DO HORSES REALLY NEED SUPPLEMENTS
This is such a loaded topic because to ask this one question, Do horses really need supplements? I have to ask you the following questions to help you determine if supplementation is needed based on your horse’s food/diet and exercise.
So, lets start with:
1) What is the Body Condition of your horse?
Knowing where your horse falls on the Henneke Equine Body Condition Scoring System is so important not only in selecting an appropriate diet, but also in determining if supplements are needed. Compare your horse to the body types below using a scale of 1 (extremely poor condition) to 9 (extremely overweight), and palpating (touch with some pressure) the six areas shown in the Fat Deposits image below. Ideally, your horse should scale out within the Moderate #5 and Moderately Fleshy #6 range as seen in the condition scale images.
Location and order of accumulation of
Location and order of accumulattion of
FAT DEPOSITS in a horse:
This horse is in moderate condition without significant fat deposits, scoring a body condition of about 5 or 6. The little bit of bulk is actually from the end-of-winter coat.
The coordinating numbers on this image are showing where fat deposits accumulate on horses, for use in the
Henneke Horse Body Condition Scoring System.
Although there are exceptions, fat is usually first stored internally around major organs, and then accumulates fairly predictably in the following order:
1. Behind the elbow/scapula
2. Between the ribs
3. Beside the tail head
4. Along the back
5. Over the withers
6. In the neck
The Henneke Equine Body Condition Scoring System
|1||Poor||Extremely emaciated; no fatty tissue; vertebrae, ribs, tail head, and bones of withers, shoulder, and neck are visible.|
|2||Very Thin||Emaciated; slight tissue cover over bones; vertebrae, ribs, tail head, and bones of withers, shoulder, and neck are visible.|
|3||Thin||Slight fat cover over body; individual vertebrae and ribs no longer visibly discernible; withers, shoulders, and neck do not appear overly thin.|
|4||Moderately Thin||Ridge of spine and outline of ribs are visible; tailhead may or may not be visible depending on the breed; withers, shoulders, and neck do not appear overly thin.|
Spine and ribs cannot be seen; however, ribs can be felt. Tailhead is spongy; withers, shoulders, and neck are rounded and smooth.
|6||Moderately Fleshy||Slight crease down spine; ribs and tail head feel spongy; fat deposits along withers and neck and behind shoulders.|
|7||Fleshy / Heavy||Crease down spine; ribs have fat filling between them; tail head spongy; fat deposits along withers and neck and behind shoulders.|
|8||Fat||Apparent crease down spine; ribs difficult to feel; soft fat surrounding tailhead; fat deposits along withers, behind shoulders, and on inner thighs; neck is large.|
|9||Extremely Fat||Obvious crease down spine; patchy fat on ribs; bulging fat on tailhead, withers, behind shoulders, and on neck; fat fills in flank and on inner thighs.|
Now that you have placed your horse on the scale of 1 to 9, you have to pay close attention on the nutritional balance of your hay/pasture/forage and feed ration.
Before we start with a lengthy explanation of why your horse is in a certain condition and your horse’s diet, there is one supplement all horses need at every age, regardless of breed or activity level: SALT ... iodized sodium chloride. You can regulate the amount to encourage your horse to drink their recommended 10 to 20 gallons of water per day, depending on their activity level. Water will reduce instances of tying-up and many of the types of colic, no matter the time of year or the temperature outside. A couple of tablespoons per day of loose salt in the feed ration is a money-saving and horse-saving supplement.
2) What is the Nutritional Balance of your horse meal?
Forage is, without a doubt, the foundation of any feeding plan. The average horse consumes 17 to 22 pounds of feed per day, most of which should come from hay or pasture. In a perfect world, horses would be out on pasture grazing on live orchard and fescue grass. This is a luxury for most horses and horse owners in this day and age, but not all horses need free-choice forage, especially now that fresh pasture could be the catalyst for laminitis and any of the metabolic syndromes that have plagued horses in the last 10 years.
If your horse falls on the condition scale of 7, 8 or 9, you will have to consider your choices for a low, under 12% sugar (NSC - non structural carbohydrate) hay. This hay will have more fibre, less carbohydrate, but will also have a significantly lower nutrient value and will need a ration balancing supplement or feed concentrate to bring up the calcium and phosphorus.
