Does my horse need a supplement
Kate Hore RNutr (Animal). R.Anim.Technol
One question we’re frequently asked is ‘Does my horse need a supplement?’, so let’s look at the different types and why your horse may benefit. Essentially supplements may be split into two different types, those that balance the diet and make up any shortfalls, and those that are fed for a specific health reason.
Balancing the diet
If you are feeding a complete balanced diet then your horse shouldn’t need an additional supplement, but ask yourself whether their diet is truly balanced or not. We all know that the ideal diet for all horses and ponies, regardless of their type or workload, is one that is high in fibre and forage and low in concentrated feed. Starchy concentrate feeds are not natural to your horse’s diet and are increasingly associated with health conditions such as obesity, laminitis, gastric ulcers and reactive behaviour to name but a few. Therefore we should all be looking to feed a natural high fibre, low concentrate diet. However fibre based diets alone can be lacking. Modern pasture is often limited in species variation, being largely made up of one or two grass species and, maybe, a legume such as clover. By comparison horses evolved on wide open plains where they had access to many herbs, shrubs and trees as well as a wide variety of grasses; so modern grassland doesn’t provide the natural variety they require. Additionally we must consider soil deficiencies which then pass on to the grass, hay and haylage. Mineral deficiencies common to the UK include selenium and copper. Lastly don’t forget nutrient loss from fibre and forage. Particularly over winter, nutrients well supplied in fresh grass, such as Vitamin E, will be lost once that forage is preserved, and so winter deficiencies are a reality.
That doesn’t mean we should all be reaching for a bag of feed, as that takes us back to the problems of feeding concentrates. Rather horse owners should continue to feed a predominantly high fibre and forage diet and simply balance that diet with a broad-spectrum supplement. Vitamin and mineral supplements come in a variety of forms including power, liquid and concentrated pellets. Your choice largely depends on which suits you and your horse. Some horses seem to prefer a liquid. Alternatively palatable pellets can be either added to a small amount of feed or fed alone for those not feeding bucket feeds at all.
Balancers are simply broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplements which usually include gut support in the form of pre and probiotics, and come in powder or pellet form. Gut support is recommended for many horses, as the complex microbiome of the hind-gut is easily upset. Therefore choosing a balancer to maintain and support the hind-gut population is recommended. Concentrated balancers allow the requirements for balancing the diet and the gut to be fed in a simple handful of palatable pellets, so make a good choice for many horses and ponies.
When balancing the diet don’t forget salt and the electrolytes which are lost when the horse works. For simplicity, free access to a salt lick in the field and stable is the ideal approach for both horse and owner; but don’t forget to upgrade that basic salt to broad spectrum electrolytes when your horse has worked hard.
Feeding the balanced diet, though essential, may be considered ‘entry level nutrition’. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, famously said ‘Let food be the medicine….’, meaning we shouldn’t forget the power of nutrition in targeted health support. So it’s worth asking yourself whether your horse needs a little help to perform to the best of their ability. It may be you feel your horse would benefit from additional support in their joints, lungs, behaviour or gastric health. Almost any area of welfare and performance can be supported with the right nutritional tools, so do consider feeding for health and vitality with a specific targeted supplement.
How to Choose
With so many on offer, it can be hard to know how to choose a supplement. Of course you want the best for your horse, so first check manufacturers and look for quality credentials like UFAS or GMP+ , which ensures they’re independently audited to be making safe, high quality supplements. Don’t forget if competing at any level, check for BETA NOPS on the label, which ensures all appropriate steps have been taken to minimise the risk of a positive test. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask. Good manufacturers will have a customer advice line, and will be happy to discuss your horse’s requirements with you.