Supplemental Advice: Whose Idea Was It to Buy That Bucket?

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Every barn has some: Buckets and bottles of nutritional supplements for horses. They might be full, half-full or empty. But you bought them all.

When you go to the grain store or thumb through a catalog or scroll through a web site, whose little voice do you hear in your head when you're selecting a supplement©

When you go to the grain store or thumb through a catalog or scroll through a web site, whose little voice do you hear in your head when you're selecting a supplement©

You bought them because you wanted to do the best thing for your horse. You wanted to supplement the nutrition he receives from the hay or grain you feed. Or you wanted to help him with arthritis. Or grow stronger hooves. Or improve his immune system.

Then again, maybe you've just got a great collection of Cosequin buckets that you want to maintain.

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While authorities will argue about this for hours on end and with mountains of papers, we horse owners believe we know what is best for our horses and we believe that our particular choices in supplements are doing something beneficial. Or else, with the prices we pay, we wouldn't be investing in them.

Supplements are big business. And in the end, we know this much is true: that what I believe works for my horse might not work for yours.

So there are some false starts. That's why there are some full buckets just sitting around. Or some half-used ones. We didn't like the smell or "he just wouldn't eat it" or oops! we lost the special scoop. Or the insert that said how much to feed. Yes, that's right: the goat did eat it.

And there are also the ones that a friend said had turned her horse around (but your horse just blew it off the top of his feed). There was the one that the vet said was scientifically proven (even though your horse wouldn't eat his food if it was added). And the one that your trainer insisted your horse be on during competition season (but that might have been why he was so nippy and antsy all the time).

So the advice of others when it comes to supplements doesn't always work out. Finding the right supplements for your horse, if you choose to feed them, means taking a leap of faith. You can read all the articles in your favorite horse magazine, devour literature posted on the web, ask the woman at the feedstore point-blank and quiz your friends at the barn.

The companies have customer service advisers waiting to give you all the details. There are blogs and wikis and Facebook pages and plenty of Twitter posts reminding you which supplements are available.

But whose advice do you trust the most?

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Dr Sarah Freeman, Associate Professor and European Specialist in Large Animal Surgery at the School of Veterinary Sciences at The University of Nottingham in England wanted to find out. She launched a national survey of horse owners in an effort to find out where they get information about equine nutrition.

What did she find?

Horse owners in Great Britain are most likely to use their veterinarians to guide the choice of nutritional supplements they feed their animal, but also rely heavily on recommendations from other riders, a unique study has revealed.

Early findings from the research also found that joint and mobility and behavior problems topped the list of owners' concerns when seeking supplements for their horse.

"This collaborative study by vets and nutritionists is the first of its kind," Dr Freeman said in January 2012, when the preliminary results of the study were announced. "It has given horse owners a voice on important issues, and the results will help vets, nutritionists and horse owners to work together to match needs for different horses."

The study is being undertaken by two third-year veterinary students, Charlotte Agar and Rachael Gemmill, in collaboration with Dr Teresa Hollands at Dodson & Horrell Limited, a leading manufacturer of horse feeds, including nutritional supplements.

More than 800 horse owners took part in an online questionnaire for the survey, which was launched in September last year and is the first study of its kind into which nutritional supplements they use and the reasons behind their choices.

Word of mouth advice

The study was primarily aimed at dressage and eventing riders as a way of looking at which issues were of most concern to competition horse owners, what supplements they would like to see available and the best ways of passing on information about supplements to them.

Initial results from the study found that almost half of all owners (49.8 per cent) rely on their veterinarian for advice on which supplements to use, followed by internet articles or reviews (39.4 per cent). However, when asked specifically about their latest purchase of supplements, word of mouth and advice from other horse owners was identified as the most important source most frequently (18.1 per cent).

Joint and mobility supplements were considered to be the most important; however, there were differences between the competitive disciplines, which is likely to be explained by the different demands of the individual sports.

Further analysis will examine the choices made by owners in greater depth and to investigate how best to provide better information to owners on the supplements available.

The next stage of the study will involve interviewing individual horse owners to provide a more detailed insight into their decision making process.

Congratulations to Dr Freeman and Dr Holland for undertaking this survey, which has been done on a less scientific level in the United States. What we'd like to know: whose advice most often turns out to be the supplement that horse owners continue using? You might invest $70 in a supplement because your vet recommends it, but did you keep purchasing it--or did someone else convince you to switch?

In the USA, we have a highly competitive pricing war over supplements, and we also have the convenience of the Smart Pak daily-dose-specific packaging. How influential is price and convenience? If your vet recommends a powdered supplement and you like to feed pelleted ones, are you likely to ignore that advice less on the product and more on the delivery system? Some of us dislike feeding liquids. Some are required to feed certain supplements because the barn policy calls for adding a feed-through wormer or a ration balancer.

And so it goes on.

I'd love to know who--and what--influences your decision-making process, especially when you are starting a new supplement. If you think that your horse might benefit from a calming supplement for the upcoming competition season, how much research would you do? And whose advice would you value? And how do you balance reputation, price and packaging type when you make your decision?

To learn more:

Read "Dressage and Event Horse Nutrition Survey: What Supplements Do You Feed Your Sport Horses? British Researchers Begin Study with Online Survey", published in November 2011 on The Jurga Report.

Thanks to Dr Freeman for providing information about her project at the University of Nottingham.

Feed store image courtesy of Royston Rascals; buckskin mare by Derrick Coetzee.