Why? The following symptoms are very visible if the nutritional balance is not quite right for a healthy, well-functioning horse:
- Top-line has lost good muscle along the spine, rump and withers.
- Belly looks like it has dropped or is heavy on the bottom.
- Hooves may easily chip or crack, shoes are always needed, and the sole is flat around the frog.
- Your horse is not with you physically or mentally during the ride, but rather listless, lazy, or fighting you.
- The coat is a bit dull in the summer and longer than others in the winter.
- The crest of the top of neck is enlarging and thick.
- Arthritis may have slowed the movement and back to front step is inside tracking.
- This may also be due to skeletal misalignment and an equine chiropractor or physio-therapist should be able to help you.
If you have said yes to recognizing even one of the above symptoms, then your daily forage and feed are not balanced, and your horse will need a balancing supplement.
More information is available at my Blog post 3 Basic Needs of a Horse, which explains the need for a calcium and phosphorus balance.
Why are calcium and phosphorus so important? While people with performance horses, breeding, lactating, or growing horses (within the first two years) look for the benefits of a higher protein ratio (14-18%), it is more important that the roughage choice or combination of grass hay types and/or an alfalfa mix provide the preferred ratio (2:1) of calcium: phosphorus. Calcium is highly absorbable through the upper section of the small intestine. It plays major roles in nerve transmission, the body’s ability for blood clotting and temperature regulation, as well as regulating healthy muscle functions, including preventing tying-up. Phosphoros is needed for a wide variety of cellular functions and energy metabolism. Although calcium shows no adverse effects if given in higher levels, high levels of phosphorus should be assessed and avoided as too much phosphorous in the diet limits the absorption of calcium giving risk to thyroid issues, weight loss, and possible skeletal problems.
3) Do you know how much food your horse needs to balance the exercise load?
Equine nutritionists and veterinarians often recommend that the horse should get 1.5 to 2% of their weight in forage (hay or pasture) daily. That would be 15-20 pounds of hay for a 1000 lb/ 454 kg horse per day. This will not change, even if your horse is on the heavier side. The type of hay/forage will change to provide more calories or less calories, but the amount should not change because of the way the horse’s stomach and digestive system operates. This much forage is also needed to maintain the natural production of gut microbiome so that a probiotic is not needed. Your horse is also mentally tied to their digestive needs and if those needs are not met you may be looking at supplementing with an ulcer medication. This is the simple truth, and more information is available in my blog post here: What Causes Equine Ulcers? which also explains the need to feed correctly according to the horse’s biology and not the human- scheduled feedings of twice per day.
If your horse is on the thinner side (3 or 4 on the Henneke scale) or has a dull coat and exercises more than three days a week, a fat type supplement would be recommended. We have always enjoyed the benefits of adding a higher omega-3 fat with stable- milled flaxseed instead of a ground flax or other blends. There are many Omega-3-6-9 blends on the market, and feeding supplementary fat sources in the diet can offer a wide array of benefits, particularly for the equine athlete. Omega-3 fats can delay stiffness and fatigue and can be used as a fuel to the muscles, which is important for carbohydrate-sensitive horses that require low starch and sugar intake. Fats aid in less lactic acid production and better muscle glycogen utilization. Fats reduce circulating cortisol levels associated with stress and exercise. Compared to non-structural carbohydrates, the breakdown of fat yields a more moderate blood glucose and insulin response, which will provide more even energy with more of a willingness to work and less of the behavioural obstinance or excitability.
In a nutshell:
A feeding program based on your horse’s needs shouldn’t be complicated, so stick to the main components. Provide at least 1.5% of the horse’s body weight in quality forage, then if you choose a bagged feed, find one that is labeled as appropriate for your horse’s life stage and work demands at the best price point you can afford and make sure your horses teeth are functioning properly with at least one annual dental floating. Then of course, there is going to be another blog post on deworming.
If you want to take control with a simple balanced plan, try timothy or alfalfa pellets, salt, flax, and one of our All-In-One Ration Balancer supplements that will provide quality and bioavailable nutrition for your program.
Make any adjustments based on your horse’s body condition and health status, and your horse should be happy, healthy, and ready to perform at their best. If you still have questions about your horse’s diet or mobility issues, give us a call toll- free 1-877-533-9163, or consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist.
