Horses are subject to health ailments including arthritis, tendon and ligament injuries, asthma, and metabolic problems just as equally as their human counterparts. Choosing the right supplement can make a world of difference in prevention of these conditions and in the recovery of the horse. There are many supplements to choose from, so where do you begin as the horse owner? What is the best supplement for your horse?
In our society, no matter what the illness or injury is in your horse, we tend to just focus upon that specific problem. If it is a tendon injury, then that is the focus. If it is an arthritic joint, then that is the focus. If it is asthma, allergies, or metabolic problems, then that is the focus. When we hone in so specifically, with our treatments or supplements, the outcomes are not as desirable as we’d like. This is noted by the thousands of supplements sold in the equine market and the minimal positive gains made. In truth, most owners are utilizing supplements based off of marketing, more so than using some logic and understanding. This can lead to an owner giving upwards of 4 different supplements to their horse, expending large sums of money each month, with little to show for it.
First, let’s define a ‘supplement’. By definition, a supplement is something given to add to or fortify a healthy diet and lifestyle. For most, they view this as a vitamin/mineral supplement, adding nutrient value to the diet of their horse. Outside of this traditional vitamin/mineral supplement, there are specific herbs and herbal formulas, or other phytonutrients which are utilized and don’t really add to the diet, but are used specifically for medicinal purposes. Despite these not adding to the diet or supplementing it, they are still viewed by definition as being a supplement by most, which in truth is not really applicable.
For our definitions and purposes here, when I use the term supplement, I am not referring to a vitamin/mineral blend but more so implying the use of a herbal formula targeting a specific problem in the horse. When this definition is used in this manner, many start to perceive these herbs as being ‘drugs’ or ‘medicinals’, and in fact, they are. Any chemical or herbal extract which can impact cellular function in some manner can be perceived as being a ‘drug’ or ‘medicinal’, which could on some levels include those vitamins and minerals which are being pumped into many horses in lieu of a healthy diet.
Then, what separates and herb from a drug?? Good question. In truth, drugs are just powerful derivatives of an herb or plant extract. The scientist sees how a plant extract impacts physiology, so they focus in on the specifics and make a drug or pharmaceutical. This could be perceived as creating something which was not intended, and this extreme focus is what can create severe negative reactions or side effects. Herbs are generally much gentler in their action and if side effects are seen, which can happen if improper choices are made, those negative effects are short lived and usually resolve in less than 24 hours if the herb is discontinued. Nature is generally pretty gentle, but yet, very effective.
Most herbal formulas utilized in Chinese or Ayurvedic cultures consist of blends of 3 or more herbs, used together for synergy and target a specific problem within the patient. Some formulas can contain upwards of 15 herbs, which can get complex in some instances. In these cases, there is synergy between herbs and given the large number used, doses can be reduced. Some formulas also address multiple problems or issues within the patient such as addressing pain and moisturizing the body. A horse, just like a person, can often have more than one problem present which needs to be addressed, however, as mentioned above, we have a tendency to just focus upon the problem at hand, not seeing the forest for the trees.
It is in my opinion and experience that no matter the issue in a horse, such as tendon, metabolic or otherwise, that condition is secondary and not the primary problem. This would hold true for practically any condition you can name in the horse including colic, ulcers, and even cancer. The problem that presents in our society is that we view these conditions as ‘being the problem’. We target those allergies with steroids, viewing the eosinophil white blood cells as being the enemy, when in fact they are just doing their job. We view the colic as being the problem, treat it with a pain medication and IV fluids, not giving it another thought. We view the ulcer as being the problem, dumping anti-ulcer medications down their throats like candy and adding another one in when the first is not enough to combat the issues. We view the laminitis as the problem, applying special shoes and medications. Finally, we view the tendon injury as the problem, resorting to prolonged stall rest and expensive ‘regenerative’ therapies that rarely produce quicker benefits than just time and rest.
So, the question remains. What is the best supplement for your horse?
