You may have heard – your horse needs his vitamins.
In fact, you may have heard, and heard, and heard that your horse needs his vitamins. You may have been able to find a page in a horse magazine that isn’t advertising vitamins. At this point, you may even believe that your horse in on the edge of a nutritional cliff, kept from falling into a life of insufficiency, poor health, and disease only through the addition of any number of essential substances, including VITAMINS!
Here’s a typical pitch – “Seven out of ten horses aren’t getting a full serving of fortified grain or complete feed, according to our survey. That means they may not be getting all of the vitamins and minerals needed to meet their nutrient requirements..” (Taken from the SmartPak® Equine Website on January 4th, 2017, just for the record).
Wow. Really? Are 7 out of 10 horses may be on death’s doorstep because they don’t get a full serving of fortified grain? Really?
Really, it’s not like that. And let’s not even mention that grain’s not the best thing that you can feed to most horses anyway – but that’s another story.
First, a bit of vitamin history. It’s been known be people for some time that there was something in foods that helped prevent some diseases. For example, the British Navy noticed that sailors who had citrus didn’t get scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency) a couple of hundred years before vitamin C was “discovered.” It was always there, but people finally found out about it, and gave it a name, sort of like what happened with electricity, or magnetism. But it wasn’t until 1905 that an Englishman, William Fletcher, determined that if special factors were removed from food, disease occurred. Fletcher found that if people ate unpolished rice, they didn’t get beriberi – thiamine deficiency – but if the rice was polished, they did. In 1912, a Polish scientist, Cashmir Funk, coined the term vitamin, by combining the words “vital” (as in life) and “amine” because they were thought to contain amino acids, the building blocks of protein (which they don’t). The lettering system of vitamins (A, B, C, and so forth) was introduced in 1920.
A number of scientists got into the act, identified various vitamins, and correctly noted that they were important for health. And vitamins are important for health – different vitamins assist in a number of critical metabolic functions.
OK, now that we have the fact that vitamins are important out of the way – nobody is going to argue that point – I need to let you in one one other little bit of information. Vitamins are so important that the horse is generally able to obtain all of them that he needs in his diet. If you like “natural,” you should be thrilled by this news. Mother Nature was so smart when she made the horse (NOTE: In the interest of not offending anyone’s sensibilities, please feel free to substitute any other creation story that you’d like in the preceding, or, even evolution) that the horse can either get or synthesize all of its own vitamins, which is kind of what you’d figure, since, in the wild, it wouldn’t do horses much good if they were constantly dropping dead because they couldn’t get enough riboflavin, or niacin, or something.
How’s that again?
True enough. So, what then, exactly? There are two general ways in which you can consider this possibly imminent and potentially serious problem.
1) The Marketing Approach – “Since oxygen is so essential, and you wouldn’t think of depriving your horse of such a necessary substance, why not try some Equioxygen? Now, you can make sure that your horse recieves 100% of this life-giving gas with every puff. No horse should be without oxygen!”
2) The Skeptical Approach – “Uh, where, exactly, on the planet, is your horse going to find itself where it doesn’t have adequate oxygen?”
Now, how, you might ask, does this example relate to vitamins and your horse? Well, like I said, horses mostly don’t have vitamin problems because it’s darn near impossible to feed a horse adequately and make him vitamin deficient.
Want to know why? OK –
If your horse eats anything that’s green (say, hay, or pasture), he’s getting enough Vitamin A.
He gets all of his B-vitamins from the bacteria that happily synthesize them in his gut. He eats – the bacteria digest and make B-vitamins. Everyone is happy, except perhaps folks that want to sell you vitamin B.
Horses make all of their own vitamin C. Can’t make horses deficient in vitamin C, even if you want to.
Vitamin D is made in ample amounts if your horse has access to the sun. If he never has access to the sun, you’re the problem, not him.
Vitamin E is also available in things that are green. That said, Vitamin E deficiencies are occasionally seen in horses that don’t have access to fresh forage, or good quality green hay. But it’s so occasionally that it’s not worth worrying about in most cases, especially if there is green forage or fresh, high-quality hay.
Vitamin K helps blood clot. You couldn’t make your horse vitamin K deficient if you wanted to make him vitamin K deficient. Those bacteria that live in the gut are responsible for this impossibility. Your horse would thank them if he could, I’m sure.
So here’s the deal. Plain and simply, horses usually get all of the vitamins that they need as long as they have a decent diet. Those expensive buckets of vitamins that you may buy every month or so? You probably don’t need to bother.
Don’t believe me (well, of course you do, but I’m feeling feisty)? Then how about The University of Minnesota? Check on the nutrition FAQs at the end of the article. The horse can pretty much take care of himself with a good diet (and if he doesn’t get such a good diet for a few weeks, he’s got a store built up of ones like Vitamin A and E). Add to all of this the fact that a huge body of evidence obtained from human medicine in indicates that for most people, giving supplemental vitamins is nothing but a waste of time and money, and you’ve got even more reason to wonder what the heck all of the vitafuss is all about.
Look, keeping horses is expensive. There’s no reason to waste your money on things that you don’t need to buy. There may be some specific areas where specific supplementation is needed, but they are very few and far between. If you are feeding some sort of a grain mix, it probably has vitamins in it, and you don’t need to feed any supplements. If you’re worried, check with your veterinarian, or an equine nutritionist (a PhD in nutrition who is not trying to sell you something – most of those work at Universities). Heck, if you have any specific questions, email me and I’ll get an answer for you.
Oh, and in an unrelated aside, if you haven’t seen this bit, from the old “I Love Lucy Show,” about an important nutritional supplement, check it out and get a good laugh. You deserve if for having to suffer all of this vitamin-related angst. If it sounds familiar, I promise I won’t say, “I told you so!”