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Timing for Skin and Coat Development

Going into competition season with a shiny coat, supple mane, and full bodied tail completes the picture.  In some sports, the look of the horse means a lot to judges, and intentionally or not, the horse that shines may outshine the competition.  In other sports, appearances don’t affect your placement – and yet having a healthy skin and coat means literally having a protective barrier around your horse.  Further, seeing your horse has a rich coat with consistent quality and uniform mane and tail hairs is visual evidence of inner well-being.  Skin and coat is typically the first organ systems to suffer and the last to be rebuilt when your horse has injury or illnesses to attend to, so deterioration in skin and coat health can be a first sign of trouble.  While a diet that meets the horse’s basic needs is of course step one, when aiming to specifically support skin and coat health and appearance, a variety of ingredients are available with different routes of assistance and time frame to see the results.

Vitamins and Minerals
Supplementing diets with high quality, organic trace minerals is associated with increased hair quality, including smoothing and straightening of hair surfaces, thickening of the structural hair layer, reduced hair damage, and overall more lustrous appearance (Marycz et al., 2009).  Further, the supplements that support skin and coat often have additional benefits on hoof health – although developing notable changes in hooves will take substantially longer (likely 3 months) than changes in hair coat (within weeks).  For instance, horses supplemented with the minerals copper and zinc, the vitamins B-2, B-6, B-12, and D, and the amino acid methionine had higher rate of growth of hair, hoof wall, and hoof horn than non-supplemented horses, and supplemented horses had changes in the mineral content of hair and hoof tissue.  Of interest to our discussion of time to see effects of supplementing, hair growth rate was steady throughout the experiment, indicating supplementation can increase growth rate regardless of the length of time the horse is supplemented, while the growth rate of hooves sped up significantly after 10 weeks of supplementation, indicating that supplementing for hoof growth is most beneficial with the long-term (Jančíková et al., 2012).

Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids
An often included and relatively quick acting ingredient for skin and coat supplements is a source of Omega 3 fatty acids.  Omega 3 fatty acids are specifically anti-inflammatory, which means Omega 3’s may help with a range of skin conditions associated with itching, redness, reactions to allergens, or response to friction, and for conditions where localized swelling of or near the skin tissues could impact blood flow, nutrient delivery, waste removal, and wound healing for skin.  For instance, after 42 days of supplementation with Omega 3 rich flaxseed, horses with atopic dermatitis had less allergic response to biting flies associated with sweet itch, beneficial alterations in the fatty acid profile of the hair, and reduced inflammatory markers (O’Neill et al, 2002).

Omega 6 fatty acids, on the other hand, are considered pro-inflammatory.  While Omega 6’s have a valuable contribution to the body’s immediate immune response to injuries and wounds, long-term inflammation is counter-productive to tissue healing and immune function, and further, the average equine diet is already relatively high in Omega 6 versus Omega 3 due to the content of concentrate feeds and grains (Lewis, 1996).  Researchers suggest actively trying to increase the Omega 3 content of equine diets in order to reach a total diet ratio of Omega 6: Omega 3 of around 3-5:1 to support an ideal balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory fatty acid metabolism for skin health (Goh et al., 2004).  Studies have shown a correlation between increased total dietary Omega 3 fatty acids and higher hair coat scores – including shinier, smoother coat with less incidence of broken hairs – and higher hair coat scores for horses with lower dietary ratios of Omega 6: Omega 3 (Goh et al., 2003). 

In addition to anti-inflammatory properties, Omega 3 supplementation also supports a shiny appearance of the coat (Rogers, 2004), with additional oil content on the skin and coat providing protection from friction (reducing ease of skin damage and/or coat breakage), and additional anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties with increased skin oil content (Gurr et al., 2002).  And while vitamin and mineral supplementation for skin and coat health may take around a month to produce noticeable hair growth or changes in the skin tissues, Omega 3 supplementation effects can be seen – literally – relatively quickly. 

Amino Acids and MSM
Specific amino acids are supportive of skin and coat health and help facilitate quality and rate of tissue growth.  For instance, methionine is a primary amino acid needed for the structural proteins keratin and collagen, which are integral components of strong, resilient skin, hair, and hooves.  Other amino acids, like L-arginine, support wound healing and circulation, which – in particular when combined with bioavailable anti-oxidants and Omega 3’s – can help horses recover from injuries and scrapes faster and help damaged skin recover its integrity (Alexander and Supp, 2014).  MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) is a two-for-one ingredient for skin and coat health, as it is anti-inflammatory (and thus has some of the benefits analogous to Omega 3) and this compound provides sulfur, which (like methionine) is involved in creating the structural proteins keratin and collagen.  Thus, MSM is helpful in the short-term to reduce inflammation and in the long-term to support skin and coat growth.   

Conclusions
Skin and coat health is not just about appearances, as skin is a window into the health of the horse and a protective layer against injury and illness.  Supplements containing Omega 3 have systemic benefits and quick visual results, while vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, amino acids, and MSM support hair and skin growth and quality over slightly longer durations of time.  An added benefit of supporting skin and coat with these supplements is likely improvements in hoof health, though that will take multiple months.  If you have any questions about these or other ingredients found in skin and coat supplements or concerns about your horse’s skin and coat health, contact your Science Supplements nutritionist for assistance.

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Alexander JW, Supp DM. Role of Arginine and Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Wound Healing and Infection. Advances in Wound Care. 2014;3(11):682-690

Jančíková P, Horký P, Zeman L. The Effect of Feed Additive Containing Vitamins and Trace Elements on the Elements Profile and Growth of Skin Derivatives in Horses. Annals of Animal Science. 2012;12(3): https://doi.org/10.2478/v10220-012-0032-4

Goh YM, Sia JY, Mohd-Azam GK. The Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Skin Health in Horses. 11th International Conference of the Association of Institutions for Tropical Veterinary Medicine and 16th Veterinary Association Malaysia Congress. 2004:177-178.

Goh YM, Mohd-Azam GK, Sia JY, Shri K, Law FL. Plasma N-3 and N-6 fatty acid profiles and their correlations to hair coat scores in horses kept under Malaysian conditions. Journal of Veterinarians of Malaysia. 2004;16(1&2):31-37

Gurr MI, Harwood lL, Frayn KN. Lipid Biochemistry: An Introduction. 5th ed. 2002. Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Lewis, LD. Feeding and Care of the Horse. 2nd ed. 1996. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, USA.

Marycz K, Moll E, Zawadzki W, Nicpoń J. The correlation of elental composition and morphological properties of the horse’s hair after 110 days of feeding with high quality commercial food enriched with Zn and Cu organic forms.  Electronic Journal of Polish Agricultural Universities. 2009;12(3): http://www.ejpau.media.pl/volume12/issue3/art-04.html

O'Neill W, McKee S, Clarke AF. Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) supplementation associated with reduced skin test lesional area in horses with Culicoides hypersensitivity. Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research. 2002;66(4):272-277

Rogers, GE. Hair follicle regulation and differentiation. International Journal of Developmental Biology. 2004;48:163-170.

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