth without the levels of balanced minerals needed to support it, being overweight, having mineral imbalances, and trauma. Mariah had come off sparse desert forage, then was given access to free choice alfalfa. This probably resulted in a sudden growth spurt. Alfalfa hay supplies severe mineral imbalances to a growing horse. It contains excess calcium in relation to phosphorus. The mineral content of hay can vary greatly.


In fact, many hays grown in sandy soils, as in the western United States, are especially low in copper. Copper is essential for healthy collagen formation and healthy joints.

If a youngster has had restricted exercise for even a mere several weeks, bone formed during this period will also be inferior. When the horse is allowed normal activity or when it is put into training, the weak bone formed during confinement or during imbalanced feeding periods will be prone to injury. Some holistic vets also claim that over-vaccination of young horses can also cause joint problems later on.


Horses with DOD need to be allowed to rest, or at least choose their own activity level. They need to have their diet evaluated and need to be given high-quality vitamins and minerals in the correct amounts and balances to allow stronger bone to be formed. Even weak, inferior bone can have the potential to heal and strengthen if given the correct supplementation. One can send their hay out for analysis and try to supplement according to the results, although this is rather impractical for some.

Luckily, someone told me about a feed and supplement company that has formulated products to prevent and treat DOD. The company is TDI, Inc. and they have based their products on research done by the veterinary orthopedic specialists at the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University. Research there recommends feeding a balanced diet which allows for a steady growth rate and steady weight gain. Correct amounts of digestible energy and balanced and adequate vitamins and minerals are essential to healthy skeletal formation and normal growth. They recommend a mix of grass and legume hay, with a grain mix fortified with adequate and balanced vitamins and minerals. Merely feeding hay only or hay and a regular grain is not enough. (The experts at TDI are friendly and will give excellent advice. Their phone number is 800-457-7577. They recommend TDI 10, a supplement, at the rate of two pounds daily for pregnant mares and growing horses.)

After six weeks on TDI 10, Mariah has gained bone circumference and is beginning to play again. I will postpone further training for at least six months, at which time she will be re-evaluated. I hope to end up with the sound horse I had planned on having as my friend to explore the desert with. She has the heart and inherited strength of her wild ancestors and may be able to overcome this challenge. I know the TDI products have given her a good chance of a more comfortable future, even if she is not totally sound as an adult.

If I had known more, I would have started her on TDI 10 and restricted her exercise at first. I have urged BLM to add a mineral balancer to their feeding practices. I hope others will learn from our misfortune. A small investment in one of these excellent products can provide a lot of insurance towards future soundness, as can sensible feeding practices.


Update from Catherine:

People don't realize how our soils are depleted and that most pasture and hay are sorely lacking in the high levels (and variety) of minerals needed for healthy growth. When I lived back east, I knew people who were dealing with DOD due to feeding grass hay and large amounts of grain. Out here almost everyone feeds straight alfalfa without grain. Either way, our young horses are being set up for DOD. The newest research indicates it is best to feed high levels of balanced minerals, not just 'sufficient' levels, to prevent DOD in growing horses. Perhaps so many horses are unsound and 'off' because of skeletal problems developed early in life.

After just 8 weeks on TDI 10 mineral/ vitamin product, Mariah, my mustang yearling, was back to running and bucking. In that period, she gained only about an inch in height and about 35 pounds; however she gained a lot of bone circumference in her legs and her feet also increased in size. She also has been receiving homeopathic Calcarea phosphorica 200c which, as I understand homeopathy, helps the body utilize calcium and phosphorus properly. Mariah has visibly 'hourglass' knees and squarish hind fetlocks - signs of epiphysitis - but I am confident that it will resolve over time.

I received a rather vague letter from BLM regarding their belief that feeding alfalfa is alright. I take issue with feeding straight alfalfa to growing horses. All the veterinary nutritional experts warn against it because of severely imbalanced minerals and excess protein and calcium. BLM shipped about 60 horses to our county fair last weekend to offer them for adoption. All of them were downright fat. One three-year-old was a recent capture. She was fit and had nice feet. Most had actually been born in BLM facilities. Their feet were overgrown, dished, and splayed. With all the millions of acres of federal land out here, it's a shame these horses are warehoused in relatively small enclosures. If, instead, they were allowed more space, how fit they would stay and how much happier they would be. Thank goodness there are a few large, private sanctuaries where some mustangs get to live in peace and freedom.

Sincerely, Cathy Ritlaw



About the author:

Catherine Ritlaw has a background in Veterinary Technology and Equine Science, and was a practicing Animal Health Technician before becoming disabled. She offers consultations in natural horse and pet care, environmental illness, and Lyme disease. She can be reached at (928) 530-0354.


Research references:

Care and Feeding of the Horse, Lon L. Lewis, 1996, 2nd edit.
Horseowner's Guide to Lameness, Ted S. Stashak, DVM, MS
Whole Horse Journal, Sep/Oct '97, Jul/Aug '98, Aug '99
The Horse's Hoof, Spring 2003
The Merck Veterinary Manual, 6th edit.
Purina Mills, Inc. - Managing the Growth of Young Horses, 1996
Purina Guide to Care and Feeding of Horses
TDI, Inc. (800) 457-7577




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