The equine world is flooded with dietary supplements, each making bold claims to make your horse faster, calmer, nicer or shiner. However it isn’t quite as simple as that, and in this article I will be exploring what a supplement is, and highlighting a few points for you to consider before you buy.
What is a supplement?
A supplement can be very simply defined as ‘a thing’ which added to something else in order to complete or enhance it, and in the horse world a supplement is generally termed a complementary feedstuff.
Supplements can be divided into ‘fundamental’ or ‘specialised’’. A vitamin and mineral supplement can be classed as a fundamental dietary supplement as it is needed to complete or balance out the feed ration, whilst a joint supplement or calmer could be thought of as a specialised supplement as it exceeds normal nutritional needs.
What is a nutraceutical?
A nutraceutical is a non toxic food component which has health benefits, and these products are often specialised supplements such as joint or hoof supplements.
Does my horse need a supplement?
Firstly it is important to consider what you are hoping to achieve with the use of the supplement. Is it simply to ensure your horse has a complete and balanced diet, or are you expecting to see notifiable health or behavioural benefits by feeding this supplement?
It is essential to ensure that your horse has a balanced diet so that you aren’t relying on supplements, and it is also important to consider the bigger picture when it comes to your horse’s health. For instance a joint supplement may help with reducing some of the clinical signs of joint pain, but if the horse is overweight achieving weight loss might be more beneficial to the horse. On a similar note it is important to discuss your plans with your vet, for some horses a low dose of anti-inflammatory medication may be a more appropriate choice, and on a cost per day basis this could be comparable to the use of a supplement.
Benefits of using supplements
Owners and riders are fully aware that forage should always be the main component of the horse’s diet, however hay and hay are not always fully balanced in minerals. A supplement can help balance out any nutritional deficiency but allow for a forage rich diet. Targeted supplementation can also be used to address additional clinical issues, or help with performance goals. Whilst empirical evidence for some dietary supplements can be lacking many owners swear by their effects, although whether that is simply the placebo effect is impossible to quantify.
Points to consider….
Too much of a ‘good thing’
There are a variety of supplements on the market, and many yards seem to have a feedroom overrunning with different products. A supplement can seem like the final piece of the puzzle with some horses, and with other owners, riders and trainers often highlighting the benefits of a particular supplement it can feel like an essential item for our horses. However it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and we should be questioning if our horses really do need multiple supplements.
Physiologically it should be noted that the horse will need to excrete anything that it cannot utilise, so feeding additional nutrients can put further strain on the digestive system.
What’s the evidence?
Some supplements have been subjected to digestibility trials, and have published peer reviewed research. However not all products have been suggested to rigorous testing, so it is worth doing your homework and investigating the science behind any marketing claims.
As a leisure rider ‘dope testing’ can seem like something only professional riders competing at the top levels of the equestrian disciplines need to worry about, but it is something to consider. The vast majority of commercially produced feed supplements would be appropriate, but this might not extend to all, and it is certainly worth checking the label carefully.
The supplement market is overloaded with ‘natural’ products, and it is easy to assume that a ‘herbal’ or ‘natural’ dietary supplement would be best for our horses. Do check that the ingredient(s) are competition legal, and also consider the impact with any other medication that your horse might receive.
Sometimes it can seem like a sensible option to try and source your own active ingredients, and effectively make your own supplement. For instance biotin is commonly used in hoof supplements so ordering a supply of biotin, instead of a prepared hoof supplement can seem like a logical cost saving exercise. However this is not a sensible option as you cannot guarantee the quality of the product, you will probably be guessing the quantity so may be under or over feeding and you could be missing out vital micronutrients that a commercially produced supplement would contain.
So before you reach for the next ‘wonder’ supplement do consider if it is really required, think about if it is competition legal and the efficacy of the ingredients. Although it can seem like a quick fix many dietary supplements can take months to see a difference (for instance a hoof supplement), so don’t expect a miracle.