A Quick Personal Intro
When the phrase 'mineral balancing' first hit the equine world around 2007/2008, many of us at the time who were embarking on the adventure of taking our horses barefoot, me included, experienced the trial that was attempting to blend our horses' minerals at home.
It was especially hard for someone like me without a science-y cell in my body - I'm an arty, wafty ex-hippy, so this science stuff gave me brain-freeze. My own early mineral blendings, accompanied by the obligatory lungfuls of mineral dust cloud, created kitchen-bombsite as each Sunday I'd line up bagfuls of various powders in front of numerous jars and labels, then attempt to blend a weeks' worth of minerals for 5 horses. I was determined to crack it - Kelso's dry, brittle, cracked hooves depended on it (About Us). Took me hours - never was the Sunday lunchtime pub visit so badly needed.
I also soon learned, as we all did back then, that with each season the grass chemistry changed, which meant that the mineral mix had to change as well. So every few months a new array of powders joined the kitchen line-up. And as if this wasn't confusing enough, just as I was getting my head around one formula, along came new thinking, new research and new updates to throw into the mix. Literally.
It seemed like forever to finally get it right, but eventually I soon had the process licked. And Oh-Boy was it worth it - my horses' hooves went from footy, flat and cracked, to strong, robust, rock-crunching (as the saying went), barefoot hooves (*). There was also a new buzz word doing the rounds, the 'NRC+' training course run by Dr Eleanor Kellon, which was now becoming everyone's mantra on all things equine nutrition and minerals.
* A tiny fib - amazing hooves all round bar Murphy, my connie, who to this day is still my most hoof-ly challenging, but he's a full-on metabolic. For most months of the year he's fine; it's just the summer and grass connection when his feet went splat and we had to get the boots out. I say 'had' because he's happily retired now :-)
Anyway, sure enough, it didn't take long before I was asked to blend a mineral mix for a friend, and as more requests came in, by summer 2013 our EquiVita had arrived on the website. Since then, to help stave off the Mineral-Minefield, we’ve added various versions to match the seasons's changes to save us all having to add extras into the mix.
So what started this Mineral Mullarky?
For those of us who have hit the half-century (me included), no doubt you’ll remember the good old days. This was when we fed our horses grass and hay, a scoop of oats and a warming winter bran mash, with a pot of bubbling linseed permanently on the boil. Our horses were fit and healthy, no-one had ever heard of laminitis or Cushings, and shiny packaged feedbags hadn't even been invented; we bought our grains in woven hessian sacks.
Then the 1970's hit and with it, intensive farming, which poured millions of gallons of agri-chemicals onto the land. This changed our native pasturelands beyond all recognition with new improved grasses, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and now flipping Glyphosate, aka RoundUp, courtesy of Monsanto.
Cut to today, this now means our pasture forage, plus the majority of today’s feedbag ingredients, some of which are also GMO, are all grown on this same chemically damaged soil. Some call it progress ... (for more info on feed, see our chapter Feeding Our Horses).
Since those days it’s no co-incidence that our horses today have developed significant metabolic health and behavioural issues (see About Us, my own story of how my horses metabolically crashed due to chemical contamination - About Us). And, an important factor of this destructive equation is that the chemistry of our forage significantly affects the chemistry of the horse.
FACT Our UK grasslands are deficient in most of the essential minerals.
FACT Changes in the chemistry of grass cause changes in the chemistry of the horse, with many chronic health conditions being due to unbalanced micronutrients.
FACT Most alleged behavioural issues will resolve by feeding minerals balanced to our known UK forage deficiencies.
It's easy to take our soil for granted, that is, until we lose it. The soil beneath our feet is arguably one of the most under-appreciated assets on the planet. Without it, life would largely cease to exist, while, when at its prime, this ‘black gold’ gives life in so many ways.
However, our UK grasslands are commonly deficient in many essential minerals, having had the life stripped out them by over-intensive farming practices. Those decades of changes to the grass chemistry cause significant changes in the chemistry of the horse, which directly - and adversely - affects the horse's system, all the more so when over-grazed on restricted paddock space.
