Even when you're not competing in halter classes, keeping your horse's coat clean and shiny is a crucial part of your overall presentation. Not only does it demonstrate the time and effort you take to pay attention to details; it also lets observers know that you are concerned with your horse's diet.
What, then, should you be feeding your horse to establish and maintain that sleek, enviable shine?
The good news is that if you're covering the basics, you're most of the way there already.
Beauty magazines the world over counsel woman that the key to healthy, glowing skin is drinking enough water ? and the same goes for horses, notes Eleanor Richards, an equine nutrition consultant in Bulverde, Texas.
?If a horse isn?t getting enough water in their system, they?re not going to be able to utilize the nutrients in their feed,? she says. ?Water is the most important nutrient and probably the most neglected, too.?
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The average, 1,000-pound horse should consume five to 10 gallons a day, depending on his individual constitution and the temperature of his environment. Eleanor estimates that horses with grueling exercise schedules can consume 15 to 20 (sometimes 30) gallons a day, depending on how much they are sweating. Lactating mares must also drink a large amount of water.
The problem is that in many barns, water buckets may go for a long time without being cleaned out properly, which discourages water intake and can eventually promote a loss of appetite.
After all, when you're thirsty, how much do you want to eat if you have no access to clean, refreshing liquids?
This is an issue in facilities with automatic-waterers also; and in this case, unless the unit is connected to a gauge designed to measure water consumption, it's difficult to tell how much a horse is drinking.
Aside from judging water intake by the number of times you change the water in the water bucket, there are a couple ways to discern whether your horse is getting enough water by analyzing his physical condition ? the old ?pinching the neck? trick to see how elastic the skin is the most popular.
?You need to do that frequently so that you know what your horse's normal skin elasticity is,? Eleanor says. ?If you think your horse is dehydrated and you pinch, but you don't have anything to compare it to, then it's going to be hard to determine.?
Pressing your thumb against your horse's gums to monitor capillary refill time is another way: Simply push your finger against the gum, hold it for a second and then remove it. The gum should be white, but it should fill in within one or two seconds. If the horse is dehydrated, his capillary refill time will be slower.
We all know what might ? or might not ? happen when we lead a horse to water, and one way to ensure that he'll drink is to include salt in his daily diet. Eleanor advises a daily intake of two ounces, and she favors loose, granulated salt as opposed to salt blocks, which make it difficult to monitor how much salt the horse is consuming.
?Of course, there is some salt in commercial feeds, but depending on how much grain you're feeding, whether they are getting enough salt from the grain is questionable,? she says.
If the horse doesn't eat the salt you mix into his feed, she suggests sprinkling a bit onto his hay, taking into account that some will slip down through it and onto the stall floor. If you are mixing electrolytes into your horse's water, you should provide a second bucket of fresh, clean water beside it, in case the horse goes off his electrolyte-treated water.
?Remember that prevention is as key as is early diagnosis and treatment,? advises Dr. Thomas Lenz. From diseases and disorders to soreness and injuries, the ?Your Horse?s Health? DVD collection will help you keep your equine partners out of trouble.
Whether you are feeding electrolytes or salt, however, it's important to ensure that the horse has access to water at all times. Otherwise, all the efforts you are making to promote hydration will work in reverse.
There's a reason that horses in nature rely on grass as their primary source of nourishment, and Brian D. Nielson, professor of equine exercise physiology at Michigan State University, thinks there aren?t enough good things that can be said about the benefits of fresh forage.
?In the springtime, if you get the horse out there, they will be eating some good grass,? he says. ?That's when horses begin to slick off and get some dapple into their coats.?
Protein is one of the main factors in maintaining healthy skin and hair, and it's rare that horses--especially adults--are protein-deficient. A combination of fresh green grass, good quality hay and commercial feeds designed for horses generally contain all the protein that the animal requires.
Fat is also associated with healthy, shiny coats, and one of the best sources of fat is, once again, fresh forage. Unfortunately, not all farms boast expansive pastures, and some horse owners choose to incorporate essential fatty acids into their horse's diet through the administration of supplements. Eleanor cautions people to carefully read the content of these products before feeding them, because they might not contain the type of essential fatty acid that the horse requires.
