Everything You Need To Know About Horse Supplements

The world of equine supplements is a daunting experience for supplement newbies with so many to choose from, all claiming to do wonderful things for our beloved horses. Horse supplements are given when a horse needs an extra source of vitamins or minerals. They are available in powders, liquids, pellets and pastes and are designed to either make up for a deficiency in a horse’s diet, or help with a particular health condition or problem. They can also aid recovery.
Generally speaking, horses and ponies that have a well balanced diet of forage and hard feed and that are fed at the horse feed manufacturer’s recommended rates, won’t normally require extra supplements. If your horse cannot have the ideal quantities of hard feed for whatever reason, such as your forage being deficient in key nutrients, or if your horse is under stress following illness or competing at a high level and therefore requiring extra nutrients, then incorporating supplements into your horse’s diet can be hugely beneficial.
Equine supplements can be helpful when a horse has key nutrients missing from its diet or to target a particular requirement, such as a recurrent ailment or exercise regime. If you are unsure whether your horse would benefit from adding a feed supplement to its diet then speak to your vet, or hire an equine nutritionist who may be able to run some tests help you decide whether feed supplements would be worthwhile. A routine blood test can help identify if your horse has a deficiency, and your vet will be able to arrange this if you have any concerns.
Feed supplements for horses are not medicines, so cannot be used to ‘treat’ illnesses or conditions, and manufacturers are not allowed to make such claims on their packaging. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that some horses can benefit from having their diet supplemented in a particular area, just like when a human takes a multivitamin – it doesn’t necessarily get rid of a cold but tops up your nutrients to help fend off future colds.
Supplements are recommended for horses that undergo a lot of exercise and those that are competing but it is important to note that some horse feed supplements may contain substances which are banned from use in competition under certain governing bodies. It is the rider’s responsibility to ensure that any supplements they are using do not include prohibited substances, so check the labelling carefully and call the manufacturer if you have any concerns.
Getting started with horse supplements

Adding supplements to your horse or pony’s diet is effectively investing in their health and well-being, and it is always good to know if your investment is having the desired effect. Generally it is not possible to see the effect in the short term but there are ways to tell if your chosen supplement(s) is working.
Keep a record

The best way to monitor how effective your feed supplements are is to document your findings. Regularly maintain and update these findings, note any change to behaviour and condition, as without doing so it is easy to miss subtle, yet important, daily changes. A small diary is a great way to date your findings and easy to reference if needs be. For the most accurate results you must list exactly what you have fed your horse, including all types of forage, feed and supplements along with the quantities. Pay extra attention to your horse throughout the seasons, note any changes in attitude and willingness to work, weight, coat, hoof health, stiffness and respiratory rates.
If you keep your records as accurate as possible they will allow for both positive and negative effects of your feed supplements to be identified quickly.
Make gradual changes

Whatever you do – Do NOT change everything all at once. For the most accurate findings you will need to manage not only your horse’s diet but it’s routine too. In doing so you can get a deeper understanding of any changes and attribute them to the right variable. Even simple changes to routine can have a big impact.
Get to know your horse

Learn to know your horse so you become aware of small changes, both for better and for worse. Make sure you pay attention to the horse when at work, rest and in competition. Look out for changes in things such as outlook, changes to their coat, the quality of it’s feet, how freely they are working, behaviour, and appetite. This is where you diary comes in handy again – use it to note subtle changes so that you can establish any patterns.
The benefits of understanding your horse will stretch far beyond nutrition!
Have realistic expectations

It is unlikely that an exuberant and excitable sports horse will turn into a quiet hack on a calmative supplement. Consider the horse’s challenges and environment carefully and ask for advice from professionals if you need further support. In the same way, a retired veteran with joint stiffness is unlikely to transform into a free moving athlete on a joint supplement.
You must be realistic about what you can achieve and focus on selecting the right support where needed.
Choose your supplement carefully

With so many products to choose from, putting your horse on to the most appropriate and effective supplement is not always easy, and providing the correct ‘balanced’ nutrition for your horse requires attention to detail and careful planning.
First and foremost you must ensure you are providing a well balanced diet before supplementing for therapeutic effects. You must consider all feed provided, including quality and levels, plus environmental factors such as access to forage, fasting periods, and routines.
Joint supplements for horses

Joint mobility can vary according to the breed and age of a horse. There are a variety of supplements available containing naturally occurring substances formulated to help with cartilage production, mobility and flexibility of horses.

