Learn Why Your Horse Needs Our Calcium Supplements

Articles on Calcium & Mineral Supplements

Calcium Is A Very Important Mineral For Horses

Calcium and phosphorus are the most abundant minerals in the body, making up 70% of the total mineral content. Calcium has several important functions in the body. Most people are familiar with calcium being necessary for strong, healthy bones. In fact, 99% of the calcium in the body is contained in the bones and teeth. A horse which is asked to perform athletically must have optimally strong bones to withstand the rigors of training and hard work, whether it be for racing or other performance. In addition to bone formation/strength, calcium is important for several vital metabolic functions in the body including:

  • Muscle contraction (“calcium pump”)
  • Skeletal muscle for locomotion
  • Heart muscle to pump blood efficiently
  • Smooth muscle, such as within the gastrointestinal tract for normal “gut-motility” & digestion
  • Nerve conduction
  • Other specific metabolic reactions (blood clotting, normal cell-membrane function, glandular secretion, temperature regulation, regulating activity of many enzymes, and cellular activity)

The importance of calcium to the performance horse includes normal functioning of metabolism, the conduction of impulses along the nerves to muscle, the contraction of leg and body muscles for exercise, the contraction of the heart muscle for pumping blood, the contraction of the diaphragm for breathing, the functioning of the GI muscle for digestion. Calcium also plays a vital role in maintaining strong and healthy bones, cartilage and joints for peak performance without injury/breakdown.

The Regulation of Calcium

Due to the vital metabolic functions of calcium, its level in the bloodstream is closely regulated by the body. Vitamin D and hormones, such as PTH (parathyroid hormone) and calcitonin, normally maintain blood calcium levels within a narrow range to ensure normal muscle/nerve conduction and metabolic functions. Ideally, a horse’s daily calcium requirements should be provided entirely from the diet. If not, bone provides a “storage” form of calcium for the body. When the diet does not provide adequate calcium, the PTH stimulates the mobilization of calcium from bones and into the bloodstream. PTH and calcitonin also prevent high calcium levels in the blood (calcemia) by excreting excess calcium into the urine and reducing absorption from the gut. With long-term dietary calcium deficiency, significant re-absorption of bone can occur, which can lead to decreased bone strength or abnormal bone formation. Thus, the body will sacrifice optimum bone strength formation to maintain the blood calcium levels, if needed.

Factors Affecting Calcium In The Diet

Calcium derived from the diet is affected by several dietary factors. Other minerals can affect the availability of calcium. For example, excess phosphorus in the diet will complex with calcium in the small intestine, resulting in decreased calcium absorption. Excess calcium in the diet may interfere with the absorption of copper, manganese, zinc, and iron. Excess zinc inhibits calcium and copper absorption. Adequate and balanced amounts of minerals are necessary. For these reasons, indiscriminate supplementation of minerals should be avoided. An additional factor that can result in a calcium deficiency is oxalates. Some pasture plants contain high levels of oxalates. These can complex with calcium and, thus, decrease the calcium available to the horse. Examples of oxalate-containing plants include halogeton, greasewood, shamrock, rhubarb, panic grasses, lambsquarter, and five hooked bassia. This situation is usually not a problem, but can occur if oxalate-containing plants are the primary forage or if dietary calcium levels are low/marginal.

Problems With Improper Calcium Levels In The Diet

Significant problems can develop from continued improper calcium levels in the diet, such as DOD (developmental orthopedic disease) and “bran disease” (nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism). Some race track “breakdown” injuries, as well as lameness and tendinitis, have been attributed to inadequate calcium in the diet of young race horses. Improper calcium levels in the diet are more likely to cause problems for the growing horse than for the mature horse.

DOD includes a group of conditions which are associated with the abnormal formation of bone and cartilage in the growing horse. It includes physitis/epiphysitis, osteochondrosis, OCD (osteochondritis dissecans), and tendon contractures. DOD is actually a multi-factorial disease. It can be associated with several factors in addition to improper calcium levels in the diet, such as very rapid growth, excess protein in the diet, improper levels of the trace minerals copper, manganese, and zinc, and genetics.

Bran disease (nutritional hyperparathyroidism), also called “big head” or Miller’s disease, is associated with excess phosphorus in the diet with inadequate calcium. Bran contains high levels of phosphorus and low levels of calcium. Grains also are high in phosphorus and low in calcium. If growing horse diets containing bran or grains do not provide sufficient calcium, elevated PTH levels can occur. Under this circumstance, calcium is mobilized from bone to maintain the blood calcium levels. Bone is de-mineralized and replace by weak, fibrous connective tissue that appears as swellings, often over the bones in the head or at the growth plates of the legs and neck.

