Due to the lack of nutrition in whole grains, and the lack of consistency in pelleted feeds, you will most likely need to supplement the nutrients your horse receives from his regular feed. Most horse supply catalogs contain over 30 pages of health products, but there are really only three major reasons to add supplements to your horse’s diet.
1. To replace the nutrients lacking in feed and to support digestion. Modern farming practices result in low nutrient foods. To replace the missing vitamins and minerals it is crucial to use whole food sources, not synthetic and inorganic sources. The body treats synthetic vitamins like drugs and utilizes them only if nothing else is available. In fact, the body must actually expend energy to excrete the unused portions. Horses do not absorb or assimilate minerals well unless they are in their natural chelated form. Chelated minerals are found in whole food sources.
2. To supply extra nutrients during heavy work or recovery. Horses use up large quantities of nutrients during heavy exercise, especially over a long period of time. The same is also true when horses are recovering from illness or injury. It is important to supply substantial quantities of high quality nutrients in each of these situations.
3. To enhance performance. I’ve found that in most cases whole food supplements provide the horse with all the nutrition he needs to perform at optimum levels. Joint supplements and special needs supplements for conditions such as anhydrosis should only be given once a condition has been properly diagnosed.
Common feed supplements
Probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in the horse’s intestines. Examples include lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium bifidum. They help keep the gastrointestinal tract clean and healthy and produce natural antibiotics that protect the horse from pathogenic bacteria, thereby freeing the immune system to perform other important functions. They produce B-complex vitamins which are especially important during times of stress.
Prebiotics feed the healthy bacteria so they can multiply in the gut. Examples include lactobacillus fermentation products or arabinogalactan. There are many companies producing excellent probiotic and prebiotic supplements in powder, paste and liquid forms.
You need to supplement or support beneficial bacteria whenever the horse is stressed or drinking chlorinated water. It is also important to feed probiotics following drug or antibiotic treatment. Probiotics are extremely helpful during allergy season because of the support they give the immune system. I suggest probiotics be given on a regular basis to horses in training or recovering from illness or injury. They should be given short-term to horses during any stressful event such as trailering, weaning, or deworming.
In my experience, and that of others I’ve spoken to, horses are more relaxed and require less feed when receiving probiotics. Many clients keep a probiotic paste on hand and give it at the first signs of any digestive upset; it often gives immediate relief. I have used probiotic and prebiotic products when treating serious colic cases and I believe they contributed to successful outcomes. I cannot stress how important these friendly bacteria are, nor can I think of any situation where their use would be contraindicated.
A necessary part of digestion, enzymes speed up chemical reactions that normally take place very slowly or not at all. Foods that have not been heated or processed contain enzymes that speed up their digestion after they are eaten. These same enzymes will cause foods to spoil more rapidly, which is why processed foods (which have very few enzymes) tend to keep longer. Processing destroys natural food enzymes and requires the body to produce extra enzymes for digestion.
If your horse is receiving only pelleted feed and dried hay, then his diet is lacking in naturally occurring food enzymes. The enzymes required to digest these foods may deplete those normally used to complete other chemical reactions. To avoid this, allow your horse access to whole grains and fresh grass, both of which contain enzymes. If you cannot provide these items, consider adding a digestive enzyme supplement.
Essential fatty acids
Omega-3s (and omega-6s) are termed essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are critical for good health. But the body cannot make them on its own. Omega-3s must be obtained from food or a supplement, thus making outside sources of these fats “essential”. Aphanazomenon flos-aquae (blue green algae), flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and hemp seed are all good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3. Vegetable oils obtained from corn or soybeans are high in omega 6 fatty acids so they may be fine to add to the diet for calories, but can contribute to inflammation in the body if fed in high amounts for long periods of time.
Blue-green algae and kelp
These products supply trace minerals, vitamins, and amino acids needed to help the body recover, and are a good source of chlorophyll to help detoxify the horse’s system. These products are also very high in beta-carotene, which helps neutralize the most severe free radicals in the body.
Fresh water algae is a natural blood builder and has a drying effect on the body; it is helpful for horses that tend towards moist coughs or mold allergies. Algae is also a very good hoof supplement and works even better when combined with probiotics, promoting the generation of biotin in the intestines.
Free choice vitamins and minerals
If your horse does not have access to a natural grass pasture, I suggest offering a free choice mineral system. You can put out measured amounts in each container and note what he eats each day. Horses that do not have access to native pasture grasses and weeds will select the minerals they need during times of stress. Some will have a tendency to over-eat minerals, but rationing out measured daily amounts will prevent imbalances.
The foundation of every feeding program should include the most natural, high quality grass or hay possible along with support for your horse’s digestion. Working and growing horses will often need some kind of concentrated feed to meet their energy needs and, in many cases, extra fatty acids and a good natural food-based vitamin/mineral supplement. If your horse is provided with these basic needs early in life he’ll enjoy better health and will need fewer joint or special needs supplements later on.