Everyone wants to see their horses with a sleek, glowing coat and supple, healthy skin. If you browse through the product selections of any supplement supplier, you’ll likely find at least 10 products devoted to skin and coat care, sometimes more than 20! Before you rush out to buy a specialty supplement, though, let’s take a look at all the things that contribute to a healthy exterior on your horse.
The health of your horse’s coat and skin reflects overall health in many ways, and especially the quality of the diet. Horses turned out on abundant spring pastures often have coats to rival any you will see in an A-circuit show ring-and without the hours of grooming and expensive supplements or coat conditioners. The “magical” ingredients in pasture are therefore a good place to start.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs): Essential fatty acids are fats that your horse is not able to manufacturer inside his own body. They must come from the diet. All foods and oils have some essential fatty acids, but most in very small amounts. Fresh grass is 3% to 5% fat, most of it in the form of omega-3 essential fatty acids. The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is at least 4:1. Unfortunately, when grass is cut and baled, these fragile fats are destroyed.
The only common feed ingredient that matches this and supplies generous amounts is freshly ground flaxseed or ground, stabilized flax.
Fat does more than just coat the skin and hair. The omega-6 fats are most important for maintaining healthy immune responses for resistance to skin infections, while the omega-3s guard against allergies and exaggerated inflammatory reactions. Feeding 4 to 6 ounces per day of freshly ground flax or ground, stabilized flax will give your horse the same essential fatty acid benefits as grazing fresh grass. Feeding the right fats will get you both the glow you are after, and healthy skin.
Protein: Skin and hair are primarily composed of protein once the water is removed. Insufficient protein intake may be related to poor resistance to skin infections, coats that do not lie smoothly, and brittle, slow growing coats.
However, significant protein deficiencies are unlikely in most equine diets. It is most likely to be a factor in animals with very high protein requirements, such as lactating mares, growing horses, older horses and horses with serious illnesses or injuries. Horses on a diet of mature grass hays only, or getting only small amounts of a fortified grain, may also have borderline protein deficiency, or adequate total amount of protein but a deficiency of specific amino acids (the building blocks of protein), including the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine, cystine and cysteine.
Slow-to-Shed Foals and Weanlings
Horses at this age are growing extremely rapidly and have very high needs for nutrients. If it comes to a choice between using available nutrients to grow bone, muscle, joint tissue, etc., or putting those nutrients into the coat, the coat will lose out.
With nursing foals, a prime culprit explaining slow shedding of the fuzzy foal coat, and dull coats that stand on end, is parasites. The poor coat will usually be accompanied by a distended belly and these foals typically don’t have a lot of energy. Foals (and weanlings) need to be dewormed more aggressively than older horses because their natural immunity to parasites is not well developed yet.
Daily dewormers might not get the job done for this age group. Be sure to check with your veterinarian about a suitable deworming program. With weanlings, the diet also has to be considered. You can’t properly nourish a weanling by feeding a scaled down version of an adult horse’s diet. Their requirements for minerals and protein are much higher on a per calorie basis than those of an adult horse.
Feeding a correctly balanced concentrate or mineral/protein supplement can go a long way in meeting individual mineral needs and providing adequate protein/amino acids. But as the horse grows and takes in more of its food in the form of hay, you can still have significant imbalances in trace minerals leading to zinc and/or copper deficiencies.
If inadequate protein could be a factor for your horse, you should first check with a veterinarian or nutritionist to get an idea of how much protein and which amino acids are likely to be deficient. In the case of horses on predominantly grass hay diets, feeding a pound or so a day of a 25% to 30% protein/mineral supplement will usually correct the problem. The ground, stabilized flax mentioned previously will also help fill any protein gaps. It is typically 18% to 20% protein, with good levels of lysine and other essential amino acids.
What About Tyrosine?
The amino acid tyrosine is included in some coat products, primarily those designed for dark-coated horses. The rationale behind this is that tyrosine is the amino acid used to manufacture the pigment melanin. However, while the amounts used aren’t harmful, there’s no research to suggest that supplementing it is helpful either. The only time tyrosine deficiency has been found to change hair color is in cats put on an abnormal, synthetic diet (gelatin as a protein source instead of meat). The body can manufacture tyrosine from the amino acid phenylalanine, which is abundant in hays. Even with a protein deficiency, as long as the diet consists of normal foods, it is unlikely there will be any deficiency of tyrosine for manufacturing melanin. For example, even severely protein-deficient children in underdeveloped countries have normal skin pigmentation.
Trace minerals: Copper and zinc are required for normal activity of antioxidant enzymes that protect from exaggerated inflammatory reactions. They are also required for the manufacture of the pigments that give bays, blacks and chestnuts their color. Deficiencies of these trace minerals are extremely common in many areas of the country. The most frequent symptom is a lackluster coat that is prone to “bleaching,” and reddish discoloration of the ends of dark manes. These pigments protect the skin and hair from damage caused by ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. Deficiency of zinc can also cause excessive flaking.
