Supplementing Horses With Vitamin E

Vitamin E deficiencies can cause neurologic and other health problems in horses. As such, at-risk horses—from breeding stock and foals to equine athletes and pasture pets—might benefit from supplementation.
Supplementing Horses With Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant primarily found in green pasture grass that plays a role in muscle atrophy (wasting) and neurodegeneration in horses. As pasture lands become increasingly more limited and more horses are housed on less acreage, vitamin E deficiency becomes a real problem.

Stephanie Valberg, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVSMR, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in East Lansing, described conditions linked to vitamin E deficiencies and how to manage them during the 2018 Kentucky Equine Research Conference, held Oct. 29-30 in Lexington.

Veterinarians see three neurologic conditions associated with vitamin E deficiencies in horses, said Valberg, and which one the horse develop depends primarily on genetics.

Neuroaxonal Dystrophy and Equine Degenerative Myeloencephalopathy (NAD/EDM)

This neuromuscular disorder typically appears in horses 6 months to 3 years of age. Clinical signs of ataxia (incoordination) and proprioceptive deficits (awareness of where one’s limbs are) are similar to those of horses with wobbler syndrome (spinal cord compression).

“We believe it results from a genetic predisposition and vitamin E deficiency in utero and the early six months of life,” said Valberg, explaining that the equine nervous system depends on adequate vitamin E to develop normally.

Affected horses’ signs persist through adulthood and can be confused for other forms of neurologic disease. Therefore, said Valberg, NAD/EDM is probably underdiagnosed.

While owners can supplement susceptible horses (i.e., broodmares and foals living on farms that have had cases) with vitamin E to try to prevent them from developing this disease or reduce its severity, once horses develop clinical signs, supplementation has no effect, she said.

“This is a serious disease for breeders,” said Valberg, noting that it typically crops up on farms that have experienced a decrease in pasture quality and green grass.

Vitamin E Deficient Myopathy

This muscle disorder, as the name implies, is due to a vitamin E deficiency and occurs in adult horses around the ages of 7-10. Valberg listed clinical signs such as an inability to lock the stifles, weakness, trembling, a low head position, difficulty lying down, weight loss, and muscle atrophy. In acute cases, she said, the most obvious sign will be trembling, whereas in chronic cases owners typically notice reduced muscle mass in the hindquarters and some trembling.

“We think it takes 20% of the muscle being affected to see atrophy and weakness,” said Valberg.

Veterinarians can test for this condition by taking a biopsy of the sacrocaudalis dorsalis muscle (located above the tailhead on either side of the spine) and looking for abnormal mitochondrial staining. Fortunately, it’s reversible with supplementation.

Equine Motor Neuron Disease (EMND)

This neurodegenerative disorder affects the spinal cord where the nerves come out to control muscle contraction. Horses are typically older (>10), said Valberg, and have been vitamin E deficient for a long time (not every deficient horse show signs, she noted). Affected horses typically display similar signs as horses with the above-mentioned vitamin E deficiency. Additionally, they might have a distinct pigmented pattern to their retinas.

“Once horses reach this stage, they might stabilize with supplementation but might not return to performance,” she said.

Supplementing With Vitamin E

“The impact of vitamin E deficiencies causing subtle but significant muscle atrophy and a decline in performance are under recognized by many performance horse veterinarians,” Valberg said. “It should be on everyone’s radar because it’s easy to diagnose with blood samples for vitamin E and can be readily treated with liquid vitamin E supplements.”

The type of supplement you provide varies by case. For healthy horses in at-risk areas, Valberg suggests supplementing about 1,000-2,000 IU/day of the oral, powdered natural (rather than synthetic) form. If your horse already suffers from EMND or vitamin E deficient myopathy, she recommends supplementing 5,000 IU/day of the natural liquid form until all clinical signs are gone and then transitioning to powder over a series of weeks once the horse returns to normal. Expect it to take several months for the horse’s signs to disappear.

Because horses’ responses to vitamin E supplementation vary, Valberg urges veterinarians and/or nutritionists to measure vitamin E levels before and four weeks after supplementation and to adjust the dose accordingly.

She added that while vitamin E supplementation won’t help resolve other neurodegenerative diseases such as shivers or pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, owners should know that a deficiency might exacerbate them.

“I think it’s important to maintain horses at normal vitamin E levels,” Valberg said. “I’m a big fan of measuring vitamin E in horses and supplementing as needed. As we have less and less pasture, we’ll see more of these cases.”

Before You Breed Your Horse: Costs and Considerations

Ensure your decision to breed is the right one and that you’re prepared to handle the costs and commitments involved.

