What’s Your Supplement IQ?

Take this 14-question quiz to make sure your supplement shopping efforts are guided by a thorough understanding of this sometimes overwhelming topic.

No one doubts your supplement shopping skills. You can whip out your smartphone and comparison shop for a tub of the latest nutritional product without dismounting. You are a master at finding free shipping codes. You can even go old school if you have to, locating the exact supplement you need in the feed store within minutes, with a rambunctious dog and hungry kid in tow. 

A supplement scoop full of white powder.
How much supplement does a standard scoop hold? The answer may surprise you.

But all your shopping skills are for naught if you don’t buy the right product and use it correctly. Smart supplement shopping begins well before you fire up your browser or park at the store. It starts with a solid foundation of knowledge about the many types of supplements available and the best practices for using them.

Keeping up with this information isn’t always easy, how-ever. A dizzying array of products are available, and the supplement landscape is always changing. Fads come and go, and new research often challenges long-held beliefs. The best way to stay informed is to focus on a variety of reliable, independent resources and, when necessary, consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist for clarity on topics specific to your horse.

By keeping your knowledge up-to-date, you’ll be ready to shop not only for the best deal but for the best product for your horse’s needs. Are you ready right now? Take this 14-question quiz to find out.

1.Which of the following ingredients is most likely to be included in a supplement intended to promote a healthy, shiny coat? a. vitamin C b. grape seed extract c. beta carotene d. pyridoxine (vitamin B6)

ANSWER d. Pyridoxine, also known as vitamin B6, is often found in coat supplements. It is essential for the formation of amino acids that promote hair growth, and deficiencies have been linked to skin inflammation and eczema in people. Other common ingredients in coat supplements include flaxseed, biotin, riboflavin, lysine and zinc. 

2. True or False: The only safe method of providing extra calories to a horse’s diet is with the addition of vegetable or corn oil.

False. A number of supplements can help put weight on a horse without the risk of a carbohydrate overload or the hassle and mess of oil. These products generally contain high-fat ingredients such as rice bran and flaxseed, along with sources of protein to support muscle-building and probiotics to help with overall digestive health. They are usually available in powder or pellet form.

3.Which of the following horses could benefit from an electrolyte supplement? a. an eventer competing on a warm fall day b. a convalescing horse on stall rest  c. a horse riding in a trailer on a hot summer day d. an endurance horse preparing for a ride the following week ANSWER a. and c. Electrolytes replace essential minerals that horses lose via sweat. These minerals, which include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium, play a key role in maintaining fluid balances between cells and carrying electrical impulses. Giving an electrolyte supplement to a sweaty horse—even if he worked up a lather just riding in a trailer—can help him recover more quickly. These nutrients are not stored by the body, however, so providing them prior to sweating isn’t particularly helpful. Be sure to read and follow the label directions carefully and remember that electrolytes do not rehydrate a horse, so you will still need to provide plenty of fresh water.

4.True or False: Hyaluronan and hyaluronic acid (HA) are the same thing.

True. Both of these terms—which you’re likely to see on the ingredients list for supplements designed to support joint health—describe the organic molecule sodium hyaluronate, a key structure in the synovial fluid that lubricates joints. Hyaluronan also helps form the matrix of articular cartilage, which covers the ends of long bones. Once only available as an injectable, HA is now a common ingredient in oral joint supplement products. 

5.Which produce-aisle item might you also find listed on the label of a joint supplement? a. avocado b. banana  c. kale d. sweet potato  ANSWER a. Several supplements formulated to support joint health include avocado/soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs). These are extracts from soybeans and avocados that prevent destruction of existing cartilage while stimulating tissue repair. Recent studies in France show that ASUs are effective in reducing the severity of arthritis signs, and these substances are available by prescription there for that purpose. 

6. True or False: If you miss a dose of a supplement, it’s smart to double the next dose to catch up. 

False. Supplement doses are generally calibrated for maximum benefit and safety. Deviating from the prescribed protocol, even in an effort to make up for a missed dose, is unwise. At best, giving a double-dose will be a waste of money if your horse is unable to absorb more than a single dose of ingredients. At worst, it could lead to a dangerous overdose. Some supplements call for a “loading” dose during their initial use, which may be higher than the routine dose, but otherwise doubling up on any product is a bad idea. 

7. True or False: Herb-based calming supplements are approved for competition because the ingredients are natural.

False. Leaving aside the fact that the definition of “natural” is open to interpretation, just because a product is natural doesn’t mean it’s legal. In fact, many organizations, in addition to banning specific medications and supplements, include a clause prohibiting any substance that could potentially alter a horse’s demeanor. Further, some ingredients in an herbal calming substance may be on a banned list, even if the product isn’t, resulting in a positive test. Of course, each competition organization has its own rules governing the use of specific supplements. Consult your rulebook, speak with a veterinarian familiar with the sport and call the organization directly to ensure what you are giving your horse won’t disqualify him from events. 

