No question about it. You want to do your best to maintain your horse’s health and well-being. So, it’s likely you’ve considered adding a supplement to his diet. The array of options is vast with offerings formulated to address all sorts of conditions, from aching joints and brittle hooves to a lackluster coat and uncooperative behavior. But all those choices can pose a dilemma for anyone surveying the market, searching for just the right product to help a horse. It’s possible, though, to streamline your efforts and build confidence in your selection process. Here’s how to become a discerning consumer.

When determining if your horse might benefit from a supplement, first pinpoint the issue you want to address, then research the product and finally evaluate if you see positive changes in your horse.

When determining if your horse might benefit from a supplement, first pinpoint the issue you want to address, then research the product and finally evaluate if you see positive changes in your horse.

Pinpoint What’s Lacking

Start by taking a good hard look at your horse to identify the specific health or behavior issue you want to address. That’s the advice of Kenneth Marcella, DVM, owner of KLM Equine practice in Canton, Georgia. It’s not enough to decide that your horse’s coat looks dull or he seems a little thin or more excitable than usual. Instead, go a step further and share your observations with your veterinarian so he can evaluate your horse and determine whether medical intervention or a change in management is needed. As Dr. Marcella notes, a supplement isn’t likely to have any appreciable effect if an underlying issue isn’t resolved first. Supplements cannot cure serious illness, reverse the aging process or make up for poor nutrition or inadequate management.

Take Time to Research

When advising clients about supplements, Dr. Marcella says, “I think about spending their money as if it were mine.” He notes the variety of products on the market and the ease with which they can be obtained. Online availability makes it possible to have buckets, bottles or customized packets delivered to your door. That ease, says Dr. Marcella, can tempt an owner to make snap purchasing decisions, which can turn out to be ineffectual or even harmful. It’s far better to invest effort in some diligent research so the product you select actually has a chance of benefiting your horse. Plus, when that happens, you’ll know that your money was well spent.

Still, the prospect of studying up can be daunting. The National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), a nonprofit organization of self-regulating suppliers, estimates that more than 1,500 ingredients are currently used in supplements for horses. And, Dr. Marcella emphasizes, those products all fall into the category of nutraceuticals—foodstuffs that claim to have health benefits. Unlike pharmaceuticals—drugs used for medical purposes—nutraceuticals are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Their efficacy does not have to be proven.

As a result, attentiveness to details when shopping is especially important. Begin by becoming familiar with the supplement ingredients most likely to benefit your horse. (To assist you, detailed lists, organized alphabetically in five supplement categories, are included later in this article.) Then study the labels of products you’re interested in. Look for:

  • a comprehensive list of ingredients and their amounts
  • instructions for administration
  • a lot number—a means of tracking the product and a sign of quality control
  • manufacturer contact information—address, phone number, website—so you can get in touch with a company representative, ideally a nutritionist or pharmacist, if you have questions before or after you buy
  • product claims backed by scientific data
  • the NASC Seal of Quality—an indication that a manufacturer has passed an independent facility audit, has a written quality-control policy and an adverse-event reporting system, and includes on labels any warning statements recommended by the FDA and NASC Scientific Advisory Committee for particular ingredients. (For a list of companies that meet NASC guidelines, go to www.nasc.cc.)

Be Precise and Patient

As a last step before adding any supplement to your horse’s diet, determine how the ingredients in the product will interact with or augment the nutrients he’s already receiving in his daily ration, including other supplements. An excess of any one ingredient could be harmful.

Then it’s time to feed and wait (and maybe wait some more) before deciding whether a supplement is working. As Dr. Marcella notes, results won’t appear overnight. It takes time for body chemistry to be affected and signs of change to become apparent. Consider, for instance, that nearly a year will pass between the time you start feeding a hoof supplement and the new growth that emerges from the coronary band finally reaches the ground.

When you’re able to detect positive changes in your horse, you’ll know that your supplement strategy has paid off. To support your efforts, here are ingredients you’re most likely to find in the five most common categories of equine supplements.

Calming Supplements

Their purpose: To settle fractious horses whose uncooperative behavior isn’t related to an underlying physical problem (for instance, lameness or dental trouble) or management issue (say, insufficient turnout or ill-fitting tack)

Could help: Horses who are nervous, excitable, tense or spooky

Key ingredients: There are two types of calming supplements—nutrient-based, which include vitamins, minerals and other substances that are normally part of a horse’s diet to support a healthy nervous system; and herb-based, which utilize botanicals that are known for their calming properties. Be aware: Many sport and show associations restrict the use of these agents prior to competition. Check your organization’s governing body for guidelines.

