Missing Links
Cindy "Hawk" Sullivan
Posted 7/04/06

It is indeed heartening to see how the movement of natural hoof care is exploding around the world as owners, trainers, farriers and veterinarians rethink old approaches and work together to improve the quality of life for all our domestic equines.  More and more people are "getting it" about bringing the domestic horse closer to its' species' innate needs as a as a way to offset many of the problems caused by the stresses of domestic horse keeping practices.  Diet, lifestyle, hoof care and all facets of equine management are being assessed through a growing understanding that horses are better able to withstand the stresses of domestic life if efforts are made to provide for them in ways that are more in the direction of how they would live in the wild.  As a result, increasing numbers of horses are improving in soundness, performance and overall health and vigor. Yet there are always those few that, in spite of the caregiver and equine professionals getting "everything right", just don't seem to come right. They might get better, but there is still something missing.  As one of my colleagues put it, "they just can't seem to grow a good foot."

"When diet is wrong medicine is of no use. When diet is correct medicine is of no need." - Ancient Ayurvedic

Everything we do with our horses affects, among other things, their nutrition profile and ability to utilize available nutrients. Imbalances are always a concern because our domestic horses, unlike their wild cousins, are dependent upon us to provide everything they need nutritionally in often very small areas of confinement. We do our best to mimic a natural lifestyle by keeping them turned out, limiting or eliminating processed feeds, providing free access to mixed grass forage, making sure they have plenty of fresh clean water and salt licks and many improve dramatically. But even our best efforts come up short. We simply cannot reproduce life in the wild, yet we must still keep the wild model in mind when addressing issues with our domestic horses.  Keeping the wild model in mind does not mean we can duplicate the wild invironment for our domestics.  The overriding lesson from the wild is adaptation. Regardless of the environment horses find themselves in, they - as with the rest of nature - can adapt and even thrive as long as environmental stressors are not overwhelming.

Growing a healthy hoof, requires a reasonably healthy animal, which requires a reasonably balanced diet and the animal's ability to utilize the nutrients within that diet. A reasonably balanced diet (which is largely forage based for a naturally kept horse) depends upon the nutrients in soil and water that are taken up by the plants upon which the horse grazes.
The availability of nutrients and the ability to uptake and utilize nutrients, will vary by individual and be influenced by climate, season, age of the animal, activity level, health (or illness), environmental stressors such as drought, or toxic elements in the environment.

I  believe that many puzzling issues manifested in horses that just don't achieve the level of soundness and hardy hoof quality that we seek, are actually visible manifestations of a problem that traces back to a core imbalance in the body - one that can nearly always (if not always) be connected to diet - more specifically to an imbalance of micronutrients. 
Nutritionists call vitamins, minerals and amino acids "micronutrients" to distinguish them from those nutrients that are present in much larger quantities, such as proteins or lipids. Minerals have a relationship with one another and all serve important roles within the body.  There are two categories of minerals:  macrominerals and microminerals.  Macrominerals are needed in relatively large amounts and are usually expressed as a percentage (%) of the diet.  Calcium, phosphorus, sodium and chloride are examples of macrominerals.  Microminerals, or trace minerals, are needed in small amounts within the diet and the quantity is expressed as part per million (ppm) or milligram (mg).  Copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc are examples of microminerals. Microminerals are a vital component of the diet that still remains largely misunderstood, underestimated and underutilized.

The importance of essential minerals in nutrition and metabolism cannot be overstated.  Their functions are many and varied. They provide the medium essential for normal cellar activities, determine the osmotic properties of body fluids, impart hardness to bones and teeth, and are a necessary cofactor in mineral-enzyme activities.
Enzymes are our worker proteins, but in fact NO proteins will unless sufficient amounts of their associated minerals are present. For example: a structural protein  like collagen in bone cannot do its job unless its interlocking minerals such as calcium and phosphorus, are present. A transport protein like hemoglobin must have iron in order to carry oxygen. Proteins called neurotransmitters are completley dependent on sodium and potassium to direct nerve signals. Essential minerals are required in consistent amounts in the body… a deficiency results in sub-optimal biological functions, but they are preventable or reversible by replenishing the needed amounts of minerals in the body.