Scientists Discover How ‘Speed Gene’ in Thoroughbred Racehorses Works

Researchers have discovered the inner workings of a known “speed gene” in Thoroughbred racehorses, which directly affects skeletal muscle growth and, in turn, race distance aptitude.
speed gene in Thoroughbred racehorses

Researchers have pinpointed the genetic basis that explains why some Thoroughbreds are better equipped to race over sprint distances and others over longer distances. The scientists from Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin (UCD), both in Ireland, have discovered the inner workings of a known “speed gene” in Thoroughbred racehorses, which directly affects skeletal muscle growth and, in turn, race distance aptitude.

Thoroughbred horses are finely-tuned athletes with a high aerobic capacity relative to their skeletal muscle mass, which can be attributed to centuries of genetic selection for speed and stamina. Nongenetic factors, such as training schedule variations, can also influence how racehorse distance aptitudes and preferences develop. However, prior work by UCD professor Emmeline Hill, PhD, had demonstrated that different versions (polymorphisms) of the myostatin gene, a pronounced inhibitor of skeletal muscle growth, almost singularly account for gene-based race distance aptitude in racehorses.

This prior discovery earned the myostatin gene the speed gene moniker. Horses with CC copies tend to develop into sprinters, those with CT copies generally develop into middle-distance performers, and those with TT copies are typically best equipped for long distances.

However, until now, scientists didn’t know which element(s) of the gene held the secrets to understanding the all-important racing distance preference.

In their recently released study the researchers pinpointed the speed gene’s specific noncoding section. This is exclusively responsible for limiting myostatin protein production in Thoroughbreds which, in turn, affects skeletal muscle development and race distance aptitude.

“Our data provides the first mechanistic evidence as to the specific element of the speed gene that acts as the sole protagonist in dictating its expression in the Thoroughbred,” said senior author Richard Porter, PhD, FTCD, an associate professor in biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin. “As a result, this element is the key genetic factor in determining distance aptitude in Thoroughbred horses. This knowledge is extremely valuable to Thoroughbred breeders and trainers, in what is a multi-billion-dollar industry.”

Porter conducted this study with research scientist Mary Rooney, PhD, and associate professor Vincent Kelly, PhD, both from Trinity College, and Hill, from the UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science. The research was funded by a Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator grant (11/PI/1166) awarded to Hill and Porter.

The study, “The ‘speed gene’ effect of myostatin arises in Thoroughbred horses due to a promoter proximal SINE insertion,” was published in PLOS ONE.


Making Winter Manageable on Horse Farms

Don’t wait for the first snowflakes to prepare your horse property for the cold, dark, and wet months ahead.
Making Winter Manageable on Horse Farms

These preparations can help carry you and you horses through the cold, dark, and wet months ahead.

Preparing for a chore-efficient chilly season is a great way to beat the winter blues. Plus, it’s rewarding to work on tasks that put you ahead of the horse property management curve. North American winters can be cold, wet, and windy. For much of the continent, you can add snowy and icy to that list. There always seem to be a few storms that bring horse care routines to a screeching halt for days on end, stretching into weeks for the unfortunate. But as with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This list of preparations can help carry you through months ahead when you least want to deal with winter’s surprises.

Review your horse health routine with your veterinarian.

Dental care, a vaccination program, and parasite control are important components of a regular horse care routine, but with the start of cold weather they become even more important. Review your horse health management program with your vet, and if your horse needs attention in any of those areas, address it before cold weather hits and he has trouble maintaining body condition.

Buy your winter hay supply.

Look for green, leafy, fresh-smelling hay with no mold, weeds, dust, or discoloration. Recent nutritional recommendations (The Basics of Equine Nutrition, 2008) suggest a horse receive 1.5-2% of his body weight in forage per day. For the “average” 1,000-pound horse in moderate exercise, that equates to about 20 pounds of hay per day, or 600 pounds of hay per month. Since hay is usually sold in bulk by the ton (2,000 pounds), one ton of hay will last about 31⁄3 months for an average-sized horse. Do the math to determine how many tons of hay you’ll need to maintain your horses through the winter, plus at least 10% extra to account for wastage. If you don’t have room to store that amount, perhaps a horsey neighbor might. Two or more of you could go in on the purchase and reduce costs for all.

Add footing material to paddocks, confinement areas, and high-traffic areas.

Good footing in these areas allows surface water to drain well, decreasing erosion and reducing mud and pollution from runoff. Alan Shank, a farm planner for the Snohomish Conservation District, in Lake Stevens, Washington, works with many horse owners and owns horses himself. “I like a solid footing such as crushed rock for high-traffic areas such as the fronts of stall doors and walkways,” he says. “Other confinement areas can have softer footing such as coarse sand or hogfuel (chipped wood).” More of these materials are available in the summer and fall before demand is high. Plus, it is much easier for delivery trucks to traverse paddocks and pastures during dry months, before they become a slick and muddy mid-winter mess. Shank recommends putting footing down in a thick layer, no less than six inches deep.

