Why is sound nutrition such a hard sell? If you are reading this, odds are you already know the clear benefits of optimizing nutrition, but maybe you have run across one or more people who are adamant that all the horse needs is hay, oats and water (or some variation on that theme).
Nutrition and supplementation isn’t a scam. It’s a science. The problem is that not many people, including veterinarians, are really familiar with the science.
Like physicians, vets are trained in dealing with disease, not promoting health. There’s a difference. Health is more than just the absence of disease and death. Living and breathing doesn’t mean healthy, but when thinking about nutrients many people are inclined to believe that if there isn’t a flat out obvious deficiency state that is threatening to kill the horse, there is no deficiency.
Suboptimal nutrition can have two major effects. One is to predispose the horse to developing disease. The other is to keep them from reaching their optimal potential – from coat and hoof quality, to infection resistance, reproduction, athletic potential and many other things.
To complicate things, published requirements are only minimums and apply to horses that are not under any stress from performance, illness, environment, etc.
Vitamin E is a good example. There are no clearly defined symptoms of vitamin E deficiency in horses. We do know that low vitamin E levels predispose horses to EMND, equine motor neuron disease which strikes the nerves supplying muscle. It’s not as simple as E deficiency though.
EMND cases are clustered primarily in the Northeastern United States while unsupplemented horses not on pasture occur all over the country – and the world. EMND has also been diagnosed in horses that are on pasture and getting plenty of vitamin E from fresh grass. Whatever it is that causes EMND, it increases the requirement for vitamin E to fight its effects.
A study in pregnant mares that were already consuming what should have been adequate vitamin E showed that those supplemented with vitamin E had significantly higher levels of antibodies (immunoglobulins) in their colostrum and higher levels in their foals.
Selenium is another nutrient often in short supply. As with vitamin E, research has shown that supplementation can improve function of the immune system.
The point here is that none of the horses in these studies had any obvious deficiency symptoms but their nutrient levels were suboptimal for peak health. That’s why we supplement. In the coming weeks I will go into detail on how diet builds health from the inside by giving the horse’s body the raw material it needs.
Eleanor M Kellon, VMD