The Equine Practice Inc, Travels With Doc T

Mitochondria and Making Energy – Decomplexicating Equine Nutrition Part 5 of 12

I know this is getting very detailed. Read this anyway. Print it and then mark it up with a highlighter. Ask your barn friends to test you on it. Become a student. Become your Horse's Advocate.

But for those who feel overwhelmed, don't weave in your stall. I am going to summarize everything into a simple plan of how to feed your horse in the coming weeks. I am also turning this into a course for those wanting to dig in deeper or go at a slower pace with some guidance. Stay tuned!

Thank you for coming back and “digesting” what I have already written. As always, a review will help to get started.

Part 1 – Grazers versus browsers

Discussed the difference between glucose, starch, cellulose and lignin. These are all made of the atoms Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen but put together in different ways to form these molecules. Glucose is the main molecule and a chain of glucose molecules joined in a specific way is called starch. Both glucose and starch are directly digested by all animals including the horse. When the chain of glucose is joined in a different way it is called cellulose and cannot be digested by animals but it is digested into short chained fats by the bacteria in the gut. Horses with their very large colons are designed to consume large amounts of fat producing cellulose and NOT sugar producing starches.

Part 2 – The Basics of Sugar, Fat and Proteins

Discussed how not only sugar but fats and proteins are also made of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen but put together in different ways. Proteins add a Nitrogen atom which can be removed so that a protein can become a sugar. Grass provides for the horse both starch (which becomes sugar) and cellulose (which becomes fat). Both sugar and fat are fuels used by cells to make energy. In nature there are seasons when starch (sugar) is abundant to add body fat for winter and then during seasons when starch is not available (winter), the cellulose consumed and the stored body fat provide the fuel for energy. It becomes a natural ebb and flow of fat gain and fat loss caused by the varying forms of seasonal fuel. However the continuous availability of starch (grains) prevents this and causes diseases in the horse (and in humans).

Part 3 – Gut Microbes

There are 8 times more bacteria in the gut, the skin and in the air around animals than there are cells in the body. The horse is really feeding the bacteria and in turn they feed the horse. When the bacteria are fed correctly then they provide the horse with all they need to thrive. When they are fed incorrectly then the bacteria die and are replaced with bacteria that live on the bad food. While surviving, this results in materials that can damage the gut lining and create inflammation.

Part 4 – Leaking Gut

The foods eaten by horses for millions of years do not cause gut inflammation. However, the new foods introduced in the past few decades cause gut inflammation from the lectins, molds and starch (sugar) damaging the tight junctions between the one cell thick lining of the gut. This inflammation is very likely to be at the root cause of most problems and diseases of horses seen today. Removing the inflammatory foods is easier and a more holistic approach to solving problems in horses than adding any supplement, medicine or treatment.

How Energy Is Created In The Horse

This blog will start to bridge the gap that has so many horse owners confused. The missing piece of information is the process where all food molecules that make it into the horse is turned into energy. The importance of this to the health of your horse cannot be understated because when the cells falter in making energy, the horse becomes sick and dies. It is really that simple. Almost every disease or syndrome in the horse can be based on the cells of the horse not making the energy needed to stay healthy.

Remember when I said that you were not feeding the horse but that you were really feeding the gut microbes in the horse? I then said that the gut microbes actually feed your horse the fuels they get from the food, specifically glucose, fat and proteins. These fuels are transported throughout the body and enter the cells – every cell – and are converted into energy there. Once you understand this hugely important process, you will then understand WHY you need to feed the horse correctly. It will explain that messing with what has occurred for millions of years in the normal feeding process often has very bad consequences.

Mitochondria – The Generator Of Energy Within Every Cell

Within every cell of the horse’s body (and actually every animal including you) is an organelle (an organ of a cell) called a mitochondria. The number of them within the cell is dependent on the amount of energy needed to perform the function of the cell. Low energy level cells may have only 10 mitochondria while others have up to 10,000 mitochondria per cell. In humans, the areas with these high number of mitochondria are the ovaries, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (required for thinking), the eyes and the heart.

There are two interesting facts about mitochondria you should know before I talk about how energy is made. The first is that all the mitochondria in humans come from the mother because the mitochondria of the sperm are in the tail which is removed upon fertilization of the egg. I can assume that the same is true for horses.

The second fact may seem amazing to most people especially if you are still trying to believe that food swallowed is then digested by bacteria before it gets into the body. Researchers have found that mitochondria replicate within the cell on their own and use their own DNA to do so. Scientists now believe that long before horses and humans existed, when we were just a one cell organism trying to survive in an atmosphere with toxic oxygen (in the beginning oxygen was toxic and still makes up less than 20% of air), these single cell organisms joined with a bacteria who had mastered the use of oxygen as an energy source. That bacteria is what we now call a mitochondria and they are living inside every animal cell we have ever looked at on this planet. The cell provided fuels and the mitochondria provided energy thus both survived the toxic air by working together.

