Updated: Mar 13
When iron deficiency is missed by relying on wrong lab tests, there is a high probability of the animal permanently reducing its capacity to make red blood cells which could potentially dam their performance forever. Unless you take care of your horse's red blood nutritional needs, detrimental changes occur, probably in the bone stem cells that grow into blood cells, and probably in muscle cells themselves, that permanently reduce the animal's performance.
The red blood cells that carry a horse's oxygen, called erythrocytes, make up 35-50 % of your blood. The rest is mostly plasma fluid with a sprinkling of the white cells of the immune system. The proportion of your blood made of red blood cells is measured by the hematocrit. A hematocrit of 50 provides 25% more red blood cells than a hematocrit of 40, with a similar increase in the maximal oxygen delivery to muscle. So equine trainers are always trying to hike their animal's hematocrit.
Each red cell is 25%-35% hemoglobin, the red pigment made from iron and other nutrients, that carries almost 100% of an animal's oxygen. The greater the amount of hemoglobin per cell, the greater the possible amount of oxygen delivered to muscles. So trainers are always trying to adjust their nutritional program to hike the horse's hemoglobin.
Studies have shown many performance horses have hemoglobin levels below those of sedentary controls. And the iron status of both male and female performance horses is below that of the general population. Also, low iron stores, low hemoglobin, low hematocrit, and reduced performance in equine athletes from recreational to racing status are not unusual.
How can this happen, one might ask? Many equine athletes have poor hematological status because the standard advice trainers receive on nutrition to support the red blood system is 50 years out of date and actually detrimental to the horse's body.
Iron stores can be virtually exhausted before hemoglobin or serum iron register any abnormal level. In one study, 80% of a group of mares were iron deficient, but not one of them showed hemoglobin levels out of range. The hemoglobin test is useful to show how much of your horse's iron is being converted into hemoglobin. In conjunction with hematocrit and erythrocyte count, it is also useful to show how much oxygen-carrying capacity a horse has. But it is useless for determining your iron storage.
But the real question for trainers is do - hematopoietic nutrients make a horse jump higher, race faster, and run further? One study shows new evidence that they indeed do.
A group of horses on iron and other hematopoietic nutrients was measured by blood tests before the study, at 12 weeks, and immediately after the study. To ensure complete nutrition, both groups were given supplements containing 100% of the RDA for all nutrients throughout the 24 weeks. The experimental group was given additional supplements of folic acid, B-12, pyridoxine, ascorbate, zinc, and iron.
Results showed that blood levels of hematopoietic nutrients increased significantly throughout the high supplementation periods, and declined significantly throughout placebo periods, despite subjects receiving 100% of the RDA for all nutrients along with the placebo. More important, VO2 max increased by 8-18% during high supplementation periods. And time to exhaustion on the treadmill increased by 7-19%. That's a helluva an edge!
The study bears out the discussion that RDA levels of nutrients are insufficient to maintain red blood status. It also indicates that additional amounts of hematopoietic nutrients, even if they are not individually designed, and therefore not ideal, can improve the hematological status, increase VO2max, and give maximum performance. If anyone tells you differently, don't try to convince them with words, just show them when it's time to perform!
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