8. Which of the following ingredients is not likely to be found in a supplement formulated to promote healthy hoof growth?  a. biotin b. yeast culture c. methionine d. copper

ANSWER b. While yeast cultures are commonly found in digestive supplements, they are rarely used in those intended to promote healthy hoof growth. In contrast, biotin is the basis of many such products. This organic compound plays an important role in the production of keratin, one of the components of hoof horn, as does the amino acid methionine. Copper is critical to bone and hoof formation, so is also likely found in hoof supplements.

9. How much does the standard supplement scoop hold? a. one tablespoon b. two tablespoons c. 1/8 of a cup d. none of these

ANSWER There is no standard supplement scoop size. This makes it critical to use the scoop that comes with each specific supplement and contact the manufacturer if you need a replacement. The company can send you a new one or give you the exact measurement so you can break out the kitchen measuring tools to continue giving the correct dose.

Click here to learn more about ration balancers.

10. Which of the following agencies is in charge of testing supplements for safety and efficacy?  a. the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  b. the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) c. the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) d. none of these ANSWER d. Supplements are regulated by the FDA, but the agency rarely tests nor does it approve products. Likewise, the USDA has no role in supplement testing or approval. However, one agency on the list can offer consumers some guidance and peace of mind: The National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) is a nonprofit organization of self-regulating supple–ment manufacturers and suppliers. NASC conducts random product testing multiple times per year to help ensure its members’ products meet label claim. Manufacturers may display the NASC Quality Seal on product labels only if certain requirements are met. Among these requirements are a list of ingredients, independent quality audits and an adverse-event reporting system. 

11. Which of the following plant-based ingredients might you find in a supplement designed to calm a fractious horse?  a. raspberry leaves b. chamomile c. valerian d. willow bark

ANSWER a., b. and c. Typically found in extract form, chamomile and valerian are two herbal ingredients found most often in equine calming supplements. Both have long been used in human herbal medicine to treat insomnia and restlessness. Tea from raspberry leaves is traditionally used to ease discomfort of uterine cramps in women, and the dried leaves are often the basis of supplements intended to settle fractious mares. 

12. Vitamin C is often found on the ingredients list of antioxidant and immune-boosting products, but this nutrient is also frequently added to another type of equine supplement. You are likely to find vitamin C in supplements designed for which of the following purposes? a. calming  b. skin and coat c. digestive support d. joint health ANSWER d. Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C is required for the syn-thesis of collagen and connective tissue, so it’s not unusual to see it listed among the ingredients of supplements formulated to support joint health.

13. Which of the following situations might call for the addition of a general vitamin and mineral supplement to the horse’s diet? a. an elite show horse headed into a challenging competition schedule b. a fast-growing weanling c. an overweight pony on an all-hay diet d. an elderly horse with dental troubles

ANSWER c. The nutritional value of forage can fluctuate from cutting to cutting and even bale to bale. To ensure a horse on a hay-only diet is getting all his dietary needs met, consult with your veterinarian about adding a vitamin and mineral supplement, sometimes called a “balancer,” to his diet. These can provide needed nutrients without excess calories. The show horse, weanling and elderly horse in our example are probably best served by commercial feeds formulated to meet the nutritional requirements for different life stages or activity levels. Adding nutrients to specially formulated com-mercial feeds can lead to dangerous imbalances. 

14.(Bonus short essay question) What is the primary difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotics are live micro-organisms, often mixtures of bacteria and yeasts such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Enterococcus faecium, that are intended to populate the gut with organisms needed for digestion. Prebiotics are sugars and nutrients that provide nutritional support for gut bacteria. Pre- and probiotics can be helpful for horses who have ongoing digestive issues, are recovering from illness or are having trouble holding their weight. SCORING Give yourself one point for every correct answer, including the essay (spelling doesn’t count, though).

0 to 4 points: Don’t buy anything until you brush up on your supplement knowledge. In addition to reading EQUUS, consult with university and extension agent resources, veterinary clinics and independent resources. And, of course, talk to your veterinarian before adding anything to your horse’s diet. 

5 to 10 points: Go ahead and shop, but stay within your comfort zone. You know enough to stick with supplements you’re familiar with, but use caution when trying something new. Your veterinarian will be a great resource as you navigate new supplement territory.

11 to 14 points: Shop like the smart person you are. You’ve got the knowledge base and research skills to try a new supplement if you feel your horse could benefit. Stay skeptical, however, and well informed. Compare multiple products, set high expectations for product label information and check with your veterinarian before making your final purchase.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #472

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