Low Calcium In The Bloodstream

Although there are mechanisms to maintain normal calcium levels in the bloodstream, these can be overwhelmed under some circumstances. If calcium is lost in significant amounts through sweating and not replaced soon by oral intake, low blood calcium level or “hypocalcemia” may result. Under these circumstances, calcium cannot be mobilized quickly enough from the bone to maintain normal levels. This can be a serious problem for a horse. Some examples of specific problems associated with hypocalcemia include:

  • Transport/stress tetany
  • “Thumps”
  • Exhausted horse syndrome; colic

Transport/stress tetany is associated with horses on calcium deficient/marginal diets which are stressed or transported long distances. Excessive sweating results in calcium losses. The signs include: muscle twitching, muscle spasms, and tetany (stiff, rigid limbs).

“Thumps,” or synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, is sometimes seen in endurance horses or horses that have sweated for prolonged time periods and when electrolytes have not been adequately replenished. Sweat contains chloride, sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium as well as water. Low blood calcium, potassium, and chloride result in an increase in neuromuscular irritability and hypersensitivity of the phrenic nerve. With thumps, heartbeats stimulate the hypersensitive phrenic nerve to fire. This results in a contraction of the diaphragm seen at the flank each time the heart beats.

The exhausted horse syndrome is a complex metabolic derangement seen in endurance horses or horses exerting themselves in tough conditions or beyond their abilities/condition. These horses are severely dehydrated with multiple electrolyte deficiencies and signs of exhaustion. Colic can occur as part of this syndrome.

These conditions are all very serious and warrant immediate veterinary evaluation and treatment. Prevention of these conditions includes adequate conditioning before competition/exertion, optimal nutrition, and replacement of lost electrolytes and water during the ride/stress/transport/exertion.

Calcium & Management of HYPP

HYPP (hyperkalemic periodic paralysis) is an inherited condition associated with some Quarter Horses. Dietary management is an important part of controlling the disease. Supplementation with calcium carbonate as an alkalinizer in the diet may be beneficial by promoting potassium excretion with hydrogen ion retention by the kidneys.

Requirements For Calcium In The Diet

The first thing to address in balancing a diet for calcium and phosphorus is to ensure sufficient amounts of calcium and phosphorus are available to meet the horse’s needs. The calcium to phosphorus ratio is also important, but secondary. An excellent book containing NRC nutrient tables and recommended dietary levels is Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and Care by Lon D. Lewis. Nutrient recommendations contained in this book suggest providing growing horses with 15-20% higher calcium than those recommended by the NRC to maximize bone strength and mineral content, while decreasing the risk of DOD. These suggestions are also supported by a study (B.D. Nielsen et al. Texas A&M) of young Quarter Horse geldings beginning race training. Additional dietary calcium (25% above NRC requirements) at the onset of training resulted in increased bone density compared to controls receiving NRC requirements.

Providing optimal calcium levels and an overall balanced diet will help to maximize the performance and bone/joint strength of the horse. This is especially important during training/conditioning of the young horse. When evaluating a specific feeding program, it is ideal to analyze nutrient content of hay and grain. Although not as accurate, estimates can be obtained from charts based on averages for the type of hay and grain being fed. Commercial grains and feed products provide nutritional information on the label.

The biggest variation in calcium content of the diet hinges on whether grass or alfalfa hay is fed, as these forage sources usually differ significantly in calcium content. Remember, growing horses may need additional supplementation, but since both excesses and deficiencies can cause problems, a specific assessment of nutrient content of the diet is recommended. Feed companies may provide assistance and feedstuff analysis. Consulting with an equine nutritionist and/or veterinarian may be helpful, especially if a specific nutritional problem has occurred.


Without needed amounts of calcium in the diet, metabolic functions and structural support may be compromised. On the other hand, too much dietary calcium can also lead to serious consequences. Horse owners need to evaluate dietary levels of minerals and supplement as needed. Sufficient levels and proportions of minerals in horse diets are needed to facilitate optimum growth and/or performance.

Dr. Harrison is a board-certified specialist in large animal internal medicine at Good Thunder Veterinary Service, a veterinary practice devoted exclusively to equine, at New Carlisle, Ohio.

More Calcium For Young Training Horses

Well, recent research from Texas A & M University also indicates that young horses entering race training may need extra calcium. Earlier Research with racing age horses had shown substantial decrease in mineral content of the third metacarpal (cannon bone) during the first two months of training. After that time, there was an increase until the end of the study. In another study, a lack of dietary calcium was observed in young horses entering race training, even though they were fed a recommended level according to the National Research Council (NRC).

In the latest study, 12 two-year-old horses were divided into two groups. One group of control animals were fed the NRC recommended level of calcium. The others were fed 123% of the NRC recommended level of calcium. After adjustment to a ration of 65% concentrate and 35% hay, the horses were conditioned and raced in four 28-day periods. Bone density never decreased below its value on day one in the mineral-added group.