The NRC Guidelines are there for a reason, yet most commercial 'one-size-fits-all' balancers rarely get the mineral ratios balanced to the defined guidelines. This can mean that your commercial balancer may make your horse's dietary mineral levels even more unbalanced. For example, many add iron and manganese which are already way too high in our UK grasslands, which not only risks toxic levels but also makes them act as antagonists and blocking the uptake of the very nutrients you're spending good money on.
Many balancers also add calcium, again already at high levels in many areas, which without the correct ratio of magnesium to balance it for healthy cellular energy exchange, can cause our horses to seem spooky/explosive and raring to go - what we typically see when the spring grass comes through. Those grass sugars get the blame, yet it's more likely to be too much calcium and not enough magnesium.
If we don't get the balance right, we get it wrong at our peril - and our horse's. Nutrients play a vital role in a wide range of biochemical systems which affect virtually every metabolic function in the horse, and I speak from personal experience. Getting my connemara, Murphy, minerally-balanced, literally saved his life, and my sanity. See * About Us for the full story.
Minerals are the foundation of any diet
It wasn't until shortly before the publication of the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses in 1989 that anyone really paid any attention to the lack of microminerals in equine nutrition. These days there's now undisputed evidence that our UK grazing areas are lacking in the essential minerals and nutrients required for the health of our horses. Forage analysis, and the subsequent mineral balancing, is now a big thing in our horse world today.
The daft thing is that the amounts required are, in some cases, micro-sized as in milligrams, yet they're so very critical. These nutrients play a vital role in a wide range of biochemical systems which affect virtually every metabolic function in the horse.
However, there are many factors that affect the mineral content of our grazing land and the hay that is grown on it; soil quality, grass variety, seasonal growth changes, dry curing, storage, even the weather; a simple overnight change in weather can radically change the mineral levels in our grass. A mile up the road - even the next field - and the grass composition may be different again. You might change your hay supplier who cuts a completely different grass type again - it'll look and smell like hay, but its mineral content could be completely different to your previous hay supply, which means it'll affect your horse differently.
It may seem incomprehensible how an area known for being 'low in copper' or 'high in iron' can so radically affect our horses' health, and even more impossible to keep track of these changes in mineral content and balance. However, the implications - and results - only serve to demonstrate how detrimental it can be to our horses not to have their grazing mineral deficiencies balanced.
These days few horses can maintain wellness on a diet of grass and hay alone. Probably all of us have seen at some time or another that the hoof is just one area affected by changeable mineral nutrition. You'll see flat soles appearing in summer where once there was healthy concavity in winter, or maybe cracks appearing on hoof walls previously as tough as army boots. And then there's that glimmer of white line separation, previously as thin as a credit-card, seemingly overnight becoming wide enough to scrape a hoof pick inside it. Cue lami-risk as the laminae begins to separate from the hoof wall.
If ever our grass gave us a massive heads-up that its chemical composition changes dramatically, the spring/autumn grass flush and resulting laminitis risk is there for all to see. If only this chemistry was as clear to understand though - mineral and structural changes in our horses' grazing can be an absolute minefield, and it’s no wonder that we get confused, or are unaware of what is – or rather, what isn’t – in our grass, our hay, and our feed bags. I completely empathise with this because I was once in that very same boat.
As horse owners in this day and age, the onus is on us to become aware of the importance of balanced nutrition, just like it is for our own health and our children. We need to get away from the mindset of feeding from shiny bags because we like the look of them, or that our horses like it, usually because molasses feature high in the ingredients list! It's the difference between feeding our kids either a diet of burger and chips, washed down with an aspartame-loaded fizzy drink, or - a nutritious balanced meal with lots of healthy veg alongside balanced portions of protein, fats and carbs.
Feeding a correctly balanced diet with each nutrient being supplied in the correct amount is critical for our horses' health. Without the right minerals in balance, everything else sits out of balance on the sidelines. Minerals are the foundation of any diet, the most important part of any diet, yet ironically probably the most ignored part of the diet.
How do mineral imbalances affect our horses?
Changes in the chemistry of grass cause changes in the chemistry of the horse, which directly and adversely affect the horse's nerves and muscles.
