The condition of a horse’s hair coat reveals a great deal of informat ion regarding its overall health. When the elements in a horse’s lifestyle are favourable, a vibrant, shiny hair coat along with a full mane and tail are its natural expression. Nutrition and movement are the primary influences of such expression.
One of the best examples of how the quality of the skin and hair coat is connected to diet is the improved coat sheen that comes to horses within weeks of grazing on new spring pastures. Spring grasses are rich in fatty acids, especially omega- 3s, vitamin C, protein and water. These elements are at their season’s highest in June and produce tremendous hair coats in horses.
The closest nutritional equivalent to green grass is flaxseed. Fed at one-quarter cup to one-half cup daily, flaxseed provides valuable omega-3 fatty acids. In addition flaxseed has a quality protein value of 18-20 per cent, which can help fill protein gaps in feeding programs. Flaxseed can be fed whole, since nutrients are extracted through dental grinding and soaking in the horse’s digestive brine.
A balanced dietary mineral profile is also key to a healthy coat. Pigments that give bays, blacks, and chestnuts their colouring require adequate trace minerals such as copper and zinc. Since the full complement of these pigments protects the hair coat from ultraviolet radiation, their lack results in a lustreless, frayed hair coat that is prone to reddening or bleaching with exposure to sunlight. The individual hairs will develop a terminal “fishhook.”
The nature of a horse’s mane and tail are also indicators of mineral health, even though their growth and fullness are slower to respond to nutrient influences. Providing a balanced mineral free-choice product is of great benefit to the health of a horse’s coat, mane, and tail.
Since a parasite burden interferes with a horse’s ability to assimilate nutrients, attentive deworming is advisable. Since growth of bones, muscles and tissue is of a higher priority for nutrients than a hair coat, parasite burdens become even more obvious in younger horses. Young horses with fuzzy, poorly shed-out hair coats may be carrying a parasite burden.
Other illnesses may be reflected in a horse’s hair coat and skin condition because the body pools resources to tend the illness, reducing the nutrient distribution to the hair coat and skin.
Skin and hair coat are also related to a horse’s movement. All muscles and cells in the body benefit from daily exercise, including those in the skin which provide tone and elasticity. The improved blood circulation brings oxygen and nourishment to the skin, and the flow of sweat and oils creates a skin surface which is less hospitable for bacteria and fungi.
Stress in a horse’s lifestyle often becomes visible in the hair coat. Ringworm and girth itch are examples of fungal infections that merely point out an overtaxed immune system and likely an overtaxed horse, physically and/or mentally.
Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian specializing in equine practice at Westlock, Alberta.
horse’smaneandtail arealsoindicators ofmineralhealth.