Is hair analysis a reliable way to evaluate your horse’s mineral status?

Mineral testing is an important aspect of monitoring your horse’s health, especially if forages in your area are known to be deficient or excessive in a given nutrient. Horses with certain medical conditions may also need frequent monitoring of mineral levels.

In horses, mineral status is most commonly assessed through blood testing, hair samples or by evaluating intake with a forage analysis. These methods each have advantages and disadvantages that impact their usefulness.

Hair sample analysis is convenient, but few reference ranges have been established for mineral levels in equine hair, making interpretation of results difficult.

Hair analysis is currently only considered reliable for assessing heavy metal levels in the horse’s body.

If you are concerned about your horse’s mineral status, consult with your veterinarian about the best form of testing given your horse’s health issue(s). Some signs that your horse may have abnormal mineral status include poor or abnormal growth, dull coat, lethargy or changes in appetite.

Hair Mineral Analysis for Horses

Hair mineral analysis is conducted by cutting hair from your horse’s mane or tail and sending it to a laboratory for analysis.

The theory is that mineral concentrations in the hair will tell you if your horse’s diet is deficient or excessive in any minerals.

Hairs from the mane and tail are used because these hairs grow continuously throughout the year and are not affected by seasonal shedding. [1]

A hair mineral analysis report will typically provide levels of:

  • Macrominerals: Calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium
  • Trace minerals: Zinc, copper, selenium, iron, chromium, manganese, cobalt, boron, molybdenum
  • Heavy metals: Arsenic, cadmium, lead , aluminum, mercury

Purported Advantages

As a potential marker for mineral status, hair is appealing for several reasons:

  • Easy to obtain – a horse owner can collect the sample
  • Easy to store – can be placed in a plastic bag and stored at room temperature without degrading
  • Long-term status – may provide information on mineral intake throughout the lifespan of the hair strands [2]
  • Not as tightly regulated – May not be under homeostatic control (unlike blood concentrations)
  • Measures accumulation – Some minerals become concentrated in the hair, making them easier to measure [3]

Better Alternatives

Although hair analysis is an appealing option, it is not the best approach for assessing your horse’s mineral status, as will be discussed below.

The best way to estimate how well your horse’s mineral requirements are being met is to submit a forage sample for analysis and evaluate your horse’s dietary intake.

An equine nutritionist can help you determine how well your feeding program meets your horse’s needs and how best to balance the diet.

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Is Hair Mineral Analysis Accurate?

Minerals from circulating blood may be deposited in the hair as it grows. In theory, mineral levels in hair could reflect long-term nutritional status. [4]

However, whether mineral deposition in hair directly correlates with mineral