Trace minerals are required for such functions as:

  • Structural integrity of tissues (skin, bone, mammary, digestive tract, respiratory tract, etc.)
    • Collagen and keratin synthesis, cross linking
  • Bone development and strength
    • Collagen synthesis, cross linking and cartilage integrity
  • Oxidation protection
    • Enzyme regulators and cellular turnover
  • Immune response
    • Antibody production

Animals with trace mineral deficiencies often exhibit weakened bone / epithelial tissues and depressed immune systems resulting in suppressed growth rates and an increased incidence of disease and lost productivity. 

Let's look at one well known example, Selenium (Se):  Although the importance of selenium has been known only since 1957, among people who work with livestock, it is now common knowledge that selenium is an important essential element in the diet.  In the areas of the western US selenium in the soil is high and selenium toxicity can have serious, even life-threatening effects on animals. Selenium toxic horses can exhibit a lack of vitality, anemia, emaciation, stiffness of joints, lameness, rough coat, loss of long hair, and hoof sloughing and hoof deformities.

In the eastern US selenium in the soil is low. Nutritional muscular dystrophy (NMD) is the known disease that affects horses with selenium deficiency. There are three patterns of NMD that can occur. The first is acute, with death occurring within the first 24 hours of life. The foal's tongue may be paralyzed, making it unable to suckle. The second, more common case is induced by exercise. Older foals are more susceptible to this form; they show an unsteady gait and general muscle weakness, rapid heart rate with arrhythmia, and labored breathing. After a few days, it is difficult to make them stand and they salivate excessively. Mortality from this condition is only about 30 to 45%. The third condition affects mostly older animals, and is the result of chronic selenium deficiency. Affected animals show anorexia, emaciation, generalized muscle weakness, rapid heart rate, and diarrhea.

Map of Selenium Status in the U.S.

That's just ONE trace mineral and its known effect on our animals.


There are three classes of minerals

(1) Metallic minerals derived from oyster shell, calcium carbonate, limestone, dolomite, clay, ground rocks and soil, crystals;  this class includes the laboratory-made chelated minerals.

(2) Dead plant minerals; this class includes organically chelated minerals derived from prehistoric plant deposits or humic shale; these minerals are also referred to by some as "colloidal" minerals.

(3) Living plant minerals in raw and living foods.

“...a varied diet will NOT provide all the ESSENTIAL trace elements. . .” US Department of Agriculture Report (1977)

Animals (including us) should ideally get all our needed minerals through the food we eat. But aggressive farming techniques have deprived many of our soils of their formerly rich mineral content. The erosion of our top soils has washed away many important minerals and trace minerals into the oceans and seas. Synthetic fertilizers applied to exhausted soils bind many of the trace minerals, making them unavailable to plant life. The earth has become anemic. Today, it is virtually impossible to eat as much as it would take to ingest the optimum amount and balance of minerals from live foods that are needed for optimum health.  In short this means we must supplement.
Determining what imbalances are present

In the field, I am dogged in my "detective" work, trying to figure out where problems might be lurking in the diet and/or the environment of those horses that can not get over the hump with the basics of natural hoof care.  I often request that analyses be done on water, soil and pasture. Working with the attending veterinarian, I routinely ask for extensive blood chemistries  on the horses in question. With this information, I then try to determine what the horse is lacking or, perhaps more importantly, what the horse is getting too much of that might be creating a toxicity.  Usually I can zero in on major indicators and suggest some dietary changes to the owner to address these issues.  More often than not, it begins with a course of detox to help the horse reset its body chemistry by clearing out accumulated toxins in the gut and to some extent, in the bloodstream. Then comes the hard part... determining what needs to be added to or omitted from the horse's diet and environment to ensure that necessary nutrients are available and toxins are not constantly reintroduced. 

However, I realize that micromanaging a horse's diet in this fashion is not a viable option unless the caregiver has loads of excess energy (and time and money!) and nothing else to do than pour over lab results and balancing each vitamin and mineral for each horse in their care. Not only is it impractical...it is not going to work. Why? Because - going back to nature as our guide - any analysis done on a horse is only a snapshot in time. Chances are that by the time you get the report, figure out what it means and apply that to dietary adjustments, then go get all the individual elements to supplement and mix it up in proper ratios for each horse....things will have changed. 

