Ask three horsemen about the role of supplements in a horse’s diet and you likely get three different answers. As the number of available products has grown over the past two decades, so too has the debate over how and when they are best utilized.
Yet one rule is universally recognized: “Give only what a horse needs.” Every veterinarian and nutritionist will tell you that unnecessary or overzealous supplementation isn’t only a waste of money, it can lead to nutritional imbalances. For instance, a horse given a vitamin supplement in addition to a grain fortified with vitamins may ingest an overdose of certain nutrients, which can be detrimental to his health. Its much much safer and more effective to first identify your horse’s dietary needs and then shop for a supplement that meets them.
The tendency to reverse this order is understandable. If your friend’s mare looks fabulous after being started on a particular supplement, for instance, it’s tempting to put your own horse on it. The mare, however, may have been missing something in her diet or had a specific problem that your own horse does not. In that case, you won’t see the same benefits. In fact, your horse may have a different deficit or need that only a different supplement can address.
Fortunately, supplements are available to address nearly every problem a horse can have, from poor-quality hooves to creaky joints to excitable behavior. Here’s a survey of the basic categories of equine supplements available, along with a rundown of the ingredients you are most likely to find in each one. Once you’ve had a look, discuss your horse’s needs with your veterinarian and get ready to go shopping.
Which horses may benefit: those who are fractious or “difficult” even after a veterinarian has ruled out pain, ill-fitting tack and other physical problems that may lead to uncooperative behavior. Calming supplements are intended to “settle” these horses with nutritional and herbal ingredients that affect the nervous system.Common ingredients:
- magnesium, a mineral that plays a role hundreds biochemical reactions within the body, including muscle and nerve function
- thiamine (vitamin B1), a compound found in fresh forages that helps the body convert carbohydrates and fat into energy and is critical to proper function of the nervous system.
- valerian, an extract from the dried root of the flowering plant Valerinana officinalis, which contains compounds believed to interact with certain neurotransmitters; used since the times of the ancient Greeks to relieve restlessness, anxiety and insomnia
- chamomile, an extract derived from the flowers of the perennial herbs Matricaria recutita or Chamaemelum nobile; used for thousands of years to treat insomnia and anxiety
- L-tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to the neurotransmitters serotonin, which induces calming and melatonin, which encourages sleep
- taurine, the organic acid abundant in animal tissue that plays a significant role in many neurologic functions
- inositol (vitamin B8), an organic compound integral to the health of cell membranes; research suggests that inositol supplementation can aid in treatment of panic disorders, bipolar depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder in people
- raspberry leaves, the dried foliage of the raspberry bush are high in vitamin C, tannins and other nutrients; long thought to affect muscle tone
Special considerations: Many sport and show associations restrict the use of some calming agents prior to competition. If your horse competes, check with any governing body for guidelines.
Which horses may benefit: those in the early- to mid-stages of arthritis or otherwise at risk because of injuries, “mileage” or old age. Joint supplements aim to support the health of structures such as the cartilage between bones and the synovial fluid in the joint spaces.
- glucosamine, an amino sugar, is one of the building blocks of cartilage production and repair
- chondroitin sulfate, a large protein molecule, is a constituent of connective tissues and cartilage
- hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid), a key structural component of synovial fluid, connective tissue and cartilage
- MSM (methylsunfonylmethane), is an organic compound that is a source of sulfur, which is necessary for the production of collagen
- yucca, an extract from the roots of a species of yucca, a flowering desert plant; a source of saponins, compounds with both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
- avocado-soybean unsaponifible (ASU), extract from the oils of avocado and soybean; early research suggest ASU slows the production of some inflammatory chemicals in the body, thereby protecting cartilage
- boswellia, an extract from the gum resin of Boswellia serrata, a tree native to India; research suggests that it has anti-inflammatory properties.
- ascorbic acid (vitamin C), the familiar water-soluble vitamin and antioxidant; required for the synthesis of collagen and connective tissue.
Special considerations: The ingredients in joint supplements are among the most studied by scientists. However, the levels vary from product to product. Read and compare labels to select a supplement with the desired amount of your preferred active ingredients.