Vitamin A: Vitamin A is an important vitamin for skin health. Deficiencies result in dry skin with a tendency to crack in the cold, and poor resistance to infections. Hair may be brittle and break easily. Most hays contain adequate vitamin A, but amounts that are adequate to prevent a full-blown deficiency do not necessarily mean the amounts are adequate for optimal health. Fresh grass has far more vitamin A than hay, so for the last few months of winter (through March), supplementation at a daily rate of 20,000 to 30,000 IU of vitamin A, or with a pound or two of carrots, is good insurance. You will need to add up all vitamin A in your horse’s grain mix or other supplements to see if you need this.
More Hair-Raising Secrets
Although the coat underneath is worth it, the weeks of shedding you deal with every spring seem like they’re going to last forever. If your horse has been on R&R for the winter, it’s especially important to get rid of the dense coat, plus the dirt and dead skin build up in it. These can put the horse at higher risk of rubs, galls and secondary skin infections when you start back to work. Here are some additional tips:
• Deworm you horse. Parasites rob the body
of nutrients, and hair and skin are often the first areas to show it. One result is slow shedding.
• Make sure your horse’s diet isn’t falling short in the key skin and coat nutrients.
• Use a shedding blade or rubber curry with projections long enough to reach down to skin level every day. If you are short on time, concentrate on the areas that will be under tack.
• Don’t use any coat conditioner sprays or dry shampoos until shedding is completed.
• If you can, vacuum every day in addition to brushing.
• If you get a warm enough day, give your horse a thorough bath and scrubbing.
• Even if you are not ready to start riding again, begin longeing or round-penning your horse. The exercise will speed up shedding and improve health of skin and coat in general.
Vitamin E and selenium: Although best known for their important roles in helping to prevent muscle soreness and damage, these two nutrients are also important for the skin. Vitamin E and selenium play pivotal roles in immune system function and deficiencies may predispose to skin infections. Their antioxidant effects protect from sun damage, and deficiencies may result in increased sensitivity to chemicals on the skin and exaggerated inflammatory reactions.
Biotin: Biotin is one of the B family of vitamins. Most people have heard about using biotin to improve hoof quality, but this also applies to the coat and skin. Insufficient biotin contributes to scaling, drying, susceptibility to fungal infections, thin and brittle hair, even areas of hair loss. Supplementation ranges from 2mg/day to 5 mg/day for “insurance,” up to 20 or 30 mg/day if there are symptoms. Other B vitamins important to skin health are riboflavin, pyridoxine and pantothenic acid.
What Does Your Horse Need?
As you can see from the chart on page 18, horses on good pasture or a mixed diet of hay and a commercial supplemented grain mix are least likely to have nutritional inadequacies as the cause of coat problems.
For horses on pasture, the main area of concern is zinc or copper deficiency, and protein may come into play as pasture quality drops off. Horses without access to pasture but on at least the minimum recommended feeding level of a supplemented commercial grain, will benefit from EFA supplementation in the form of flaxseed. If coat-bleaching (noticeable by the red ends) is an issue, you probably have uncorrected zinc and copper deficiencies originating in the hay. Horses getting hay plus plain grains are at lower risk for total protein deficiency, but otherwise have all the same possible nutrient gaps as horses getting hay with no or little grain.
In these two groups, a consultation with your state agricultural extension agent, a vet specializing in nutrition, or an equine nutritionist, will help you put together a supplement plan that is most suitable to the mineral profiles in your area’s hay and grain. Top this off with vitamin E (or E plus selenium) and flaxseed to round out the diet.
For older horses and horses with digestive problems, aging may be accompanied by a decrease in the efficiency of the intestinal tract to digest and absorb nutrients. Less robust populations of micro-organisms in the bowel can also lead to underproduction of key B vitamins, a problem that is less common in other groups. These horses can benefit from making sure that their diet contains broad spectrum B vitamin supplementation, as well as all the other nutrients discussed, with supplemental high quality protein such as a blend of soy and milk proteins.
Remember, the skin and coat are windows of your horse’s overall nutrition and health. Glowing on the outside also means healthier on the inside.
Ride ‘n’ Shine
While you probably don’t work your horse with skin health in mind, there are positive effects on the skin and coat. Exercise improves the delivery of blood, and therefore oxygen and nutrients, to the skin. In time, the number of blood vessels and density of the capillaries supplying the skin actually increase so that nutrient flow is improved even when the horse isn’t exercising. The muscles and connective tissue of the skin become toned and stronger, resistance to infections increases, and injuries can be healed more quickly. Skin cell turnover increases.
Exercise is also beneficial by stimulating the flow of sweat and sebum. Sebum is the oily material secreted from the hair follicles that helps give the hair its shine and forms a protective layer over the skin, preventing excess moisture loss and drying. The flow of sweat and sebum keeps pores open and makes the skin a less hospitable place for bacteria and fungi to thrive.