  • chamomile—a perennial herb of the aster family; used as a calming agent and to treat digestive problems
  • hops—flowers of the plant Humulus lupulus primarily used in beer making; thought to ease anxiety and increase mental balance and concentration
  • inositol—a sugar-like carbohydrate found in nearly every cell in the body; critical for messages sent between different cells, particularly those found in the brain and spinal tissues
  • L-theanine—an amino acid found in tea that helps transmit nerve impulses in the brain
  • L-tryptophan—an essential amino acid necessary in the formation of serotonin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that than can create feelings of relaxation and contentment
  • magnesium—a mineral important for muscle contraction and nervous-signal transmission
  • passionflower—a woody climbing vine; used to relax the nervous system
  • raspberry leaves—a source of magnesium and B vitamins; used to support muscle tone and relax a muscle in spasm
  • taurine—an organic acid central to the health of the nervous system
  • thiamine (vitamin B1)—a compound found in fresh forage that helps the body’s cells change carbohydrates into energy; plays a role in muscle contraction and the conduction of nerve signals
  • valerian—the root of a perennial herb used to relax muscle tension
  • vervain—roots of a flowering grassland herb, thought to interact with chemicals that help to regulate nerve impulses in the brain and produce feelings of calmness
Calming supplements could help settle horses who are nervous, excitable, tense or spooky.

Calming supplements could help settle horses who are nervous, excitable, tense or spooky.

Coat & Skin Supplements

Their purpose: To support the production of collagen, keratin and other components of hair and skin

Could help: Horses whose coats are dull or dry or whose skin may be flaky, greasy or itchy

Key ingredients:

  • biotin (vitamin B7)—an organic compound important in the formation of keratin, the fibrous structural protein that is the principle constituent of hair
  • calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5)—a powdery salt that helps enzymes work effectively and synthesizes and metabolizes fats, carbohydrates and proteins; essential component of hair and hoof production
  • flaxseed (linseed)—whole seeds of the flax plant or the oil extracted from them; a rich source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids used to improve skin, hair and body condition
  • folic acid (vitamin B9)—an organic compound involved in the production and maintenance of cells, especially those with brief life spans, such as a horse’s skin cells, which on average are shed and replaced in 17 days
  • lysine—an essential amino acid that helps to build collagen in the skin and encourage hair growth
  • methionine—an essential amino acid that contains sulfur, which strengthens the structure of hair, hooves, tendons and ligaments
  • niacinamide—a form of niacin (vitamin B3) with antioxidant properties; used to increase skin resiliency
  • pyridoxine (vitamin B6)—an organic compound that helps to metabolize protein to support hair growth
  • riboflavin (vitamin B2)—vital for protein and carbohydrate metabolism; functions as an antioxidant; aids in the production of healthy skin
  • zinc—a trace mineral that is key to the formation and maintenance of skin, hair and connective tissue; involved in immunity and wound healing
Coat and skin supplements may help bring shine to horses whose coats are dull or dry.

Coat and skin supplements may help bring shine to horses whose coats are dull or dry.

Digestive Supplements

Their purpose: To balance the microorganisms that normally reside in a horse’s gut and break down fiber during digestion

Could help: Horses likely to suffer digestive disruption due to stress, illness and the administration of some medications

Digestive supplements are formulated to balance the microorganisms that normally reside in a horse’s gut and break down fiber during digestion.

Digestive supplements are formulated to balance the microorganisms that normally reside in a horse’s gut and break down fiber during digestion.

Key ingredients:

  • dehydrated alfalfa meal—a highly digestible, nutrient-rich form of the perennial legume
  • enzymes—biological catalysts (particularly amylase, lipase and protease) that work together to break down fats, protein and starch in the diet, supporting feed utilization and nutrient absorption
  • prebiotics—sources of nondigestible, soluble fiber that feed the beneficial microorganisms in the gut and aid digestion
  • probiotics—mixtures that are designed to balance the beneficial microorganisms in the gut; include the bacteria Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Enterococcus as well as the yeast Saccharomyces
  • yeast culture—a dried product containing yeast and the medium in which it was grown; facilitates fiber digestion and supports beneficial microorganisms in the gut

