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Cobalt Limits for Performance Horses: An UpdateBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · September 20, 2016

For maximal joint health, a gleaming coat, strong hooves, and overall micronutrient balance, many horses receive a spattering of supplements daily. In some cases, when more than one product is used and the total supplements in the diet are not assessed, nutrient excesses occur, with potentially disastrous results, including elimination from competition.

“This is exactly what can happen if the levels of cobalt are not carefully scrutinized,” warned Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

Cobalt stabilizes a protein called “hypoxia-inducible transcription factors,” abbreviated HIF, that help stimulate the gene for erythropoietin (EPO). In turn, increased EPO levels stimulate red blood cell production.

“This aspect of cobalt metabolism has been exploited to improve human athletic performance,” noted researchers* from the University of Queensland at the 2016 Australasian Equine Science Symposium.

The researchers explained that cobalt is natural, cheap, easy to obtain, and orally active, all attributes that facilitate cobalt abuse. They also point out that there is no evidence that supplemental cobalt improves equine athletic performance. Further, high levels of dietary cobalt could actually cause cardiovascular compromise or heart failure, nausea, nerve and thyroid dysfunction, and contribute to an increased risk of cancer, as seen in humans.

Throughout the world various racing organizations have identified cobalt as a performance enhancer and have therefore set limits on acceptable levels. The Australian Racing Board recently set a urine threshold of 200 ug/L. Horses with levels above this value are labeled positive and at risk of elimination from competition and monetary fines.

“Trainers need to be cautious when using supplements that contain cobalt, especially above the recommendation dose. Moreover, it is probably unwise to use feed additives that legitimately contain cobalt on race day,” concluded the researchers.

Sounds easy, right? Recall that many poor-quality supplements line the shelves of tack stores and attract unsuspecting online shoppers. Such products may not contain the type or amount of ingredient listed on the label and could be potentially contaminated by compounds such as cobalt.

“Be sure to use only quality nutritional supplements produced by reputable manufacturers. Also, be certain to assess all ingredients included in all feeds and supplements to ensure no one nutrient or ingredient is being oversupplemented,” advised Crandell.

For help assessing your horse’s diet, consult with a KER equine nutritionist today.

*Bryden, W.L., A.J. Cawdell-Smith, N.R. Perkins. 2016. Cobalt: Equine performance and health. Proceedings of the Australasian Equine Science Symposium. Volume 6.