As we head into the winter months and access to green grass wanes, so does access to the vital nutrients that horses obtain from grass. Vitamin E and the mineral Selenium are essential to a horse’s well-being— they work together to act as antioxidants, which are crucial for muscle health, muscle recovery after exercise, and a healthy immune system.
Symptoms of Vitamin E and Selenium deficiency include poor coat and hoof quality, vision problems, muscle pain/stiffness/soreness, and neurological symptoms (particularly in the hind end).
For horses that are especially low in Vitamin E, initial treatment may require a liquid Vitamin E supplement (such as Elevate or Nano-E) due to its higher bioavailability compared to the powdered or pelleted form. Vitamin E is unstable when exposed to light and air, so supplements in the liquid form should not be added to your horse’s grain until just before feeding time.
After finishing the course of treatment with the liquid supplement, Vitamin E powder or pellets should be sufficient for most horses. Some horses are chronically low in Vitamin E and/or Selenium, which could result in a recurrence of symptoms after finishing the liquid treatment.
Because Vitamin E and Selenium need each other to work effectively, long-term deficiency in either one of these nutrients can lead to permanent neurological, muscular, and/or ocular damage.
Horses that have limited or no access to grass, such as miniature horses and insulin-resistant horses, are at greater risk of Vitamin E and Selenium deficiency. Hay is not a sufficient source of Vitamin E, because Vitamin E is an unstable molecule and degrades quickly after hay is harvested. While we feed ration balancer to all of our horses, we have still found levels of Vitamin E below normal levels and had to treat them with a liquid supplement. Typically, just a powder or pelleted supplement is sufficient to keep a horse healthy. However, if symptoms are present, your vet may want to draw blood to determine the best course of treatment.
Two of our trainees, Robin and Farley, were very deficient in Vitamin E when they arrived at Horses with Hope— Farley dangerously so. Robin was deficient in Selenium as well. Both of them had very tight muscles, and Robin’s seemed especially painful. Each of their winter coats were dull and an odd sort of fuzzy— the hairs were too fine to provide adequate insulation and waterproofing. They also weren’t shedding their coats as expected until about 4 weeks of treatment with liquid Vitamin E and powdered Selenium. It seemed like overnight all of the weird fuzz dropped off and revealed two sleek, shiny minis.
Symptoms of Vitamin E and Selenium deficiency can be hard to spot in general. On top of that, these two minis had a winter coat, poor body and hoof condition from neglect, and an intense fear of humans. As a result, it would have been virtually impossible to spot any nutrient deficiencies for some time. We only discovered it as soon as we did because our vet has seen an uptick in Vitamin E deficiencies, particularly in horses who can’t have grass, and recommended that we test for it.