Understanding Nutrition: Does your horse need Calcium?

It is widely understood that calcium is paramount to keeping strong and healthy bones and teeth; this doesn't only apply to humans, it also applies to horses, and in fact most mammals! Like humans, horses can sometimes be deficient in calcium.  But how do you know if your horse needs calcium supplementation in his feed? 

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There are certain factors to take into consideration when it comes to calcium supplementation. Some horses may have an increased requirement for calcium. Young racehorses are usually supplemented, weanlings and growing horses, and late pregnant mares are just some of the reasons you'd be looking at supplementing! However, you need to consider your horses feed and pick on the ground. What type of grass does your horse have available and what type of hay. 

To understand further if you should be looking at calcium supplementation for your horse, we need to look at phosphorus. An imbalance between the two can cause calcium deficiency and lead to “Big Head”. It's been said that the ratio of Calcium to Phosphorus should be 2:1. A ratio of 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus is considered to be the optimal ratio, coinciding with the concentration of the minerals in the bones. 

But what does this mean? And what is Phosphorus? Phosphorus is a mineral found in the body (in both humans and horses), and in many foods like cheese, beans, and fish. It plays an important role in the health of your kidneys, bones, muscles, and blood vessels. Phosphorus works with Calcium to ensure bones stay in good condition. However, you need the right amount of both to ensure the continued health of bones and teeth.  The same applies for your horse. As calcium levels rise, phosphorus levels fall. They are directly linked. 

Should Phosphorus levels rise, calcium levels will lower. It is this that you have to be aware of. Should your horse be taking in too much phosphorus, calcium levels may become too low! So how would levels of Phosphorus rise? Simple. Feed. 

Certain feeds are low in calcium and high in phosphorus. Bran is most commonly known to have high levels of phosphorus. This doesn't mean your horse shouldn't be fed such feeds, and it merely means you need to be aware that calcium will have to be supplemented to keep a balance.  

The second factor you must consider is pastures and pick available. What kind of pasture does your horse have available? Some grasses are rich in oxalates. Oxalates prevent your horse from absorbing calcium; this can cause the lowering of calcium levels and rising of phosphorus, again resulting in “big head”. Grasses such as Buffel, Setaria, Green Panic and Kikuyu are known to be high in oxalates. Many introduced species of sub-tropical and tropical grasses are present in pastures used for hay making, specifically in Australia. Being aware of pasture types and hay making processes in your local area is key to keeping your horse's diet balanced and healthy. 

A good way to ensure you know what your horse is eating is to talk to your feed supplier. Once you have found a good supplier, stick with them. They will also be able to advise you on product types. There are various kinds of calcium available to supplement your horse. DCP, PCC - all the abbreviations stand for what is present in the supplement. It is usually in a white power form and sits around $30-$50 for 20kg. 

Discuss with your local feed store your horse's requirements - they will know what your horse needs dependant upon pasture available, hay type, hard feed given, age, condition and work status! 

Siobhain Little