Apple cider vinegar is the natural remedy of choice for many horsemen, even if science doesn't support many of its purported benefits.
Vinegar has been used medicinally for thousands of years, all the way back to the father of medicine, Hippocrates, who disinfected wounds with it, among other uses. Vinegar is a natural antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibiotic because these organisms cannot exist in its pH environment, which typically ranges from 2.5 (distilled white vinegar) to 3 (apple cider vinegar). Water, at 7, is the neutral pH on the scale of 1 (acidic) to 14 (alkaline).
Apple cider vinegar is produced by the fermentation of carbohydrates, during which the natural sugar in the juice of apples converts to alcohol, making apple cider. When the alcohol in the cider is combined with air by the action of Acetobacter bacteria, the apple cider turns to vinegar. Acetum is the Latin word for vinegar.
Vinegar in its raw state carries more benefits than refined vinegar. Raw vinegar contains a “mother” culture of beneficial acids, which gives it a murky appearance. Refining removes the mother and renders the vinegar clear, an ideal state for cleaning glass without leaving a smear, but not the desirable form to achieve health benefits.
Vinegar for horses
One mission of the horse's body is to maintain a balanced pH, so man's attempts to adjust it either downward (more acidic) or upward (more alkaline) are met with resistance, resulting in only a meager change. Studies to verify the benefits to horses of supplementation with apple cider vinegar are scarce and most were conducted 30 to 40 years ago.
In 1877, Captain M. Horace Hayes published his iconic book Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners, in which he often recommends vinegar as an oral or topical treatment for horses. Hayes recommends administering vinegar diluted in cold water to treat poisoning from ammonia and as an antidote for ingestion of excessive amounts of alkali (bicarbonate of soda). Topically, he advocates it to deaden bee stings.
In 1989, the late Dr. Harold Hintz, renowned nutritionist with Cornell University's Department of Animal Science, advocated supplementing horses predisposed to enteroliths (gastrointestinal stones) with one-half to one cup of apple cider vinegar per day. He believed vinegar decreased intestinal pH levels, and the increased acidity could break down excess minerals before they began to accumulate around a foreign object to form a stone.
Commenting on his work, Hintz said, “No clinical trials have been conducted to prove that vinegar would be of value, but I have had California horse owners tell me that the incidence of enteroliths has decreased since they have been using vinegar.”
In a 2018 study, Australian researchers lavaged the uterus of study mares with dilute vinegar in an attempt to decrease the pH of the uterus to a level that would not support pathogens. Although vinegar did not significantly affect the pH of the uterus, the health of the uterine lining improved.
Some anecdotal uses have amassed enough success to become adopted as standard practices.
“I remember in the early 2000s, many of the trainers at Fairmount [Park in Illinois] began adding one-half cup of vinegar to the water,” said Cindy Medina, who retired in 2004 as Fairmount Park's all-time leading female jockey and now mentors youngsters in the U.S. Pony Clubs on how to care for and compete with their horses. “Some trainers said it helped horses' digestion, some thought it helped horses sweat better, others thought it helped detoxify the muscles of unused proteins and helped horses prone to tying up.”
None of that has been proven scientifically.
Adding apple cider vinegar to a horse's “home” water every day will enable its caretaker to disguise the taste of “strange” water with vinegar so the horse will drink it. This solves the problem of a picky horse that refuses to drink water that doesn't taste like the water it is used to drinking. Getting a horse to drink when it is transported is critical to keep it from dehydration and the problems that can result.
The same principle applies to picky eaters. Experts suggest spraying a horse's grain lightly with apple cider vinegar to introduce a horse to its taste, then gradually increasing the amount up to one-half cup, as long as the horse continues to eat it. When the vinegar taste is added to a new or different-formula grain, the horse will be more likely to eat it.
Apple cider vinegar's antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties make it a regular component of homemade wound cleansers and poultices. A mixture of clay, Epsom salt, and vinegar is a common poultice.
Spraying apple cider vinegar on a horse's soles and frog purports to prevent or treat thrush, a fungal infection. Veteran farrier Steve Norman, one of the top shoers in Thoroughbred racing who currently cares for the feet of Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify, said he's never heard of that.
“I've never used it for that reason, but I have used it for fly spray,” Norman said. “A combination of diluted apple cider vinegar and [Avon's] Skin So Soft is probably the cheapest fly spray you can use. And it last longer than high-dollar sprays. As far as putting it on the feet, I've never thought of doing it or been asked to do it. I know it's a really good mixture with horse liniment, as a tightener.”
He added, “I don't see it hurting the foot, and it probably would be beneficial.”
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