“You are what you eat” is a phrase commonly used to describe our diet, yet it could be applied equally to horses and ponies, particularly with respect to body condition, coat condition and skin health. Healthy horses fed well balanced diets, will usually have coats that exude vitality. In contrast, horses or ponies that are suffering illness or injury, are stressed, fed unbalanced diets or are poor doers can display dull staring coats and poor body condition, especially in the Winter months.
Diet is key to coat and body condition in healthy horses and can make achieving a ‘show ring shine’ effortless. An appropriate diet can also help maintain skin health, in animals prone to scurfy or itchy skin or sweet itch and may even impact on the severity of mud fever. Diet has such a profound effect on skin health and coat condition because the skin is a very metabolically active tissue with a high demand for nutrients.
Diet is the key to skin health, coat and body condition
Whilst a well balanced ration is vital, some nutrients are especially valuable. An adequate source of digestible protein is essential, and a ration should also provide appropriate quantities of key trace minerals and vitamins including zinc, vitamin A, vitamin E and the B vitamins. Additionally, the level and type of oil present, in terms of its omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid contents is also important.
Protein digestibility is paramount
Not surprisingly, the protein content of the horse’s diet impacts significantly on coat condition, since hair is composed of 95% protein and is rich in sulphur-containing amino acids, methionine and cystine. As most horse feeds supply sufficient protein, an outright protein deficiency is uncommon, except where rare underlying disease reduces protein availability. A potentially greater concern for horses and ponies with poor coats or skin disease is the relative ‘digestibility’ of dietary protein. Horses only efficiently utilise protein digested in the small intestine. Any reaching the hindgut is not available to use. Protein from soya, linseed, oats, barley, maize and skimmed milk powder is more digestible than that from forages such as hay, straw and (to a lesser extent) alfalfa.
As well as optimising dietary protein sources, it is also important to scrutinise the level and source of oil being fed.
Horse diets are traditionally high in omega-6 fatty acids
Oil contains a lot of different fatty acid-rich substances called triglycerides. These in turn comprise different types of fatty acids, including the omega-6 or omega-3’s which impact on skin health and coat condition. Modern horse diets are generally high in omega-6 fatty acids, mostly derived from cereal grains and pulses, or from corn, soya and rapeseed (vegetable) oils. In contrast, the diet is often relatively low in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids help maintain the integrity of the skin in its ability to prevent water penetration, whereas the role of dietary omega-3 fatty acids in skin health is still being researched.
The potential beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids arise through their ability to alter the omega-3: omega-6 ratio in the blood and body tissues, in particular the cell membranes. This in turn modifies cells’ responses to various stimuli including inflammatory challenge. Omega-3 fatty acids offer therapeutic potential in certain chronic inflammatory skin conditions, as they can reduce the production of certain prostaglandins; substances that promote inflammation. One of the most frequently used sources of omega-3 fatty acids in horse diets today is linseed.
Where tradition meets modern science
Traditionally linseed has been used to improve coat condition and maintain bodyweight. Even today some yards still regularly cook linseed in large boilers to make ‘linseed mash’. It is strange how sometimes many years on science will provide ‘justification’ for a traditional practice.
Linseed, or flaxseed as it is sometimes known, is an oilseed. In addition to providing quality protein, linseed is also high in oil (30-40 % by weight), and is particularly rich in the omega-3 fatty acid linolenic acid.
Linseed has been suggested to reduce the inflammatory response to Culicoides sp, which is the biting insect that causes Sweet itch in sensitised horses or ponies (O’Neill et al 2002). According to O’Neill, beneficial effects were evident when the linseed was fed at a level of 100 g/100 kg bodyweight per day.
So the linseed-boiling horsemen knew a thing or two. Fortunately, recent advances in manufacturing technologies have allowed the messy and time consuming business of boiling linseed to be largely discontinued. Micronised linseed, such as Science Supplements Linseed Conditioner, has been safely pre-cooked and comes in the form of a meal that can be fed straight from the tub.
For horses that lose condition in the Winter whether because they are old, have a reduced appetite, dental or digestive problems, Linseed Conditioner is an ideal energy source. High oil feeds are also less likely to cause behavioural problems and are an essential part of the management of horses that are prone to tying-up.
With the right dietary makeup, maintaining good coat condition through the winter months in preparation for the next season can be a relatively straightforward process. Always make sure that the overall ration is balanced in terms of its delivery of vitamins and minerals, contains adequate quality protein and oil, and that feed intake is adjusted to maintain appropriate body condition.
Science Supplements Linseed Conditioner is a pure Linseed product, not to be confused with other products on the market which may only contain as little as 33% Linseed because they are mixed with cheaper sources of oil. Linseed Conditioner is also fully balanced. It contains the optimum amount of Vitamin E necessary for the horse or pony to utilise the oil effectively and the adverse calcium:phosphate ratio of pure Linseed has been balanced with calcium. Linseed Conditioner also contains natural antioxidants to maintain the quality of the product once the bag or tub has been opened.
Start by introducing a small amount (1-2 scoops) into each feed and build up to the amounts indicated on the packaging over a week and see the results in around 2-3 weeks.