Category Archives: Equine Nutrition

What’s In A Supplement?


This month’s article for you is about supplements.  I know that I’ve written about it before, but its just so important to know what you are feeding, why you’re feeding it and whether current research actually supports its use (this goes for human supplements as well!).

So many horse owners get lured into feeding supplements that claim to benefit performance (joint supplements), assist in calming their horses (hormonal mare or nervous horse anyone?), or help to aid in digestion (probiotics).

I have no problem with supplements that actually contain proven, biochemically appropriate ingredients.  What do I mean by that? Every animal has a different digestion mechanism and different inherent biochemistry.  What works in our human bodies does not necessarily work in a horse, a dog a cat etc.  At the very least you might be wasting your money and at the worst you might be feeding something that is actually toxic to your horse.  On top of that, the supplements industry is not regulated, so what is advertised to be in a product might not really be there in the appropriate concentrations (or even at all – see this link as one recent example).  The bottom line is that you need to do the research to see if there is any solid evidence that the supplement will work for horses.  Don’t waste your money on something without good scientific backing – after all, supplements can be quite expensive!

“Natural” Vitamin/Mineral Supplements

I often get asked if I carry a “natural” vitamin/mineral supplement for horses – which I don’t at this point.  I often refer owners to several of the locally prepared supplements which are all pretty standard formulations, and all contain reasonable ingredients.  However, if one actually takes the time to look at their current feeding ration, many horse owners might be surprised to find out that they are over feeding vitamins and minerals every day.  This is both costly, and could be unhealthy for your horse.
Most commercially prepared feeds, including Genesis, contain some added vit/min in them.  This is mainly to balance rations for those needing extra nutritional support (breeding, growing, higher level performance etc.), those with poorer quality hay, or even those in areas with mineral deficiencies in their soil, like here on Vancouver Island.  Interestingly, with the exception of selenium, all of the nutritional reports that I have generated for clients indicated quite a bit of over supplementation of vitamins and minerals in their horses’ daily diet.  Like us, horses actually get most of their nutrients from the basic feeds around them.  Below is a compilation of some common vit/min for adult horses at maintenance, including amount required to maintain daily health and some of their common sources.  When looking at the values, keep in mind that some vit/min will pass through the body when unused (like Vitamin C), but others, the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, are stored in the body for long periods of time and generally pose a greater risk for toxicity when consumed in excess.  So, we should all take a closer look at our supplementation to see if it is appropriate, and if we are feeding in excess of what our horses truly need.

Winter Feeding

Many horse owners notice weight loss in their animals during the winter months.  No matter where you live in Canada, our climate does tend to take a toll on any creature living outside (or at least spending a good part of the day out).  It is important to review your feeding regime in the fall as winter approaches, and again in the spring before the pasture grasses begin their rapid growth.  If you continue to ride and train in the winter, or if you have growing or breeding horses it is important to make sure that they continue to get enough calories for their daily needs.  I always encourage owners to take a moment to weigh and record their horse’s daily intake and get a sense for the amount and calorie content that they are feeding.  Remember that during the cold and rainy months, body temperature regulation burns calories.  So, even if you don’t increase your horse’s daily physical activity, he might still need additional good quality calories to maintain weight.  The best way to get additional calories is to increase the daily amount of good quality hay.  You can also add a fat source to your horse’s diet, such as flax (a great source of Omega-3 fatty acid), or rice bran (also a good source of Omega fatty acids, along with gamma oryzanol which helps with muscle building).  If purchasing ground flax or rice bran, just make sure it is stabilized both to preserve nutrition content and so that it doesn’t go rancid due to the high fat content of these products!  Better yet, buy whole flax and grind it yourself as needed.

What Do You Look for When Buying Hay?

