Of all minerals, iron is the one that often seems to receive the most attention. Iron undoubtedly plays an essential role in the diet, but are additional iron supplements really necessary and do they have the potential to cause more harm than good?
Iron is a ‘micro mineral’ or ‘trace element’ meaning that it is required in smaller amounts. Its primary function lies in the transportation of oxygen and consequently, approximately 60% of the iron in the horse’s body is in haemoglobin – the protein which carries oxygen and gives blood its red colour.
Iron rich supplements are often propositioned as an aid to improving energy levels, enhancing performance and as a ‘pick–me-up’ for horses in hard work or recovering from illness. However in truth, there is no scientific rationale to support this.
Forage is naturally high in iron, exceeding daily requirements for the majority of horses, even when intake is restricted. Excess iron is stored in the liver and consequently can be harmful in oversupplied. Iron deficiency in horses is rare and only tends to occur as the result of significant blood loss. In fact, toxicity is more common than deficiency.
Toxicity may cause depression, dehydration, diarrhoea, an increased risk of bacterial infections, liver failure and in extreme cases death, particularly as result of over supplementation in foals where absorption is more efficient.
With this in mind, iron supplements are usually unnecessary and should only be considered following a confirmed clinical deficiency. Although the addition of an iron based supplement will not automatically result in toxicity, they have the potential to do more harm than good, particularly as many owners do not have their forage analysed. If poor performance is a concern and the potential for underlying medical conditions can be ruled out, consider factors such as fitness, condition, hydration, temperament and feeding a balanced diet rather than reaching for an iron supplement.
For more information on iron supplements for horses, contact the SPILLERS Care-Line on 01908 226626