Well, given that most every condition in the horse is secondary, then this leads us to conclude that the best supplement for your horse would be one which targets the primary problem.
Primary or Root Problems in the Horse
Discussing root or primary problems in the horse is outside of the scope of this article, but I will touch briefly upon it. If more information is desired, I encourage you to read “Herbs and Whole Foods in the Horse” and “Seeing the Whole Horse“. If you desire to truly impact your horse on both a preventative and therapeutic level, then a certain level of understanding must take place. Otherwise, you are aiming blindly, throwing supplements at a wall so to speak, and hoping something sticks and makes a difference for your horse.
I will preface this by saying that many herbal formulas are not meant to be given daily for a prolonged period. They are designed in many instances to manage a specific problem which is present in the horse and aid in that problem’s resolution. How long does it take to resolve? That is based on the horse, degree of damage present, lifestyle and other factors. In most instances, with all being equal, 100 days is the general mark, after which the dose can be reduced or the horse can be switched to a general ‘tonifying’ formula for health and lameness support.
The main root problems that I see in the horse include: (not all inclusive)
- Qi or energy stagnation
- Blood stagnation
- Qi deficiency (digestive weakness)
- Excess heat
- Dampness accumulation
- Moisture deficits
- Cold accumulation
Let’s briefly expand on these as one or two of them plays a role in your horse’s health or lameness condition.
Qi or Energy Stagnation in the horse:
This is essentially what it infers, energy blockage or improper flow through the body. In humans, the easiest concept to perceive is the ‘plum-pit’ sensation that many of us have encountered either in our throats, chest, or belly. It feels like something is stuck. This is energy blockage and that energy is not flowing properly. It can also result in sore necks, cold hands, and emotional problems. In the horse, Qi stagnation is evident as emotional issues such as anxiety, anger, or otherwise. It is also tied in with almost every lameness condition, including joints, tendons, sore backs, necks and feet. Qi stagnation in the horse is also seen in cases of colic, excess gas, and often loose stools. Qi stagnation can create pain, which is dull in sensation and comes and goes. Qi stagnation is also the cause of tightness and tension in your horse. Energy must circulate freely in the horse, as it should in you and I for optimal health. When it does not, problems develop. Qi circulation is linked with liver health and function.
Blood Stagnation in the Horse:
Blood stagnation is simply a blockage of proper blood circulation, which can happen in any part of the body. Blood and Qi (energy) flow together, so they rely on one another. If there is persistent Qi stagnation over time, then blood stagnation can follow. This blood stagnation is a more serious problem as it can produce many critical issues. In reality, blood is pooling in some areas and not being delivered to others. Given that is not flowing well, the accumulation of it can create pain, bruising, and even create masses in the body or on the skin, often discolored. Blood stagnation creates sharp and persistent pain, such as seen in severe colics, joint pain, tendon injuries and laminitis. Blood stagnation is a much more serious stage of disease development and it can be hard to get things moving. Blood stagnation is the purple (cyanotic) gum color seen in severe colics and also the bounding pulse seen in many laminitic horses.
Qi or Energy Deficiency in the Horse:
This is exactly what it implies, an energy deficiency in the horse which can manifest on many levels. In many, this energy deficit is seen in poor performance, overall fatigue, lethargy and excessive laziness. It is also seen in digestive ailments such as loose stools and poor appetite. Qi deficiency is also seen in recurrent allergy conditions or infections (EPM/Lyme) where the immune response is not up to par. The energy deficiency is also seen in cases where injuries fail to heal, which includes lacerations and various soft tissue injuries such as tendons, ligaments, and muscular problems. Qi deficiency is also seen in cases of excessive sweating, often after little work or no work in the horse. Qi or energy production in the body is dependent upon proper cellular function via the mitochondria, however, it is solely dependent upon air (breathing) and digestion (nutrients).
