Calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P) comprise around 70% of the mineral content of a horse’s body. The majority of Ca is found in teeth and bones. Calcium’s major role is to provide bone strength but it is also necessary for blood coagulation, temperature regulation, enzyme activity regulation, neuromuscular functions as well as energy generation. Phosphorus works with Ca to give strength to bone. It also has a role in energy metabolism, cell membranes, and buffering fluctuations in pH.
As show in Figure 1, Ca is typically 6 times higher than P in legume pasture or hay. Grass hay usually have more Ca than P, while cereal grains are inherently low in Ca and high in P. Calcium supplements include Ca carbonate (limestone) and dicalcium phosphate. Phosphorus is present in most hays and high in cereal grains (figure 1). Dicalcium phosphate is a common Ca and P supplement. Calcium and phosphorus must be provided in the horses’ diet in the correct quantities and ratio to one another. Requirements for Ca ranges from 0.3 to 0.8% and P ranges from 0.2% to 0.5% of the total diet. The upper safe levels are 2% of the diet for Ca, and 1% of the diet for P. It is important that the dietary Ca: P ratio be maintained within the range of 1:1 to 3:1 for growing horses and between 1:1 and 6:1 for mature horses.
When there is a dietary Ca or P deficiency, the skeleton may mobilize Ca and P to maintain plasma concentrations and non-skeletal functions. Either a deficiency or excess of Ca or P can result in skeletal diseases. Over-supplementation with Ca rich supplements is the most common cause of Ca excess. The ratio of Ca:P can be less than 1:1 when insufficient Ca is fed, when excess P is fed, or when more P than Ca is fed. If excess dietary P is fed, it may bind Ca and prevent its absorption that may result in a Ca deficiency. The following situations can result in a less than 1:1 ratio.
- If a diet containing a high proportion of unfortified cereal grains is fed, there may be more P than Ca. Commercial grain products always balances the Ca and P in the product.
- A diet consisting of a high percentage of wheat bran. Bran contains a high concentration of P and diets with a high percentage of bran commonly have a Ca: P ratio that is less than 1:1.
- A diet that contains an excess of a P containing mineral supplement.
- A diet based on a pasture which has a low Ca and normal to high P concentration.
- Horses grazing pastures in a region with P deficient soils or are fed hay from a region with P deficient soils can result in a dietary P deficiency.
Figure 1. Calcium and Phosphorus (%) in Selected Feedstuffs
Calcium and P are two very important macro minerals required by horses. The ratio of Ca:P is as important as the total amount fed. Generally, if one feeds a commercial grain with either a grass or legume hay the Ca:P ratio should be met. The ratio is less than 1:1 with overfeeding Ca or P supplements, feeding excess bran or the soil has excess P resulting in forages with excess P. Always look at the total ration when assessing if the nutrient requirements are being met for a horse.