What Element is Your Horse? A Look at your Horse’s Health with the Help of the TCM 5-Element Theory.

by | Jul 18, 2016

It goes without saying that humans have distinct personalities. But, there are some who would argue that a horse is a horse, meaning, that there is no real uniqueness in their way of interacting with the world. As a practitioner and horse owner, I would disagree. Experience has proven time and again that each horse is beautifully unique and has something akin to a personality. Whether they tend to be expressive, bold, timid, fearful, stubborn, humorous or even herd-bound, it seems that each horse finds a unique form of expression that is truly their own.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is thought that these unique attributes are often related to the five recognized elements; fire, earth, metal, water, wood. These five elements are a large part of TCM, believed to play an important role in the maintenance of health and well-being. Each phase is a balance of yin and yang, two opposing energies whose interaction determines the general vitality of each individual. When there is harmony in the elements, life flourishes. As well, there are two energy meridians related to each element, with the exception of fire, which has four. These meridians circulate “qi” or life force energy throughout the body, and their steady flow is crucial to the health and well-being of the body in which they circulate.

So, what does this have to do with equine digestion and nutrition? Over thousands of years, practitioners of TCM have noticed a correlation between certain types of people and animals and dis-ease or dis-comfort. For example, in an extremely expressive, bright and sensitive person, with and affinity to being around others, the main health concerns involved the circulatory system, throat and the skin, as well as intense fatigue and stomach upset. Recording their findings, these practitioners began to understand that there was a relationship between the five elements and the health of their patients. They found as well that there was one primary element and two secondary elements. They were then able to treat patients according to their primary element, which they determined not only by assessing the personality of their patient, but also through their appearance, prevalent emotions, tongue, smell and their energetic pulse.

Fortunately with horses, determining their primary element is much more simple, as they tend to be much less complicated than their human counterparts. As humans, we are remarkably good at shifting our personality to suit a given situation, unlike horses.

As a horse owner, it is both fun and helpful to determine what kind of horse you have. Not only will it give you some perspective on the best ways to work with them, but can also give you an idea of what health challenges they are most prone to.

The Fire Horse

Fire horses are often easy to spot, as they are beautiful, expressive and showy, with a tendency to be bright chestnut, palomino, red dun or bright bay with a velvety coat and a large, shiny eye. Their colour and appearance will often give away their fiery constitution, as will their breeding, which is most often Arab or Thoroughbred. The meridians related to the fire element are the pericardium, triple heater, small intestine and heart. A balanced fire horse is incredibly dedicated and connected to their owner and their herd mates, and is a joy to be around as they are bright, expressive, intuitive and easily trained. As show horses they are beautiful to watch as they have a great deal of self-confidence and pride in their work. Unfortunately, this dedication and sensitivity to their surroundings can also make these horses very prone to the effects of stress. In situations where aggression or rough treatment is used, a fire horse may literally give up (indicating deficiency) or become incredibly difficult to handle (indicated excess). As their sensitivity suggests, these horses will likely let you know the minute their teeth require floating or the saddle fit is not optimal. Restoring harmony early can often prevent a fire horse from expressing their discomfort in a more dangerous way. If there is an imbalance of any kind in a fire horse it will be perpetuated by warmth, and will often manifest as heat rash, eczema, headaches or an inability to work under the heat of the sun. An imbalanced fire horse will often be prone to mood swings and hormonal imbalance as well as stomach and intestinal pain, often due to stress. To restore balance and vibrancy, a fire horse may need a period of rest and rejuvenation, with little to no stress, system balancing by an equine professional and much love.

The Earth Horse

Often found as a child’s horse or in a lesson program, the balanced earth horse is very stable and steady, with a good disposition. They are incredibly fond of the comforts of home, and are the type which gain weight by merely looking at their dinner. Although they need little supplementation, it is important to ensure that they receive adequate vitamins and minerals. These horses often dark bay/ brown or palomino, with a round soft eye, big feet and a very soft, slightly long coat. They are generally draught-type horses, ponies and some cobs. The energy meridians associated with the earth element are Stomach and Spleen. Big-boned and solid, Earth horses tend to be very difficult to fit with saddles and bits. Their caring nature generally prevents them from complaining about discomfort, and they can often be found with ill-fitted saddles and a mouth full of sores if their rider is not paying attention. With their steady nature, earth horses are relatively easy to train and enjoy work, but do not have a desire to push themselves to succeed. What they lack in ambition, however, will be made up for in stamina and willingness to work. The earth element is highly linked to the process of digestion. An earth type horse tends to be highly food oriented and imbalance in this element can lead to colic, gas and diarrhea, as well as metabolic diseases such as founder and cushings. They are highly sensitive to high sugar mixed feeds, particularly those containing molasses. As the earth element is associated with damp, these horses may be prone to fatty deposits, edema and fungal infection if out of harmony. Often blanketing during wet weather can be helpful to reduce dampness during winter months. An imbalanced earth horse may display anxiety, jealousy and aggression over food or herd mates. They may also appear extremely lethargic and heavy footed. As the spleen meridian run over the rib cage and flank and the stomach meridian runs along the neck and belly and down the hind leg, sensitivity to these areas can be indicative of an imbalance in the earth element. Acupressure, diet change or natural remedies to balance the digestive tract, blanketing in wet weather, and regular work can often bring more balance to any horse suffering from an imbalance in the earth element.  

