Copper & Coat Color

We often talk about copper and its role in coat color. Copper is part of an enzyme called tyrosinase which is essential for the production of melanin. Melanin is what gives the skin, hair and eyes their color.

So it makes sense that copper deficiency would cause a change in coat color! If an animal doesn’t have enough copper, they don’t make enough melanin and if they don’t have enough melanin they can’t color their coat.

Hereford cattle are my ‘copper deficiency canaries’… their coat color fades quite quickly when they become copper deficient. So they show me areas around the country that are low in copper (which is almost everywhere). Where herefords should normally be a rich liver red color, copper deficient herefords become a burnt orange color.

The ones shown in the photo here are on a farm not far from where I live. Having been in drought conditions for well over a year now they are likely deficient in almost everything, but certainly the copper deficiency is showing in their coats!

Copper deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies I see in equine diets. And unfortunately copper deficiency affects many things including hoof and joint health in all horses, increased susceptibility to uterine artery rupture in foaling mares and higher incidence of OCD joint lesions in young horses. Really recommend using FeedXL to check your horse’s copper intake.

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How to feed a horse that won’t sweat

Anhydrosis, or the inability to sweat is a serious condition that affects horses in hot and humid climates. Horses rely heavily on sweating to cool themselves down and keep their core body temperature within a normal range. Sweat wets the horse’s skin and then as it evaporates it takes heat with it, effectively creating an evaporative cooling system for the horse.

In some horses however, for reasons largely still unknown a horse’s sweat glands either partially or fully quit producing sweat. These horses find it very difficult to stay cool and need to resort to offloading heat via their lungs by breathing harder and faster than you would expect them to, which is why horses with this condition are often said to ‘have the puffs’.

In many situations though, puffing is not effective enough, so horses that can’t sweat are at serious risk of hyperthermia which wreaks all sorts of havoc in the body and if not dealt with effectively will eventually result in death.

The right feeding strategy may help

While we don’t understand what causes anhydrosis it does appear that for some horses certain nutritional strategies can help. Tips for feeding horses with anhydrosis include:

1. Always provide access to free choice rock salt

It is likely some horses stop sweating simply because they run out of electrolytes. The major electrolytes found in sweat are sodium, chloride and potassium. The two most commonly deficient electrolytes in a horse’s diet are sodium and chloride and these are the components of ordinary old salt.

A horse will seek salt out when it knows it needs it, so providing free access to rock salt allows them to eat as much or as little as they need to meet their requirements.
In very hot and humid climates I would avoid the use of salt blocks as it is difficult for a horse to lick enough salt off to meet requirements when they need a lot of salt.

2. Use an electrolyte supplement, especially if the horse is in work

Electrolyte supplements allow a horse to very quickly replenish electrolyte supplies after work. Be sure to look for an electrolyte with a balance of electrolytes that match the amounts found in a horse’s sweat and for a product that is not full of glucose or sugar with very little of the actual electrolyte minerals (i.e. sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium and magnesium).

3. Feed controlled amounts of protein

Diets that are too high in protein have a couple of negative effects on horses that can’t sweat.

The first is that protein generates a lot of heat during the process of digestion and metabolism which adds to the heat load a horse needs to get rid of to keep its body temperature normal. For most horses this is usually not an issue as they are able to sweat and easily dissipate the excess heat. But when a horse isn’t able to sweat, it just makes their job of staying cool even more difficult.

The second is that when protein is fed in excess the horse needs to get rid of the excess nitrogen contained in the protein. In a healthy horse the kidneys perform this task without hassle. BUT a lot of water and electrolyte are excreted with the nitrogen, so potentially it can lead to dehydration and electrolyte deficiency, neither of which will help a horse that can’t sweat properly in the first place.

To keep protein in diets low, restrict the amount of forages and feeds that are high in protein like lucerne, copra meal, lupins, faba beans, sunflower/soybean/canola meals, pollard and rice bran and rely more on grassy pasture and hay, oils, low protein fibres like beet pulp and lower protein cooked cereal grains (where it is safe to do so). will help you to keep track of the amount of protein in your horse’s diet.

