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An Interview with Nutritional Consultant - Clair Thunes PhD

April 19, 2012

Posted by Dr. Clair Thunes in Nutrition

Clair bio picIn previous newsletters we have included articles on several nutrition topics related to horse breeding written by the independent consultant, Clair Thunes of Summit Equine Nutrition. This month we took the opportunity to interview and introduce you to Clair and to discuss how working with a nutritional consultant can benefit your breeding program. Her clients cite many favorable reasons for incorporating a nutritional program on their farm, from the mares being in better condition on less feed to the foals looking better at weaning and therefore commanding higher prices when sold. But perhaps the biggest advantage is the peace of mind people report, knowing that they are feeding the right products and giving their foals the best start possible. Being able to tell prospective buyers that the farm works with a nutritionist and that the foals have a good nutritional foundation is also a great selling point.

You’re an independent equine nutritionist, what exactly does that mean?
I’m not sure there is a standard definition, but for me it means that I do not receive a salary from any feed or supplement company which enables me to recommend the products I feel are best for each individual horse and situation. I have my own consulting company called Summit Equine Nutrition LLC. I do consulting for horse owners, riders, trainers, and veterinarians. I do work for some companies helping with technical writing, staff training, educational seminars and product development for example but this is also done as an independent consult. While I may only discuss their products while consulting for them, if I am independently hired by an owner I am free to recommend whatever is the best solution for them.

Horse FeedWhen did you start Summit Equine Nutrition LLC?
Initially the company was founded in 2006 as Equilibrate Equine Consulting and then the name was changed to Summit Equine Nutrition in January 2010.

Did you always want to be an equine nutritionist?
Pretty much. Early on I wanted to be a vet but a career advisor convinced me it would be very hard to get in because in England you start vet school straight out of high school and competition is extremely tough. When I was about 14 I became fascinated by the fact that my horse’s personality would change based on what I fed him and that a friend’s horse would gain weight when my family looked after him even though it was still in the same barn and we were feeding him the exact same diet. These experiences made me realize that there was a science and an art to feeding horses and I wanted to go and learn more about both which led me to pursue a BS in Agricultural Science with Honors in Animal Science from Edinburgh University.

You ultimately ended up at UC Davis which is a long way from Devon England where you grew up. How did you end up there?
My goal was to ultimately become an independent consultant and I had a mentor during High School and my undergraduate degree and he advised me to go on to a graduate degree and specifically a doctorate. I had taken an education abroad year during my bachelors studying at UC Davis and I decided to go back there for my MS in Animal Science and PhD in Nutrition.

Does Summit specialize in any particular type of horses?
No not really, although the majority of my clients are owners or performance horses and breeding farms. I’ve worked with everything though from a miniature donkey to a para-dressage horse that went to the WEG in 2012 and back yard trail horses to event horses that were short listed for the 2011 Pan American Games. I work with numerous sporthorse breeders both with their mares and foals as well as a number of high performance stallions. To give you an idea right now I am working on nutritional plans for a Grand Prix dressage horse with PSSM, another with cushings, a pleasure horse who has sustained an injury to its esophagus and can no longer be fed hay, a new breeding farm, an insulin resistant horse in light work, and an event horse coming back from injury. So it really runs the gamut!

Clair weight tapeDo you have to be able to visit clients in person?
No not at all. While visiting in person is obviously preferable because I can see the environment in which your horse lives it isn’t always practical and I have a lot of clients I’ve never met. I work very successfully by phone and email. I think sometimes people think that having me come out when they live a long way away would be cost prohibitive, but that isn’t necessarily the case as with careful planning it is possible to defray the costs over a larger number of people keeping it reasonable for each individual.

When do people typically contact you for a consultation?
Unfortunately it tends to be when things have gone wrong. For example foals with growth related disorders, stallions with poor semen quality, performance horses that are suffering from ulcers or tying-up or ponies with laminitis. Certainly these are interesting and challenging cases however in some instances the situation could have been avoided had certain nutritional issues been addressed earlier. I wish more people understood the true value of an optimal diet and the fact that just because a horse looks fantastic does not mean that the diet is optimal. Prevention is always better than cure both for the horse’s well being and the owner’s wallet!

How do you address this issue?
I think there is definitely a need for more education on how to address many of these conditions through diet and nutritional management and so I have a blog where I talk about these topics and I also cover them when I do seminars. I am taking the message to some of the bigger expos in our area. I was a speaker at the Horse Expo in Pomona in February and will also speak at the Western States Horse Expo this June in Sacramento. I get a lot of very positive feedback as people really appreciate the information and learning that there are things they can do to take steps to hopefully avoid some of these conditions.