How many times have you heard someone say their horse ‘isn’t right’, or that they’re 'misbehaving', 'won't listen', being 'aggressive', and so on? And how many times have we seen more and more gadgets and riding aids strapped on to control their naughty horse? How many times have we heard the phrases, ‘he’s not getting away with it’, and ‘push him on’? Here's an instructor's favourite, "Use your stick!" or "Give him a smack, he's being naughty!"
Here's a useful list - have you ever seen any of the following arise with no obvious explanation?
- your normally friendly, quiet horse becoming full of nervous energy, even aggressive
- suddenly becoming irrationally herd bound
- becoming nappy, spooky, belligerent, stubborn, resistant, headshy, headshaking, girthy, cold-backed
- problems going into canter, bunny-hopping or fly-bucking into it (this was me and Murphy), not able to track up, or strike off on the required lead,
- stiffness in the neck, or head held high with a banana neck, or a hollow back,
- stringhalt, and worse, staggers.
As the saying goes, 'Horses don't have bad intentions - they simply react.' I can't count on two hands how many times I've said this, only to have an owner look me in the eye and say confrontationally, "You haven't met my horse." Oh dear.
Horses don't produce these negative behavioural responses towards us to be wilful - the heartrending fact is that they're desperately trying to communicate to us that they're really struggling to comply with our demands. Or they've given up. The fact of the matter is that it's US who are responsible by not balancing their diet, and hence their bodies, correctly.
In nature, nothing acts in isolation
So it is with minerals and their interactions. Whilst each individual mineral has its own actions, there are thousands of reactions occurring at any given moment in time in the horse’s body, which involves many complex interactions with other minerals, vitamins, protein and energy sources. It's all about the correct ratios of each mineral working in harmony with the others.
Very rarely is just one mineral deficient in a diet - there are usually multiple imbalances. While our grazing, hay and soil has it's own mineral excesses and deficiencies, further imbalances are caused by us supplementing with some minerals and not others. Magnesium is a well known culprit here - it's probably the most popular individual mineral fed independently into the feed bucket. Yet by adding just magnesium, this simply serves to unbalance the complete nutritive requirements even more.
Most of us are aware that the areas we live in are deficient in one or other mineral, for example, our region here in Somerset is low in copper. Other regions are known for being high in iron, pockets in Scotland and the NE for example, and the entirety of the UK is low in magnesium. However, to assume a dietary issue can be fixed by only supplementing with what’s allegedly low in your area will neither improve nor repair the problem; in fact it will do more harm than good because you've just unbalanced the ratios even more.
Getting the ratios right
Many minerals work in synergistic ratios with others, for example, you've probably heard that Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) should be balanced by the ratio of Ca 1.5 parts to Mg 1 part, up to a maximum of Ca 2 parts to Mg 1, hence the familiar equation Ca:Mg 1.5:1 - 2:1. In other words, more than 2 parts calcium to 1 part magnesium will mean there's not enough magnesium to balance the healthy cellular energy exchanges, which in plain english means your horse becomes rocket-fuelled, a bit like Tigger but not in a good way.
Another important synergistic combination is the Calcium (Ca) v. Phosphorus (P) metabolism in the horse’s body. Together they are both essential for sound bone development; bone structure is 35% calcium and 17% phosphorus. If the ratio of these two minerals is unbalanced, there are then many complex interactions with other minerals and compounds, possibly to the detriment of our horse's health.
Getting the ratios right is vitally important for our horse’s nutritional wellbeing, as well as the absolute amount of each mineral fed. For example, take alfalfa, very common in our horse-feed world of today. Most processed bagged chaff products are made with alfalfa, aka lucerne. Yet alfalfa is high in calcium and very low in phosphorus. Thus, if you’re feeding an alfalfa chaff, there will be excessive calcium in the diet, and hence an imbalance. Alfalfa can also be too high in protein for some of our horses, which is explained further down in Protein & Energy.
Just to give you a flavour, here’s a bit more science about these complex mineral interactions :
- High magnesium levels in the diet will increase calcium absorption, yet excess phosphorus (significantly prevalent at times of strong grass growth) will decrease calcium absorption.
