Does my horse need a supplement? A very common question that is presented to me as a veterinarian and also one that I see on FB and other social media outlets. It’s a good question, but as with anything when it comes to health or soundness, there is no one answer that fits every horse. You have to define what a supplement is and its purpose. Then, you have to look at your specific horse, their needs, your goals, and other factors that are in play.
What is a horse supplement? There are likely millions on the market, but not every horse needs one or fits into the criteria determined by those specific supplement companies. Every horse is an individual. That is one key point that you or any horse owner needs to keep in mind when looking at supplements, horse shoes, saddles, diets, and even fly sprays. One approach that seems to ‘work’ for one horse in the barn may or may not apply to your horse.
I’ve talked about supplementation, theory and overall purpose in another article. That article is a good review and a ‘supplement’ to this article.
In reality, the term supplement can be both a noun or a verb. A person can supplement a horse, or they can provide a supplement. A horse supplement in general, for the sake of this article, is treated as a noun, being defined as something that completes or enhances something else. In the horse industry, you have supplements for joint health, allergies, tendon and hoof support, multi-vitamins, digestive support and various dietary supplements. These supplements are meant to be given in addition to the daily diet, serving specific purposes to enhance joint health, digestive health, tendon health or overall health for your horse.
Not all supplements are the same or effective for all horses. Much of this has to do with individual horse variation. Two horses can have the same condition, i.e., allergies, but that does not mean they will both respond to the same therapy regimen. Ultimately, we are all familiar with these supplements but does your horse really need one?
Determining the Need for Horse Supplementation
How do you determine if your horse needs or requires a health supplement? That is a good question and not one that is easy to answer. If you ask 10 people, you will likely get 10 different responses. As a veterinarian and researcher, I see two classifications for these horses.
- Horse with no medical or lameness issues (may or may not be competing)
- Horse with medical or lameness issues (may or may not be competing)
In many cases, I receive emails from owners that have young horses or even older horses with no perceived health or lameness problems. They feel they might need a supplement but are not sure. On the other hand, we have owners with horses that have obvious problems, whether if that be health issues or lameness concerns.
The answer to these two classifications may seem obvious, but in other cases, they may not be.
Health Factors and Goals to Consider in the Horse
Being a veterinarian, I have seen many older horses do quite well in their life without a need for supplementation. The oldest horse that I can recall was 42 years old and belonged to an elderly lady, treated as a pet in her backyard with plenty of pasture to roam. That horse never competed, but lived a life of luxury over the years in his natural environment being the pasture. Conversely, I have seen many perceived ‘older’ horses be euthanized due to health reasons at the age of 20 or sometimes younger. We tend to think that a horse in their upper teens is older, when in fact, they are not. It is all relative.
Over the past 2 decades, being involved in equine rehabilitation and also routine veterinary medicine, many things become obvious. You have to remember that every horse ages as we do. With every passing day, week and month, their body is aging. Aging is directly related to the inflammation process and oxidative stress damage on a cellular level. Aging then relates to associated health issues, including allergies, joint degeneration, immune concerns, hoof health, digestive health and many others. There are things you do that either add to or take away from this process. Meaning, there are things you can do that is protective against the process of aging and health decline, but there are things we do that antagonize the process. Essentially, pushing it along at a faster clip.
There are really four areas that concern me when it comes to horse health and longevity:
- Environment and Stress
- Training / Competition
Diet in Horse Health
The diet is one of the key factors to health decline and age related conditions, including many lameness conditions. When an owner feels they do not require supplementation for a horse, due to no perceived health conditions, I first look at the diet they are feeding. I know that the process of inflammation is inevitable, so I am trying to determine what they may be doing to curb that process. If the diet is sufficient enough, natural enough and full of nutrients, then they could be doing just that. Providing for the body and detering the inflammation process. However, if the diet is not sufficient or protective enough, they may be better served to use proper supplementation to boost nutrient protection. Ideally, this is not done in the form of synthetic-based nutrient supplements, but more from whole foods and nature. Nature provides many co-factors, antioxidants and additional phytochemicals that a synthetic-based product does not. In many cases, it is those co-factors and phytochemicals that are really providing health benefits, in addition to the vitamins and minerals that may be present. This is the difference and why so many horses fail to respond to traditional vitamin-mineral top dressings.
I feel that many diets, being predominantly processed food-based, are contributing to many horse health and soundness problems. They diet you choose to feed will either help or hurt your equine companion. In many cases, the ramifications of an improper diet may not manifest for years down the road. Then, at that time, you may find yourself in a totally different situation and with more problems than anticipated. I think it is far better off to look at diet from a preventative point of view, putting things into play now to reap the long-term benefits. A cleaner equine diet is prefered and tends to yield the best results in the long-term for most horses, providing benefits on many levels.
