Proper nutrition and management practices can prevent many problems associated with caring for horses.  You can learn how to provide your horse with a better life-style by taking the online course "How to Feed for Maximum Performance" taught by Eleanor Richards.  Go to for more information.  Contact Eleanor at or (440) 554-3714.  Be sure to visit Eleanor's web site at
Does Your Horse Look Like a Yak?
By Eleanor Richards
Copyright @ 2006

         Does your horse look like a yak in the summer? 

         Could it be Cushing's syndrome?

         The most recognized symptom is the heavy, coarse, wavy hair coat that fails to shed in the summer.  But not all horses that have Cushing's syndrome display the abnormal hair coat.  Here is a list of other possible symptoms:

                   • Excessive thirst
                   • Excessive urination
                   • Swaybacked or potbellied appearance
                   • Increased appetite with no weight gain
                   • Loss of muscle over the top line
                   • Chronic laminitis
                   • Weakened immune system
                   • Patchy sweating
                   • Long, heavy, curly coat

          In humans Cushing's syndrome is caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. In horses it is usually caused by abnormal pituitary gland function.  No one is sure what triggers the malfunction.

       If Cushing's is suspected, a blood test can be taken. But, the clinical signs are pretty obvious and some veterinarians may start treatment based on the symptoms. The syndrome progressives slowly and causes more symptoms as time goes on.

       A horse with Cushing's may have a hard time metabolizing soluble starch (sugar).  This problem is called equine metabolic syndrome and causes insulin resistance. Not all horses with Cushing's have equine metabolic syndrome.

       The obese horse should be tested for amount of insulin in the blood.  If you catch it early you can avoid laminitis by managing the diet and putting him on a weight loss program.

      Feed containing high amounts of corn, barley and even oats should be avoided.  Try to find a product that uses fat as an energy source.  Products that contain beet pulp can also be offered - just be sure the soluble or non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) level is low.      

     Avoid pasture that is lush and high in fructan.  It is possible the insulin resistant horse may not be allowed to graze.  Provide hay that has a low NSC level. Visit for more information.

      It is essential a well-balanced diet is provided.  Vitamins, minerals and good quality protein is needed to maintain a healthy equine body.

    Unfortunately the disease is incurable, but there are drugs that can be used to treat the symptoms.  It is recommended you consult your veterinarian as soon as Cushing's is suspected. Horses with mild symptoms respond best to treatment and may have their lives extended by several years.

     In addition to the drug therapy, health management and preventative care is imperative. Diet, vaccinations, deworming, regular tooth and hoof care, and a prompt response to infections are critical in maintaining the health of the Cushing's horse. He will require body clipping in the summer (several times), shade in the hot months, and shelter in the winter, as he can no longer regulate body temperature.

     It is disheartening to discover your horse is suffering from an incurable disease. Cushing's is a slow progressing illness, but with proper care and management your friend can still lead a comfortable life.

Eleanor Richards