- Too high zinc levels will decrease calcium and copper absorption, while high calcium levels will interfere with copper, manganese, zinc and iron absorption.
- High calcium levels limit phosphorus absorption, while high sodium and chloride levels increase phosphorus absorption by 30-60%.
I did say it's a minefield. And for the non-chemists of us, it can honestly make your head hurt . . .
Now let's throw Protein & Energy into the mix
Stay with me, because these are relevant. There are 2 types of concentrate – protein and energy.
- Energy We add energy concentrate to our horses’ diets when the fibrous roughage in the diet is not providing enough energy for daily work, or if our horse needs more fat coverage. Typical energy concentrates are grains and premixed or pelleted feeds, yet most premixed/pelleted feeds are deficient in vitamins and minerals and won’t account for individual needs. They’re certainly not balanced to UK forage analyses, plus they can also inhibit mineral absorption.
- Protein Proteins are essential for life, health, and growth. They're essential for supporting muscle, bone, joint, tendon, organ, hormone, enzyme, hoof, and connective tissue health. Protein quality refers to the amino-acid content, determined by the amount and balance of the 10 essential amino acids. Think of a train as a connected group of carraiges. The amino-acids are the carraiges, and the train as a whole is the protein.
Lysine is the most important amino acid for horses as it supports overall immune function. Glutamine protects lean muscle mass including connective tissue, and supports brain and nervous system health. The branched-chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, support muscular integrity and contribute to blood sugar control.
Protein requirements can vary significantly depending on age, stress and workload, i.e. for a typical good-doer pleasure horse, protein intake of 7-10% is more than adequate. And guess where the main source of our horses’ protein is? Forage! Most UK grass hays are around 6-10% protein, yet legume hays such as alfalfa, can run as high as 12-14%.
Pulling this together, this means that also getting energy and protein balanced are vitally important pieces in the whole big nutrient jigsaw.
The delicate equine digestive system is evolved to eat forage, and whether leisure or competition horse, in theory they should be getting all their energy, protein, vitamins and minerals from the forage us humans provide them with.
However, we now know that our UK soils have been stripped of nutrients over the decades, which means our grasslands are either deficient, or have the wrong balance of minerals for today’s equine physiological development and athletic performance. Add in additional unbalanced packaged feedstuff for energy and protein, and we've got a melting pot of baaaad diet.
In this day and age it really is essential to supplement a multi-mineral solution that provides the deficient levels of minerals, vitamins and electrolytes, balanced to our UK grazing lands, as required by the equine body for normal function.
A snapshot of what the minerals and vitamins do
- Calcium – normal growth and function of the nervous system, muscles, blood clotting and cardio system.
- Phosphorus – metabolism and nerve function, formation of bones, muscle and teeth.
- Magnesium – metabolism, formation of teeth and bones, and maintenance of normal CNS.
- Sodium & Chloride (Salt) – maintaining a normal electrolyte balance in body tissues.
- Potassium – maintains cell integrity, nerve and muscle function, digestion, and relaxation of the heart muscle.
- Zinc – bone and cartilage development, integrity of skin, hair and hooves.
- Copper – iron metabolism, bone development and joint connective tissue.
- Iron – a vital component of haemoglobin in red blood cells.
- Manganese – bone, cartilage and tissue development, blood clotting, normal growth, lactation and reproduction.
- Cobalt – formation of B12, red blood cells, haemoglobin, nerve cell function.
- Selenium – normal growth, fertility, and prevents cellular oxidation.
- Iodine – thyroid function and a component of thyroid hormones which regulate metabolic processes.
- Vit.A (Retinol) - maintains vision, muscles, growth, reproduction, skin and mucous membrane integrity.
- Vit.E (Tocopherol) – a critical antioxidant.
- Vit.B1 (Thiamin) – metabolism, appetite, body weight, muscle and nerve function.
- Folate – metabolism, formation of red and white blood cells and haemoglobin.
- Ash Content – a measure of the total amount of minerals present within a food, whereas the mineral content is a measure of the amount of specific inorganic components present within a food, i.e. Calcium, Sodium, Potassium and Chloride. Ash is the inorganic residue remaining after the water and organic matter have been removed.