4. For horses in work, consider using a lower forage diet

When the fibre contained in forages is fermented in the hindgut a lot of heat is produced which then increases the amount of heat a horse needs to get rid of to keep its body temperature normal. By reducing the amount of forage and therefore the amount of fibre in a diet you will reduce the heat load placed on a horse.

To maintain the horse’s required energy intake you can add oil (the best option as it produces the least heat) and/or cooked grains to the diet. It is essential that you feed well-cooked grains, with extruded grains being the best option, as the starch contained within these grains will be digested in the small intestine. Feeding uncooked or poorly cooked grains will lead to a lot of fermentation and heat production in the hindgut and should be avoided for all horses in hot climates.

Please note: Never reduce forage intake below 1 kg/100 kg of bodyweight and be mindful of the increased risk of stomach ulcers for horses on low forage diets. Using slow feeders is highly recommended. It is also essential to have your horse’s stomach full of forage before it is worked.

5. Make sure the diet you feed is balanced

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some mineral and vitamin deficiencies may contribute to a horse’s inability to sweat. The best way to counteract this is to make sure what you are feeding is meeting all of your horse’s requirements for macro and trace-minerals and vitamins. FeedXL.comwill make sure you can achieve this!

If you have a horse with anhydrosis it is strongly recommended you seek veterinary advice. Aggressive environmental management of these horses to keep them cool is the best way to manage their condition.

Useful management strategies include:

1. Always provide access to shade and cool to cold drinking water.

2. Keep them under fans and water misters where possible during the day.

3. Turn them out at night only if possible.

4. Only work them if your veterinarian advises it is safe to do so and then only work them during the very early morning when it is coolest and only to the level they can comfortably handle.

5. Cool them down quickly and effectively with hosing and fans post work until their rectal temperature has returned to normal.

6. If these strategies aren’t effective in keeping your horse’s body temperature within a safe range, the horse will need to be moved south to a cooler climate.

Often, and again for reasons we don’t understand, horses will start to sweat again when they move to a cooler environment.

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What should you do if you think your horse has a mycotoxin problem?

Mycotoxins can contaminate almost everything your horse eats and can cause significant health and behavioural issues. The problem is, figuring out what is causing the problems you are seeing and suspect may be mycotoxins isn’t always easy. This post is going to help you answer the question: what should you do if you think your horse has a mycotoxin problem?

Why mycotoxin binders may (or may not) help

Often when someone suspects mycotoxins they will add a mycotoxin binder to the horse’s feed. Sometimes it will help. But often it may not and this will normally lead a horse owner to the conclusion that the problem isn’t mycotoxins and they continue to struggle along, baffled by what is causing the changes in health or behaviour for their horse.

The problem is, not all mycotoxin binders will bind all mycotoxins. It’s also really very hard to mix mycotoxin binders well enough in a horse’s gut with the forage they eat to actually come into contact and either bind or destroy all mycotoxin. So even if you get the right binder, it may not get the chance to come into contact with the mycotoxins in the horse’s gut to allow it to do its job.

For more information on mycotoxin binders (and what to consider before adding one) click here.

For more detailed info you can read our full article on mycotoxin binders here.

How to know for sure if it’s a mycotoxin problem

Here is what I (Nerida) would do…

Let’s say for example a horse has started to show changes in behaviour: spookiness, aggressiveness or overly herd bound and always wanting their mates. You suspect it is pasture mycotoxins from your ryegrass pasture (sound familiar anyone?!). The best thing to do is to take your horse COMPLETELY off the pasture for a period of time and replace the pasture with hay that is not ryegrass and see if the behaviour settles down.

Doing this completely removes the suspected pasture toxins from the diet and you will see quite quickly if it was the cause of your issues. If the problem settles once the mycotoxin contaminated feed or forage is removed from the diet, you have identified your suspect and now it becomes a matter of managing the problem.

This may involve keeping the horse off pasture completely at high risk times (for example when your ryegrass is overgrazed or gone to seed). You may only allow grazing for short periods of time to limit mycotoxin intake or you may allow your horse to graze but feed an appropriate mycotoxin binder regularly during the grazing period to give it the best chance of coming into contact with the pasture mycotoxins in the gut so it can bind or destroy them.

What not to do…

What I don’t recommend is JUST adding a mycotoxin binder to see if you can make the problem go away. There are many reasons why the issue may be mycotoxins but adding a binder won’t help much. It is much better to take whatever it is you suspect is adding mycotoxin to your horse’s diet away completely. Then there is no grey area of maybe it is/maybe it isn’t… 

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What to consider before adding a mycotoxin binder to your horse’s diet

Mycotoxins are nasty little things… toxins produced by fungi that can contaminate feed and forages. They are only needed in tiny amounts (like parts per billion) to have some quite dramatic negative health effects on all animals and different mycotoxins will work together to magnify their negative effects. Read on for more info on what to consider before adding a mycotoxin binder to your horse’s diet.

For horses we mostly deal with pasture based mycotoxins, produced by the endophyte fungi that like to live with ryegrass and fescue; the ergovaline and lolitrem mycotoxins. Horse owners are starting to use toxin binders to counteract the negative effects these mycotoxins have on health and the quite dramatic effects they can have on behaviour.

But, there are lots of different binders and a lot of different toxins…

Do all binders bind all mycotoxins?

In a word… no! And this is where a major key lies to whether mycotoxin binders will work to prevent pasture associated mycotoxin poisoning or not. For example, it has been shown that glucomannan from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is very effective at binding aflatoxin (one of the most important and prevalent mycotoxins present in grain based livestock feeds) and good ability to bind the fumonisin and zearalenone mycotoxins, but it is ineffective when it comes to binding other important mycotoxins like T-2 (trichothecene), DON (deoxynivalenol) and ochratoxin.

Why don’t all binders work on all mycotoxins?

One of the reasons some binders can bind some mycotoxins and not others depends on the mycotoxin itself and whether it is polar (possessing an electrical charge) or not. Aflatoxin, for example, is a polar mycotoxin and is very easily ‘picked up’ by a yeast derived glucomannan based binder (which are the most common mycotoxin binders on the market for horses). The pasture based mycotoxins ergovaline and lolitrem B on the other hand are non-polar (no charge). That means trying to pick them up with a yeast cell wall based toxin binder is sort of like trying to pick up a piece of paper with a magnet … it just won’t work.

So if you want to use a mycotoxin binder be careful to select one that is going to work on the actual mycotoxin you are dealing with, otherwise it will be an ineffective waste of money for you, and that is never fun!

For more detailed info you can read our full article on mycotoxin binders here.

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How much should you feed your horse in a day?

Sometimes feeding more gives your horse less.

When we exceed about 2.5 to 3% of a horse’s bodyweight in feed per day (so 12.5 to 15 kg for a 500 kg horse) the feed starts to move really quickly through the gut. Problem is, digestion, and particularly fiber digestion takes time. Fiber is digested via fermentation in the hindgut (more on how that works here) and fiber fermentation is a slow process. So feed needs to just have the time to hang about in the hindgut for a fair while (like 24 to 48 hours).

When we feed too much, feed gets pushed through the gut really quickly (essentially as it comes in the front end it gets shoved out the back) and it will only be partially digested… so you may be feeding a lot, but your horse doesn’t have full opportunity to digest it.

Think about it like this…

If I gave you a pool noodle, one of the ones with a hole in it, and told you to keep it perfectly flat/horizontal and then gave you a small bucket of marbles to push through the noodle… you would poke them in one end (and assuming it’s flat so they don’t just roll out) they would only start coming out the other end once the entire noodle was full and as you pushed one in, one should come out… make sense?

Now suppose I told you you had to take 10 minutes to put all of the marbles through the noodle… you would need to take your time in poking one in so they didn’t come out too fast.

Now, if I gave you a bucket of marbles 3 times the size of the original bucket and told you to also push all of these through the pool noodle in 10 minutes you would have to do it three times as fast to get them all done in time. When you feed too much this is what happens, feed goes in one end and comes out the other too fast and only partially digested.

In a lot of cases, less is more!

Feeding less gives the feed time to sit around and move slowly through the gut, allowing it to be fully digested. Not much sense making expensive manure right?!

Take a look at your feed program and feed amounts and see if this might apply… often when we try to push for weight gain we get stuck in this trap of feeding too much and it doesn’t seem logical to feed less to get more weight gain. But trust me on this one, it really does work this way!

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What you should know about phosphorus and phytate

Phosphorus! Horses are unique because they absorb phosphorus from their hindgut… which is a stroke of genius on a horses part… here is why.

Phosphorus in grains, legumes/oilseeds is bound up in a compound called phytate. ‘Phytate bound phosphorus’ is as good as indigestible for most monogastrics who absorb phosphorus from their small intestine (like pigs and poultry).

But horses enlist the help of their oh so useful hindgut bacteria to break down the phytate for them and release the phosphorus for absorption! Clever!!

So if you ever read statements about specific ingredients like soybean meal containing indigestible phosphorus because they contain phytate, think two things:

1. ALL grains and legumes/oilseeds contain phytate; and
2. Horses have got a useful arrangement with bacteria and a different site of absorption (their hindgut) that allows them to access the phosphorus.

Its a very well designed aspect of the horse’s gastrointestinal tract!!

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Gastric ulcer medications and their effect on digestion

Q: Does gastric ulcer medication reduce nutrient digestion in horses?

Someone asked me this in a recent seminar and it reminded me that when I was studying during my PhD tenure we had looked at the effect of pre-incubating grains in equine stomach fluid on the digestion of starch from those grains.

And what we found was that starch from grains that were exposed to equine stomach fluid before being digested by small intestinal enzymes was between 17% (extruded rice) and 104% (cracked triticale) MORE digested than starch that wasn’t exposed to the stomach fluid. So the stomach fluid was having a definite positive influence on the digestion of starch.

What we can’t say from this research was how much of this increased starch digestion was due to the stomach acid and how much was due to the protein digesting enzymes the are present in stomach fluid that would be starting protein digestion and making access to the grain starch easier for the starch digesting enzymes in the small intestine.

The thing to remember though is that the protein digesting enzymes in a horse’s stomach fluid rely on the stomach acid to activate them. So regardless of whether the improved digestion was due to the acid itself or the protein digesting enzymes, if you stop acid production using ulcer medications you will lose both the acid and the enzymes.

So, if we use medications like ranitidine and omeprazole to reduce gastric acid secretion in horses we are very likely reducing the digestion of at least some nutrients further down the gastrointestinal tract.
What to do??? Well, if your horse has ulcers this is by far the most important consideration, you need to medicate to get rid of the ulcers as quickly and as effectively as you can.

BUT, once the ulcers are gone it is recommended you use good management practices to keep your horses chewing, their stomachs full and buffered with saliva and their minds calm instead of constantly using medication to prevent ulcers. That way you are allowing their gastrointestinal tract to function the way it was designed (albeit I would love the opportunity to redesign parts of their gut!) and allowing the digestion process to be as effective as possible.

More info on feeding to prevent ulcers in our article ‘Avoiding Gastric Ulcers’ here

Happy to share the method for the in vitro assay used to conduct this work with anyone who would like the details!

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Do high sugar forages make horses fatter?

This is a question we are often asked and my standard response has always been ‘well, it depends on the calorie content of the forage’, which has always then made me wonder about the relationship between forage NSC and digestible energy content.

In looking at 13 pasture samples from one farm it seems the higher the NSC content, the higher the digestible energy (calorie) content. The pastures shown here were all sampled between 11 am and 2 pm on the same day. They were all dried at the same time and all were analyzed by Equi-Analytical.

For interest I plotted the Digestible Energy (calorie) value against the pasture non-structural carbohydrate (NSC = starch + water soluble carbohydrates) content and while this certainly isn’t publishable data the trend is pretty clear for this particular set of pastures in that as NSC increases so does digestible energy… which makes very logical sense given the NSC is a source of calories so the more NSC, the more calories.

So perhaps my answer should be ‘yes, high NSC forages will make your horses fatter faster than low NSC forages!’. And therefore yes, it makes sense to feed a low NSC forage when you are trying to achieve weight loss or avoid weight gain in your easy keepers.

For some tips on feeding an easy keeper see

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Soft manure in horses on fresh lucerne/alfalfa hay? Try this!

Lucerne/Alfalfa… if it is really fresh and green it will often cause scouring/diarrhea. We don’t know (as far as I’m aware) what causes the scouring, BUT my observation over the years is that once it is stored for a few months the problem goes away (hence the old advice to always feed ‘shedded’ hay)… so whatever it is in lucerne/alfalfa that causes the issue seems to be volatile and disappears after a while.

The issue at the moment for many of us is hay is in such short supply that all we can get is very fresh lucerne! We don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of months for it to lose whatever it is that makes our horses scour… here is what you can do!

Take your bales, open them up and spread the pieces (biscuits, flakes, leaves… we call them all sorts of funny things depending on where you are in the world!) apart and let them sit for about a week (longer if you have the luxury of time) to air out. You should find that your horse’s gut will be much happier with it once it has had this chance to air out. If your hay seems particularly rich and is making horses scour badly try also sitting it in the sun.

I have dealt with lucerne/alfalfa in a polo stable in Asia actually bursting horses’ stomachs! 😮 was horrible!! But once we got them to start airing and sunning the hay like this (it was imported from the USA) the problem thankfully stopped. Its the only time I have heard of that with lucerne/alfalfa and hopefully the only time!

Anyway, if you are dealing with soft manure in horses on fresh lucerne/alfalfa give this a try. Would love to know what happens if you have time to leave a comment on Facebook.

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How to feed a horse confined to a stable

Feeding a horse confined to a stable… it’s a balancing act… give them plenty of feed to keep them occupied but not so much you have them climbing them walls. Here is a little help on how to do it!

Horses are sometimes required to be confined due to illness or injury with no exercise allowed. It’s certainly not ideal for a horse, but, with some diseases, injuries and surgeries it is critical that a horse does stay confined AND calm for long periods of time.

As it does for so many things, nutrition… what you feed and how much, makes a very real difference to how well a horse will cope during confinement!

Horses will express the amount of calories they are being fed in their diet in their behaviour. So if you feed them a lot of energy (calories) they will give you a lot of energy! Which means feeding a confined horse needs to walk that fine line of enough calories to hold weight so that healing/recovery can occur but not so much that behavior becomes a problem… either from your own safety perspective or for their own safety (the last thing you need an injured horse doing is climbing the walls of a box!).

Where it gets really tricky is that mentally they need enough to eat to keep them occupied and of course we need to keep the stomach full to lower the ever present risk of ulcers!

So it’s a classic catch 22… How do we feed lots to keep them munching all day without exceeding their calorie requirement??

The answer is in low quality, low calorie hay! If you can find it!! Average quality grassy hay is perfect for these horses because it is low in calories, meaning they can eat a lot of it without blowing their calorie budget. Plus it’s often stemmy and requires a lot of chewing, so it keeps them busy for long periods and makes them salivate a lot which is great for maintaining the health of their stomach. And they don’t particularly like it, so they won’t eat it really quickly… a benefit in keeping them busy and preventing ulcers!

Of course you can’t just feed average quality grass hay, there would be deficiencies in the diet everywhere that would hinder recovery and general health.

My go to with these horses is average quality grassy hay, a portion of alfalfa/lucerne hay and a high quality balancer pellet for vitamins and minerals… which gives you the quantity/bulk you need to keep the horse sane and it’s gut healthy, the high quality protein needed for healing and it will cover all the vitamin and mineral needs.

FeedXL is a really handy tool when feeding these horses, allowing you to keep a close eye on calories but also making sure you don’t leave deficiencies in the diet that will hinder the healing process… which will help get your horse out of confinement as quickly as possible!!

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