The diet is designed to provide for the horse’s body on many levels. The diet chosen and utilized will dictate the need for supplementation. A horse with no health or lameness issues that is on a good, natural diet, may not require supplementation. That is, if all factors are in place.
Environment & Stress In Horse Health
The environment and likewise internal stress levels, will dictate the need for supplementation. There is no ideal environment, at least in my opinion. You can have a horse is a 40 stall jumper barn that only gets out when it is riding time, exhibiting stress-related health consequences. Then, you can have a horse out on pasture by themselves with no stall and no training, but yet be under stress due to too many groceries available and pure loneliness.
The environment and stress will contribute greatly to the age-related health and soundness decline in most horses. In a high percentage, stress and environmental factors are to blame for early retirement or euthanasia. Again, taking this into consideration with supplementation, you need to ask whether if these factors are in play. Are they a factor in your horse? If the answer is yes, then likely proper supplementation will be in order, especially if dietary needs are not provided at optimal levels.
Training and Competition in Horse Health
Both training and competition play into the stress category, with both having a potential negative impact on health. It is true that some level of exercise is vital to optimal health. That is not denied. Exercise is extremely beneficial to horse health and something I advise our metabolic horse owners to strongly consider. When training and competition are taken too far, exercise can become a negative contributor on horse health and soundness.
We all know that competing or training horses are more prone to injury, which is due to increased physical stress placed on the body. This stress can be physical or mental, contributing not just to soundness concerns but also gastrointestinal complaints and immune-related problems. All of these are a sign that the body is too stressed, beyond its reparative capabilities. Any horse undergoing these levels of stress, no matter what their current health or soundness status, should be properly supplemented. This may be accomplished through the diet and proper nutrient provisions. In others, even a whole-food based, nutrient rich diet may not be enough when we factor in the stress levels. In those, it is even more important to put regimens in place to protect against stress-related cellular decline. Nothing is 100%, but taking proper preventative action will provide optimal long-term benefits.
Genetics and Horse Health
Genetics do play a major role in horse health, but maybe not to the degree that you think. In many cases, we may have a genetic condition such as a conformational flaw, malformation of a bone or body part, or even a heart defect. These conditions are specific and with them, increase the level of stress upon the body. When a condition such as these is present, proper supplementation and diet are paramount to promote health.
Putting obvious genetic conditions to the side, many horses do have a genetic predisposition to certain conditions. This may be inferior hoof health, tendon strength, overweight body condition, metabolic concerns and even laminitis or navicular syndrome. In some breeds, these predispositions are bred into the line. Maybe their parents or grandparents had concerns when it came to those health ailments. Due to their concerns and genetic changes, those genes are passed on to subsequent generations.
However, just because those predispositions may be present does not mean they will or have to happen. Most genes are under the influence of the environment, which is becoming more and more apparent with ongoing research. This opens up the discussion to ‘epigenetics‘, which may be a topic for a later time. In the end, there are things we can do that influence the expression of those genes. Factors including diet, stress, training and many other factors play into that event. We can have a horse that is overweight and claim that it is their breed, but in reality, likely you are doing something that is encouraging the gene expression. There is likely a factor in play that is encouraging the problem. When we change the diet of an overweight horse and implement a proper supplement regimen with exercise, the animal often improves and loses weight. The new regimen is providing the ability to modify gene translation, benefitting that animal. If you put the new regimen to the side, the horse will usually regress back to their old state. The ‘old’ gene being expressed again and creates the regression.
Many horses are predisposed to certain health conditions, sometimes sooner than later. You may see a perfectly fine horse now, but if the proper measures are not in place for protective measures, those conditions may manifest with severe consequences. Again, this is where proper diet and supplementation may play a vital role, serving a role in gene expression and regulation.
To Supplement or Not To Supplement Your Horse? That is the Question.
You should never treat one horse identical to another when it comes to diet or supplementation. Just as you would never train two horses identically, due to personality differences, you need to feed and supplement in this fashion as well. Diet is our number one protector against health. Nothing can out-supplement the negative effects of an improper diet. A health diet is also only as good as the body’s ability to properly digest it and absorb the nutrients. We may perceive no health problems in a particular horse, but likely there is room for improvement to optimize that level of protection. It is far better to truly analyze a diet and other factors for preventative measures than it is to play catch up when the problem has fully developed.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN