Adequate mineral intake in your horse’s diet is essential for overall well-being and function. Minerals play important roles in supporting tissue structure, enzyme reactions, energy metabolism, and maintaining electrolyte balance.

Mineral deficiencies can contribute to poor hoof and coat quality, joint issues, metabolic concerns, and growth issues. Excess intake of minerals can also cause health issues.

Minerals make up a small portion of the total equine diet, but can have a significant impact on your horse’s health and performance. These elements must be provided by the diet because they cannot be synthesized within the horse’s body.

Minerals that are required in larger amounts are known as macrominerals and include sodium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. Minerals required in smaller amounts are known as trace or microminerals and include selenium, copper, zinc, manganese, iron, iodine and cobalt.

Mineral requirements for your horse change depending on its age, reproductive status and activity level. The ratios of different minerals in the diet must also be carefully balanced to meet your horse’s needs and support optimal health and performance.

You can analyze your horse’s diet online to check the levels of different minerals provided by your feeding plan. Our equine nutritionists can also help you balance your horse’s diet for free.

Mineral Requirements for Horses

Minerals are inorganic elements that are required in the horse’s diet in relatively small amounts compared to macronutrients.

The National Research Council’s (NRC) Nutrient Requirements for Horses (2007) outlines recommended intake levels of most minerals based on available research in horses or extrapolation from other species.

NRC requirements for minerals and vitamins represent the minimum required to prevent symptoms of deficiency. NRC values do not necessarily reflect requirements for optimal health which is why most nutritionists will recommend supplementing above NRC levels.

Macrominerals are typically required in quantities measured by grams whereas trace or microminerals are typically required in quantities expressed by milligrams (one thousandth of a gram).

Minerals are found in small amounts in forages, grains, horse feeds and in other additives used in the horse’s diet. The levels of minerals in forages and crops vary depending on the soil mineral levels, plant species and harvest conditions.

These nutrients are supplied as organic compounds (bound to carbon atoms) and inorganic compounds (no carbon atoms present); organic mineral complexes tend to be better absorbed and utilized in the horse’s body.

It is important to note that minerals are rarely present in the horse’s diet at the correct amounts or ratios unless a horse is being fed a mineral and vitamin supplement at the recommended feeding rate. In a study of 200 equine diets, over 90% were found to be deficient in one or more important trace minerals or vitamins. (Bruggink et al., 2018 unpublished)

In a recent review, Mad Barn analyzed the diets of over 6,500 horses for nutritional deficiencies. The vast majority of diets were over-supplying energy and protein while undersupplying key electrolytes and antioxidant minerals.

It is always recommended to submit forage samples for analysis to determine their mineral content and guide appropriate supplementation strategies to meet your horse’s needs.

Well-balanced vitamin and mineral supplements can help fill in any gaps in dietary intake from forage, grains and other feedstuffs.

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Macrominerals

Macrominerals are required in the horse’s diet in larger amounts. The quantities required are usually represented as a percentage of total dry matter in the diet or as grams per kilogram of feed.

The macrominerals for horses are:

  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Phosphorus (K)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Sulfur (S)
  • Sodium (Na)
  • Chloride (Cl)

These macrominerals are involved in the structure and function of tissues including bone formation, muscle contractions, fluid balance in cells, and nerve transmission.

Calcium & Phosphorus

Calcium and phosphorus have well-established roles in maintaining strong bones and teeth. Almost 99% of calcium and 80% of phosphorus in the body can be found in the bones and teeth.

These minerals are also important for supporting enzymatic reactions and they are components of cell membranes.

The levels of calcium and phosphorus in the diet need to fall within a specific ratio to ensure proper absorption and function.

Roles of calcium:

  • Structure and function of bone
  • Muscle contraction
  • Nerve signal transmission
  • Function of cell membranes
  • Enzymatic co-factor
  • Blood coagulation

Roles of phosphorus:

  • Structure and function of bone
  • Component of cell membranes in the form of phospholipids and phosphoproteins
  • Component of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) – the major energy currency of cells

Requirements:

Requirements for calcium and phosphorus have been published by the NRC for horses that are growing, horses that are pregnant, and for horses at maintenance.

