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Ultra Low Iron Equine Balancers

It would be an understatement to say that here at Forageplus we are slightly obsessed by levels of iron in the horse’s diet. We feel that iron is an over supplemented mineral that is already at high levels in horse diets.

We are always concerned to reduce iron levels in our products, especially our balancers by using only the highest purity ingredients but why do horses need low iron supplements?

We formulate all our balancer products to ensure they contain the lowest iron content we can possibly achieve. We stock and use only magnesium oxide and mono-sodium phosphate which is below 30 ppm of trace iron.  We are very confident our balancers have the lowest iron content but highest magnesium content of any feed supplement on the market today. We can describe our balancers as ‘ultra-low iron’ and believe that we have created the best forage focused, equine balancers you can buy today.

Do horses need additional iron in their diet?

If you are intrigued or confused by the topic of iron in the horse’s diet then read on below.

Our own horses have benefited enormously over the last 4 years by having minerals balanced to the forage they eat. This forage initially had high levels of iron which was impacting greatly on their health in many common, but significant ways. But why all the obsession?

Iron is an important mineral, essential for life and abundant in the horse’s diet.  In addition, it is probably the most over supplemented mineral. Iron is in virtually everything the horse eats; hay, grass, haylage, water, soil, commercial feeds, separates like oats and beet pulp and is added to the majority of the vitamin/mineral supplements on the market. However it is not just the listed iron we needed to worry about, we need to worry about the ‘hidden’ iron in the feeds we feed.

Excess iron can literally be a ticking time bomb, building in the body, storing in the liver and spleen and has been reported in many other species, from several types of bird, black rhinoceros, tapir, lemur and dolphin.  Iron can be a dangerous mineral in excess because its high affinity for oxygen and high reactivity makes it easily absorbed.  It is absorbed by binding to specific metal transporters in the small intestine and also passively via junctions between the cells.   Research in other species shows that volatile fatty acids (VFAs) which are produced from hindgut fibre fermentation enhance iron absorption in the colon.  As the horse is a hindgut fermenter this leads to the possibility of a significant source of iron.  High amounts of iron stored in the liver turn the insides of this organ black and worryingly, veterinary pathologists actually consider this to be a ‘normal finding in horses.  The colour is from iron deposits called hemosiderin.

Studies into iron overload

A study evaluated the potential link between insulin resistance (IR) and iron overload and linked iron status to IR in horses.  This study was specifically designed to substitute horses as a model for captive black rhinos, a cousin of the horse because the researchers recognized the relationship between metabolic disease and iron overload in rhinos (Nielsen et al., 2012).

A potential link between insulin resistance and iron overload disorder in browsing rhinoceroses investigated through the use of an equine model.    Nielsen BD, Vick MM, Dennis PM.  Source  Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 48824, USA. [email protected]  

ron overload disorder afflicts captive rhinoceros but has not been documented in the wild. The specific cause for the disorder has not been identified but is likely associated with diet and management. Compared with wild counterparts, captive rhinoceros eat diets containing more iron, have greater fat stores, and exercise less. It has been suggested that the problem may be linked to development of insulin resistance in the captive population. Given that controlled experiments with sufficient numbers of rhinoceros are logistically not possible, an equine model was used to look for a relationship between iron status and insulin resistance; the nutritional requirements of horses are used as a guide for rhinoceros, because they have similar gastrointestinal tracts. Sixteen horses were tested to determine blood insulin responses to an oral drench of dextrose (0.25 g/kg bodyweight) and a meal of pelleted corn (1.5 g/kg bodyweight). Fasting blood samples were taken 30 and 0 min before administration. Further blood samples were taken every 30 min for 4 hr after administration to determine peak insulin and total area under the insulin curve (AUC). Fasting samples were tested for serum ferritin concentrations. Correlations were determined between ferritin and peak insulin concentrations and insulin AUC after administration of oral dextrose and pelleted corn. The strongest correlation was between ferritin and insulin AUC after dextrose administration (r = 0.61; P = 0.01) followed by AUC after feeding a meal of pelleted corn (r = 0.60; P = 0.01), with the correlation for peak insulin being 0.53 (P = 0.03) after dextrose administration and 0.56 (P = 0.02) after pelleted corn. When evaluating responses by gender, a significant correlation existed only for females, influenced by one insulin resistant individual. These data suggest a potential link between insulin resistance and body stores of iron and also suggest that approaches to reduce the susceptibility to insulin resistance should be incorporated into management of captive browsing rhinoceros.

