Supplements - When, Why & What?

When and why your horse may benefit from a supplement, and what to look for when choosing supplements

By Deborah Lucas MSc.Eq.S.,CBiol., R.Nutr.

Recent research has helped us achieve a greater understanding of the nutrient requirements of horses and ponies – in other words- what they need to obtain from their feed to stay happy, healthy, and able to enjoy life!

There are situations which may change those needs –increased work, travelling, competitions, old age, and certain health conditions including joint and muscle stiffness, post viral recovery, respiratory issues, poor quality hoof horn, or even over-excitability or unpredictable behaviour - and may benefit from support from increased levels of key nutrients. Supplements allow the horse owner to tailor their individual horses diet accordingly.

Supplements can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Broad Spectrum Supplements - to meet basic everyday requirements.
  • Targeted Supplements - to meet increased or additional needs for a specific reason.

Broad Spectrum supplements:

All horses and ponies should receive a forage-based diet – either pasture, or preserved forage (hay or haylage and chaff-based feeds). Some may also need added energy (and sometimes protein) provided from concentrate feeds, to meet increased needs for work, growth, pregnancy and lactation, or to maintain condition in poor doers. 

However, whilst most concentrate feeds are fortified with minerals and vitamins, if intakes are below manufacturer’s recommendations, the levels of key micronutrients may not meet the horse’s requirements.

UK pastures (and therefore hay/haylage) are low in important minerals, including selenium, copper and zinc, and may not meet requirements.

Although pasture contains important vitamins, preserving that forage as hay or haylage can result in significant losses of these key nutrients, so horses and ponies receive inadequate levels of important nutrients during the winter months when they have limited access to pasture.

So with no or low concentrate feed diets, it’s important to add a broad-spectrum mineral and vitamin supplement to ensure a balanced diet and maintain general health and wellbeing.  Powders, liquids and pelleted forms are available, and the choice will depend upon individual preferences and circumstances.

Some broad-spectrum supplements have added pre and probiotics. These are designed to support the digestive system in horses who move yards, have had antibiotics, or unavoidable changes in feed, to help maintain a healthy hindgut microbiome.

Salt is needed by all horses and ponies, and can be provided from a lick, (but beware of those who crunch through one in a few days -monitor its use!). Horses and ponies who work harder and sweat heavily may need an electrolyte supplement to replace salts lost in sweat.

Targeted supplements to meet a particular nutritional need

Whilst there are many categories of supplements designed to help particular nutritional needs, perhaps the most commonly used are those supporting joint health and mobility, respiratory issues, and those designed to help manage unpredictable or excitable behavior.

Supplements to support joint health and comfort:

Hard working and older horses and ponies will have varying degrees of natural wear and tear in their joints, that can affect their ability to work or move comfortably. Providing key constituents which are important in joint health, such as building blocks for cartilage repair, including glycine, manganese, glucosamine, collagen, chondroitin, and a key components in joint fluid  - hyaluronic acid (HA) will help horses and ponies to maintain a longer working life, or comfortable retirement.

Many joint supplements contain ingredients such as MSM, turmeric, boswellia and yucca. These are thought to have significant antioxidant properties that contribute to the horse’s own natural ant inflammatory mechanisms and can help support joint and muscle comfort.

Respiratory supplements:

Stabled horses and ponies are subjected to a constant respiratory challenge from fungal spores and dust which can affect respiratory function. By the time they are actually coughing there may be significant inflammation of the airways. Others may struggle with pollen, and this too can affect breathing and performance. Respiratory supplements provide nutritional support to help keep airways open, often including plant-derived compounds called phytochemicals, thought to have antioxidant properties, as well as providing support for the immune system. Look out for supplements containing eucalyptus, menthol, echinacea, garlic, nettle and astragalus amongst others. Respiratory supplements can be powders for daily feeding, and liquids which can be given before activities or events which are particularly challenging to the respiratory system.

Calmers: to help manage challenging behaviour or over-excitability:

As horses and ponies are “fright and flight” animals, they can react (or over-react!) to new or challenging situations. A lack of key nutrients can make this worse, and probably the best known is the mineral magnesium.  A lack of magnesium can cause nerve and neuro-muscular excitability, resulting in a tense, anxious horse. Other important nutrients found in many calmers include calcium, which interacts closely with magnesium, and thiamin or Vitamin B1. Certain compounds found in some plants are also thought to help promote healthy nerve function and aid focus and concentration, with perhaps the best-known being chamomile.  Take care when selecting calmers, to ensure that they don’t contain plant extracts which may contain prohibited substances.

Take home messages:

  • When choosing a supplement, check the manufacturer has the necessary industry quality certifications confirming that the product has been made using the highest quality standards in both feed safety and control of contaminants. Look for standards such as UFAS – indicated by a certificate number on the label. For those competing, check the label carries the BETA NOPS® (Naturally Occurring Prohibited Substances) certification.
  • Check that your chosen supplement company has a good environmental policy-   choose a product where packaging is recyclable– the logo is on the base of the tub! 
  • You may have other ethical and environmental concerns, perhaps about key ingredients in a supplement. All good supplement companies will tell you how their ingredients are sourced!
  • Look for labels where ingredients are listed individually, as required by law, and not as “plant or botanical extracts” – you need to know what you are feeding!
  • Supplements are not miracle cures, but can help in certain circumstances. Do your own research – most companies have excellent websites and helplines by phone and online to discuss your particular situation,  and bear in mind that what suits one horse may not work for another – they are all individuals!