As is the case with many mammals, the largest organ in a horse’s body is the skin. The skin forms a vital part of the immune system – it’s the initial brute-force barrier which prevents the overwhelming majority of harmful pathogens from finding their way into the horse’s body. Keeping it in good shape is therefore essential if a horse is to avoid contracting a whole range of harmful conditions.
Like all of the organs in the body, a horse’s skin requires a number of different nutrients in order to maintain itself. Since many of these nutrients are used elsewhere in the body, the quality of the horse’s coat can give an excellent indication of its underlying health. Shiny, glossy coats can be found on healthy horses; dull, matted ones can be found on sick horses.
As you might suspect, a horse’s body will prioritise vital organs with the nutrients they need, before catering to less vital ones like the skin. Consequently, the skin is among the first organ to fall into poor condition, and so should be observed closely as a barometer of the animal’s overall health.
In this, the first of two articles on the subject, we’ll examine how a horse might benefit from the right nutritional supplements. Let’s begin, shall we?
Getting the right nutrients
It isn’t strictly necessary to feed a horse hard feed. If the animal is only employed to do light work, they might get by just as well on a forage-based diet consisting of grass and hay. This will provide a horse with lots of starch to give the energy they need to thrive, as well as fibre to help slow the released of that energy into the bloodstream.
Unfortunately, restricting a horse’s intake of hard feed can result in a deficiency in key minerals and vitamins. This shortfall can manifest itself in a deterioration in skin quality. The skin might become inelastic, and the coat might become moth-eaten and tatty, with shedding and regrowth of hair becoming inhibited.
If you’re feeding your horse a full ration of hard feed, then they should be getting all of the nutrients that they need – and if it appears that they aren’t, then you’ll need to consult the feed company. If, on the other hand, you’re going to be feeding your horse a mixture of hard feed and forage, then you may need to turn to nutritional supplements in order to give your horse the best possible chance of forming a healthy, shining coat.
What about forage-only diets?
Horses are natural grazers. Their digestive system is adapted to a lifestyle of constant and steady grass and hay consumption. Consequently, many owners believe that their horse can get by solely on forage, and that no supplementation is necessary. After all, wild horses get along just fine without nutritional supplements – why should it be any different with domesticated ones?
This doesn’t quite tell the whole story, however. While a forage-only diet might provide a horse with all of the macronutrients it needs, in the form of carbohydrates and proteins, such a diet will likely lack the vitamins and minerals necessary to fully sustain the animal’s body.
Grass, in particular, can vary tremendously in trace-element-richness thanks to changes in the soil quality, the rainfall, and the time of the year. Hay suffers from a different problem, in that it will deteriorate during storage – meaning that its nutritional value will deteriorate, too. In particular, vitamin E has been proven to decline sharply when hay is left in storage.
This is all the more so when it comes to soaked hay, which has been shown to lose much of its vitamin and mineral content. Ideally, you should ensure that hay is consumed as quickly as possible – but in order to be certain that your horse is getting all of the vitamins, minerals, and trace-elements it needs, supplements might provide the answer.
So, for all horses that aren’t subsisting entirely on purpose-made, hard-feed diets, a nutritional supplement might make a real difference to their quality of life. Ideally, such supplements should contain a broad range of vitamins and minerals. They should also be free of added sugars and other nasties – as while these might increase palatability, they can have a detrimental nutritional effect. Also, we should consider nutritional supplements with probiotic properties, which will help to keep the digestive system in good working order.
What does the law say about nutritional supplements?
It’s important to bear in mind that supplements are not, for legal purposes, defined as medicines – they’re instead considered a complementary foodstuff – with more in common with an apple than it does with, say, an anti-inflammatory medication. This means that their efficacy doesn’t need to be tested under laboratory conditions, or exposed to the rigours of peer-review.
Put simply, this means that we can’t be as sure of its efficacy as we might be of a medicine. And it also means that manufacturers aren’t able to market their nutritional supplements as though they are medicines. Supplements aren’t able to claim that they can prevent or cure any specific disease – and if they make the attempt, they can be prosecuted under the Veterinary Medicines Act.
Just as nutritional supplements are not medicines, purveyors of nutritional supplements are not veterinarians. They’re able to sell nutritional supplements, but they won’t be able to make recommendations. So, if you think that your horse’s skin looks to be in poor condition – or that it’s suffering from a skin-specific disease, like sweet itch, then be sure to consult a qualified vet before making any sweeping changes in the animal’s diet.
Thus far, we’ve examined the role supplements might play in a horse’s diet, and which horses might benefit the most from them. But what supplements are really best for the skin? In the second half of this two-part series, we’ll take a closer look at the nutrients a horse’s skin needs to thrive.