(Nielsen et al., 2012).

Just recently Drs. Eleanor Kellon and Kathleen Gustafson of the Equine Cushing’s and Insulin Resistance Group (ECIR) performed a retrospective analysis of lab results maintained in the group’s database and data from the controlled feeding study in horses mentioned above.  All animals from the ECIR database had abnormally elevated insulin. Ferritin, a measure of body iron stores, exceeded the published reference range in all animals and there was a tendency for ferritin to increase with age. Likewise, data from the previously published report showed that ferritin was significantly elevated in the group with confirmed hyperinsulinemia when compared to the group with normal insulin response.

Kellon and Gustafson suggest that these results indicate possible similar interactions between hyperinsulinemia and body iron burden in the horse and that iron may be a modifiable risk factor for hyperinsulinemia. They emphasize that iron is unlikely to be a primary causal factor but that the interaction is worth scientific investigation in controlled studies. Studies investigating the bidirectional relationship between iron and hyperinsulinemia in horses are extraordinarily limited, despite considerable scientific inquiry in other species. The ECIR goal is to increase awareness of the potential for iron overload in horses with hyperinsulinemia and stimulate further study.”

Possible Dysmetabolic Hyperferritinemia in Hyperinsulinemic Horses
Eleanor M. Kellon and Kathleen M. Gustafson

**Open Veterinary Journal, (2019), Vol. 9(4): 287–293 DOI:
Nielsen, B.D., Vick, M.M. and Dennis, P.M. 2012. A Potential Link between Insulin Resistance and Iron Overload Disorder in Browsing Rhinoceroses Investigated through the Use of an Equine Model. J. Zoo Wildl. Med. 43, S61–S65.

In the future perhaps there will be studies exploring possible connections with iron status and arthritis and also with Cushing’s disease. Interestingly the changes that are seen in the brains of horses correlate with those seen in human brains when iron overload has been identified.

One problem with excess iron is the negative effect it has on the uptake of copper and zinc – two minerals that are usually already very deficient in horses’ diets. Dr Eleanor Kellon recommends an iron: copper: zinc: manganese ratio somewhere between 10:1:3: 3 to 4:1:3:3, with the latter ratio being recommended for IR horses, (these ratios are in line with those published in the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements for Horses). The only way to correct this ratio is to increase supplemental levels of copper and zinc.

Here in the UK and in Europe, the thousands of full mineral forage reports Forageplus has carried out for clients have identified clearly, time and time again, that iron is invariably in excess in forage. This seems to have been totally overlooked by the feed industry and their nutritionists.  In the rare case that there is a very small shortage it can always be supplied by feeding a small amount of alfalfa or beet pulp, feeds which both contain very high levels of iron.  We have literally never had to recommend any client supplement mineral iron to their horse’s diet because it is so over supplemented in forage.  The same also applies to manganese which is very rarely seen at deficient levels in forage and is usually grossly in excess.  Manganese in excess works to make the over absorption of iron even worse due to this minerals affinity for attaching to ferritin.  Ferritin is one of the body’s ways of regulating the uptake of iron but if excess manganese attaches to the available ferritin then this fail-safe ceases to operate.

Excess iron in the diet has been linked with predisposition to infection, arthritis, risk of tendon/ ligament problems, as well as altered glucose metabolism.  There is also a suggestion in human research that the low availability of copper predisposes the lining of the digestive system to increased inflammation.

When we began balancing our horses’ trace minerals, we saw a big improvement in their hooves, coats and skin. There were high levels of iron and even higher levels of manganese contained within the forage they were eating. Copper and zinc were at very poor levels. Once the ratios between these minerals were corrected through increased supplementation of copper and zinc, repeat abscessing and white line disease reduced then dwindled away to virtually nothing. Skin infections that our vet had been unable to shift for years with topical applications disappeared within weeks and coats became darker with a wonderful lustre and sheen that no shampoo had ever been able to produce. Our thoughts were that if this was what could be seen on the outside then there must be more changes on the inside!  In many other horses arthritic problems have improved and IR problems have slowly become less.

Excess iron in the diet has been linked with predisposition to infection, arthritis, risk of tendon/ ligament problems, as well as altered glucose metabolism.  There is also a suggestion in human research that the low availability of copper predisposes the lining of the digestive system to increased inflammation.

