One of the clearest indicators of the health of a horse is the condition of their hair coat.

When the horse’s coat lacks shine, appearing dull and scruffy, it gives the appearance that the horse is ill. Conversely, when the coat is sleek, shiny, and glowing, the horse appears healthy and well taken care of. While grooming does have an influence on the appearance of a horse’s individual coat, a major underlying factor on a healthy hair coat goes back to the animal’s diet. Specific nutrients have been identified as being important to promoting healthy skin and hair coats in horses.

Nearly 90% of hair in a horse’s coat is made up of a protein called keratin. Keratin, like all proteins, is made up of a chain of amino acids. The amino acids that are essential for keratin synthesis in the horse include alanine, arginine, leucine, and cysteine.

  • Alanine is a “non-essential” amino acid, meaning it is produced in sufficient quantities by the liver in the horse.
  • Arginine and leucine are considered “essential” amino acids. Being essential means the horse cannot produce them in the body and must receive these amino acids in the diet. Both arginine and leucine are usually fed in sufficient quantities in retail feeds.
  • Cysteine is classified as a “semi-essential” amino acid. This means cysteine is produced by the horse but at times not in essential quantities, signifying it, too, should be provided in the diet. Cysteine, like other essential amino acids, is usually fed in sufficient quantities in retail feeds.

The next important class of nutrients for a healthy-looking hair coat in horses is essential fatty acids. They promote healthy skin with longer and denser hair growth. Essential fatty acids also give a horse’s coat that highly desirable shine. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the two essential fatty acids that affect hair coat. Like the essential amino acids, these “essential” fatty acids are not produced by the horse and, therefore, must be provided in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are richer in certain oils, like flaxseed or fish oil, while omega-6 fatty acids are usually higher in cereal grains. High quality retail feeds are usually well balanced with these omega fatty acids. Tribute products certainly are!

Vitamins have always been linked to healthy skin and hair, too. One of the more important vitamins for healthy skin and coat is vitamin A. When horses lack vitamin A in their diets, their coats are dull, the hair is brittle, and their skin appears dry. Luckily, vitamin A is plentiful in pasture grasses and fresh hays. Mature or dry hays, or late season grasses, generally have a reduced amount of vitamin A.

Biotin is part of the vitamin B family. Both biotin and B vitamins act as important co-factors in enzymatic reactions, including keratin synthesis. Generally, B vitamins and biotin are produced in sufficient quantities by the microbes in the horse’s digestive tract and do not need to be supplemented.

Vitamin E and selenium are known as powerful antioxidants. They are also important for maintaining healthy skin, and thus, a healthy coat. Both are usually found in forages and fortified in commercial feeds.

Other minerals that are important to a healthy coat are zinc and copper. Zinc plays a key role in keratin synthesis. Zinc deficiency can lead to hair loss and flaking of the skin. Zinc and copper also are important in synthesis of the color pigment in bay, chestnut, and other dark coat horses. Deficiencies in these two minerals can lead to bleaching or lightening of the horse’s coat. While these minerals can be provided by pasture or hays, there are many areas in North America whose soils are deficient in both minerals. Thus, it is important that we provide them through a quality feed or, at minimum, a ration balancer, like Essential K® or Wholesome Blends™ Balancer.

Other than nutrition, the other major factor influencing the appearance of a horse’s coat is grooming. Routine grooming will help the coat rid itself of the dirt and allow the natural oils to coat the hair. There are other factors that can influence a horse’s hair coat, as well, which include:

  • Age – as horse’s age, their ability to absorb nutrients decreases, impacting their coat
  • Parasitic infection – a heavy infestation of internal and external parasites can lead to a dull, shaggy coat
  • Fungal infection – shows itself with hairless patches and scabby skin
  • Sun exposure – coat color may bleach with long-term exposure to the sun
  • Season – a horse’s hair grows longer in the winter months

There are many products on the market available to horse owners that help promote a healthy-looking coat. For example, K Finish® is a carefully balanced high fat supplement with all the above-mentioned nutrients that helps give your horse’s coat that highly desirable shine and luster. Many times, though, a switch to a Tribute® feed all in itself is enough to bring out a shinier, healthier hair coat. Just take a look at these transformations!

If you have any questions about your individual horses, please do not hesitate to contact us for an individualized feeding plan!

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.