horse with beautiful coat

Help keep dark coats from fading this summer with these nutrition tips.

Summer is here, and the rich dark coat your horse sported during the winter is getting faded and bleached in the sun. In order to prevent this fading, some riders will cover their horses with rugs and neck covers. Other will even keep their horses indoors during the day, away from the sun. There is no way to stop the sun from bleaching a coat, but you can help preserve a richer, darker color by focusing on your horse’s health and nutrition.

Besides just accepting that a happy and healthy horse is a beautiful horse no matter what his coat color is, there are a few things you can try. The coat color of a horse can’t be changed, unless it is chemically dyed or bleached by the sun, and for anything to have an effect on the integrity of the hair, it has to be implemented prior to the new coat starting to grow in. Once you have a horse with a lackluster coat, everything you do to help his health will benefit the new coat when it grows in.

Health Shows in His Coat

The quality of a horse’s coat is directly related to his health. A diet following sound nutritional guidelines with lots of quality forage and balanced supplementation if required, along with proper parasite control and exercise, is the most important first step towards a beautiful coat. Grooming will help bring the oils out over the hair and stimulate more oil production in the glands, as well as eliciting a nice shine. Shampooing should actually be kept to a minimum as the oils can be stripped out of the skin, but hosing your horse off with clean water will help keep sweat from dulling the coat.

Supplementation for Rich Colors

Copper from paprika paprika for his coat
The main active ingredient in most color enhancement products on the market is paprika. It’s a well-known spice made from the fruit pods of Capsicum annuum and contains many health related compounds such as vitamin A (carotenoids), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (tocopherols), and capsaicinoids as well as flavonoids. Paprika, especially the lighter Hungarian variety, is particularly rich in copper flavenoids. The supplementation of organic copper is thought to be the necessary compound in the coat’s ability to achieve the darkest and richest hair development. Other copper sources such as organic copper salt could work as well, but since paprika is the most easily available form and offers additional healthy compounds, including a very high dose of vitamin C (1 tsp contains more vitamin C than a whole lemon!), it is most commonly used.

Paprika probably works for coat supplementation because of its high copper flavonoid content. A horse’s diet has to be sufficiently rich in copper to enable full pigment synthesis within the cell, allowing the hair to get a full dose of the pigment. If there isn’t sufficient copper in the diet, then the cellular enzymes that use copper ions in the biological pathway for laying down the hair color pigments can’t work at their full potential, so they either work slowly or sometimes even produce the coloration in a different form. The supplements work at the time of hair follicle formation.

Oilsoils for his coat
Dietary fat will enhance coat color. It is also thought that horses on high fat diets will fade more slowly than horses on low fat diets. The Omega-3 fatty acids promote healthy skin, which will result in a healthy coat. Some oils that seem to be used specifically for coats include black sunflower seeds and flax. Make sure your nutritionist or vet ensures your horse’s diet is balanced overall with his forage when you add in any supplements. For example, adding flax may work if the main forage is alfalfa but may require an additional supplementation of calcium if the main forage is timothy or other grasses.

Once the color pigment is set, the other aspect of overall coat appearance comes from the scales that cover the outside of the hair shaft. When hair is newly grown in, the scales have a good coating of oil (the sebum), which gives a high refractive index. This means light is captured and reflected inside the hair shaft, giving the hairs a darker and shinier appearance. As the hair ages, the sebum wears away and is not as available, and the scales rise off the hair shaft and even become lost. By giving the horse a higher fat diet, the sebaceous glands may produce more sebum, coating the hair and making it darker and shinier. Applying a conditioner to the hair will temporarily help the scales lie down and improve the refractive index.

Plan Ahead

If you haven’t already been supplementing your horse, his summer coat is probably in full swing by now and it’s too late to influence its coloration this season. However, if he has been receiving proper nutrition with adequate dietary copper, required worming and regular exercise, the coat should be optimally developed. Also keep in mind that annual differences will occur, because your horse’s ability to absorb and metabolize copper will vary with diet, activity, age and environmental influences such as weather. Adding oil to his diet may improve skin health and maintain coat hairs to help keep a shiny coat. But the most important things are good nutrition and care – with those two ingredients, your horse’s coat will look beautiful no matter what color it is this summer!

Color Notes

In horses, melanin is the primary determinant of coat coloration. There are basically two pigments associated with melanin – eumelanin and phaeomelanin. Black hair comes from eumelanin, red hair from phaeomelanin , and white hair has no melanin. These coloration pigments are laid down between the keratin strands that make up the hair shaft. Genetics control the patterns and thus the subsequent hair coloration making up the overall coat color and pattern. Once the hair follicle is developed, the pigment is laid down and only sunlight or chemicals will change it.

Kerri-Jo Stewart is an equine physiologist whose masters degree research was in nutritional acid-base balance work at the University of Guelph. She is currently working full time as a photographer and travels between Turkmenistan and Iran and her home in Vancouver.