Copper in Horse Diets: What Does it Do?

Copper is involved energy production, iron metabolism, connective tissue formation, central nervous system function, and melanin production. Is your horse getting enough? If you only feed forage, probably not.
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copper in horse diets
Forages provide relatively low copper levels, with most hays providing less than 10 mg/kg which would only just meet the NRC minimum requirement if fed to a 1,100-pound horse at 2% of body weight. | Photo: iStock
Q.In reading about the nutrients for which horses might need supplementation, I’ve noticed that copper and zinc seem common. I understand zinc is important for immune function and hoof health, but I realized that I don’t really know what copper does. What are some of copper’s functions and how much does my horse need?

Via e-mail

A.You are correct that many horses on forage-only diets benefit from copper and zinc supplementation. This is because the levels of these minerals in forages tend to be fairly low, and it can be difficult to supply the horse’s daily requirements with forage alone if a horse’s intake is restricted.

It’s also important to consider these minerals’ balance and relationship to each other as well as other minerals in the diet. Ideally, the amount of zinc a horse consumes is three to five times higher than the amount of copper. And, even if horses have access to unlimited forage and their basic requirements are met, supplemental sources might still be beneficial to ensure the amounts consumed are properly balanced to each other

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Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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