Ultimately it doesn't matter as much as we might think what the analysis says about specific mineral deficiencies, or excesses. You can study and interpret and become a world renowned expert in reading such analyses and at the end of the day, it won't help you all that much as you plan a feeding program for the horse.  Of course its always good to try to understand what is going on in the environment that might be challenging your horse, but trying to "fix" it outside of the horse's body can be an insurmountable challenge. What can you do? You can spend a great deal of time and money trying to rebalance your soil - if you own your own property - and that will certainly help. But what if the water supply proves to be problematic? If your horses drink out of a stream, then the content of that water is affected byevery natural and human activity on every square inch of land that drains into that stream where your horses drink, tracing back to the source which can be hundreds of miles away. If you have well water, geological processes and surface activity filtering through into the water table will affect the water you pump into a trough, and that too will vary over time. If you use city water - well, there's no telling what is in that at any given moment! You cannot control all the environmental factors that alter the nutrients available to your horses.

Okay...don't lie down and moan in despair. Stay with me on this for a moment.

"We cannot command Nature except by obeying her." -  Sir Francis Bacon

Let's go back to the wild model - to adaptation. All God's creatures have had to deal with environmental changes, imbalances, and stresses in many forms since the beginning of time due to geological forces, climate changes and a number of other naturally occurring factors. Life on this planet must either adapt or die.  Human impact has accelerated the effect by depleting the soil and polluting the environment, but life does adapt, even to our influences on the environment. Our job is to minimize the stresses of domestic living as much as is within our power. We cannot know what is missing, or is in excess at any given point in time. Most of us cannot provide enough undisturbed native land for our horses to roam and find all the nutrients they need to maintain balance in their bodies on their own.  But we CAN provide a type of supplementation that has the ability to "plug the holes" in the mineral profiles of our horses with minimal risk of creating additional imbalances. 

Which approach?

Metallic minerals:

More horses will seek salt than will seek minerals, and in the domestic environment it's unlikely they will find, on their own, a supply of all the trace minerals they need. Most people realize that horses need mineral supplementation in their diet, and the "red mineral block" is a standard feature in most pastures and barns. These blocks are primarily salt with some main trace minerals added. These red salt blocks are designed to entice with salt and deliver minerals as a consequence.  As an aside, always offer a plain salt block in addition to whatever else you put out as a mineral block. But a red salt block is not a mineral program. Trace mineralized blocks normally do not allow for sufficient intake to meet the animal's needs, nor do they provide optimally bioavailable forms of the minerals. The same can be said for minerals added into processed feeds. These are inorganic or metallic minerals.

Live plant minerals:

Live plants are far and away the best source for minerals, but we have already discussed the difficulty of eating enough volume to get enough minerals in this form. With horses, we know the potential for disaster (namely, founder) if we allow horses to eat an abundance of the types of domestic pasture forage typically available. Kathryn Watts of SaferGrass.org presents information based on her research on the effects of modern pasture grasses on domestic horses. If we could enrich the land such that the plants were able to provide the 70-plus minerals that should be available, rather than the fewer than 20 currently available (if you are lucky!), perhaps these rich pastures would not be so problematic.  PERHAPS the serious imbalance of minerals in today's soils is as much a factor in horse health problems, such as insulin resistance, as the non-structural carbohydrates Ms. Watts has identified. It’s just a thought! If you would like to fertilize with a natural substance rather than chemical fertilizers, something like Rich Earth is worth a look.

Never have so many been so well fed and fat, yet so badly nourished” - U.S. Congressional Report

Dead plant minerals:
The next best source is a supplement of organically chelated minerals that are mined from an ancient sea bed ,made up of deposits of what once were living creatures. These deposits contain minerals that have already been "processed" through living organisms which gives them specific ionic structures or bonds to that allow them to be highly bioavailable to the body. In this form, the body can utilize what it needs, and excrete out what it does not need. It also has the potential to act as a mild detoxifyer by binding to excess heavy metals in the body and "pull" them out.

How do we bring things into balance?