Six months on mineral balancing where iron absorption was reduced by correcting ratios of copper and zinc and this pony showed much-improved coat colour and his lung allergy was significantly improved.  His immune system improved to beat a lung infection that had not responded to antibiotic treatment.  He had also shown anaemia, even though treated with an iron tonic. Anaemia in horses is usually to do with a deficiency of copper, not iron and iron tonics often make matters much, much worse. Note the frizzy, ginger look to his mane in the first picture.  The same iPhone camera was used to take both shots.

Here at Forageplus, we have never added iron or manganese to any of our balancers because the common profile of forage, both here in the UK and Europe, show that supplementing more of these minerals is just not going to help achieve optimum health in any horse.  We don’t believe a broad/multi-spectrum approach is suitable for achieving optimum health in horses, we prefer a forage focussed supplement, targeted specifically to match only those minerals which are commonly deficient in that which is the greatest proportion of the horse’s diet, forage.

However, you will find iron as a trace element impurity, a hidden source of iron in many minerals commonly used in equine feeds and supplements particularly in magnesium oxide. Those supplements which use standard animal feed grade magnesium oxide for formulating their feeds and supplements will typically be high in hidden iron.  Close inspection of the iron levels in this source of magnesium oxide will reveal high amounts of trace contamination.  The commonly used animal feed grade contains as much as twenty thousand parts per million (20,000ppm) of trace elemental iron. By comparison, the magnesium oxide that we sell individually is of a much higher grade and contains typically between 20ppm and 50ppm of iron which is up to one thousand times less elemental iron than in regular feed grade magnesium. However the high-grade magnesium oxide we stock as an individual product is a very fine powder making it unsuitable for formulation into our balancers.  After a lot of effort, we successfully sourced a human pharmaceutical grade of granular magnesium oxide that is used primarily for human tablet manufacture.  This granular magnesium oxide is suitable for formulating our balancers and most importantly it contains less than 40ppm of trace iron. This magnesium oxide is used in all of our ‘ultra-low iron’ balancer products and we are very confident our balancers have the lowest iron content but highest magnesium content of any feed supplement on the market today.

By feeding our  ‘ultra-low iron balancers’  which are focused on the common deficiencies in forage you can help your horse reduce dangerous excess iron exposure.  There are many common problems seen in horses that can be eliminated by lowering the absorption of iron.  We have listed some of these below.

  • Does your horse have thrush and/or white line issues that won’t go away, even with great hoof care and topical thrush treatments?
  • Does your horse suffer from bouts of mud fever even when the ground is not muddy?
  • Is your horse hard to get fit and seem to tire easily?
  • Does your horse suffer from sensitive hooves, even though they look great from the outside and have good trims on them?
  • Does your horse have issues tolerating sugars (but does not test for insulin resistance) or is even insulin resistant?
  • Does your horse have scruffing/flakey skin and is itchy all the time, even when not sweating and with feeding flax and good grooming?
  • Does your horse eat a lot of soil, eat tree bark, branches, bushes, other ‘odd’ plants, even though it has tons of food and isn’t bored?
  • Does your dark colored horse bleach out every summer, does you chestnut horse look pale and pasty, does your horse have a ‘dull’ colored coat or have have frizzy ended hair.
  • Does your horse suffer from allergies (skin or lung) or other immune issues?
  • Does your horse suffer from unexplained laminitis (or has sugar sensitivity related laminitis), blow abscesses for no reason, has thin soles, etc?
  • Does your horse have cracks in the outer hoof wall, cracks in the inner wall between the white line and sole, bad hoof quality in general?

If you answered yes to any one of those questions then maybe you need to look into the trace elements which are ‘hidden’ in your horse’s diet.  Don’t just look at that listed on the side of your bag of commercial feed or supplement tub, look into that contained in your forage and look into that contained within the very minerals used to supplement your horse. If you are confused by this and would like to know how to understand the numbers surrounding the trace metal content of a mineral then read here.  Understand that the listed iron is not the whole story.

Here at Forageplus, we have looked into hidden and impurity levels in all areas and you can be assured that we are committed to sourcing the very best ingredients for our balancers which are as free from impurities as we can make them.  Iron is everywhere but with us, you can minimise it so that it is in your horse’s diet at safe and healthy levels.

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