This information is less than 10 years old. If you are deeply religious, please look at this as only the biology of the body and not the explanation of the soul. However what is known now is that food comes into the gut to feed the bacteria, the products of that are absorbed into the body and these are sent to another bacteria called the mitochondria living within each cell. These mitochondria convert the fuels into energy to power the cell. When the mitochondria get weak and sick the cells become weak and sick, the organs become weak and sick and the body stops working correctly.

Believing that mitochondria are bacteria living within the cells is not necessary in our discussion here. But understanding how it creates energy will be essential to you understanding how to feed your horse. Think of it as an electrical generator that can use gas, diesel, propane, wind or running water to turn the device inside to produce electricity. Mitochondria can also use different fuels to produce energy. These fuels are glucose and ketones (a type of fat). These fuels are turned into a substance called Acetyl CoA which reduces a molecule called NAD making it NADH through what is known as the citric acid or Kreb’s cycle. This causes a membrane within the mitochondria called the electron transport mechanism to alter a molecule called ATP to become ADP. The result is the releases of one electron which goes from one side of the membrane to the other and this is the energy used by the cell.

Yikes!!!! Hold on! Say what??

I apologize. What I meant to say is that either glucose or ketones are fuels converted into units of energy within the mitochondria used by the cell to remain alive. Better??

You are feeding the bacteria of the horse’s gut and they in turn fuel the mitochondria. Done correctly and everyone remains happy. Done incorrectly and the result is unhealthy mitochondria and from this most diseases of the horse can be explained.

Let’s Look At Fuel Efficiency

One of the two fuels is glucose which is a sugar molecule (also known as a carbohydrate or a monosaccharide) which comes from the enzymatic breakdown of starch, the form of sugar storage in all plants. This includes all grasses as well as grains. The other fuel used by mitochondria is a ketone which is a short chain fatty acid. This is produced by the gut bacteria when they break down cellulose, the soft structural part of all plants found in grasses and other non-woody plants.

What is really important to understand here is simply that glucose is not a very good fuel. One molecule of glucose can produce a small amount of ATP (an energy unit) but also yields inflammatory pollution called free radicals. In addition, it requires a lengthy process to get across the gut wall, requires a hormone called insulin to transport it from the gut to the cell, requires an unimpeded coupling process between insulin and the cell (which plant lectins can interfere with), requires the coupling of glucose to the glucose transport mechanism within the cell to get it from the cell wall to the mitochondria and finally must be converted into Acetyl CoA. Using glucose for a fuel is like riding a bicycle uphill – exhausting!

Ketones on the other hand is like coasting a bike downhill. They travel without the aid of any hormone from the gut to the cell wall and pass through that wall uninterrupted to the mitochondria. The amount of energy produced from one ketone molecule through the same energy producing Kreb’s cycle is about 20 times the amount produced by one molecule of glucose. Additionally, there are no free radicals (pollution) produced that needs to be cleaned up afterwards.

Two things happen when feeding your horse excess starch (sugar, carbohydrates). The first thing is that the mitochondria are overworked and become exhausted just like you would bicycling constantly uphill. The second thing is the glucose is turned away from the cell and instead goes to the adipose (fat) cells on the horse creating excess fat. Meanwhile the horse remains hungry while it gets fatter because the cell is not producing the energy needed to function due to the lack of fuel. The result of this one weakened cell times millions of weakened cells in the body is a weakened and unhealthy horse.

Everyone needs some time off. So it is with mitochondria using glucose as a primary fuel source. Cellulose yielding ketones is what the mitochondria need to rest and remain in a peak energy creating state.


There are two fuels used by the horse to create energy: glucose and ketones. These fuels are used by the mitochondria within the cells to produce energy (electrons).

There are tens to tens of thousands of mitochondria within every cell whose purpose is to convert the fuels into energy.

Glucose produced from starch digestion is relatively poor at producing energy and requires a clean up process to get rid of the waste produced. Glucose also has multiple points in the transport mechanism where interference can cause the fuel to not be delivered to the mitochondria.

Ketones produced from cellulose digestion is relatively excellent at producing energy yielding no waste that needs to be cleaned up. It travels unimpeded through the body and into the cells assuring its delivery to the mitochondria.

When mitochondria become overworked they become weak and eventually die. When this happens to a majority of mitochondria in a majority of cells within body systems, the horse becomes ill.

Feed the gut bacteria correctly and they in turn will feed the mitochondria correctly and the horse will remain healthy. Most older horse owners will tell you of horses turned out onto the pasture all winter and come spring, they were the healthiest horses ever seen. The next blog will discuss carbohydrate dependency and how to go about giving these mitochondria some life support which will help your horse become the healthiest looking horses you have seen.

The Horsemanship Nutrition Course

If this article makes you want to learn more then click here to find out about this course offered by The Horse's Advocate University.

Discover nutrition for horses
Equine Dentistry Without Drama™
Your horse’s health is important to us at The Equine Practice Inc and so are their teeth so remember to call Melissa and Doc T for a dentistry appointment. 888 HORZVET (467-9838)