Looking at our selenium example, how do we know what is the right amount to supplement in deficient areas? Each affected state's Department of Agriculture provides guidelines, but if we just feed our horses a certain amount of one or two supplemental elements, how might we be affecting the balance of other, less understood. elements?
...and what about those wild horses??? Many BLM Herd Management Areas are located in areas that have identified selenium deficiencies in the soil and some areas with high - potentially toxic levels - of selenium. How do the wild horses manage without humans to supplement them? Well, I don't know. Perhaps BLM supplements the wild ones under their jurisdiction? My research has not taken me into that aspect yet, however, with the government's voracious and varied appetites competing for our tax dollars, I doubt selenium supplementation of wild horse is high on the hit parade of spending priorities!

What I DO know is this... all of nature seeks balance. Some plants take up and store more selenium than others. With thousands of acres to roam, perhaps wild horses balance themselves by choosing which plants to eat at certain times. Perhaps they are able to access an exposed ancient sea bed deposit, or humic shale layer, to get the full spectrum of trace minerals they need.  Since research on such matters tends to focus on domesticated livestock, I doubt any one really knows.

Because there are so many unknowns, I look at the nutritional profile of a horse like a pegboard. All those little holes in it are the gaps, or deficiencies in nutrients. There is no way to know at any given point in time what the horse needs to fill those gaps, so we need something like the dead plant type of minerals to "throw at the peg board". What is needed sticks into the little holes and what is not needed falls harmlessly off the board. Such an analogy sounds decidedly "unscientific" doesn't it??  However, it's simply a matter of providing a full spectrum of highly bioavailable nutrients that the body can use where and when it is required.


Many products on the market today claim to be the answer to poor hoof quality, some
claim they provide all essential minerals horses need for overall health. You can usually find at least one of these popular supplements at any barn you go to, but READ THE LABLELS. The highest number of trace minerals (those minerals expressed in parts per million per ppm) that I have ever seen on one of those products, including prepared "enriched" feeds is 12 - more often its 6 or less when fact there are over 70 trace minerals present in organic life.  Additionally, in both the feeds and the supplements, the minerals are inorganic. 

So, why aren't the rest of the minerals included as well?  The significance to biological systems of many trace elements have never been studied as to their significance to biological systems, or they are simply present in amounts too small to measure with current technology. Or perhaps, as with much of modern life, we are simply conditioned to accept "good enough" and there is not enough interest to pursue study of the more obscure elements. I try to always keep firmly in mind the lessons from the wild, and I assume that just because we don't know what those "lesser elements" do, does not mean that they are unimportant. Everything in nature is about balance; to quote Aristotle, "If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is Nature's way. " To that end and until such a time as we can effectively remineralize our land, I choose organically chelated minerals mined directly from natural deposits, created by nature, not some composite put together by a laboratory or feed mill.

I have witnessed some impressive successes with a product of organically chelated minerals called Power Horse Trace Minerals as has my associate Steve Dick in Ocala, who discovered its benefits before I did. By now, a number of practitioners are also telling their customers about Power Horse since I share with everyone who will listen, my thoughts on diet in general, mineral balance in particular and the benefits of products like Power Horse.

Power Horse Trace Minerals is promoted primarily for laminitic horses, and it is indeed exceptional for turning chronic founder cases around and even minimizing damage if started during the acute phase. Hoever, I have also found it to be beneficial for just about every horse, and in many I have observed a number of interesting effects. For instance, horses that are slow to shed, or have a dull or coarse coat rapidly shed and quickly regrow a short, sleek, shiny coat. My own burro, in his first summer in my care, was holding onto his thick winter coat in mid-June and suffering in the oppressive heat; he began to shed out rapidly within only two weeks of beginning Power Horse Trace Mineral supplementation. Many horses that have trouble holding weight, particularly older horses, reach a good weight, and are able to maintain weight on less feed. For those that just cannot seem to grow a good foot even under a natural hoof care regime, or those that reach a plateau in their rehabilitation, I believe that Power Horse (and products like it) are the best way to address the missing links - just what the horse needed to put it over the hump and on to those tough, resilient, rock crunching hooves.

There are other products out there similar to Power Horse and you certainly should explore available options for mineral supplements that contain organically chelated minerals that are mined, not created. Some people use the humic shale mineral source directly in animal feed, in addition to adding it to soil.  I haven't tried that yet , but will certainly give it a go for comparison.