Glucosamine helps keep joints and cartilage lubricated. It also stimulates glycosaminoglycans (this is the substance necessary for the formation of joint tissue). This is important because as a horse’s body ages or is subjected to punishing riding disciplines, it may not produce a sufficient amount of glucosamine naturally. This can result in cartilage with a diminished ability to act as a shock absorber. The joints then become stiff and painful, resulting in a limited range of motion and even deformation.

Chondroitin sulphate works to enhance glucosamine. Chondroitin sulphate is a major part of cartilage and may support bones as they heal. It provides structure, holds water and nutrients, and allows other molecules to move through the cartilage. This is extremely important, as there is no blood supply to cartilage.
In degenerative joint disease, such as osteoarthritis, there is a loss of chondroitin sulphate as the cartilage erodes. It’s important to remember that when administered as a supplement, the rate of absorption results for chondroitin sulphate can be low as it is a large molecule.
Sodium Hyaluronic Acid (HA)

This structure is the simplest of all glycosaminoglycans and forms the backbone of proteoglycans. It is found in the connective tissue and created in the synovial membrane by the chondrocytes. It is essential for proper nutrient delivery.

Methylsulphonylmethane (MSM) is a naturally occurring organic sulphur found in grains and grasses. The concentration of organic sulphur should be high, especially in older horses undertaking strenuous or intense training programmes. MSM is necessary for the correct synthesis of amino acids, vitamins and chondroitin sulphates. These are essential nutrients that help support joint lubrication. MSM also supplies bio-available sulphur to various types of tissues within the body.
Calming supplements for horses

Once horses become anxious the may develop behaviours that can make managing them difficult, unpleasant, or even dangerous for the horse and the owner, such as rearing, shying, biting, pulling, barging, etc. Recognising that horses develop certain behaviours which we consider undesirable, and that they are also frequently exposed to new or stressful situations and that some horses are more susceptible to stress than others, an ideal calmer should be able to reduce stress quickly allowing horses to learn better and adapt to new situations faster.

Some magnesium calmers claim to have a “better” source of magnesium than others. This sounds good but is probably of little significance. Magnesium deficiency in horses is rare and most diets contain adequate magnesium. Magnesium supplementation can also interfere with calcium balance and lead to an increased risk of orthopaedic problems.

If you are a rider or trainer who swears by calcium then you may be surprised to learn that there is no clear evidence linking calcium deficiency and abnormal behaviour and or anxiety. If calcium concentration in the blood falls, parathyroid hormone is released which releases small amounts of calcium from bone. Studies show that increasing calcium supplementation results in increased calcium excretion in both faeces and urine. Looking on the positive side, calcium is not dangerous at the amounts being fed. And the horses on these calmers will at least have strong bones and hooves.

Tryptophan is an amino acid and is another common active ingredient in equine calmers. Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been associated with aggression, fear, stress and inhibition of aggression in a variety of animal species. Studies in horses suggest that low doses actually cause mild excitement as opposed to calming. Higher doses reduce endurance and can cause haemolytic anaemia (the lowering of red blood cell count). An Australian study into the behavioural effects of tryptophan on horses published in 2008 concluded that “Plasma tryptophan increases when tryptophan is administered at a dose used in some commercial products, but this is not reflected by marked behavioural changes in the horse”.
B Vitamins

Many equine calming supplements contain B Vitamins, although there are no studies on horses showing that these have any effect on behaviour. In human subjects, the US National Library of Medicine concluded there was “insufficient evidence to rate the effectiveness of …” Vitamin B1 (Thiamine), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Vitamin B5 (Pantothenate) or Vitamin B12 for stress, anxiety, depression or behavioural disorders. Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) is considered “possibly effective” for behaviour disorder in children caused by low serotonin levels (hyperkinetic cerebral dysfunction syndrome).

There are many different species of Chamomile which all belong to the family of plants known as Asteraceae. There are no studies of the use of Chamomile in horses as a calming or anti-anxiety agent. A 2013 review article in the journal CNS Drugs found that there was some evidence of efficacy for chronic use (i.e. greater than one day) of one specific species of Chamomile in treating a range of anxiety disorders in human clinical trials. Doses of Chamomile are rarely if ever stated on equine calming supplements and therefore it is impossible to know how these relate to the levels in human studies, especially when raw herbs are used as opposed to extracts.

There is a reasonable amount of scientific evidence to suggest a calming effect of Valerian (Valerenic Acid; an extract from Valerian plants) in horses. However, there are no scientific published studies of Valerian or its extracts in horses, but interestingly Valerenic acid is on the FEI Prohibited substances list.