Courtesy of SmartPak
Vitamins, minerals, and proteins are all critical components of your horse’s diet, but depending on how much and what type of forage and grain your horse is receiving, his diet may well be coming up short on these key nutrients. The best way to find out exactly what your horse is getting— and what he’s missing—is to work with an equine nutritionist to analyze your horse’s diet and then act on his individual results. For the purposes of this article, however, there are some general guidelines on how to balance your horse’s diet and be smarter about making sure he’s got what he needs.
We surveyed horse owners and found that 7 out of 10 horses aren’t receiving a full serving of grain. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many horses don’t need grain to maintain their body condition. However, if your horse is in that majority, it’s up to you to fill that nutritional gap.
Add a Dash of Salt
Salt (sodium chloride) is an essential part of your horse’s diet. It supports healthy nerve and muscle function and encourages your horse to drink, helping to avoid dehydration. Even a horse in no work needs at least one ounce of salt per day, and that need increases with exercise and hot weather. But due to many salt-related myths, a lot of horse owners accidentally overlook this important nutrient—our recent analysis showed that 60% of horses aren’t getting enough sodium. Let’s bust these myths and savor the facts!
Salt is bad for me, so it must be bad for my horse:False! A lot of times, we project our knowledge of human nutrition and health on to our horses. In some cases, this is totally fine (getting regular exercise is good for both of us, for example).
However, in other cases, this can result in us making some questionable decisions for our equine partners (who among us hasn’t over-dressed our horse because we were feeling particularly chilly that day?). This phenomenon seems to be particularly true when it comes to feeding salt. Because high salt diets have been associated with high blood pressure and other negative health effects in humans, many horse owners are nervous to give their horses additional salt.
My horse is getting enough salt from his hay and grain:False! Hay, pasture, and commercial feeds provide very little salt, so top-dressing meals with table salt or an electrolyte supplement can help your horse get what he needs.
A salt block is a good way to ensure my horse’s needs are met:False! While some horses love their salt lick or block, others turn their nose up at the thought. (This is particularly true if you’re using one of the old pressed salt blocks that are designed for the rough tongues of cattle — many horses find their texture off-putting.)
Electrolyte supplements and salt supplements are the same thing:False! These two supplement categories are similar, but different. Let’s take a deeper look at how and why, and when you should feed each one!
Electrolytes: Inorganic compounds in your horse’s body, which are capable of conducting electrical currents and play a major role in controlling fluid balance within the body. Notable electrolytes include: sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate. That’s right! Sodium is an electrolyte! Confused? Keep reading!
Salt Supplements: Inorganic compounds in your horse’s body, which are capable of conducting electrical currents and play a major role in controlling fluid balance within the body. Notable electrolytes include: sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate. That’s right! Sodium is an electrolyte! Confused? Keep reading!
Electrolyte Supplements: A classification of supplements whose primary purpose is to help replace the minerals (electrolytes, including sodium) lost when your horse sweats, and help encourage drinking. While most electrolyte supplements contain some salt, they don’t always contain a full ounce per serving, so it’s important to check.
What does my horse need?
When it comes to choosing salt or electrolytes, it is important to sweat the details. (Pun very much intended!)
If your horse sweats a lot, it’s a good idea to feed an electrolyte supplement to help replace those minerals your horse loses when he sweats, and to help encourage healthy hydration. You may also want to consider adding a partial dose of a salt supplement, depending on how much salt your horse is getting from his electrolyte supplement.
If you don’t have a heavy sweater, (and we don’t mean the winter garment), providing a daily salt supplement is a smart choice to help ensure your horse has the salt he needs for healthy nerve and muscle function, along with encouraging your horse to drink.
Balance Your Fats
When it comes to fats, the right ratio is key. Omega 3 fatty acids support anti-inflammatory responses in your horse’s body, while omega 6s support pro-inflammatory responses. While occasional inflammation plays an important role in your horse’s overall health, a chronic state of inflammation can be problematic, causing stress in your horse at the cellular level, increasing wear and tear on joints, and more. That’s why experts recommend that your horse get two to four times more omega 3s than omega 6s in his diet. Unfortunately, with many horses’ diets, that’s easier said than done. Let’s take a look at why.
An Unnatural Balance
As you now know, your horse was built to thrive on fresh grass. What you may not yet know is that fresh grass contains more omega 3 fatty acids than omega 6s. However, because acres of fresh pasture can be hard to come by (and because some easy keepers and other horses can’t have unlimited access to grazing), most modern horses’ diets are primarily composed of hay and grain. This presents a challenge because by the time it’s cut, dried, baled, and stored, hay contains virtually no omega 3s. Even worse, fortified grain is high in omega 6s, so the combination of a low-pasture, high-grain diet can lead to an imbalance in the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio that sets the horse up for a chronic state of inflammation.
Finding The Right Ratio
Knowing that the ideal ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s is 2:1 or 4:1 (two to four times as many omega 3s as omega 6s) is a good start, but you have to know the ratios in common feedstuffs and supplements to understand if your horse is getting the right balance. Take a look at some common examples, above at right.