The Intricate Link Between Equine Nutrition and Health

The Intricate Link Between Equine Nutrition and Health


woman on horseJust as human health is largely dependent on diet, horses experience changes in their physical condition when they do not receive proper nutrition. The impact of nutrients is evident in the use of herbs to treat a wide range of physical and behavioral issues. Unfortunately, there have been no extensive studies of equine nutritional deficiencies, which can make diagnosis difficult. In addition, diagnoses are typically complicated by disease or multiple deficiencies occurring simultaneously.

According to veterinarians, some of the signs of a nutritional deficiency can include recurrent disease, problems with exercise regimens, and/or an increased susceptibility to bacterial infections and parasites. Dental problems and metabolic stereotypies can also point to nutritional problems, which do not always look the same. For example, a horse that is overweight may actually have a nutritional deficiency that leads to the deregulation of appetite. The problem, in turn, can lead to overfeeding. Sudden weight loss may also point to nutritional deficiencies.

Horses that eat low-quality hay may not be consuming the correct amount of minerals, vitamins, or protein in their diet. Physically, the deficiency can result in a delay or cessation in the skeletal growth of foals, as well as serious bone problems such as osteoporosis in adult animals. At the point of starvation, internal organs begin to be affected, and the immune system starts to break down. However, these issues can also stem from metabolic issues, intestinal disorders, and disease regardless of the quality of the food consumed by the animal.

One disorder that horse owners may want to familiarize themselves with is dysbiosis, commonly referred to as leaky gut syndrome. In dysbiosis, a horse’s gastrointestinal tract erodes and becomes ulcerated, which leads to malabsorption and malnutrition. The animal can become susceptible to disease and viral infection.

Preventing Disease Through a Healthy Diet

horse eating
Image courtesy jodi marr | Flickr

Horse owners may want to become acquainted with what constitutes a healthy diet for their animals. You should seek the advice of a veterinarian regarding proper equine nutrition relating to diet, supplements, and feed. Before purchasing feed for your horse, you should undertake research on where you can obtain high-quality food and supplements. Ensure that you read the tags placed on feed to find out the nutritional content. While each area likely has multiple sources of grain and hay, not all of this feed is created equal. Horses can typically obtain all of the nutrients and energy they need when they forage, but only if the hay is produced in fields that are not overworked. When fields are overworked, the hay grown there may not have the right balance of enzymes, minerals, proteins, and vitamins, and healthy bacteria.

People may be tempted to purchase processed horse feed with additives that supposedly provide more complete nutrition for the animal. While these alternatives may seem simpler than providing horses with fresh hay and grain, they generally do not provide the same health benefits that would be available if the horses were allowed to graze naturally on high-quality food.

Prevention also involves learning about a horse’s particular needs. Nutritional demands depend on a horse’s age, general health, and level of exercise, as well as the current climate. You should pay attention to how much your horse eats and how this can change over time in order to become aware of issues as soon as they arise. All horses should be fed regularly and provided access to food more than twice daily so that they can keep it in their digestive systems. You should limit the amount of processed, frozen, sweetened, or old food that your horse consumes and constantly keep an eye out for feeding or dental problems.

How to Approach Treatment if a Nutritional Deficiency Arises

horses drinking
Image courtesy BLM Nevada | Flickr

All horses require fresh water, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and carbohydrates. Health issues related to nutrition will stem from deficiencies in at least one of these categories. The first step in treating a perceived deficiency is providing an abundant supply of clean, fresh water at all times, except immediately after exercise. Horses need time to cool down to catabolize feed properly. If you feel that the water is the cause of the problem, you should test it for salmonella and other toxic materials or infectious organisms.

If you think that your horse is struggling with a nutritional deficiency, you should bring the issue to the attention of a veterinarian for help with diagnosis and treatment. Veterinarians can look for any underlying conditions. For example, a horse that has less energy than normal is likely not getting enough calories. However, the issue could relate to an ulcer rather than a dietary deficiency.

Typically, treatment involves keeping close track of everything that a horse consumes and ensuring a proper balance of nutrients for the age and weight of the animal.

Growing horses and lactating mares may need particularly mineral-rich diets. All horses should consume at least 21 minerals, with the most important ones being phosphorus, calcium, salt, and selenium. While copper and zinc are also critical, they are easily found in high-quality food.