"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the body, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease." - Thomas Edison

In summary, trace elements are underestimated and the full spectrum is underutilized. Yet, minerals are known to be the foundation for all body systems to operate at optimum efficiency and serious deficiencies are known to be a major concern in most modern diets - human and animals.  Horses that have been transitioned to natural hoof care but still "don't seem to grow a good foot" , or that have brittle, cracking hooves, may not have a problem with the trim, instead it may be (and I find it more often is) a problem with the diet - with minerals topping the list. 

It is well known that both humans and animals suffer when minerals are out of balance. I have observed first hand, in many horses, a significant improvement when minerals are rebalanced as much as possible. I  view a well balanced highly bioavailable mineral supplementation program as a safety net for our domestic horses.  For example: while many people now understand a connection to magnesium deficiency and founder but a number of studieslink impaired insulin release, insulin resistance, and glucose intolerance to a compromised status of chromium, selenium, vanadium and zinc as well. If we do everything possible to balance the minerals in the horse's diet, then the body systems become healthy and more efficient. That in turn protects the animal from excessive stresses they encounter in domestic environments. It is then reasonable to assume that the horse will be better able to handle, without crisis, any mistakes we make with the diet.

Pay attention to horses with common but less obvious issues. For esample; those that have a dull or thick coat in the summer, are prone to allergies, are sensitive to bug bites or rain rot, just seem unthrifty, or any number of things seemingly minor things. I believe they should at least be given a try on a full spectrum (70+ elements) organically chelated trace mineral source to give them every possible chance to heal, strengthen and withstand the rigors of the domestic environment.

If you are interested in trying Power Horse, you can get the best prices from independent dealer Danny Brooks in N.E. Georgia. Danny is himself a horse owner who uses Power Horse on his own horses. Danny is not selling Power Horse as his business, he simply wants to help other horses benefit from the product by making it more affordable to the owners.  Email Danny at yourhappyhorse@hotmail.com

I am not a "pedigreed" nutrition specialist.  I do research in the hope of finding answers for myself that may also help others. That means I think for myself rather than depend solely upon what authorities say. That is what you should do - think for yourself.

This information should not be viewed as a panacea, a cure-all for every horse.  My mantra is;  "The trick is not in knowing what to do, rather in knowing when to do it. Everything works sometimes, but nothing works every time. If something fails on even ONE horse, then it must be considered a tool, not a rule!" This applies to everything I do when trying to figure out ways to help the horses in my care. That said, I am firmly convinced that diet is one of the most important keys to resolving most health problems, if not all, for our horses and for ourselves.

The product I have mentioned - Power Horse Trace Minerals - does not produce spectacular changes in every horse I have used it on. Some horses show no outward signs of change, although that does not mean they are not benefiting. On occasion a horse will appear to have adverse effects initially, such as rapid hair loss and itchy skin, or irritability. I attribute that to the detox effect as the minerals (and their associated body functions) rebalance, or that the horse was SO out of balance that the rebalancing process is a shock to the system and induces a "healing crisis" such as that referenced in my article on "Detox." For such a horse, it is wise to make changes more slowly, be patient as the body works to reset itself, or seek other ways to balance the diet.

Those of you who are so inclined will want to study this subject yourself, and you should, to reach your own understanding of the trace mineral connection to health. As with everything else, you will find conflicting opinions, but it is always a good idea to arm yourself with information, and to apply good critical thinking skills to what you read.

A note on processed feed:
 "Commercial animal feeds (even the best known and most expensive brands) have had their nutrients altered, adulterated, devitalized and destroyed by heat, processing, coloring, preservatives and other chemicals. Feeding your animal such food on a regular basis causes waste-toxins accumulations in the blood, lymphs and tissue which contributes to a weak immune system and renders our animals susceptible to chronic diseases. "  ~ Dr. Donald Ogden D.V.M.


Selected References

Cerewski, F.L., Ridlington, J.W., in Hurley, L.S., Keen, C.L., Lonnerdal, B. and Rucker, R.B., eds: Trace Elements in Man and Animals, Plenum, New York, N.Y., 1988.