Which horses may benefit: those with weak, shelly hooves that crack easily and do not hold shoes well. Hoof supplements are designed to improve the quality of hoof horn, leading to stronger hooves.
- biotin, a B vitamin that supports the production of keratin, a protein that forms the basis for hair and hoof horn; studies have shown that biotin supplementation improves the growth rate and quality of hoof horn.
- methionine, an amino-acid that contains sulfur, an element the body uses to produce keratin.
- lysine, an amino acid that plays a role in the formation of collagen, the absorption and retention of calcium and tissue growth and repair
- zinc, the mineral essential to the formation and maintenance of cartilage, bone, skin, hoof horn and hair
- copper, a trace mineral critical to bone and hoof formation
- pyridoxine (vitamin B6), an organic compound essential for the production of amino acids that support hoof growth
- calcium carbonate, a mineral derived from eggshells and other sources that provides calcium
- calcium panthothenate, a compound of panthothenic acid, which is an essential component in the synthesis of amino acids used in hoof and hair production
- flaxseed, the whole seeds or oil from the seeds of the flax plant; a source of omega-3 fatty acids thought to promote hoof growth
Special considerations: It takes approximately one year for a horse to grow a new hoof from coronary band to the ground. Because supplements can only influence new hoof growth, it may take many months to see results from these products.
Which horses may benefit: those whose digestive system may be adversely affected by stress, illness or medications. These supplements aim to balance the gut flora in a horse’s intestinal tract, reducing the likelihood of colic and diarrhea.
- probiotics, combinations of bacteria and yeasts, including Lactobacillus, acidophilus, Bacillus subtilis and Enterococcus faecium, intended to support populations of intestinal flora that are necessary for digestion.
- prebiotics, the sugars and other nutrients that provide nutritional support for the beneficial bacteria that reside in the gut
- yeast culture, a strain of yeast that assists in the activity of beneficial bacteria in the hindgut
- dehydrated alfalfa meal, a source of highly digestible fiber
Special considerations: Many digestive supplements contain live organisms, which can be damaged or killed by exposure to heat and light. Read and follow any storage directions listed on the label.
Skin and coat supplements
Which horses may benefit: those with dull, dry coats or flakey, greasy or itchy skin. Skin and coat supplements improve the quality of both by supporting the production of keratin, collagen and other building blocks of the coat and skin. Common ingredients:
- pyridoxin (vitamin B6), a compound essential for the production of amino acids that support hoof and hair growth; deficiency has been linked to skin inflammation and eczema in people
- biotin (vitamin B7), a compound that plays a key role in the production of keratin, a protein that forms the basis for hair
- flaxseed (linseed), the whole seeds or oil from the seeds of the flax plant; contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to support healthy hair growth
- riboflavin (vitamin B2), nutrient that aids in the production of healthy skin and hair
- lysine, an amino acid that plays a role in the formation of collagen as well as tissue growth and repair
- zinc, a mineral essential for the formation of bone, cartilage, hoof horn, skin and hair
- folic acid (vitamin B9), an organic compound necessary for the production and maintenance of new cells, particularly those with short life spans, such as skin cells
- calcium pathothenate, a compound of vitamin B5 and a critical component of an enzyme needed in the synthesis of amino acids used in hair production
- niacinamide, a derivative of niacin (vitamin B3); preliminary studies suggest may be useful in treating skin disorders in people
- methionine, an amino acid that contains sulfur, an element the body needs to produce keratin; deficiencies in people can cause skin lesions
- Special considerations: Poor skin and coat quality can be indicators or overall nutritional deficiencies, parasitic infection or systemic illness. Before dismissing your horse’s dull coat as a cosmetic issue, check with your veterinarian to ensure that it doesn’t signal a bigger concern.
Supplements can make a big difference in a horse’s health, looks and performance but, of course, they are not magic potions. They cannot make up for poor management or nutrition, cure serious physical ailments or reverse the aging process. When you shop smart and with a clear purpose in mind, however, supplements can round out a horse’s diet for optimum health.