Horse eating hay in snow

Q: It’s winter, but I plan to horse show a bit. How can I feed my horse to help her have a shinier coat?

A:  Having a rich, lustrous coat at any time of year is the result of a combination of factors including diet, living conditions, and coat care. Many horse owners struggle to maintain a healthy, shiny coat during the winter in part because grooming habits tend to drop off. It’s often not possible to rely on bathing to remove dander and dirt from the coat, and grooming in freezing temperatures isn’t much fun.

However, getting into the habit of regular currying sessions followed by stiff and body brushing will result in a coat that has a far greater shine than can be produced by bathing alone, so the reward is worth the result. It will remove the dulling dander, stimulate blood flow that will bring important nutrients to the hair follicles, and move the natural oils through the coat, resulting in that copper penny shine.

If your horse’s diet is lacking in nutrients that are key for coat quality, your grooming results will be hampered. Start by making sure you are feeding adequate, good-quality forage. Regular chewing and forage consumption help reduce gastric ulcer risk, and horses with ulcers tend to have dull coats. Next, make sure you are feeding a quality ration balancing feed, supplement, or other fortified feed correctly to ensure you’re supplying your horse with the nutrients typically lacking in forage.

These include quality protein or targeted amino acids, copper, zinc, and vitamin E.

While most forages provide adequate crude protein, not all the protein is available to the horse, especially with mature, stemmy forages. The available protein might not provide adequate levels of key essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine, and because hair is made up of keratin (a protein), ensuring a source of quality protein in the ration will help promote good-quality hair growth.

Copper and zinc are needed for melanin production, which helps prevent oxidative damage and maintains coat color. Horses on hay-based diets, which are most horses in winter, can be lacking adequate vitamin E. In my experience, inadequate vitamin E can sometimes be reflected in poor coat quality, especially in the shine department.

Biotin and a source of fat are other considerations. Biotin might help improve hair strength and reduce breakage. Having some fat in the ration ensures those natural oils are present when you groom. They reduce skin dryness and dandruff. Fats are also important for creating a smooth hair shaft, which will reflect light better.

My preference is to use a source of omega-3 fatty acids for fat supplementation. These would include flaxseed meal or oil, camelina oil, and ahi oil. If you have a horse that tends to be itchy, increasing the omega-3 supplementation to include marine-derived omegas is a good idea. These omega-3 fatty acids are more potent and have been shown to have a stronger impact on regulating inflammatory response, helping better mitigate itchiness.

At the end of the day, no matter the time of year, there are no secret weapons to ensure a shiny coat. It comes down to elbow grease and having a healthy horse with a well-balanced diet.