The cornerstone of good nutrition is a balanced diet. Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr, independent equine nutritionist, explains why vitamins and minerals are essential

The cornerstone of good nutrition is a balanced diet. A balanced diet is one that supplies all the essential nutrients that a horse needs every day, without net gain or loss. Ensuring an adequate supply of energy, protein, carbohydrates (including fibre) and lipids (oils and fats) is easier in horse diets than ensuring enough vitamins and minerals. Grass and preserved forages such as hay are always short of some essential minerals and – in the case of preserved forages – vitamins, no matter how well the forage is cultivated or processed.

What are vitamins and minerals?

Vitamins and minerals are classed as essential micronutrients, since they are required in smaller amounts than carbohydrates or protein (the macronutrients). They are essential because deficiencies cause disturbed body function and eventually disease.

Vitamins have a variety of functions in the body and vitamin activity can be found in a variety of related substances. Fat soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K. Water soluble vitamins include vitamins C and B-complex. Vitamins are not a health boost, tonic, or detox; they are essential for basic good health.

Minerals are inorganic elements that have a wide range of functions in the body, from giving hardness to bones and teeth, balancing body fluid, components of enzymes and basic cellular activity. Essential minerals make up about 4% of the horse’s bodyweight. Due to the way they are absorbed, they interact in complex ways and their ratios in the diet are as important as the actual intake. Some minerals are toxic in excess, and supplementation – especially of single minerals – should always be done with care. Essential macrominerals (required in grams daily) include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sulphur, and the electrolytes potassium, sodium and chlorine. Essential microminerals (required in milligrams daily) include zinc, copper, iron, selenium, iodine, manganese, and cobalt.

How to feed correct levels of vitamins and minerals

Horses and ponies are healthiest on a forage-based diet, and they are generally fed vitamin and mineral-fortified concentrate feed or a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement to make up for what cannot be supplied by the forage. What goes into the feed bucket should simply balance the shortages in forage.

Horses and ponies who do not require the full recommended amount of fortified concentrate feed i.e. who get almost enough energy and protein from forage, must be fed a source of vitamins and minerals in order to receive a balanced diet. The safest and most useful way to supplement essential micronutrients is with a well-formulated multi-vitamin and mineral supplement. These can be fed mixed with a little chaff or feed to horses who obtain enough energy and protein from forage alone, or added on top of compound feed for those who require less than the full recommended amount.

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Balance the diet first

Vitamin and mineral supplements are the most underused and most misunderstood supplement. They should be on the shelf of every tack and feed store! You can’t always see the different straight away, but the horse’s body will feel the difference and long term health will suffer without enough. Before feeding a boost like extra iron (which can actually be harmful), a hoof supplement or any other therapeutic addition, firstly make sure the basic diet is balanced, since the body cannot function correctly without adequate essential vitamins and minerals.