Maintenance: A 500 kg (1100 lb) mature horse at maintenance requires 20 grams of calcium and 14.3 grams of phosphorus. This is equivalent to a Ca:P ratio of 1.4:1.

Gestation: During the last 3 months of gestation, an additional 0.032 grams of calcium are needed per kg of bodyweight. For a 500 kg mare, this minimum requirement is equivalent to 36 grams of calcium per day. Phosphorus requirements increase to minimum of 26 grams per day. This is equivalent to a Ca:P ratio of 1.4:1.

Lactation: During peak lactation, calcium and phosphorus requirements for a 500 kg mare are 56 grams and 36 grams per day, respectively.

Growth: The calcium requirement for a growing horse is based on the current body weight and predicted daily growth. For a yearling that will reach a mature weight of 500 kg, the calcium and phosphorus requirements are estimated at 37 grams and 20 grams per day. This represents a higher Ca:P ratio of approximately 1.8:1.

In general, calcium and phosphorus should be given in at least equal amounts (1:1 ratio), but preferably higher levels of calcium to phosphorus.

A ratio between 1.2:1 and 1.5:1 (20% to 50% higher calcium than phosphorus) is considered ideal for most horses.

For growing horses, Ca:P ratios up to 6:1 are acceptable for growth as long as the phosphorus requirement is met. However, overall at this upper calcium: phosphorus ratio, bone mineral density is less and the cortical (outer) bone area, where weightbearing occurs, is smaller thus weaker. [22]

Sources:

All foods contain calcium and phosphorus but in varying amounts. For example, legume hays, such as alfalfa and clover, are good sources of calcium. Alfalfa typically contains 0.8 – 2% calcium and 0.1 – 0.3% phosphorus, on a dry matter basis.

Grains such as oats, barley, and corn, contain lower amounts of calcium (0.05 – 0.1% dry matter) and higher phosphorus levels (0.3 – 0.4% dry matter). Horses on high plain grain diets often require mineral supplements that contain added calcium to ensure the appropriate ratio is maintained. Commercial grains typically have calcium added to balance high-phosphorus ingredients.

Wheat bran is an excellent source of phosphorus with 0.16% calcium and 1.08% phosphorus on average. Phosphorus is typically bound within phytate in cereal grains and hay. Unlike humans, horses can absorb phosphorus from phytate. The organisms in their hind gut appear to free the phosphorus. Feeding additional phytase does not improve absorption in the horse. [23]

For horses with high calcium and phosphorus requirements, such as lactating mares, a mash with 2 parts alfalfa pellets and 1 part wheat bran is very palatable and supplies calcium and phosphorus in a ratio of 1.8:1.

Supplemental calcium is also commonly given in the form of calcium carbonate (limestone), sulfate or oxide. All supplemental calcium sources demonstrate approximately 50% absorption rate in the digestive tract of horses.

Supplemental phosphorus is commonly given as inorganic sources, including monosodium phosphate or monocalcium phosphate.

Monosodium phosphate tends to have lower iron contamination and is the preferred source for horses with metabolic concerns such as insulin resistance, Cushing’s disease (PPID) or otherwise high iron intake.

Deficiency Symptoms:

Horses fed sub-optimal levels of these minerals or a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio less than 1:1, are at risk of deficiency symptoms.

Horses, like all animals, maintain strict control of calcium levels in the blood. When levels in the blood drop, hormones trigger calcium mobilization from bone, increased kidney retention, and enhanced gut absorption.

Long-term intake of low calcium or phosphorus can result in weak bone structure known as osteomalacia.

Lactating mares often lose bone density in the first year post-foaling because calcium and phosphorus are mobilized from bone tissue. This is usually normalized by 24 months, unless she is bred back in which case the bone loss will be cu