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Does Your Horse Lack Energy During Coat Change?

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Foto: Kamila Tworkowska

Written by Frederikke Lindenberg DVM, PhD, and Mette L. Nymand Cand. Agro.

Spring and autumn are often associated with coat changes and blankets. This means lots of grooming, hair everywhere, and for some, a constant eye on the weather forecast to determine how thick or thin a blanket to put on the horse. For horses, it means they need to expend a significant amount of energy to grow a new coat, which impacts the rest of the horse's body.

Read also: 50 good advice for all horse people

When the horse sheds

The hairs in a horse's coat grow from a collection of cells called the papilla, located in the dermis. The hair itself resides in a follicle, which forms a channel from the papilla to the skin's surface. At the base of the follicle, the hair is active. As cells push it out of the follicle, it dies, becomes keratinized, and appears as the hair we see on the coat.

Both humans and animals shed from time to time. This is because hair grows in a cycle consisting of three phases: the growth phase (anagen phase), where the hair grows; the resting phase (catagen phase), where hair growth stops and it detaches from the follicle base; and the final phase (telogen phase), where all cells in the hair are dead. Here, the hair remains in the follicle, ready to be pushed out when new hair begins to grow.

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In humans, shedding occurs continuously and gradually, while in horses it is more seasonal. This is because shedding is partly controlled by temperature and the secretion of melatonin from the brain. Melatonin regulates a wide range of processes in the body, including fertility and hair growth. Melatonin production is controlled by light, and when it gets darker, production increases. Cells at the base of the hair follicle are activated by melatonin, causing the hair to grow. In short: less light, more melatonin, and more hair.

Does your horse lack energy during coat change?

Many people notice that horses can become tired during shedding. This may be because the entire process of changing coats is very energy-intensive for the horse. It depends on proper feeding to produce many of the building blocks needed to form new hair. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the basic feeding is adequate; that roughage (hay/wrap) is provided in sufficient amounts and is of good quality – meaning it is not full of mold, fungal spores, or dust – and that the concentrate feed meets the horse's vitamin and mineral needs.

For example, several different B vitamins are important for hair growth. Most B vitamins can be produced by the horse itself in the large intestine with the help of fiber-digesting microorganisms, provided the horse gets enough roughage (about 1.75-2 kg/100 kg body weight) of good quality. However, some vitamins must be supplied through the feed. For instance, the formation of Vitamin B12 depends on the presence of enough cobalt in the intestine, which must also be supplied through the feed.

During the shedding period, the horse's need for B vitamins is typically so high that it exceeds its own production. This can lead to the horse becoming tired, as several B vitamins are also used in energy metabolism, and the coat becomes dull. Therefore, it may be necessary to supplement with a B-vitamin supplement for a short period to support the horse's energy levels and work enjoyment.

Since B-vitamin production depends on the fiber-digesting ability of gut bacteria, it is also important to ensure that the gut environment is balanced and that the bacteria are thriving. If minor digestive issues occur when horses transition from pasture to stable or vice versa, one can provide active yeast culture for a period. This helps the gut bacteria get back on track.

It is not only vitamins and minerals that are important for hair growth. Protein is also necessary to form new hair that is healthy and strong. For example, the amino acid cysteine is important for hair quality. Cysteine can be formed from another amino acid, methionine, which is an essential amino acid, meaning the horse cannot produce it and must obtain it through feed. Therefore, the feed must have a sufficiently high content of good-quality proteins.

Read also: Did you know that the connective tissue could be the origin of your horse's pain?

Extra shine and health

Once the shedding is over and the new coat is in place, feeding can help keep the skin and hair coat healthy and strong, so it can insulate and keep the horse dry. Again, the basic feed must be in order. Additionally, oil can be given, which helps maintain the skin and hair's shine and strength. All cells – including those in the skin and hair – have a membrane primarily composed of fatty acids. By ensuring enough building blocks for the cell membranes, you ensure that the cells in the skin and hair are healthy and strong. Furthermore, fatty acids are an important part of the fat layer that covers the skin and all hairs, helping to ensure that the coat is water-repellent.

For horses that need extra support, oil containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can be provided. Omega-3 and omega-6 are broad terms for a range of different fatty acids. Both omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids, meaning the body cannot produce them and they must be supplied through the feed. Omega-3 is found in fish, rapeseed, soybean, linseed, and sunflower oil. Omega-6 is primarily found in plant oils, including corn and sunflower oil. Always store oil in a dry and cool place and adhere to the expiration date to prevent it from becoming rancid. Rancid oil tastes bad and can contain harmful substances.

Lack of energy or a dull coat should only be a problem during a transitional period, where the horse can be supported with a B-vitamin supplement. Of course, one should always be aware of other possible causes of lack of energy, such as obesity, lack of training/condition, or potential illness. If you are unsure about the horse's general condition, you should have it examined by a veterinarian.

Read also: Is your horse suffering from diarrhea? Here's what you can check yourself

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