A dramatic increase was noticed from day 70 to the end of the study. Control horses had a bone density similar to or lower than day one throughout most of the study. Retention of calcium was greater at days 28, 56 and 84 for the higher mineral-fed horses, indicating they made use of the extra 7 grams of daily calcium above the control horses. It was presumed that the extra retained calcium was used for increased bone mineralization.

Data indicated that both groups became more efficient in bone synthesis in the latter part of the study. The researchers concluded that the calcium requirement for young horses in race training is about 0.4 percent compared to the 0.32 percent recommended by the NRC.

Date: 5/27/2013

A study conducted at Dr. Joe Pagan’s Kentucky Equine Research in Versailles, Ky., indicates that 72 hours after being administered Salix (furosemide, also commonly called Lasix), active horses had difficulty replenishing calcium levels…

The full story regarding Dr. Pagan’s research can be found at
Calcium in the bone generates red blood cells that deliver oxygen to the muscles.
The Alkaline Mineral Calcium is needed to Neutralize the Lactic Acid and flush it through the liver.

“Calcium’s alkaline cellular fluids provide adequate OXYGEN for the Krebs cycle to occur, thus Preventing or Reversing the build-up of Toxic Lactic Acid.”
says Robert R Barefoot and Carl J Reich, M.D.

In 1936, the U.S. Senate Document Number 264 stated that the grazing lands and crop lands of the USA had been depleted of minerals. Furthermore, this document stated that to supply the needs of man or animals it was necessary to supplement minerals.

“The alarming fact is that the grain and hay that we are now producing on millions of acres of land no longer contain enough minerals to provide our equine population with the necessary raw materials to sustain normal body functions.”

“Plants, although able to produce vitamins and proteins, can not synthesize minerals if there are none in the soils.”

“Our horses are continually exhibiting more evidence of mineral deficiencies, namely Osteoporosis, Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), Osteoarthritis, Anemia, Aneurysms, Depression, Colic, nervous disorders (ie: Cribbing, Weaving, Stall Walking, Irritability), Cardio Myopathy, Lack of Stamina, Decreased Hormonal Production, Stunted Growth, and Failure to Produce Quality Hooves.”

OCD Lesions with Mid-Rivers’ Surgeon, Richard Hardman, DVM
OCD lesions are cartilage flaps (sometimes containing bone) that develop at the end of bones near joints during a young horse’s development. This condition is most common in young horses that experience rapid growth spurts.

The Cause of OCD Lesions
There is still much to be learned about OCD lesions. A major mitigating factor is nutritional or mineral imbalance in the horse’s diet, such as a diet high in carbohydrates or protein, which results in rapid growth in the first year of life. There are a variety of other reasons a young horse will develop OCD lesions, such as trauma to a joint, higher than average body weight, and hereditary reasons.

OCD lesions are most commonly found in stifle, hock, and fetlock joints as well as between neck vertebrae. Although less common, lesions can also occur in the shoulder, hip, and elbow joints.

OCD lesions will generally develop within the first 11 months of life but may not be noticed until 3 to 5 years of age as the horse begins training. If you are considering the purchase of a young horse, it is a good idea to radiograph those joints that are most affected to develop degenerative joint disease, also known as arthritis.

Q&A with Dr. Hartman

Q: Do OCD lesions have to be surgically removed?
A: OCD lesions in horses older than 15 months old should be removed, Generally, we do not recommend surgery in horses any younger than 15 months old. It is possible that lesions in these foals will resolve themselves.

Q: What percentage of horses goes back to full work after surgery?
A: In my experience, the success rate is around 85% percent.

Q: Are regenerative medicines, such as stem cell therapy, viable treatment options?
A: Generally, growth in the damaged area has stopped so we are uncertain at this time if stem cell therapy is a successful treatment option.

Q: Can joint injections be used to treat OCD lesion?
A: You can treat OCD lesions with injections but you are just masking signs. By masking the pain or swelling, you increase the risk of further injury.

Q: How does a surgeon treat an OCD lesion?
A: A surgeon will remove the lesion, scrape away any underlying defective bone or tissue, and then flush the joint to ensure removal of any lingering fragments.

Q: Can you prevent a foal from developing lesions?
A: If a young horse is experiencing OCD but has not yet developed lesions, treatment may consist of changing its diet to slow rapid growth.

Q: If my horse was previously treated for an OCD lesion, is he likely to suffer from it in other joints?
A: Recurrence is not a common problem in the same joint. It is more common to find lesions in the corresponding joint on the opposite limb.

Q: How do these lesions cause pain?
A: Lesions expose interior bone, releasing debris into the faint and resulting in inflammation.

Q: What are the clinical signs of OCD lesions?
A: Joint swelling and lameness are the most common signs.

– Dr. Robert Hartman. DVM