Conditions like founder, laminitis, abortion, allergies, botulism, Cushing’s, hypothyroidism, lameness and joint problems all result from mineral imbalances. Even a simple “easy keeper” is, in almost all cases, out of balance on minerals and salt. “Easy keepers” just don’t get enough minerals because they consume so little feed. This means their metabolism is further negatively affected and they become even more “easy keepers,” eventually developing such conditions as hypothyroidism, insulin resistance, and so on.
Blocks aren’t the answer
I personally feel that salt and mineral blocks should be outlawed. A horse just can’t lick fast enough to get what he needs. If you have ever seen a horse chew at his block, chances are he is not getting enough of what he needs. Cribbing, chewing on wood, and other behavioral problems are also telltale signs. It’s also important to keep in mind that a horse’s mineral and salt needs change with the weather. As well, the mineral content within grass fluctuates with the weather, and it’s a change that can be deadly.
You may be familiar with grass tetany and milk fever among cattle, and the sudden death associated with their occurrence. These conditions were once thought to be caused by magnesium and calcium deficiencies. We now know they come from high potassium forages and grasses. Similar situations causing abortions and gut problems often occur in horses. What happens is that the potassium in grass spikes during cool, wet conditions, especially after long droughts followed by rainfall and rapid growth. Frost and freezing are also bad – has your horse ever had colic after a frost? The reason is a sudden mineral change in the grass. Not only does potassium spike, but sodium, calcium and magnesium decrease. A major problem like this occurred in 2001 in the Midwest, where reproductive losses occurred in thousands of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. Often, cattle were found dead a few hours after frost and freezes.
Excessive potassium and subsequent calcium and sodium deficiencies almost always lead to other opportunistic and even infectious diseases. Potassium promotes the overgrowth of saprotrophic (microorganisms that normally grow on dead matter), commensal (organisms that live together but don’t harm each other) and pathogenic (microbes that cause disease) microorganisms within the plant. The diseased plants then often produce and become the source of pathogenic bacteria (such as those that cause botulism) and also fungi, which horses are extremely sensitive to, especially in fescue grasses. After eating them, horses and other animals face a rapid overgrowth of these microorganisms, which produce toxic by-products like ammonia. Excess ammonia is deadly, especially to fetuses and the immune system. Early and mid-term fetuses may abort, while near-term may suffer premature birth and/or septic weak births. This problem is not limited to grass. Hay can also be the source – especially from fields that are heavily fertilized.
It is also important to keep in mind that since sodium is so similar to potassium, horses often think they have enough sodium (when they really have too much potassium) so they stop eating salt. This is especially so in the winter when they need it most.
Offer free choice minerals
Unfortunately, salt and mineral blocks cannot provide minerals fast enough to compensate for the rapid changes that occur in grasses when weather fluctuates. An extremely beneficial solution to high potassium forage and grasses is having free choice, loose minerals readily available to your horse at all times. I prefer Mother Nature’s sources over commercial ones. Natural salt and mineral sources are less likely to contain undesirable ingredients such as lead, aluminum, cadmium and even mercury. According to one study at a major university, even dicalphosphate, which is almost always a major part of mineral mixes, is often contaminated with lead and cadmium.
The typical white salt used in blocks and most mixes is really made for industrial use. It’s also bleached and kiln dried, not a very “natural” process.
Probably the worst problem is the excess of other minerals that are added to free choice mixes and even trace mineral blocks. This is especially a problem with many “hoof supplements” – these are usually full of minerals and will often help with the condition in question; but they often tip the scales the other way, leading to an excess of minerals and other problems in the future.
Naturally balanced sea salts are the best source of sodium salts and are excellent sources of many other essential macro and micro minerals (often called colloidal minerals). An example of a good product is Red Cal, which contains natural loose granular sea salt, colloidal trace minerals, and herbs. Always be sure to put any salt product near readily available water.
According to my sources, and personal experience with thousands of animals, if sodium and calcium are always readily available free choice, macro and micronutrients will more likely remain balanced and deficiencies are less likely to occur. As always, a slower, more naturally balanced approach will lead to more stable health for your equine companion.
After graduating from Auburn School of Veterinary Medicine in 1980, Dr. Moore completed the Professional Course in Veterinary Homeopathy and the Advanced Course in Veterinary Homeopathy. Dr. Moore is the founder and developer of www.thenaturalhorsevet.net, an online source of information, products and services about natural and complementary alternatives for horses, and the co-owner of Rosehill Farm, breeder of Rocky Mountain Horses. He is also a representative for the Tennessee Horse Council. Information can also be obtained by calling