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Series 1: Building a Balanced Diet- Supplements





~Overview~


Howdy everyone and welcome back to our first blog post series: Building a Balanced Diet. We are continuing things where we left off to talk about supplements! Supplements are often misused in today’s equine industry. Social media is PLASTERED with people feeding five, ten, even fifteen supplements! These accounts start making you think.. What if I am not supplementing my horse enough? The answer is you probably don’t need a supplement! If you are already meeting requirements through your forage and grain, then supplements are just a waste of time and money. However, some supplements can provide essential benefits to your horse. Owners should be cautious that not all supplements have proven scientific backing, so today I will try to make a detailed list of common supplements that have been academically reviewed and proven to have benefits. Since there is a lot of hearsay regarding supplements, I will be providing a source list for EACH supplement. This way you can be assured that is a credible source! So without further adieu, let’s get into top dressing!


~List of supplements covered in this article~

*Please note that this is not a comprehensive list. There are TONS of supplements out there. These are just some of the common ones. If you have a supplement you have questions about that is not on this list, please feel free to reach out and I will research it!*


  1. Electrolytes

  2. Biotin

  3. MSM

  4. Flaxseed

  5. Beet Pulp

  6. Oils

  7. Rice Bran/ Fat supplements

  8. Vitamin A, B, C, D, E, and K

  9. Selenium



~Electrolytes~

Electrolytes is a supplement that every horse owner should be providing to their horses! Especially those in hot/arid climates and cold/dry climates. But increased water intake is never a bad thing in any environment. Electrolytes are essential to the overall health of a horse, and improve things such as water retention, blood pH, muscle contractions, nerve regulation, and perspiration.

Horses lose a large amount of Potassium (K+), Sodium (Na+), and Chloride (Cl-) via evaporation cooling (i.e. sweating). Horses that are actively sweating, either because it is hot or because they are exercising tend to have issues with performance and endurance. Signs of electrolyte deficiencies include fatigue, muscle cramps, weakness, dehydration, and in some extreme cases.. Death. On the opposite end, horses that are cold will typically refuse water; therefore, depleting their electrolyte reserves in the colder months. Horses that are also in stressful situations (such as trailering) would also benefit from additional electrolytes to replenish what is typically lost by a nervous sweat.

Adding in an electrolyte year round will allow a horse to last around 30% longer during peak performance. When looking to choose an electrolyte, owners should look for the first ingredients to be listed as NaCl (Sodium-chloride), or KCl (Potassium chloride). Horses that have little to no exercise will find their potassium needs met by a good quality hay. Horses in mid to heavy exercise should have potassium supplemented back into their diet. Typical electrolyte supplements that are marketed for horses will have Potassium already included in them.

For feeding, you can either top dress with a powder or granule, add it into your horse's water, or add the electrolyte and a small amount of water into a syringe and give it orally. One should note that fresh, clean water should always be available when feeding electrolytes, as the supplement will stimulate hydration. Electrolytes should be added into the diet during times of low stress (i.e. not traveling, not too cold, or too hot). This ensures that the horse has time to accumulate without causing disturbances to the GIT (gastrointestinal tract) as dehydration can lead to serious complications.


Sources:

  • Walker, Neely. Electrolytes for the Performance Horse. LSU Ag Center.

  • Harris, P. A., et al. "Equine nutrition and metabolic diseases." The equine manual (2006): 157.



~Biotin~


Considered a B-complex vitamin, Biotin is a supplement that most horse owners have probably heard of before. It is another one of those phenomenal supplements that really any horse can benefit from. However, it is not one that is expected to give quick results. It typically takes about four to six months before you see any sort of improvement. Some studies have even said that it takes six to nine months, but once added in, this supplement can greatly improve a horse’s hoof wall structure, a decrease in white line and other hoof deformities. Even at just 15-25mg a day can cause dramatic improvement. It should be noted that biotin will not improve every horse. It depends on the degree of separation, and if your horse has foundered or has/or is prone to laminitis. While supplementing this, performance will not be directly improved, a horse’s comfort, if they are suffering from poor hoof quality, will be improved and thus improve overall performance. Biotin is often seen as more of an appearance supplement. While most of the nutrients you are feeding are going to meet or maintain your horse’s current body score condition, Biotin goes directly to the coat and the hooves. If you are meeting your horse’s requirements, but see that your horse’s coat is still very dull, they may benefit from having Biotin added into the diet.