During my consultations I have software that makes it very easy for people to see how good their current diet really is as well to evaluate how much the products in the ration are truly contributing. This can be a real eye opener as sometimes the expensive supplement with a large ingredient list is not providing enough of anything to really have an impact.

Mare and FoalSo what are some of the mistakes you see being made on breeding farms and how do you address them?
I think there is still a temptation to over feed pregnant mares and sometimes under support lactating mares. We know now that the mare’s nutritional status during pregnancy is an important part of reducing the risk of developmental orthopedic conditions in her foal. There has been research showing that the mare’s trace mineral status during pregnancy, in particular copper, may increase OCD. While you can watch the mare gain weight which gives you confidence that she is getting the calories she needs during gestation you often cannot tell whether the mineral status is adequate without taking a hard look at the diet. Insuring adequate minerals can be a real challenge with easy keeper mares that perhaps do not need a lot of additional fortified feed. I see these mares on diets that are often lacking in the necessary trace minerals as well as vitamin E which is important in the last month of gestation to insure adequate amounts for transfer to the foal in colostrum. Use of ration balancers in conjunction with good quality hay and pasture can be a very useful tool. When I work with pregnant mares I look at where all the nutrients in the diet are coming from and we determine whether they are adequate and then we make a month by month nutritional plan for that mare or farm for each month of gestation.

I do the same thing for lactation because this is a time of extremely high nutritional need. Sometimes owners are not providing enough calories and protein to their lactating mares until they see a loss of condition. At this point it can be hard to regain the weight which can be a real problem if your goal is to breed the mare back as body condition can impact ovulation and ability to hold a pregnancy. Plans for weaning need to be made at least a month ahead of time as this helps the mare to slow her milk production and also helps the foal make a gradual and therefore less stressful transition to a 100% solid diet. As with gestation I help breeders put together a month by month plan for lactation plus a transition plan for weaning. If foals are being kept past weaning then we make plans for them too through to their first birthday. Of course these plans have to be flexible as situations can change and accommodations made but this can typically be dealt with quickly by phone.

Weanling 2 After weaning a common mistake is under feeding quality protein. For some time it was thought that protein was the cause of OCD in foals but we have since learned that it is high calorie diets leading to erratic growth that is the issue, these diets just happen to also be high in protein. I encourage all my clients with foals to take weight estimates preferably every 1-2 weeks so that we can chart progress and quickly determine if growth rates are changing. Sudden changes in rate of growth can be a sign of increased risk for developing the growth related disorders. When identified quickly changes can be made in the diet to maintain a steady and safer growth rate.

My goal is always to take the worry out of feeding, to minimize the risks of nutrition related issues, to insure that the mare is ready to be bred back, and that the foal has the correct nutritional foundation to fulfill his or her genetic potential.

Do owners report seeing an impact of having a nutritional program put together for their farm?
Yes absolutely. I hear a lot of favorable things from the mares being in better condition on less feed to the foals looking better at weaning and therefore commanding higher prices when sold. But perhaps the biggest advantage is the peace of mind people report, knowing that they are feeding the right products and giving their foals the best start possible. I hear that being able to tell prospective buyers that the farm works with a nutritionist and that the foals have a good nutritional foundation is also a great selling point.

So what do you love the most about your job?
That is a tough question because I really like a lot of aspects of what I do, I love to help. It is very rewarding to be able to help when people have a difficult and on-going situation. To be able to come in and join the team working on a case, to offer a fresh perspective and be a part of the solution is very rewarding. But just every day being able to help insure that horses have what they need for optimal health and peak performance and to help owners cut through all the information out there to find the right solution for them is great. I meet some wonderful people and some amazing horses doing what I do. I feel very lucky and I’m proud too that I took my dream and made it happen.

What are your goals for the future?
To keep learning and staying up-to-date with the relevant research so I can continue to share good science based information. As I mentioned before I think education is a key component so I am about to embark on a series of teleseminars partnering with other equine professionals so that we can share what we know. Nutrition is such an integrated piece of the overall well being that there are many areas for example dental care, parasitology, epidemiology that go hand-in-hand with nutrition. For the first seminar I have partnered with one of the East coast’s top equine dentists and we are going to discuss dental care and nutrition for the senior horse.

So how can people learn more about these events and what you offer?
The best place to go is my website www.summit-equine.com from there you can find my blog as well as my services and news about upcoming events.

Additionally I have an active Facebook page which was just awarded 4th place in the Best Newcomer category of the Equestrian Social Media Awards.

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Please Note - photos used in these news articles are available in the public domain, have been purchased through istockphoto or (when referencing breeders or horses) have been submitted to Select Breeders Services Inc. by the breeding farm or horse owner. Photo credit has been provided where applicable. If at anytime you see something that needs to be addressed please feel free to contact us directly.

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