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Balanced Equine

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A growing number are consulting with an independent equine nutritionist for help with formulating the best possible diet for their horses. Responsible horse owners will regularly tend to grooming and hoof care, book the horse dentist and call for veterinary assistance if there is a serious problem. 

The basic nutritional management for horses should be the same, whether you have a much loved member of the family in the back paddock or are feeding a horse to win an eventing competition, an endurance ride or the Melbourne Cup.

The foundation of any diet should be high fibre forage; pasture and/or hay. The ultimate goal in feeding should be to have a healthy horse able to perform at the best of their ability at their level of fitness and conditioning with a robust immune system. All horses, regardless of the level of work or whether they are breeding will benefit from a diet with adequate nutrients and balanced minerals.

GhostWorking out the best diet for your horse or horses from the enormous and confusing array of commercial feeds and supplements, or from more than 100 basic feed ingredients can be overwhelming. There are so many products on the market for a huge spectrum of issues that you could easily over supplement, especially performance horses. This is not in the horse’s best interests or for that matter, the horse owner’s wallet! In this case, an equine nutritionist may be a worthwhile investment in the health and well being of the horse.

Equine nutritionists have the education and experience to know what the best combination of feeds is for each individual horse’s situation whether a high performance horse or a high needs mare with a foal or your ‘best buddy’ in the paddock. The advantage an independent equine nutritionist offers is that their choice of feeds and supplements is not restricted to the product line sold by an employer. Instead the independent nutritionist can recommend a diet that is best suited for a horse or horses.

Mineral Balance

Dr. Eleanor Kellon VMD, a leader in the field of applications of nutraceuticals for horses in the US, says "Healthy young to middle-aged adult horses will tolerate a wide range of minimal imbalances with no obvious outward signs, but many of the things we take for granted as 'usual' in horses, such as sun-bleaching, tendon/ligament/joint issues, immune system imbalances, poor fertility, muscle and nerve problems, bone problems can all have a nutritional component. All problems are a combination of genetics and outside influences. The list of outside influences is huge, but worth investigating since it's in our control. Horses on pasture, not under any stress, may show no outward signs at all of mineral deficiencies - until their immune system is stressed, they become ill or have an injury."

Although the foundation of any diet should be high fibre forage; pasture and/or hay, it is important that the mineral balance is also taken into consideration. An equine nutritionist can help ensure that the mineral ratios are at their optimum, to lessen the likelihood of a mineral imbalance when too much of one mineral is interfering or blocking the absorption of another. For example, a high calcium intake compared to phosphorus has been shown to depress the digestibility of phosphorus. Low calcium compared to phosphorus can depress calcium uptake. This can lead to ‘big head’ disease called Osteodystrophia fibrosa, a deformity of the facial bones.

Trace minerals like copper, zinc, iron and manganese are required in very small amounts but that doesn't take away their importance in the running of cellular processes in the body. On the other hand, more is definitely not better when it comes to some nutrients as the horse has to get rid of the excess. Excessive zinc will interfere with the absorption of copper causing a. secondary copper deficiency. This occurs despite adequate copper in the diet. In a study on growing foals zinc intakes between 1000 and 2000 mg/kg without also increasing copper intake caused copper deficiency symptoms of joint swelling, lameness, joint effusions and cartilage defects. A low copper intake compared to high zinc has also been implicated with Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) in growing horses, a type of Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD) that includes symptoms like limb deformities and vertebral malformations.

What to look for in an equine nutritionist?

Ensure they can help with designing a feeding plan based on the whole diet, not just the hard feeds and supplements that may be fed, if any, but also the foundation of the diet; the grass and/or hay. They will assist you with the best procedure for collecting a sample of pasture for analysis at a laboratory set up for analysing feed for horses, not just ruminants like cows. A pasture or hay test that includes the main nutrients and minerals can cost as little as $45. If hay is the main forage then the best option is to get it tested for nutrient levels. This is the best option for people who can store large quantities of hay or able to source the hay from the same farmer but for a lot of people the hay can come from different areas so the next best option it to use average figures for the different types and grades of hay. Testing pasture or hay is the easiest and most accurate method for working out how much of those nutrients are being eaten by a horse.

Lastly, ensure that the chosen equine nutritionist can devise a feeding plan with the minerals optimally balanced for the whole diet. With the introduction of a mineral balanced diet niggling problems like muscle soreness, coat bleaching, greasy heel and skin conditions like rain scald are more likely to become a thing of the past, because a mineral balanced diet with sufficient nutrient intake equals a strong immune system.

Carol Layton B.Sc M.Ed, an independent equine nutritionist can help with a feeding plan based on the NRC 2007 Nutrient Requirements for Horses and Dr Eleanor Kellon's recommendations. 

Originally published in the October - November 2009 issue of Hoofbeats magazine (Vol 31 No 3).

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