Begin a manure management program.

If you don’t already pick up manure on a regular basis, now is the time to start, particularly since horses produce an average 50 pounds daily. When mixed with rain or snow over the winter this quickly turns into more than 50 pounds of muck. Picking up manure regularly from stalls, paddocks, confinement areas, and high-traffic areas minimizes the amount of mud on your farm over the winter months, making chore life easier. This also helps minimize parasite load in these areas, reduces flies and odors, helps prevent groundwater and surface water pollution, and improves pasture quality (because you can reapply the composted manure).

Cover manure piles.

This will help keep desired nutrients in the compost, rather than allowing them to wash out into surface waters where they can cause potential pollution problems. Be sure to store manure as far as possible from streams, ditches, or wetlands to avoid contamination.

Check gutters and downspouts.

Now is the time to repair or add to your roof runoff system. “Some improvements are really basic, like making sure you have gutters and downspouts on all the buildings,” says Shank. “That is one of the first things I tell landowners I work with: Make sure the clean rainwater off the roof is diverted away from building and confinement areas, as well as any working areas.” Good places to divert to on your property include grassy ditches, dry wells, rain barrels, stock watering tanks, well-vegetated woods, or unused portions of pasture.

Reroute surface water runoff.

Runoff from large, flat areas such as driveways, parking lots, or hillsides can significantly complicate mud and ice management in horse areas. Ditches, grassy swales, dry wells, water diversion bars, and culverts are useful means for diverting water away from confinement areas and barns. Explains April LaLande, a Washington horse owner and environmental education contractor, “During the first big storms of the fall we always go outside to check how our drainage is working. We look to see where water is flowing from and to and that paddocks are staying as dry and as well-drained as possible. If not, we make changes.”

Bring your horses in off pastures.

Pastures grazed too closely in the autumn are subject to winter damage and will be slow to grow come spring. This is because during winter pasture plants become dormant and unable to regrow, and soils are saturated with moisture and easily compacted. Thus, allow grass plants to produce at least four inches of leaf growth for winter protection, and confine your horses in a separate winter paddock or sacrifice area.

Provide shelter for your horses.

A healthy horse can withstand cold temperatures, but he needs protection from relentless wind, driving rain, and wet snow. He loses considerable body heat when it’s windy, and the situation worsens when he is wet. A simple roofed three-sided run-in shed provides adequate protection if it’s well-drained and well-ventilated.

Make sure your barn is well-ventilated.

Winter is the time for respiratory disease. Besides vaccinating, one of the best defenses against respiratory disease is good structure ventilation. A closed barn accumulates ammonia fumes and dust and provides a warm, moist environment ideal for mold and germ growth. Keep an outside door or window open near each stall.

Deter rodents.

Mice and rats can cause hundreds of dollars of damage per year in feed loss and structural harm. Discourage rodents by eliminating food and water sources and places they might nest. Store all feed in aluminum garbage cans with secure lids. Pick up cat and dog food at night and clean up feed or spilled grain. Keep the barn tidy; piles of towels, rags, horse blankets, and old feed bags are all things rodents would love to spend the winter in and should not be left lying around.

Set up a water supply that won’t freeze.

A horse drinks eight to 12 gallons of water per day and prefers water temperatures of about 45-65°F, according to the University of Idaho Extension’s 2011 Cold Weather Feeding Practices for Horses. A horse cannot stay hydrated from eating snow, and a decrease in water consumption can lead to colic. To ensure your horses drink an adequate amount on very cold days, break ice in the water tanks in the morning and again in the evenings or purchase a stock tank heater or heated stall buckets. Plan ahead and have this equipment on hand before the snow flies.

Insulate pipes and faucets.

Visit your local hardware store for recommendations on what to use (e.g., heat tape or other insulation materials) in your barn.

Avoid mold.

Mold loves dark, stuffy areas, so deter its growth by introducing light and air circulation. Adding a window, ceiling fan, or heater in your tack room might do the trick—many times just leaving a regular incandescent 60-watt light bulb burning is prevention enough.

Consider your winter storm preparedness.

Do you have flashlights for the house and barn hanging in easily accessible locations? Are extra batteries on hand? How about fuel for generators, cook stoves, and lanterns? Battery-powered headlamps that free up your hands are excellent to have if the electricity goes out. A battery-powered radio and a weather radio are both useful during storms and power outages. Develop a backup plan for watering your horses (e.g., storing water in rain barrels) before you lose power to your well during a major winter storm. Emergency officials generally recommend having a three-day supply of water on hand, which is a minimum of 30 gallons of water per horse. Access to a creek or lake might work as your backup watering source if you train your horses to drink from these beforehand.

