When the phrase 'mineral balancing' first hit the equine world around the mid 2000s, 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 proper brain-freeze. (Don't panic though - over the years since with a ton of very intense studying, my brain's been retrained!).
For those of us back in the mid 2000s trying to find our way through the barefoot 'journey', there was an invaluable forum for us all - the UKNHCP forum, run by Nic Barker of Rockley Farm fame. I can remember clear as day when rumblings of adding certain minerals into the feedbowl started to feature on the forum. First it was magnesium, alongside rosehips and seaweed (if only we knew then what we know now (😉) but the science seemed to make sense back then).
Gradually more science started to land in the forum posts - copper, zinc, phosphorous and selenium hit the headlines, and it wasn't long before we were all buying bags of the stuff off Ebay and knocking together the early blueprints of what's now a well-studied, highly sophisticated, and essential nutrient foundation for the equine diet.
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 - our Kelso's dry, brittle, cracked hooves depended on it (About Us). Took me hours - never was the Sunday lunchtime pub visit so badly needed.
All us UKNHCP forum-ers soon also learned that with each season the grass chemistry changed, which meant that the homemade mineral mix had to change as well. So, every spring, summer, autumn and winter, 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. 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, and - as the saying went back then - rock-crunching - barefoot hooves.
There was also a new buzz 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.
Anyway, sure enough and as before with our herb blends 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 range of forage-balanced mineral solutions had landed on the website.
So the big question - Why? What was behind this Mineral Mullarky?
For those of us who have hit the half-century-plus (me included), no doubt you’ll remember the good old days. This was when our horses were turned out on unlimited meadow grass in the summer, and fed beautiful aromatic hay in the winter, cut from that same meadow grass. There were no 'manicured' paddocks like today and no diversification of ex-dairy farms moving to livery yards; back then horses lived on established farms or studs and with natural native pastureland bordered by trees, woodlands and bushes to browse on, full of leaves, barks, berries and fruits.
Our horses were housed in ancient stone stables on straw beds, and we fed them an occasional scoop of oats or a warming winter bran mash, and usually a pot of bubbling linseed permanently on the boil, all bought from the local corn merchant in woven hessian sacks. Our horses were healthy and fit; no-one had ever heard of the words laminitis or Cushings, and shiny packaged feedbags hadn't even been invented. Us yardies would regularly gather in stone-walled tackrooms to polish the tack, with mugs of tea brewed on a stove fire also lit to keep us warm on finger-freezing winter days. I can still remember the comforting aroma of the saddle soap to this day. Oh the memories ... 😉
As coincidence would have it, the mid-1960s also brought with it modern progress, aka intensive farming, which poured billions of gallons of agri-chemicals onto the land. This changed our native grasslands beyond all recognition with new 'improved' grass species, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and flipping Glyphosate, aka RoundUp, courtesy of Monsanto (see our Blog post - https://equinatural.co.uk/i/latest-data-on-the-harmful-effects-of-glyphosate).
Now cut to today, several decades on, and today's pasture forage, plus the majority of today’s feedbag ingredients, most of which are also GMO, are all grown on this same chemically damaged soil. Some call it progress ... (for more info on what's gone wrong with our grasslands and feed, see our section Feeding Our Horses).
Since those days it’s no co-incidence that our horses today have developed significant metabolic health and behavioural issues (see our own story of how my horses metabolically crashed due to chemical contamination).
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 now 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 today's common practice of 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 block the uptake of the very nutrients you're spending good money on.
Many balancers also add calcium, again already at too-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 like Tigger but not in a good way - we're talking mega-spooky/explosive - 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 in the grass and not enough magnesium. If we don't get the balance right between these two, we get it wrong at our peril - and our horse's, because many people blame the horse and out comes the whip ...
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.
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 micronutrients 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, molecular-sized as in milligrams - hence why they're referred to as micronutrients - 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, plastic wrapping, 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 it's 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 forage mineral deficiencies balanced. Put simply, a horse on today's UK grasslands can't 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 deficient 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 the laminae beginning 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 back in those early UKNHCP forum days.
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 worse, that our horses like them! There's usually a good reason why beloved Ned loves his mass-produced ultra-processed brand feed - you just have to look at the ingredients, and more often than not molasses will feature in there somewhere ...
