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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.