Linder, M.C., ed: Nutritional Biochemistry and Metabolism with Clinical Applications, Second Edition, Appleton & Lange, Norwalk, Connecticut, 1991.

Mertz, W., ed: Trace Elements in Human and Animal Nutrition, Fifth Edition, Vol 1 & 2, Academic Press, New York, N.Y., 1986.

Valentine, J.l., Campaion, D.S., Schluchter, M.D. and Massey, F.J., in Howell, J.McC., et al, eds: Trace Element Metabolism in Man and Animals. Canberra: Australian Academy of Science, 1981.

The Linus Pauling Institute. "Minerals." Available from <http://osu.orst.edu/dept/lpi>

Bohn, H.L., McNeal, B.L. and G.A. O'Connor. 1985. Soil Chemistry. Wiley-Interscience. New York. pp. 5-13; 68-80, 87 - 90. 116 -120.

MacCarthy, P. Malcolm, R.L., Clapp, C.E. and P.R. Bloom. 1990. Humic Substances in Soil and Crop Sciences, Selected Readings. American Society of Agronomy, Inc. Madison WI. pp 2-3. 180-182.

Wilkinson, S.R., Grunes, D.L., and M. E. Sumner. 2000. Nutrient Interactions in Soil and Plant Nutrition. In. Sumner, Malcom E., Ed. 2000. Handbook of Soil Science. CRC Press, New York. pp D89 - D104

Seelig, M.S.: Consequences of magnesium deficiency on the enhancement of stress reactions; preventive and therapeutic implications (a review). J.Am.Coll.Nutr. 13, 429-446 (1994).

Paolisso, G., M. Barbagallo: Hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and insulin resistance - The role of intracellular magnesium. Am.J.Hypertension 10, 346-355 (1997).

Nadler, J.L. et al.: Magnesium deficiency produces insulin resistance and increased thromboxane synthesis. Hypertension 21, 1024-1029 (1993)

Chaitow, Leon, D.O., N.D., Amino Acids in Therapy, Healing Arts Press, 1988.

Carper, Jean, The Food Pharmacy, Bantam, 1988.

James F. Balch, MD "Prescription For Nutritional Healing"; Sound Nutrition 1997

Anderson RA. Nutritional factors influencing the glucose/insulin system: Chromium. J Amer Coll Nutr. 1997;16: 404-410.

eelig M. Cardiovascular consequences of magnesium deficiency and loss: pathogenesis, prevalence and manifestations—magnesium and chloride loss in refractory potassium repletion. Am J Cardiol. 1989;63:4G-21G.

Cousins RJ. Zinc. In Ziegler EE and Filer LJ Jr (eds), Present Knowledge in Nutrition (7th ed). 1996, ILSI Press, Washington, D.C., pp 293-306.

National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. NAS-NRC. Washington, D.C. 1989.

Spears JW. 1994. Minerals in forages. In: Forage Quality, Evaluation, and Utilization, Fahey GC, ed. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, WI, pp. 281-317.

Allaway WH. 1986. Soil-plant-animal and human interrelationships in trace element nutrition. In: Trace Elements in Human and Animal Nutrition, Vol. 2, Mertz W, ed. Academic Press, Orlando, pp. 465-488.

Nielsen FH. 2001. The emergence of boron, nickel, silicon, vanadium and arsenic as elements of nutritional relevance. In: First International Bio-Minerals Symposium: Trace Elements in Nutrition, Health and Disease, Antoniades N, Schrauzer GH, Renard N, and Wosniak J, eds. Intsitut Rosell – The Americas, Montreal, pp. 93-104.

Underwood EJ, and Suttle NF. 1999. The Mineral Nutrition of Livestock, 3 Publishing, Oxon, United Kingdom.

This list is titled "selected references" when in fact it should be called "remembered references."  Over many years I have had interest in and researched this topic, off and on along with other areas of interest to me. With several computer crashes, office shuffles and reorganizations, and my own less-than-stellar organizational skills, I have misplaced much of what I have perused over the years that has influenced my opinion on this subject. So I must admit that this list is incomplete by a long shot, however it should be enough of a jumping off point for anyone wishing to explore this subject in more depth themselves.

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