Shelley Nyuli, president of SciencePure Nutraceuticals and developers of PUREFORM Equine Health Supplements since 1997.
Supplemented Feed Terms:
Ration balancer: A feed that provides the nutrients forage lacks but without the extra calories.
Concentrate: A feed that provides the nutrients forage lacks, plus extra fat, carbohydrates, and calories.
Complete feed: A feed that contains enough fiber to also replace all the forage in a horse’s diet.
FYI - ABOUT VITAMINS & MINERALS:
The fat-soluble vitamins are stored in your horse’s body and used as needed. Hard-working horses or horses under stress can deplete stores of fat-soluble vitamins leading to deficiencies.
Vitamin A plays a role in digestion, respiration, reproduction, and vision. In growing horses vitamin A is important to proper bone development. Vitamin A is not found in nature; instead, it is synthesized from carotenes in the small intestine. Green grass is an excellent natural source of beta-carotene, which is metabolized into vitamin A. When green grass is lacking in the diet it is particularly important that vitamin A be supplemented.
Vitamin D plays a major role in the absorption of calcium in the small intestine. Once absorbed, vitamin D aids in the transportation to and the accumulation of calcium in the bone and other tissues.
Vitamin E cannot be synthesized by the horse; therefore, it is considered an essential nutrient and a powerful antioxidant that limits the damage caused by oxidative stress and the actions of free radicals. It maintains healthy muscle and nerve function and supports a strong immune system in horses of all ages.
The best source of vitamin E is fresh green grass; however, the potency of vitamin E declines very quickly once forages are harvested and dried. Multiple research studies have shown that vitamin E is often deficient in the diets of horses that do not have access to continual grazing on fresh green grass, or those grazing on winter pasture. Note about synthetic (dl-alpha-tocopherol) and the natural vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol), studies do show that natural vitamin E is two to three times more potent than synthetic. This formula allows for that ratio to be an effective antioxidant.
Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in your horse’s body, so they need to be provided in the proper amounts in the diet. Horses that are working hard or are stressed may need additional supplementation.
Thiamine, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid
These vitamins play a role in the metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Also known as B2, riboflavin influences energy production and growth.
Folic acid, or B9, is important for red blood cell development.
Cobalamin, B12, plays a role in energy metabolism and maintaining the manufacturing of red blood cells.
Choline supports cellular functions in multiple ways. It is a component of lipids and plays an important role in normal cell structure and activity. It contributes to normal fat metabolism in the liver, increasing fatty acid utilization. As a precursor of acetylcholine, it supports the transmission of nerve impulses. Choline is thought to have an impact on concentration, memory and muscle performance, and prevents fat buildup in the liver.
Minerals are inorganic compounds that serve both as components in body tissue and as catalysts for various body processes. The trace minerals in our PUREFORM All-In-One Ration Balancing Supplements, like MetaBoost or Support One, are chelated, which increases digestibility and absorption.
A main building block of your horse’s skeleton, calcium also supports proper muscle contractions and plays a role in blood clotting.
Essential to healthy bones and energy transfer reactions, phosphorus also plays a role in the synthesis of certain proteins. Calcium and phosphorus must be provided in the appropriate ratio range of 2:1 to 1:1.
Copper is necessary for healthy connective tissue, cartilage, and bone. Other important functions of copper include red blood cell formation, hoof wall formation, and hair pigmentation.
Selenium works in concert with vitamin E to defend the body’s cells from damaging oxidative by-products known as free radicals. Selenium is a component of a beneficial enzyme that prevents free radicals from forming. Free radicals are released during normal energy production. Horses use energy to fuel bodily functions and movement.
Zinc plays a role in healthy hooves and coat, bone development, and reproduction. It is also critical to proper immune function. Zinc is a trace mineral vital to proper enzyme function in protein metabolism. MetaBOOST contains zinc proteinate, the form of zinc most easily digested by horses.
Research has shown that high-quality yeast cultures help horses maintain a healthy digestive tract and increase the digestibility of nutrients by stimulating the activity of the good microorganisms in the hindgut. A healthy microbial population will also reduce the incidence of digestive upset and contribute to a healthy immune system.