Feeding for Healthy Skin
A horse with a gleaming coat is something that owners strive for and, in order to achieve this, the skin needs to be healthy and supple.
However, the benefits of healthy skin go beyond a shiny coat, as the skin has many functions. It acts as a barrier, is involved in temperature regulation, and contains an extensive network of nerves which allows the horse to detect things he comes into contact with. The healthier his skin, the more resistant it will be to trauma (e.g. as a result of sweet-itch) and infection (e.g. mud fever).
A well-balanced diet is essential for healthy skin
The first thing to ensure is that a horse receives ample forage, as a diet low in fibre will lead to poor skin quality and a dull coat. It is also important to check that his molars are grinding well, as the hindgut microflora need fibre that is ground down to a small particle size (1-2mm) in order to digest the fibre fully.
In addition, the major nutrients provided by hard feed i.e. protein and simple carbohydrates should be supplied in the correct quantities to maintain good condition, as a horse in poor condition will often have a poor coat and skin.
Protein is a key component of the skin, with keratin and collagen (both proteins) being responsible for the skin’s structure and integrity. Keratin is particularly rich in sulphur-containing, branched-chain amino acids, such as methionine and cysteine. These will be supplied by products containing high quality protein from e.g. soya and linseed.
Fatty acids help to maintain supple skin. Essential fatty acids, mainly omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are both involved but omega-3 fatty acids appear to play a larger role in the management of inflammatory skin conditions, such as insect bite hypersensitivity (sweet-itch) and in the suppleness of the skin itself. The oil in grass contains at least 50% omega-3 fatty acids but a lot of these are destroyed during the hay-making process. Conversely these omega-3 fatty acids are largely undamaged by the swift, high-temperature drying used to make grass chops, so they can be a useful, natural source when fed in sufficient quantities.
The addition of linseed helps produce a supple skin and shiny coat not only because of its oil content and composition, but also because of its mucopolysaccharide content.
Zinc is well known as a source of support for good skin in many animal species. This is largely because of its role in cell membranes, supporting the maintenance and repair of skin. Zinc is also involved in the formation of keratin and collagen, as is copper.
The enzyme that produces melanin, the pigment that colours the skin, has copper as an important co-factor but also needs zinc.
Copper and zinc levels can be low in many UK pastures, and the hay or haylage made from them, so supplementation in hard feed is necessary. Occasionally a horse’s diet contains excess iron, which can suppress the utilisation of copper but simply adding extra copper to a diet is not the solution and expert nutritional advice is needed to ensure correct trace-mineral balance.
Iodine, which is an important hormone co-factor for growth, is also important for skin health and repair.
Biotin, a B vitamin, is important for good skin quality. The level of biotin that has been proven to promote good hoof quality (15mg/500kg horse/day), is also recommended for the skin.
The anti-oxidants, vitamins A, C and E, would logically have a role in the promotion of supple skin. Vitamin A’s role centres around the formation and protection of skin. Vitamins E and C are more concerned with just the protection of the skin, the former working in conjunction with the trace-element, selenium. Again, care must be taken to avoid excess selenium in the diet.
One good, fully-balanced way to supply the nutrients required for healthy skin, is to feed an appropriate top-specification feed balancer or multi-supplement that includes a hoof supplement. A top-specification conditioning balancer is ideal for horses needing to gain weight. Whereas, a ‘lite’ balancer or top-specification multi-supplement would be more suitable for good-doers.
Article supplied by nutritionists from the TopSpec Multiple Award-Winning-Helpline. They can be contacted, free of charge, on 01845-565030.