How do you decide which hay you are going to purchase for your horses?  Do you go with a local supplier or do you purchase from a hay broker?  Is a hay analysis important for you to purchase?  Do you do a visual inspection to check quality?  Do you prefer first, second or third cut – why?  Or, do you simple go with whatever you can afford?  All of these are important questions.In analyzing nutritional rations for horses on Vancouver Island, I have come across a wide range of hays, from local Orchardgrass to imported alfalfa and timothy mixes all with different nutritional breakdowns.  One of the biggest mistakes I see horse owners make is the assumption of the nutritional value of their hay.  Not all hay is created equally.  In fact, not all hay of one species or location is created equally either.  Hay quality from the same field can vary every year, based on the spring temperatures, whether or not the field was fertilized (and with what), when it got cut, how much rain the area had etc.  Similarly, Vancouver Island grown Orchardgrass is extremely variable across the island.  I am sometimes lucky enough to get a hay analysis from a local farmer if they are kind enough to share with me (and if they are one of the ones that actually test).  I’ve kept these analyses as reference materials and I am always astounded at how much variability there is in local hay.  On visual inspection alone, one would have never been able to tell the difference between a local hay with high sugar or protein, and one with lower values.  Does the amount of leafiness or how green a hay is give us a clue to the nutritional value?  Yes, and no.  We can make an estimate of maturity level (and some nutrient info) of a hay by a visual inspection, and certainly check for any dust/mold.  However, without a hay analysis to reveal the true chemical make up of the hay, one still really doesn’t know the nutritional value of what they are feeding.  For example, in 7 hay analyses of local Orchardgrass hay all collected in the same growing season (2010) in the same area on Southern Vancouver Island, I noted a range in Crude Protein values from 9.6-17.6%, WSC (Water Soluble Carbohydrates AKA sugars) from 9.8-20.5% and overall DE (Digestible Energy AKA calories) from 1.17-2.27 Mcal/kg.  Quite a bit of range!  I have also seen analyses with more extreme numbers on both the low and high ends.

Ultimately, if you want to know what you are feeding your horse, get your hay tested.  The cost is reasonable, and it isn’t hard to do.  Ideally, you should do this every year as the new crops are harvested as hay off of the same field as last year can be very different than they previous year’s crop.  Since 90-100% of what we should be/are feeding our horses is forage, how do you really know what your horse’s diet is?  Just because you are feeding those 14% complete feed pellets, doesn’t mean that your horse is getting the appropriate amount of protein to maintain condition.  Mature horses need roughly between 10-14% protein depending on their level of activity and life stage.  Remember that ALL feeding rations are a balance of ratios when looking at nutrients, so to calculate the total protein in your horse’s diet you have to take into account all of the sources and weight them appropriately in your calculation.

For Example:

You feed daily

– 10kg of grass hay with 9% protein
– 1.5kg of 14% pellets
– 500g rice bran with 15.5% protein
– 500g beet pulp with 10% protein

The TOTAL protein in your ration is: (10 x 0.09)+(1.5 x 0.14)+(0.5 x 0.155)+(0.5 x 0.10) / Total Amount Fed By Weight = (0.9 + 0.21 + 0.078 + 0.05) / 12.5 = 0.099 x 100% = 9.9% protein*

* Technically, all of your calculations should be done taking into account the amount of moisture in all feeds to get the true values fed on a dry matter basis, but for the sake of simplicity I used 100% of the feed weights.

So, the moral of my story is that one cannot underestimate the importance of knowing your hay’s real nutritional value.  All the supplements we feed don’t really add that much more to our horse’s daily nutrients (unless, of course, you are feeding huge amounts of supplements).  If you’d like to get more information on hay testing, please see the links below as a start, and feel free to contact me with any questions.

Why should I adopt an “Eco-Friendly” lifestyle?

The answer to this question will be different for every person.  It will be dependent on your own beliefs, world-view, economic situation, and even your comfort level with your current lifestyle.  Sometimes being environmentally friendly is more expensive, less convenient, and just harder to practice in everyday life.  Is this something that is right for you?

This is a decision that I came to gradually over several years, quite a lot of research and definitely some soul searching.  Certainly, I have always been concerned about pollution, the importance of recycling and using less energy and resources whenever possible.  Those were “no-brainer” concerns that I think most people in Western society identify with and visualize in their daily lives.  My outlook further changed after my first son was born.  For me, having children completely changed the way I saw the world around me.  Not only was I, along with my husband, responsible for other lives, but I wanted to do whatever I could to nourish and care for them as completely as possible, protect them from harm and give them a safe place to grow, learn and thrive.  I was quite astonished at how strongly those parental feelings began to drive my decisions.  All those memories of my own parents’ worries and concerns for me while growing up finally made sense!  Of course, my parents’ generation didn’t worry about things like protecting our environment.  The post–war era was a time of innovation in the chemical industry and industrial expansion worldwide.  Everyone was so caught up in the new technologies, no one really stopped to worry about what effects they might have on our health and environment.  It really was a “Golden Age” of innovation and products and technologies designed to make everyone’s lives easier.  Today we know that many of the products created in the post-war era are harmful to health and the environment.  As cliché as it is, hindsight is 20/20.

I was also worried about the amount of allergies, cancers, reproductive and autoimmune disorders that seemed to be on the rise both in the Canadian population and in my own circle of friends and family.  There just seemed to be too many 30-Something friends and colleagues that were developing serious conditions, and far too many allergies in young children.  What was going on here?

Though some chemicals have certainly been linked to health and environmental concerns, I don’t think that we have had enough time to fully research the longer-term outcomes of common, everyday additives to our environment.  Especially those used in foods and food containers.  Our society is so concerned with time that we’ve developed products to make it less time consuming to do everyday tasks.  Society wants convenient, microwaveable, pre-packaged, disposable, non-stick, fat-free, sugar-free items.  Has anyone ever considered that the items with these properties are largely filled with chemical additives or coatings to make them easy to use, convenient and even purported to be healthier?  What might those chemicals do to our bodies when ingested?  What about genetically modified foods (GMO’s)?  It seems like a great idea to have drought and pest resistant crops, but do we really know what changing the genetic make up of foods does to their nutritional value or biochemical profile?  In fact, there have been studies that have proven these GMO foods to have less nutritional value than their original

It’s easy to say “Well, the government has allowed this product on the market, so it must be safe for us to use”.  However, there have been numerous examples of products in the past that have now been identified as toxins and are no longer on the market (lead in paints, Thalidomide, DDT).  I decided that my family would try to reduce the amount of processed and GMO foods that we consumed so that we could have as natural a diet as possible.  Of course this means higher prices for groceries, more meal planning and longer preparation times. Yet, just by living on the Earth, my family will still get exposed to the numerous chemicals that exist in our environment (I’ll leave the discussion of “Body Burden” for another post).  So, for me, any amount that I can reduce the chemical additives in my family’s daily life, the better!

What about my pets?

In my household, like many of you, I consider my pets as important members of my family.  In bringing these animals into our lives, we are agreeing to take care of them, to provide for them and keep them healthy and out of harm’s way.  That is why I have put a lot of effort into researching animal feed ingredients and feed regulations in Canada.  Have you ever read the ingredient list on a bag of dog or cat food?  Do you know how your domesticated pet evolved and what its digestive system was designed to eat?  These are really important responsibilities for any animal owner.  When I switched my animals’ diets to include good quality, natural products I was dismayed that I couldn’t find a reliable source of high quality ingredients to make up a grain ration for my horses.  Moreover, government regulations in Canada don’t require an ingredient listing on agricultural feed labels.  In fact, after reading the Canadian Feeds Act (, I realized that there are a ton of non-food additives that are allowed in agricultural animal feeds, and many of these additives are things that would be considered toxic in human food.  I’m not referring to natural food sources that only animals would ingest either.  I’m referring to chemical and non-organic additives that really shouldn’t be in any food – human or animal.  So, if the regulations for horse feeds allow for chemical additives, and ingredient lists are not commonly on feed bags, how would I know what I was feeding my horses when I give them a cup of pelleted, non-identifiable feed?  There is always a “Guaranteed Analysis” on the feed label, but not any ingredients telling the consumer what their guaranteed protein and fat source comes from.  That just wasn’t good enough for me.  I want to know what goes into my horses’ diet as much as for any other member of my family.  It is important to keep them as healthy as possible, and as the old adage goes “you are what you eat”.  I couldn’t agree more!

Whatever you decide for yourself and your family is up to you.  I hope that by following this blog and our website that you will become better educated about your consumer choices.  Learn to question what goes into your foods, grooming and health products, and learn about your air and ground water quality.  Do your research and question what you can do for the health of your family and your Earth!