The Metal Horse

An element often associated with spiritually and inspiration, it is little wonder that metal horses are often breath taking to behold. Although any horse can carry the metal constitution, these horses have noble heads, shiny, metallic coats, and strong shoulders and back. They are often grey, silver or palomino and are majestic to watch. Bestowed with natural talent, forward movement and self-confidence, Metal horses can excel in any discipline and enjoy variety. Aloof be nature, these horses are quite happy on their own and generally do not enjoy being pampered or fussed over. Owners of these talented individuals must be careful to make sure the metal horse is as healthy as he or she seems. As they prefer movement to eating, metal horses tend to be tough keepers and can be highly sensitive to certain foods. They are horses of action and do not enjoy retirement or boredom. A horse with an imbalanced metal element will often show signs of getting “rusty”, with a tendency towards conditions such as arthritis. Movement will become mechanical rather than flowing, as joints stiffen. As the related meridians are Lung and Large Intestine, they are also prone to respiratory conditions, impaired breathing and nasal discharge, as well as a decline in large intestine function. Disharmony in this element may give rise to phobias or fear, emotional shutdown and confusion, as well as hay allergies, dry coat, and eczema.

The Water Horse

An impossibly shiny black or bay coat, strong body and round eye is often indicative of the Water horse. With its relation to water, this horse, when balanced, is often calm, observant and introspective. Enjoying companionship to a certain extent, water horses also love time alone. Often frustrating to train, with consistent, firm yet sensitive work these horses can excel at any discipline. With confinement, a water horse quickly becomes stagnant and upset. As the imbalanced emotion of this element is fear, water horses have a tendency towards noise sensitivity and intense reactivity, making this horse very unsuitable for beginner riders. With the bladder and kidney meridians influencing this element, water horses are vulnerable to cold and require protection from the elements. As these meridians are linked to overall vitality, an imbalance can be indicated by premature aging, depression and lack of energy. Nasal discharge is common as is over-consumption of salt and a dry hair coat. As the bladder meridian is located near the spine, an imbalanced water horse will often have a sore or weak back, stiff joints and premature aging. Digestively, this type of horse will often show a decreased appetite if the water element is out of balance.

The Wood Horse

An intense competitor, the balanced Wood horse loves a challenge and often excels in jumping, eventing and long-distance riding. Generally bay, these horses are muscular and strong with a short, coarse coat and a round eye. Optimally they are clear thinking and confident, with an innate ability to get out of the most troublesome situations. When out of harmony, however, they are easily muddled. The wood horse dislikes confinement in any sense, which makes him a poor choice for dressage, or for a living situation with limited turnout or exercise. Very good at expressing their feelings subtly, wood horses show emotion through the quality of their eye, which can change from kind to angry quickly. As the wood element is associated with the liver and gallbladder meridians, wood horses can become aggressive under pressure and restraint. They are also prone to eye problems when the wood element is out of balance which may lead to erratic spooky behaviour. In balance, wood horses are wonderful at going with the flow, but under physical and mental pressure, these horses will easily become brittle and resistant and like the trees for which they are named, can “snap” under the pressure. One noticeable sign of imbalance in this type of horse is hooves which are often brittle, cracking or ridged and chronic tendon problems. Because of their sensitivity to stress, wood horses are prone to digestive upset and excessive gas if their environment is not compatible. The connection to the liver meridian can make the breakdown of fats difficult, as well as to detoxify the body. An imbalanced wood will be prone to muscle spasm, tension and pain, especially in the flanks and will often show their discomfort with a well-aimed cow-kick. A good indication of disharmony in this element is overall body pain.

Although your horse may not slot perfectly into one of these elemental constitutions, he may show some of the attributes described. Hopefully, your horse is balanced in all the elements, pain-free and happy. If not, it may be a good time to contact an equine professional who can help you bring him back into harmony while helping you understand how to work best with his constitution. Working specifically with the energy meridians and five element theory, a therapist knowledgable in acupressure and Traditional Chinese Medicine can help to restore the flow of qi in the body. Depending on the type of horse, acupressure, massage, energy work, and nutritional counselling can all be very helpful in ensuring your horse is happy, healthy and at his best!

Happy Trails!