Excess Heat in the Horse:
The problem of excess heat in the horse is not as common as one might think, at least as a primary problem. More so, it is secondary to something else such as a moisture deficiency. I do see excess heat patterns in horses with sweating problems (anhidrosis) and also in leaner horses with gastric ulcer complaints. The excess heat develops in the body, like a kettle steaming, which can then impact other pathways and dry up moisture in the body. As mentioned, in most cases, this excess heat is secondary to something else, usually being a moisture deficit to begin with or an excess of heat being added to the body via the diet. Here is an article which discussed excess heat a little further.
Dampness Accumulation in the Horse:
This is one of the most common problems noted in the horse in my experience and it can impact any breed. It is also one of the biggest issues in human medicine, leading to the development of many, if not most, health ailments in society. Dampness is discussed in depth in another article, which I would encourage review due to its importance in the horse. Dampness is directly related to digestive function, which then links us back to diet, lifestyle, and Qi or energy in the body. This is like a ‘wetness’ or ‘stickiness’ which has accumulated and penetrated the body, creating a heaviness which impedes circulation of energy or Qi. It is extremely common in the metabolic horse, or really any horse that has a tendency to gain weight easily or is bigger boned in general, including the warm blood breeds. Dampness manifests as weight gain, but also as a wet or productive cough, oily skin, wet or loose stools, and fluid accumulations in the body such as lymphedema or stocking up. It is present in almost every health and lameness condition in the heavier breeds, being less predominant in the lighter or leaner breeds, although they are not exempt. It is a primary player and must be addressed, but one must keep it mind that it can be difficult to eliminate or even manage in some. It is like a wet, musty basement. There are many factors involved and all must be addressed for the optimal outcome. Some are more easily resolved than others and it mainly depends on how long the condition has been present. A basement that has been wet for a day is much easier to manage than one that has been musty for 20 years.
Moisture or Yin deficits in the Horse:
This condition is self explanatory. It is a situation where there is a moisture deficit within the horse’s body. Moisture is needed to bath the tissues and keep them healthy and functioning. Moisture is also needed to keep the skin healthy, the bowels moving, and lubricate joints, muscles, and tendons. So, when we have moisture deficits in the horse (Yin deficiency) it can be seen as gastric ulcers (dry stomach), dry and crumbly stools, dry and irritated skin, dry hooves, dry tendons and joints, and even dry eye problems. It can also be tied in with airway bleeding in some horses, which is EIPH. A moisture deficiency is also connected to many horses which are underweight or have a hard time gaining or keeping weight on.
Cold Accumulation or Yang Deficiency in the Horse:
This is not as big of a problem in my particular area, but it does happen. This again is self-explanatory, at least when it comes to cold. The body is balanced between Yin (cold) and Yang (warm) for optimal health and soundness. Cold can accumulate for a variety of reasons and can be due to excessive Yin, which may be through diet or environment. This coldness produces a cold, clammy, and nonresponsive horse, meaning that they don’t want to do much and are lethargic. They may also require blankets to keep them warm and have loose stools. Due to all of these factors being connected, excessive coldness can impact circulation, creating stiff joints and poor circulation to the feet. In my experience, most cold accumulation cases are found in the older or geriatric horse, but they can be seen in horses that have been on medications, especially long-term antibiotics.
So, there you have it! All make sense? Good to go?
Nah, I wouldn’t leave you hanging. In part two of the article, we will go through some herbs and Cur-OST formulas, with their intended purpose on these root problems. We will also discuss why the Cur-OST EQ Total Support formula is so popular and effective for many horses. Keep in mind here that all of these factors are intertwined and impact health and soundness. One can have a Qi deficiency, but that then can impact Qi stagnation and dampness. One can have a moisture deficiency noted in the stools with dryness, but the tendons are also dry which makes them susceptible to injury.
These are the root problems and what must be recognized and addressed in any horse with a health or lameness condition. It is in this recognition that sets ‘alternative’ medicine apart from ‘western’ medicine. This difference is also why many targeted therapies in the western world of medicine create more harm than they do good. A basic level of understanding of these root problems and herbs in general, can lead you to make better choices when it comes to a supplement in your horse.
See you in part two!
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN