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How Equine Nutrition Affects Bone, Joint, and Muscle Health

The use of equine chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage specialists, and other alternative therapies have gone up exponentially in the past few years. It seems as though every other trainer out there has their chiropractor on speed dial or are using different therapeutic modalities for their horses. These services offered are wonderful. They add another layer to the heightened care our equines are getting these days.  In order to make sure these extra services are not being wasted, we need to make sure the basics of horse health are covered…including nutrition. Without proper nutrition for your equine athlete, senior horse, or really any horse, these therapeutic modalities will not have as much of a positive change on your horse. It would be like you going to the gym but always eating junk food…it is counterproductive to all the hard work you are putting your body through by exercising! Certain nutrients and management strategies are necessary to support bone, joint, and muscle health in your horses.


First, let’s address calcium and phosphorus. These two minerals make up 70% of the content of bone…so obviously these two minerals are worth examining in the context of your equine’s ration.  The ideal ration between calcium and phosphorus is 1.5:1 or better yet, 2:1. Commercial feeds are usually between .6%-1.1% in calcium and .4%-.6% in phosphorus. Grass hays are typically lower in calcium and alfalfa is higher in calcium. Individual ingredients vary in calcium and phosphorus levels. Rice bran for example is low in calcium high in phosphorus.  It is important to know how these common foods stack up regarding their calcium and phosphorus ratios because you need to plan your horses’ diets accordingly. For example, don’t load your horse up with large amounts of rice bran and then just feed a grass hay. You could alternatively balance out the phosphorus in the rice bran with calcium in an alfalfa hay or an alfalfa/grass mix.  When the diet has an inverted calcium to phosphorus ratio, the absorption of the calcium can be compromised.  This is obviously going to affect the integrity and health of the bones, increasing risk for skeletal injury.


Joint problems are rampant in the equine world…the number of different joint supplements on the market is enough evidence of that! A horse’s joints are affected in as early as its stage in life as a fetus. Broodmare nutrition affects the fetus’s joint cartilage from the very beginning. The foal needs balanced mineral ratios for proper cartilage formation. When feeding broodmares, make sure they have enough calories, protein, and are receiving a balanced number of vitamins and minerals.  If you need guidance on feeding your broodmare, see our blog, The Horses with the Highest Nutritional Demands, at www.excelequinefeeds.com under the blogs tab.  Another factor in joint health is the body condition score of your horse. Obesity can exacerbate Arthritis, both in humans and horses. If your horse is obese according to the body condition scoring system, then decide on your plan of action. First, think about utilizing a grazing muzzle and limiting time out on lush pasture. Second, decide if your horse needs grain. If your grass and hay are not sufficient in nutrients, then offer a Ration Balancer instead of a regular grain. And finally…make sure you are not feeding too much! For the overweight horse, feed 1% of bodyweight in forage per day and grain is not necessary. Broodmare nutrition and proper body weight are two important factors in your horse’s joints being properly cared for.


Now let’s talk about your horses’ muscles. One of the ailments that affect horses’ muscles quite often is tying up. Tying up can be caused by a Vitamin E deficiency, low electrolyte balance, low selenium, and an unbalanced calcium to phosphorus ratio. While most incidences of Tying up are not caused by nutrition, proper feeding practices can certainly help prevent or not exacerbate the condition. If your horse has frequent incidences of tying up, then try reducing the quantity of grain and increasing the quantity of fat added to the diet. This can be from switching to a higher fat feed or adding some high quality oil to your horse’s feed. Make sure the horse always has access to free choice salt to prevent low sodium from becoming a problem. Also, selecting a feed with higher Vitamin E and selenium levels can help. Providing enough calories to meet its exercise demands is another crucial factor. And finally, make sure your horse is receiving high quality fiber sources in its diet like beet pulp and soybean hulls.


So don’t be that person who goes to the gym and later binges on junk food!  Feed your horse so that it has the best chance at thriving after you utilize all these wonderful, new therapeutic modalities.  A horse that is healthy from its nutrition will be more likely to respond when the chiropractor or massage therapists come out to treat your equine patient.