The quality of your horse’s coat, hoof and skin is a good indicator of your horse’s general health and the adequacy of his diet. Your horse needs to receive a variety of nutrients to produce a sleek, high-gloss coat, and we’ve listed these target nutrients in the accompanying chart (see sidebar).
When problems with coat quality arise, it’s usually because there’s insufficient intake of a key nutrient or not enough is being made available to the skin and coat, possibly due to an illness, the demands of growth, or parasitism.
While you can simply throw extra fat at the horse and increase the skin secretions shiny, the result isn’t the same as a healthy coat. Despite what you might hear, you’re simply not going to find one magical ingredient that can fix all coat and skin problems. You must get to the root of the problem and fix it.
If you’re considering using a supplement that claims to be designed to enhance your horse’s coat be sure that you first:
• Rule out an underlying medical problem as the cause, especially if the skin/coat problem was not there before on an identical diet.
• Do an evaluation of your horse’s diet and correct any problems with mineral balances, vitamin deficiencies, and protein intake first. In most cases, these dietary adjustments will solve the problem.
• Use our section on common problems that may show up in poor skin/coat quality, and choose your supplement according to what your horse’s diet lacks.
Simplify Your Shopping
Beware of advertising that draws you to the product but gives you no ingredients, no scientific basis for the claims being made or lists useless generalities. Claims like “balanced blend of fats” are usually meaningless.
Remember that not all oils are made the same. Only raw, unprocessed oils are likely to contain any significant amount of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids you want to be sure are adequate in the horse’s diet, which is why basic grocery-store corn oil provides little more than fat calories (that faux shine we talked about earlier).
If you’re considering a liquid supplement, be sure you note how it must be stored. Raw flax oil, which is high in needed omega-3 fatty acids, must be refrigerated. Although raw soy or rice-bran oil, which are high in omega-6 fatty acids, are a bit more stable, we still recommend you refrigerate them after opening.
Oils that are stable at room temperatures are either highly processed or contain preservatives — not what we recommend you use to boost your horse’s nutritional intake and get that natural gleam.
Dry products aren’t necessarily the answer either. Look for the term “stabilized” if you need a dry product to supply good levels of omega-3 and/or omega-6 fatty acids. This will allow for easier, longer storage while still ensuring solid levels of the omega fatty acids. All the products in our chart contain stabilized forms of flax or rice bran.
While we’re all for saving money with larger containers, we aren’t going to try it with high-fat supplements. For the best results with supplements containing moderate (10 to 20%) or high (20% and over) fat, don’t buy more than a 30-day supply at one time. Be sure you protect the product from heat/sun and reseal it carefully after use to prevent rancidity.
Finally, be sure you look for an expiration date on the container. While all nutrients have a shelf life, these types of products are especially vulnerable.
Problems That May Show In Your Horse’s Coat
• Intestinal Parasites. Significant parasite burdens may be present in individual horses even with routine paste dewormings and negative fecals. This is particularly true with older horses, young horses and horses on crowded turnout, or rotated through high-traffic paddocks. If the horse’s diet is good and well-balanced, consult your vet about tapeworm-specific treatments and larvicidal deworming.
• Chronic Illness. Undiagnosed chronic illnesses, especially chronic infections (e.g. internal abscess, Lyme disease), hormonal problems like Cushing’s disease, and malignancies can cause a poor coat. Suspect an illness especially if you’re seeing changes in appetite, weight, personality, etc. and get a veterinary work-up.
• Protein Quality/Quantity. Although many people worry about the amount of protein in their horses’ diets, protein deficiency in quality or quantity isn’t a common problem unless the horse is on a diet of only low-quality hay with protein under 8% and eating less than 20 lbs./day of hay.
With protein malnutrition, the horse will be in poor shape in general, poor muscling and likely underweight if the hay isn’t supplying sufficient calories. Absolute protein deficiencies will show up in the coat but are most likely in growing or pregnant/nursing horses and those receiving a diet of primarily low-protein hays.
Deficiencies of key amino acids — the building blocks of protein molecules — are more common, particularly if the horse receives only one type of hay and a grain mix that is not fortified with lysine and methionine. Feeding a variety of hay types is a good way to improve amino acid profiles in the diet, or choose a coat supplement that has this feature.
• Minerals. The effect of trace-mineral imbalances or deficiencies on coat quality is often overlooked, yet this is one of the most common causes of a poor coat and skin problems, including poor shine and “bleaching.” Virtually any significant mineral deficiency or imbalance will show up in the coat because minerals are required for every body process. Trace-mineral problems of low copper and zinc compared to high iron and manganese are especially common deficiencies.
Sulfur and silica are commonly recommended for people with skin- or hair-quality problems but aren’t likely to be deficient in an equine diet, except for sulfur-containing amino acids, which are addressed by correcting any protein problems in the diet.
Ask your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to evaluate your horse’s diet and correct any problems along these lines first, then look at coat-specific supplements that may address the problem.
• Vitamins. Vitamin A is important for skin health, but it’s not likely to be deficient in most diets. However, inadequate vitamin E is a common problem and contributes to dry skin/coat, allergic/hypersensitivity reactions and poor resistance to skin infections. Deficiencies of B vitamins severe enough to cause coat problems are probably rare. Suspect B vitamin shortages in horses that are older or have chronic intestinal problems.
Biotin (a B vitamin) would be most likely involved and deficient, and slow hoof growth will be present. Biotin is essential to the horse’s healthy skin and coat and strong hooves.
In fact, all the B vitamins play a role in maintaining the skin, with B6 (pyridoxine) also being a major player because of its role in protein metabolism. However, the Bs vitamins work together and should be supplemented together.
A true biotin deficiency probably doesn’t occur in horses, although estimates of dietary requirements may be too low. A skin problem related only to biotin/B vitamin intakes is al so unlikely. B vitamin inadequacies may be particularly likely in heavily exercising or stressed/ill horses, older horses, horses with a history of intestinal-tract upsets and horses eating primarily hay or poor-quality forage.
• Fatty acids. Deficiency of fat per se is highly unlikely unless the horse is getting only old, dry, low-quality hay. However, even horses on good-quality hays and grains are receiving a different profile of fats compared to a horse on grass. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids must be provided by the diet.
Grains and all vegetable oils, except for flaxseed/linseed oil, are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3, while fresh pasture is exactly the opposite, extremely high in omega-3 and low in omega-6.
This makes whole ground stabilized flax or cold-pressed flaxseed oil ideal fatty-acid supplements for horses. Horses that are receiving hay and no or little grain may benefit from a supplement with a blend of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid sources, but we recommend always choosing one higher in omega-3.
For supplements that will give a moderate fat boost with a balanced profile of omega-6 and -3, we’d suggest Uckele’s Equi Omega Complex, Grand Meadows Grand Coat, Med Vet’s Omegas or Gleam & Gain from Adeptus. All of these products also contain good supplemental protein levels. The Equi Omega Complex offers the greatest variety of amino acids because of the blend of different protein sources.
For horses with poor coats and a tendency toward itchy or inflammatory skin conditions, we recommend a supplement that is richer in omega-3 fatty acids because the omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and help quiet allergies. Horses receiving whole grains are getting omega-6 from this source and are most likely to benefit from a flax-only fat/protein supplement. Omega Horseshine is the most concentrated source of quality omega-3 essential fatty acids we’ve found and is our first pick. However, for horses likely to have inadequate B vitamins and/or trace minerals complicating the picture, we think Horse Tech’s Glanzen 3 is the way to go.