Healthy hooves are also a key identifier on whether or not the horse is receiving the nutrition he requires, notes Preston R. Buff, former extension equine specialist at Mississippi State University. Yet if you are feeding a balanced diet, then most horses should boast healthy hooves.
?There are some horses that do have some poor hoof quality, and you can supplement, on a pharmacological level with biotin, and it has been shown by research that it improves the health of a hoof,? he says. ?If a horse already has a healthy hoof, then supplementing the biotin is not going to be effective in trying to improve the hoof.?
?Some of these supplements are really high in Omega 6, and you have to watch out for that,? Eleanor says, citing black oil sunflower seeds as an example. ?Horses don't need that many Omega 6?s, and if they eat too many of them, it can cause some problems with arthritis. You want to avoid black oil sunflower seeds. Corn oil and soy oil are fairly high in Omega 6 fatty acids as well.?
Omega 3?s are the better option, and Eleanor notes that stabilized flax is the best source of this fatty acid.
Remember, however, that the purpose behind feeding supplements is to provide what is lacking. If a horse is on fresh, green grass and being given enough salt and water, the chances of him requiring a supplement is relatively low, because grass usually contains everything that he needs. If he's only on pasture part of the time, and the other source of his forage is hay, have the hay analyzed to see what nutrients are in it, and which ones you have to supply through other sources, such as a commercial feed.
The danger with supplements is that if you're not able to pinpoint whether your horse actually has a vitamin or mineral deficiency, you may indeed cause one by feeding him a supplemental product, even with the best of intentions.
?When you start adding all sorts of supplements, you run into a problem of disrupting the balance and potentially creating a nutrient deficiency,? explains Preston. Preston suggests that in addition to good quality forage and/or hay, commercial feeds formulated specifically for horses do a good job of balancing out the horse's diet.
?All of the horse feeds that are specifically formulated are enriched with all of the vitamins and minerals that the horse needs, and they are balanced properly to do that,? he says.
Eleanor underlines that the feed must be designed for the horse you are feeding: Young, working horses, for example, have different requirements than elderly, retired ones. Once you choose a feed, make sure that you are following the directions. Otherwise, the horse won?t be receiving the benefits of all the nutrients that it contains.
?If the feeding directions say to feed five pounds a day, but your horse is obese and you only feed him one pound a day, in addition to cutting back on the calories, you are also cutting back on the vitamins and minerals that are supplementing what the hay is lacking,? Eleanor says. ?If you can't feed the amount that the manufacturer is recommending, you need to find another product that you can feed in a lesser amount. It might be just a vitamin or mineral supplement.?
Even if you are sure of every vitamin and mineral that a horse is receiving, the more elements you add into the mix ? such as supplements ? the more difficult it is to determine what's working, and what's not doing much at all.
?As we approach show season, that's when we start to feed supplements so that the horses look better,? says Brian D. Nielson, professor of equine exercise physiology at Michigan State University.
Show season and the increased feeding of supplements often coincide with springtime, when the horse starts to shed his winter coat, undergoes a deworming ? which improves rough coats considerably ? and spends an increased amount of time on fresh pasture.
?You have all of these other factors, and trying to separate out what is causing the improvement in the hair coat is really hard,? Brian says.
While providing a balanced diet is integral to a healthy, shiny coat and strong hooves, a lot remains to be said for the application of good, old-fashioned elbow grease.
?Keeping a horse clean and keeping the dirt off of a horse's body is going to help keep the coat shiny,? Preston says.
Sunlight can dull a glossy sheen or at least bleach out the coat if your horse doesn't have access to shade. Preston suggests that for those trying to keep their horses in show condition, limiting the time the horse spends in the sun is one way of keeping the coat vibrant.
?You can do things like turning the horse out in the pasture at night or providing a shady paddock to minimize the amount of sun.?
Flysheets also help protect the hair from being directly exposed to the sun.
When the elbow grease wears off, Brian reminds horse owners that there are a number of products designed to temporarily bring out that glossy sheen, such as Farnam?s Vetrolin Shine.
?I look at that as cheating,? he jokes, ?but it works.?
Find more feeding and showing tips on the AQHA's America's Horse Daily.