Getting Nutritional Advice

Nutrition is a science that incorporates physiology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and biology. Nutrition is also as much a specialty as Orthopedics, Pharmacology, and more. Nutrition can be studied at the Masters degree or Ph.D. level.

Veterinarians are not taught much nutrition in school. Neither are M.D.s, Farriers and trimmers, chiropractors, body workers, barn owners, trainers, fellow owners, clerks at the feed store — and anyone else you can think of who does not have an advanced animal science or nutrition degree knows even less.

Does a horse owner know more than a cat owner? They know more about what is fed to horses, but not necessarily why. The why is where the true knowledge of nutrition comes in. What are the calorie, protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements? What types of foods and supplements are digestible, bioavailable, and well tolerated? What things are toxic and at what level?  And that’s just the beginning.

Like all science, equine nutrition evolves as we learn more. Some people say changing recommendations means that science is basically unreliable and worthless because it can change; however that change means it is evolving, refining, and improving. It still retains a core of basic facts that remains the foundation.

Despite the fact that nutrition is a complex science, myriads of unqualified people are doling out nutritional advice, either to sell something or because they want to make a “discovery”. The latest claim I heard is that equine metabolic problems, arthritis, and navicular can all be significantly improved by removing sulfates from the diet. This seems to refer to supplements in sulfate form, e.g., copper sulfate. The claim is that sulfate is pro-inflammatory and increases iron absorption. Problem is, that’s not true.

The second problem is that the vast majority of the sulfate in the horse’s body comes from water, sulfate in foods, and sulfate produced from the sulfur-containing amino acids. Stopping supplements in sulfate form would not have any significant effect – which is a good thing because sulfate is absolutely essential for life and health including production of the most widespread detoxifying, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory compound in the horse’s body: glutathione. The bottom line is that the whole claim is ridiculous.

Another claim trending at the moment is “whole food” feeds and supplements that claim to provide every nutrient the horse needs, with no supplementation of individual nutrients. I’m surprised the FDA and state Ag departments haven’t caught up with some of these feed companies yet. Their own analyses show they are not complete and adequate. The supplements don’t measure up either.

The truth is the more of these unsupplemented “whole foods” you give the horse in place of hay or grass, the more likely you are to have protein and mineral deficiencies. The only thing you can be guaranteed that this type of feed gives in adequate amounts is calories.

This list goes on and on. Some of it is just wacky, some actually dangerous, especially for special-needs situations like metabolic syndrome, or myopathies, and groups with very high needs for growth, lactation, pregnancy, or performance. Remember, nutrition is one of the few major contributors to your horse’s health that is completely within your control. There’s no place for unsubstantiated advice.