A sad-looking horse is a sad horse to look at. Proper mineral and vitamin supplements can return happy to the stall.
Dull coat. Cracked hooves. No energy. These are the signs that your horse may need minerals and vitamins in its diet.
Horses, like humans, need minerals and vitamins to reach their full potential. “But my horse is on pasture,” you say. “That means he’s getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs, right?”
Cue the standard answer: it depends. “What I tell folks is horses are a lot like people. They’re individuals,” says Dr. Jason Turner, Extension equine specialist at New Mexico State University. Even in a group of horses consuming the same grain and forage, you may have some that would benefit from a vitamin and mineral supplement. “So it’s a recommended good practice to supplement those vitamins and minerals that horses might need.”
How Minerals Play Into a Horse's Diet
Dr. Tanja Hess agrees. “Forage is the basis of nutrition for a horse,” says the equine nutritionist and veterinarian at Colorado State University. “You should supply extra based on the nutritional value of your forage. Many horses live pretty well on hay or pasture plus free-choice salt and the minerals and vitamins you need to supply to meet their requirements.”
Then Turner says to cast an eye at the water tank. “Water quality is important. We can feed them all the vitamins and minerals in the world, but if they’re dehydrated (because they won’t drink the stale, green water) they’re not going to use those vitamins and minerals as effectively as if they’re hydrated and have good water.”
Beyond clean water and hay or pasture, salt is the first building block in horse nutrition, Hess says. Then, depending on the mineral content of the soils and therefore the forage, you’ll want to supplement the nutrients that are lacking. “Sometimes phosphorus is low. And then many times, copper and zinc are low in forage. That’s why we need to supplement.”
Measuring Forage Quality & Mineral Availability
Your local Extension service office can help with sampling your hay or pasture for nutritional status. In addition, your veterinarian may be familiar with the minerals and vitamins that are lacking in forage and hay. “It is best, however, to do an analysis of your hay and/or pasture to understand what you are offering and what is needed by your horse,” Hess says. “Nutritionists can help you balance the ration.”
While quality hay is certainly important, sometimes good horse hay simply isn’t available. That’s when mineral and vitamin supplementation is essential. “The hay doesn’t need to be super quality,” Hess says. “Idle horses can live well with hay at 9 or 10 percent crude protein.”
But she says you need to pay attention. Low-quality hay, whether it has been rained on, is too mature or Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grass that’s baled after it turns brown, won’t provide the protein, vitamins, and minerals your horse needs.
“Normally what I tell people is to really look at vitamin E,” Turner says. In fact, vitamin E is the single most important vitamin to supplement in his mind because horses can’t synthesize it on their own. “So I recommend vitamin E supplementation for most classes of horses because they’re probably not going to get enough on their own.”
That’s especially true if your horses spend most of their time in a stall or dirt lot and are on a hay diet. Hay will start losing vitamin A and E in storage. Same with dry pasture grass. It will lose protein as well as vitamins quickly after it goes dormant. Vitamin E is important to prevent oxidation of ingested fats and the body’s cell membranes, Hess says.
The Key to Boosting Horse Performance
Because horses are like people, providing a good quality supplement that contains a combination of micro and macronutrients is essential. And just like with cattle, providing quality nutrition means your horse can reach its genetic potential, says Haidee Larson, Riomax® territory representative and equine nutrition specialist.
That may be a healthy and alert pleasure horse you ride occasionally. Or it might be a ranch horse, feedyard horse, or performance horse that gets ridden hard almost every day.
“Generally, if you have a deficiency, you’re going to see some reduction in performance,” Turner says. “We’re going to see things pop up, maybe in decreased health or immune function, poor hair coat, or hoof quality. Depending on which vitamin and minerals (are deficient), you may see some impacts on the horse’s behavior, maybe being more anxious,” he says.
From a performance standpoint, Turner says you might see a decrease in performance ability, workability, and endurance, and how they recover. “How does he recover from a hard day’s work? Is he tied up, is he sore where I have to lay off the next day and can’t use him?” Turner says proper supplementation may help.
How to use Horse Mineral to Optimize Genetic Potential
Beyond those basics, other nutrients are helpful in helping your horse achieve its genetic potential, Larson says. “Horses fed a hay diet will consume significantly less omega-3 fatty acids than horses that have consistent access to quality pasture grasses,” she says. “Once hay has been cut, cured, and baled, there is a rapid decline in the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids.”
Supplementing omega-3 fatty acids typically results in a sleek coat and healthy skin, but more importantly, it supports a healthy, normal internal inflammatory response, she stresses.
But be careful about overfeeding supplements. If you grain your horse, know the vitamin and mineral content of the feed so you don’t over-supplement, Hess says. For horses on hay and/or pasture, providing a complete vitamin and mineral supplement in one package will save money.
Many horse owners will use supplement X plus supplement Y plus supplement Z. Then they’re causing a big disservice to the horse’s nutrition because they will unbalance the minerals, Hess says. “They might be overfeeding one and then (the horse) just pees and poops in out. So you might be throwing money away and leading to mineral imbalances and even disease.”