Having just spent six hours chasing down the latest information on nutrition, my head is spinning and I can understand how horse owners get confused about what to feed. An enlightening conversation with forage specialist Katherine Watts ( www.safergrass.org ) helped me clarify my own understanding of equine nutrition, especially the importance of minerals.
The Importance of Minerals
I have recently been challenged with horses who do not stay healthy even though they are fed what I consider a good nutritional program that should have provided adequate micronutrients. The weak link in the diet seems to be minerals. Minerals are critical in so many areas including structural integrity and metabolism, especially energy utilization. They can also act as antioxidants in the body and probably have functions we don't even know of. My observation tells me that horses are more susceptible to parasites when fed a diet not balanced in minerals. In fact, recent research indicates that a Copper deficiency can lower an animal's resistance to parasites. I've also seen insulin-resistant horses and horses with chronic muscle soreness benefit from the addition of the mineral Magnesium.
Balancing Minerals in Forage
Under optimum conditions, the best way to balance your horse's mineral intake is to offer them organic hay or pasture. An organically-managed pasture, or hay from this kind of pasture, tends to be naturally balanced in minerals and micronutrients. Unfortunately, achieving success with organic farming methods can be difficult and time-consuming. Most people would rather resort to using synthetic fertilizers, a method about which I have strong concerns. Synthetic fertilizers destroy healthy micro-organisms in the soil and without these organisms the grasses in the pasture cannot absorb minerals through their roots. However, this does not mean that you should not fertilize at all, since this will produce stressed grasses high in sugars and result in weeds taking over the pasture. Instead, it would be better to take the time to invest in organic farming methods and, in the meantime, support your horse's mineral needs in other ways. If you are interested in learning more about organic farming, the best place to start understanding soil ecology and how to manage it is Elaine Ingram's site www.soilfoodweb.com .
Adding Concentrated Feed
If you don't have the luxury of havin g your own organically-fertilized pasture (or having enough pasture), you are probably feeding your horse hay. To find out about the mineral content of the hay you feed, you might want to ask your hay supplier to provide you with a nutritional analysis of the hay you buy. You can then go to the website www.equi-analytical.com to compare your sample to other similar hays from all over the country and to the nutritional tables that show current suggested requirements. This will tell you which essential minerals the hay is lacking. One way to balance this deficiency is by feeding concentrates like pellets or grain.
Analyze different types of concentrated feed and determine if it will cover the gaps in mineral content in your horse's diet when fed at the rate needed to support his body condition, based on his metabolism and workload.
Supplementing Hay and Feed
If you find that your horse's diet is still lacking in certain essential minerals, your next choice is to add supplements. In many cases I have positive results with feeding probiotics and digestive enzymes to heal the digestive tract of the horse, and then adding whole food supplements (like blue-green algae) that contain a wide range of easily digested micronutrients.
Another possibility is to add individual minerals to the diet, although I am wary of this approach for two reasons. First, I tried adding individual minerals for years when I first started looking at nutrition and simply did not see long-term health benefits from this approach. Second, there are so many factors that affect a horse's individual needs and these needs can change quickly depending on such factors as weather conditions, time of year, the temperament of the horse, and stress levels. In most cases I don't feel that we can change the mineral content fast enough to adjust to these factors and may, in some cases, upset the intricate interrelationships between nutrients and create worse imbalances.
However, when special cases call for the addition of individual minerals to the diet, as with insulin-resistant horses, I prefer mineral supplements from Advanced Biological Concepts ( www.abcplus.biz ). These supplements can be offered free choice or added to the concentrate portion of the diet. I trust the digestibility of these products and know from experience that they are safe.
The Holistic Approach
I am coming to believe that the combination of our modern farming methods and the selection of grasses for sugar content rather than mineral content are behind the mineral deficiencies we are finding in our horses. A move back to organic methods of rebuilding soil health will ultimately be the best choice. However, in the meantime our horses need mineral support.
From the holistic point of view, this means balancing the mineral content as much as possible with whole food sources, and going the extra mile by adding individual mineral supplements for the horses who really need them.
Unless otherwise attributed, all material is written and edited by Madalyn Ward, DVM. Copyright (c) 2007 HolisticHorsekeeping.com. All rights reserved.