Hoof Supplements

Their purpose: To support the quality/growth rate of hoof horn

Could help: Horses with weak, shelly hooves prone to
cracking

Key ingredients:

  • biotin (vitamin B7)—an organic compound that helps the body convert food into energy and contributes to the growth and repair of hooves, skin, hair, nerves and bone
  • calcium carbonate—a mineral that is the main component of eggshells, seas shells, pearls and bone; contributes to bone growth and maintenance, muscle function and blood clotting; essential to hoof and hair production
  • calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5)—a powdery salt that helps enzymes work effectively to synthesize and metabolize fats, carbohydrates and proteins; essential component of hoof and hair production
  • copper—a trace mineral with several roles, including maintaining healthy connective tissue, aiding antioxidant enzymes in cells, synthesizing the pigment melanin and mobilizing iron stores; essential to bone and hoof formation
  • flaxseed (linseed)—whole seeds of the flax plant or the oil extracted from them; a rich source of fiber and omega-3 (“good”) fatty acids thought to promote hoof growth
  • keratin—a fibrous protein containing a high concentration of sulfur that is the main ingredient of hoof horn and hair; used to prevent joint breakdown and increase shock absorption
  • lysine—one of 10 essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that must be supplied in a horse’s diet; necessary for protein synthesis to form strong, healthy hooves
  • methionine—an essential amino acid that contains sulfur, which strengthens the structure of hooves, hair, tendons and ligaments
  • pyridoxine (vitamin B6)—an organic compound that helps to metabolize protein to support hoof growth
  • threonine—an essential amino acid involved in tissue repair and associated with hoof quality
  • zinc—a trace mineral that is part of more than 100 different enzymes in the body; key to the formation and maintenance of connective tissue; essential to the formation and maintenance of hoof horn, where some of the highest concentrations in the body are found

Joint Supplements

Their purpose: To support the health of joint structures and reduce the damaging effects of inflammation associated with normal wear and tear

Could help: Horses in the early to mid-stages of arthritis and those at risk of joint deterioration because of injury, the demands of use or advanced age

Key ingredients:

  • ascorbic acid (vitamin C)—a natural water-soluble vitamin essential to the formation of collagen, skin, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels; its antioxidant properties protect cells from damage by unstable molecules (free radicals) created during normal cell metabolism
  • avocado–soybean unsaponifiables—extracted and purified plant fats thought to have anti-inflammatory properties
  • boswellia (Indian frankincense)—an extract of the resin of the Boswellia serrata tree used to reduce inflammation
  • chondroitin sulfate—a large protein molecule that is a major structural component of blood vessels and connective tissue (bone, ligaments, tendons and cartilage); a key component in helping joints resist compression; used to reduce inflammation and pain
  • devil’s claw—a flowering plant that contains iridoid glycosides; believed to have strong anti-inflammatory effects
  • glucosamine—a natural sugar that is a basic component of tendons, ligaments, cartilage and the thick fluid (synovia) that surrounds joints; used to support the production of cartilage and synovial fluid as well as repair
  • hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid)—a clear, viscous fluid that is an integral component of cartilage, connective tissue and joint fluid; used to fortify synovial fluid as well as relieve inflammation and pain
  • methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)—an organic compound containing sulfur; used by the body in the formation of collagen and connective tissue
  • resveratrol—a potent antioxidant derived from the skin of red grapes and other fruit; used to reduce the body’s inflammatory response
  • yucca—an extract from a flowering perennial shrub of the Asparagaceae family that contains steroidal saponins, believed to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Joint supplements may help reduce the damaging effects of inflammation associated with normal wear and tear.

Joint supplements may help reduce the damaging effects of inflammation associated with normal wear and tear.

Does it Earn ACCLAIM?

The American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends using the acronym ACCLAIM to help you evaluate supplement labels. Here’s what to look for:

  • A company name you recognize
  • Clinical research that shows product safety and efficacy in horses
  • Contents clearly listed
  • Label claims supported by scientific data
  • Administration recommendations
  • Identification of lot and expiration date
  • Manufacturer information, including name, address, phone number and website.

About Kenneth Marcella

Kenneth Marcella, DVM, graduated from Cornell University’s veterinary college and moved to the Atlanta area to be part of the veterinary staff for the 1996 Olympic Games. An FEI veterinarian for more than 25 years, he has traveled both nationally and internationally, working with horses and riders at the highest level of their sport. In his practice, KLM Equine, he places special emphasis on lameness and sports medicine. 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue.

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