Wednesday 15 June 2011

Minerals - myths, miracles and marketing

Following on from yesterday's post, there were a few mineral "mmm"s that I wanted to talk about as well.  I've had mineral analyses of the forage and soil at Rockley done ever since we first moved here, but its only more recently that I've begun to more fully understand their importance :-)

Its been known for a long time that clues to mineral levels - whether adequate or inadequate - can often be seen in horses in the most obvious areas - particularly skin, coat and hooves.  We all admire a glossy coat as a sign of good health and for those of us with barefoot horses, rock-crunching feet are another indicator.

Its very common - in fact its almost invariable - that once horses are at Rockley they grow a hoof capsule with improved horn quality and a better angle.  This can be partly due to shoes coming off and increased movement but there's also an effect of the different mineral levels.  You've already seen that loads of times in hoof updates like this so I thought I'd show you something else for a change.
 One of the rehab horses arrived at Rockley with several sarcoids, including this, which was the worst.
After 4 weeks, during which the biggest change was in the mineral levels in the horse's diet, the sarcoid looked like this and the owner couldn't find several of the smaller ones at all when she tried to locate them.  This isn't the first horse whose sarcoids have improved and - along with better hooves - its something that is not unexpected with a better mineral balance.

Of course, I am not saying that balancing minerals will cure sarcoids  - they are a complex condition - but it is true that low levels of some minerals can affect a horse's immune system and this can allow problems like sarcoids to become aggravated.

Equally, minerals alone won't give a horse perfect hooves, but you can pretty much guarantee that without adequate minerals a horse WILL have hoof problems.

So what about myths and marketing?

Despite the dreams of retailers and feed and supplement manufacturers (and of trimmers, owners and farriers who would all of us like nothing better than an all round supplement which could deliver perfect hooves every time!), its not possible to make a mineral supplement that will provide everything that every horse needs.

If you look at how horses live and eat, you can see why.  Unlike dogs or cats, the majority of a horse's diet is forage - in practical terms that means grass, hay and haylage from where the horse lives.  The mineral levels in forage vary not just across the country but even from field to field.  A sample taken from one of my fields will show good levels of selenium and copper, for example, but the field next door will have low levels.

This would have worked well when horses roamed vast areas, of course - horses, like most animals, seem to have evolved to juggle minerals to a certain extent - none of us, and probably none of our horses, eat a diet which is perfectly balanced every day, but if we eat sensibly then we achieve balance over a period of time.   However, often in domestication, our horses don't have the luxury of browsing and grazing such biodiversity.  Add to fewer plant species farming practices which can make minerals less available, and you have a potential problem.

You'll see lots of mineral supplements and feeds claiming to be "fully balanced" but as a claim for horses nationwide thats impossible - if you perfectly balance the minerals for a horse in one place they are unlikely to be balanced for a horse even 20 miles up the road, let alone in an area with different soil, different geology, different climate.

The basic supplement we talked about in Feet First will do a decent job in many areas, and has the enormous virtue of also being safe BUT its not a panacea (because that doesn't exist, see above...!).  Safe is critical, though, because the risky part about minerals is that too much can be as bad as - or even worse than - not enough.

As with so many things, there are no one-size-fits-all easy answers.  Its not rocket science either but at the moment  your best bet, if you have hoof problems, particularly footinesss, and if a basic supplement is not working for you, will be to take a closer look at mineral levels in your forage and - if possible - balance those levels to your horse's requirements.

It sounds complicated, but its something that has been good farming practice for a long while and the information and resources are out there.

If you want to get to the root of things and get really clued up, then you need the National Research Council's "Nutrient Requirements of Horses" and to have a look at Eleanor Kellon's courses on equine nutrition.  Have fun :-)

1 comment:

cptrayes said...

I'm sure that one of my previous horses became laminitic because of lack of copper which I was unaware of 6 years ago. I know that Jazz has kept his summer concavity ever since I started using copper supplementation.

I keep my 12 acre field deliberately as one understocked field (no paddock rotation) and it is absolutely fascinating to see which areas of it they graze in which season. They are currently eating the bottom right hand corner, long and woody, which is stuff they don't even go down to in the winter. I am lucky, of course, that I have an "unimproved" hill flower meadow, even if it is heavy in manganese and iron. It was absolutely critical to my horse's health to find that out. Luckily it's in my spring water supply, which is analysed for free for human consumption.