It really is the difference between feeding our kids either a diet of burger and chips, washed down with an aspartame-loaded fizzy drink, or a nutritious plate of real food with lots of healthy veg alongside balanced portions of wholefood 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 alleed naughty horse?
How many times have we heard people say, "He’s not getting away with it!", and ‘Push him on!’? Or 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 suddenly full of nervous energy, even aggressive.
- Or 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 my connie, 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 (Murf), or a hollow back, stringhalt, and worse, staggers.
As the saying goes, 'Horses don't have bad intentions - they simply react.' This is actually a physiological fact - a horse's brain doesn't have a frontal lobe, this being the area of the brain that figures stuff out, so they actually don't have the ability to have 'intentions' - they literally can only 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." Heartbreaking.
Horses don't produce these negative behavioural responses towards us to be wilful - the heartrending fact is that they're so chemically unbalanced that it's all beyond their control, while desperately trying to communicate with 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 getting it so badly wrong, it's US who are responsible for their physiological torment by not balancing their diet, and hence their whole body's function, 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 1.5 parts Ca to 1 part Mg, up to a maximum of 2 parts Ca to 1 Mg, 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 exchange, 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 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, but meanwhile, 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 The natural source of a horse’s energy comes directly from long, stemmy grass, i.e. hay or grass that’s been rested through the summer to grow a seed head. It’s within those long grass forage stems where the cellulose fibre sits, that the hindgut ferments (via the hindgut fibre-fermenting microbiome) and creates three volatile fatty acids, proprionate, butyrate and acetate, which are metabolically converted into ATP energy.
However, many of us also add extra concentrate to our horses’ diets if, for example, we think a horse needs more fat coverage (which is the wrong way to do it!), or if there’s not enough available fibre forage in the diet, i.e. if a horse is permanently turned out on neon-green short grass which is all leaf blade and no fibre.
Typical energy concentrates are grains, or premixed/pelleted feeds, yet most premixed/pelleted feeds are either deficient in vitamins and minerals and won’t account for individual needs, or they're laced with what's known as a synthetic vitamin/mineral premix, and which the gut neither recognises or knows what to do with. So, they're ignored by the vitamin/mineral receptors in the gut wall and sent straight out for excretion. As the saying goes, 'an expensive way to make urine'.
Either way, premixed/pelleted feeds are 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 - you name it, proteins are essential for it. Protein quality refers to the amino-acid content, determined by the amount and balance of the 10 essential amino acids. Think of a pearl necklace - the pearls are the amino-acids, the string is the whole protein.
As examples, 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. Methionine is important for hoof structure. And so on ...
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? Grass! Most UK grass hays are around 6-10% protein.
Pulling this together, this means that making sure energy and protein are balanced is also a vitally important pieces in the whole big nutrient jigsaw.
As I say repeatedly on this website, a horse is nothing more - and nothing less - than a hindgut forage fibre fermenting machine. The delicate equine digestive system is evolved to eat grass forage with a bit of woody (lignan) roughage to keep everything moving, 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 completely deficient and minerally/nutritionally unbalanced for today’s equine physiological development and athletic performance. Add in additional unbalanced, packaged, crappy feedstuff of inappropriate pro-inflammatory, gut damaging, filler ingredients, and we've got a melting pot of seriously baaaad diet.
In this day and age it;s essential to supplement with a mineral solution that puts back into the diet the known deficient levels of minerals, vitamins and electrolytes, balanced to our UK grazing lands, as required by the equine body for normal function.
A nutrient snapshot
- Calcium – normal growth and function of the nervous system, muscles, blood clotting and cardio system. Already at high levels in our UK grasslands.
- 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. Already at high levels in our UK grasslands.
- Cobalt – formation of B12, red blood cells, haemoglobin, nerve cell function.
- Selenium – normal growth, fertility, inhibits cellular oxidation.
- Iodine – thyroid function and a component of thyroid hormones which regulate metabolic processes. Already at high levels in our UK grasslands.
- Vit.A (Retinol) - maintains vision, muscles, growth, reproduction, skin and mucous membrane integrity.
- Vit.E (Tocopherol) – a critical antioxidant.
- 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.