There are several forms of readily available Biotin on the market. One of the most popular forms is Biomane. This comes in a pelleted form that you can just mix into your horse’s daily rations, much like a SmartPak. You can also get a powder form. I recommend for powders, you soak the feed a bit. This causes the powder to stick to the grain, ensuring that those picky eaters can’t eat around it. It also adds more water into your diet, and prevents choking! Biotin should be fed at 15-20mg/day for horses with poor hoof condition, and around 10-15mg/day for horses with good to moderate hoof condition.


Sources:

  • Reynolds, Judith A. "The Future of Equine Nutrition." (2014).

  • Gibbs, Pete G., Gary D. Potter, and Brett D. Scott. "Feeding the arena performance horse." Texas FARMER Collection (2003).


~MSM~


MSM is a well known joint supplement available on the market. It’s actual name is Methyl Sulphonyl Methane, but is often called MSM on the market. It is known for its antioxidant properties. Since it is a naturally occurring Sulfur found in the body, it tends to have little to no repercussions and can be used on all horses including breeding stock. Studies have found that MSM can help protect against joint inflammation typically found in high impact sports (i.e. cutting, jumping, reining, dressage). While MSM will not completely prevent joint injuries, and joint damage will still be prevalent in these sports, MSM can help to reduce the severity of joint damage as well as prevent smaller injuries from happening. MSM is also known to reduce cortisol levels, an inflammation-inducing steroid. This has most predominantly been studied in race horses, as they tend to face the highest levels of cortisol during races, but the knowledge applies to all performance horses.

MSM is known to have palatability issues, and picky eaters will try to avoid the white crystalized supplement. Since it is very water soluble, you can once again soak feed to create a more liquid feed. This way horses cannot pick and choose what they want to eat, and it increases hydration (which as always is a good thing!).



Sources

  • Marañón, Gonzalo, et al. "The effect of methyl sulphonyl methane supplementation on biomarkers of oxidative stress in sport horses following jumping exercise." Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 50.1 (2008): 1-9.

  • Lawrence, Ronald M. "Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM): a double-blind study of its use in degenerative arthritis." Int J of Anti-Aging Med 1.1 (1998): 50.

  • Sp, Nipin, et al. "Methylsulfonylmethane inhibits cortisol‑induced stress through p53‑mediated SDHA/HPRT1 expression in racehorse skeletal muscle cells: A primary step against exercise stress." Experimental and therapeutic medicine 19.1 (2020): 214-222.


~Flaxseed~

Flaxseed is another commonly known equine supplement, typically used for skin and coat improvements. It’s scientific name is Linum usitatissimum, and it is proven to help horses with allergies. In recent studies, it has been found to actually help increase the overall appearance of a coat during allergy episodes without any predominant negative side effects. One of the most common conditions that flaxseed is used to help combat is sweat itch. Sweat itch is a condition commonly seen in hotter, more humid environments, and is characterized by lesions caused by self-induced scratching. It can also be used to reduce starch intake, acting as a balance rationer in place of grain for horses facing metabolic issues such as ESM and PPID. While most use it to improve a dull coat, it also provides important omega 3 fatty acids into the diet.

Flaxseed should be fed at 1lb supplement/ 1000 of body weight, and allowed about a month and a half before improvements should be seen. There are no palatability issues known with Flaxseed, and it can be fed in a powder, pellet, or oil form. Oil forms will have faster results as they are processed quicker into the body.


Sources

  • O'Neill, Wendy, Sharyn McKee, and Andrew F. Clarke. "Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) supplementation associated with reduced skin test lesional area in horses with Culicoides hypersensitivity." Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research 66.4 (2002): 272.

  • Saastamoinen, Markku, and Susanna Särkijärvi. "Effect of linseed (Linum usitatissimum) groats-based mixed feed supplements on diet nutrient digestibility and blood parameters of horses." Animals 10.2 (2020): 272.


~Beet Pulp~

Beet pulp is a feed additive typically used for energy demands. It can come with and without molasses (added sugar which improves binding and palatability). Beet pulp is recommended to be fed soaked, but it can be fed dry as a fiber source. There are three types of soakings available: a 12 hour soak, a 24 hour soak, and a 10 minute soak. This soaking helps to improve the water reserve in the gut, thus helping to increase water retention during high performance (especially in long ranch work days and endurance racing). It has also been known to help improve fiber digestibility as it provides beneficial nutrients to the bacteria of the hind gut. It has a high Phosphorus and Iron ratio, so if you have a soil/hay that is known to be deficient in any of these two things, beet pulp can help improve these deficiencies. Beet pulp without molasses is better suited for horses with sugar restraints (such as horses with metabolic diseases). Both types of beet pulp will help to improve energy reserves in a wide range of horses.

Beet pulp, as with everything else in equine nutrition, should be fed by weight instead of volume. Since it soaks, people tend to underfeed beet pulp and miss all the advantages that come with the supplement. It is recommended to feed at 6g/kg, soaked, and 3kg at most for a 500kg (1102lbs) horse (convert your horse's pounds into kilograms using this link! https://www.unitconverters.net/weight-and-mass/kg-to-lbs.htm)


Sources

  • MacLeod, Clare. "Benefits of beet." Equine Health 2018.39 (2018): 12-13.

  • Murray, Jo-Anne MD, et al. "The nutritive value of sugar beet pulp-substituted lucerne for equids." Animal Feed Science and Technology 140.1-2 (2008): 110-124.


~Oils~


Oils are typically fed into the diet as fish, corn, vegetable, or soybean oil. It adds an additional fat source into the diet, and improves energy supplementation. It often improves palatability, helping to encourage picky eaters to actually want to eat. In addition, it also improves the digestibility of Dry Matter feeds (such as grains), fats, and NDF (neutral detergent fiber, which is found in hays and grains). As well as decrease heat production, which can be important in horses competing in hot, arid environments, as it helps to retain more water (i.e. less water is lost through sweating as the horse is maintaining a cooler internal temperature).

Oils should be slowly incorporated into the diet, but horses should be fed at 5-8% of their total diet being fat (10% being the absolute most, and only if you have a horse that has a very high energy requirement such as a race horse or an endurance horse). Another recommendation is to feed 100g/ 100kg of body weight per day. It should take about 14 to 21 days to introduce oil into your horse's diet, and should be fed for weeks, if not months, to reach the full bioavailability of nutrients. Oils should be broken up over several feedings throughout the day to allow for proper digestion. It should be noted that it has been researched that adding oils into a horse’s diet, increases the requirements for Vitamin E. Oils do not improve the absorption of Vitamin E, as previously believed.



Sources:


  • O'Connor, C. I., et al. "The effect of dietary fish oil supplementation on exercising horses." Journal of animal science 82.10 (2004): 2978-2984.

  • Harris, Patricia. "Feeding management of elite endurance horses." Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice 25.1 (2009): 137-153.

~Rice Bran/Fat Supplements~


As indicative by the name, rice bran and fat supplements are typically added to help put weight back onto a horse. In the case of polo horses, endurance horses, or racing horses, it is used to help maintain a body score condition during high demands. Rice bran (typically about 25% fat) should only be fed in a stabilized state, and only be feed when soaked as it has palatability issues otherwise. It is an easy way to add additional calories into the diet without having to feed an excess of grain (remember we always want to feed far more hay than grain). It can also be used to help horses that are prone to typing up. Rice bran should be feed as a complete diet as it lacks minerals and vitamins. It should only be added as an addition when a horse needs more calories to reach a favorable BCS (Body Score Condition, which we typically want horses around a 4-5, 6 for broodmares). There are other fat supplements on the market such as Cool Calories that work along the same idea as rice brain, but don't typically require soaking. However, I will also promote soaking of feed for additional hydration into the diet. Follow the instructions on the rice bran or fat supplement, and slowly incorporate it into the diet. Do not expect a quick turn around in BCS. It takes time to build up to a healthy weight. Over feeding fat and rushing the process can cause other metabolic disorders.


Sources

- Kentucky Equine Research


~Vitamin A, B, C, D, E, and K~


Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K are considered essential vitamins for an equine diet as they are vitamins that a horse cannot produce themselves


. Though vitamins are not typically needed at a high level, small deficiencies can cause systemic wide issues. Since there is so much to cover when it comes to vitamins, I have attached a wonderful link to the Kentucky Equine Research website that explains the benefits of each of these vitamins as well as a link to the Merck Veterinary Manual that provides a helpful tool to understanding about all the different vitamins/minerals.

https://ker.com/equinews/vitamins-horses/

https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-horses/nutritional-diseases-of-horses-and-other-equids


Vitamin requirements are typically met by feeding a complete grain and good quality hay. I do not recommend that every day owners try to create their own grain. Major grain operations have people with the education, skills, and equipment needed to make a safe and palatable grain. Typically deficiencies in vitamins arise when owners try to make their own grains without understanding all the components required (such as binding, nutrients, palatability, durability, and breakability). On the other hand, toxicity also arises when people start providing vitamins to their horses without knowing if their horse is actually deficient in it or not. Start by testing your hay, and understanding your feed tag (which we will cover how to go over in the next post!), before you look into adding more vitamins. Keep an eye out for one of the common vitamin deficiencies symptoms such as weight loss, diarrhea, low energy levels, teeth issues, a dull coat, hoof troubles, parasites or an increased susceptibility to illness. The Merck Manual provides some common signs of vitamin toxicities (with the predominant being vitamin A and D) https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/toxicities-from-human-drugs/multivitamins-and-iron-toxicity


~Selenium~


This trace-mineral works alongside Vitamin E to provide important antioxidant properties to your horse, preventing free radicals from causing harm. It is not needed in large amounts, and it is typically implemented into the diet via grazing and drinking water. It is not typically known to cause large amounts of toxicity in horses, but it can arise into a chronic condition if it is not closely monitored. Deficiencies in selenium cause something called white muscle disease. It is typically seen in growing horses, and it causes issues such muscle breakdown, and issues with swallowing. This predisposes a foal to pneumonia, which can cause other complications. There is a test available to know if your horse is deficient. Typically adult horses do not have a selenium deficiency. If you are in an area that is not known to have selenium, it is not recommended to supplement the diet. If you have concerns or believe your horse to be deficient in Selenium, consult with a vet to run the diagnostic test. Selenium toxicities are characterized by the following clinical signs: hair loss of the mane and tail, cracking of the hooves, and often signs of lameness, excess salivation, and respiratory failure.


The average horse should get around 3mg of Selenium a day. Typically this is already met through pasture grazing, hay, grains, and even water (as water contains trace minerals unless it is distilled). Contact your local extension office to see if you are in an area that is deficient in Selenium before adding this into your horse’s diet.


Sources:

  • House, Amanda. “Selenium in the Equine Diet.” American Association of Equine Practitioners. (2016)



~Conclusion~


This was a lot of information to cover! Don’t get overwhelmed! Typically a horse does not need anything top dressed into their diet. Unless you are competing at World’s, Grand Prix’s, racing, or doing endurance racing all you should really need is electrolytes. If you are doing a discipline that has high joint impact, then add in MSM. If your horse is struggling with brittle hooves and allergies/dull coat then you can add in Biotin or flaxseed as needed. If your horse is struggling to keep weight on, then you can add in stabilized rice bran or a fat supplement. Vitamins, oils, and Selenium are not typically needed in the diet, as typically moderate performance horses are not being pushed hard enough to have energy defects. Unless you are in an area known for deficiencies! This has been repeated several times through the post as it is incredibly important! It is so critical to understand the climate your horse is living in! Nutrition is fluid. There is no one plan that will work for all horses in all locations. Different breeds, different disciplines, and different environments will have different needs. As stated, there is no way to cover every supplement on the horse market in one post! If you have a supplement that you are wanting to try or one that you are already feeding, but have questions about, don’t hesitate to reach out! I’d be happy to do some peer-reviewed research on it! Have a blessed week y’all!


Thanks and Gig em’!

-Alyssa Terry


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