Mend and wash blankets.

If you plan to blanket your horse this winter, send dirty horse clothes out for cleaning before the major cold fronts roll in.

Review equipment needs for daily chores.

“Having the right tools for the job means it’s more likely you’ll be motivated to get your tasks done when it’s dark and cold,” LaLande says. Some of the necessary tools she suggests include snow shovels that can be used on gravel, tractor implements such as a harrow and a blade, and intact manure forks. Consider getting a manure cart that’s easy to push and dump. Heavy-duty plastic-tined type manure forks with a bent edge are made specifically for cleaning horse stalls and paddocks. In cold weather metal handles can be tough to grip—not to mention cold—so seek forks with wooden handles or wrap metal handles with tennis grip tape or self-adherent bandaging tape (Vetrap, etc.).

Check fencing.

Give your fencelines a once-over to check for damage before winter weather hits and again after the first high winds or heavy snows. This precaution can prevent horses from escaping or becoming injured on downed fencing.

All told, getting a head start on winter chores now will translate to an easier, more manageable season.

About The Author

Alayne Renée Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches, Alayne is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise controls and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Alayne and her husband raise and train their reining horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho. She also authors the Smart Horse Keeping blog.

5 Tips for Feeding Horses That Travel Frequently

Are you and your horses heading south for the winter? Prepare in advance to keep your equine charges healthy during and after transport.
Feeding Horses That Travel Frequently

Like birds of a feather, many equestrians that reside in Northern regions stick together and flock south for the winter to beat the cold and snowy weather. The stress of travel, however, plus potential feed changes, particularly forages, can be a recipe for disaster for a horse’s wellness.

Here are five tips for feeding horses that travel frequently:

1. Keep ’em Hydrated

A stalled horse with free-choice access to water will drink, on average, 18 to 40 times daily for 13 to 26 seconds each time. So, when hauling long distances, you should offer water at least every four to eight hours and more frequently in hot and humid weather.

Also remember that water can vary in taste and odor, which can cause a horse to drink less. To avoid this, consider bringing a water supply from home for when you’re on the road and/or precondition your horse to drink water containing a flavored additive. Start introducing the flavoring one to two weeks prior to transportation, and continue adding it after you arrive at your new destination. Horses seem to prefer sweet tastes such as apple flavoring; try Kool-Aid, apple juice, or even an electrolyte supplement to see what your horse likes best.

2. Meal Planning

If you are staying at your destination long-term, check with local feed dealers in advance to see if they stock not only your horse’s brand of grain, but also the exact product you feed. Further, if you’ll need to purchase hay, find a supplier and inquire about the types available (more on this in a moment), costs, delivery options, and the quantity available. Don’t wait until you arrive to find feed for your horses.

3. Don’t Pack Light

Pack at least one to two weeks’ worth of feed and hay when you hit the road with your horse. Why? If you must transition to another brand or type of feed—either hay or grain—you will want at least five to seven days to slowly introduce the new fodder.

4. Hay Dilemma

Pay special attention to what kind of hay your horse consumes before, during, and after transport. Remember, many factors—including plant species, maturity at harvest, and storage conditions—can affect a hay’s digestibility, and hay quality can vary drastically between regions, especially when going from north to south or vice versa (see table below). As we’ve already discussed, bring a supply of your horse’s normal hay with you and make any changes in the forage portion of your horse’s diet slowly.

Common Northern vs. Southern Hays

Hay Type Crude Protein Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) Nonstructural Carbohydrates
Legume Hay (Northern) 21% 30% 39% 11%
Mixed Grass Hay (Northern) 12% 38% 60% 12%
Perennial Peanut Hay (Southern) 11% 39% 47% 15%
Bermudagrass (Southern) 11% 35% 66% 13%
Information provided by Dairy One

Another way to help minimize drastic changes in forage quality when on the road is to incorporate some type of fiber cube or pellet into your horse’s diet. These products, such as alfalfa cubes or timothy pellets, tend to be more consistent in nutrients and digestibility from region to region and allow for a consistent source of fiber in the diet.

Finally, if or when you do purchase hay at your destination, remember that all the options available at home might not be available there. And while horses can consume many types of forage, some are best avoided. If you’re unsure whether a certain type of hay is safe for your horse to consume, do some research or consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist before you buy.

5. Ask The Experts!

If you don’t know what grain or hay will suit your horse best when he arrives at his destination, need help planning an appropriate diet, or have any other questions, don’t hesitate to consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist. Further, the Cooperative Extension System, a free resource available across the United States, often has specialists on hand to assist owners with feeding decisions.

About The Author

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.