The Allure of Supplements

The birds are chirping, the sun is shining longer every day, snow is gone and, of course, horses are shedding! Spring is finally here, which means show season is not that far behind. Or, for those of you who do not compete, good riding weather is back! Whatever your goals are for the summer, many people often start having a look at their feed program wanting to make sure that their horse is getting everything it needs in order to be healthy and fit for the increased exercise it will be getting now that winter is over.

In a lot of cases horse people start searching out supplements. Whether for a shiny coat, healthy hooves, a calmer attitude or a blood builder, the supplement options are endless in the equine industry. Horse people love to spoil their horses and want to feel like they are doing the right thing and the thought of adding an extra scoop of this or an extra pinch of that tends to appeal to many horse owners and helps them to fulfill their desire to concoct the perfect combination of feed and miracle supplements. Hundreds of dollars can be spent on buckets that promise you amazing results for your horse.

Before you buy into the allure of supplements and all that they promise, first consider what type of supplement you are looking at. Supplements tend to fall into one of two categories; nutritional supplements or nutraceutical supplements. Nutritional supplements are those that contain National Research Council (NRC) recognized nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. These supplements contain nutrients that horses have a minimum and maximum requirement for in order to live a healthy life. Nutraceutical supplements are those that do not contain NRC recognized nutrients. These are often herbal or joint supplements and the contents do not have minimum or maximum requirements. It is important to understand which type of supplement you are dealing with. A nutritional supplement will provide your horses with nutrients to help meet its daily requirements for those. A nutraceutical supplement often contains herbs or other ingredients that complement nutrition and do often have good effects. However, because these ingredients are less studied, the active component or exact cause of the effect is often unknown.

Now that you understand the two main types of supplements, take a step back and look closely at what you are currently feeding. Ask yourself a few questions; what are you feeding now? How much are you feeding now? What is in the products you are feeding now? If you start out with a properly balanced diet that meets the minimum daily requirements for a horse of that size and exercise level then you should not come across the issues like brittle hooves, a dull coat, or a low red blood cell count. The purpose of nutritional supplements is to be a therapeutic dose of a needed nutrient once there is a problem. However if you balance your horse’s diet in the first place you can usually prevent any deficiencies and therefore eliminate the need for a supplement to correct a problem. If you get to the point that you need a therapeutic dose of a nutrient in order to correct a deficiency, you could need 10 times the amount that you would have needed to prevent the deficiency in the first place. For example, a horse’s daily requirement for biotin is 2-3 mg but once you have a deficiency and a hoof problem you need 20-30 mg/day to correct it. If your horse is biotin deficient then a biotin supplement will look like it is working magic as you watch your horse’s new hoof growth come in perfect, but if you had fed a maintenance level of biotin in the first place your horse wouldn’t have needed it supplemented.

Another issue with both types of supplements is that they often duplicate each other and you can be in danger of overdosing your horse depending on the nutrient. For example, some vitamins are fat soluble which means they are stored in the body for later use and can therefore build up to a toxic level if the horse is fed more than needed. Another concern is mineral imbalances. Some minerals can inhibit the absorption of others if not given in the proper ratio. For example calcium and phosphorus work together in the horse’s body and therefore need to be absorbed together in the proper ratio. This ratio is ideally 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus for a maintenance horse. If you were feeding a supplement with an imbalanced calcium:phosphorus ratio and the level of phosphorus exceeds calcium then the body will pull calcium from the horse’s bones in order to correct the ratio, resulting in weakened bones. Check the tags of everything you are feeding to make sure you aren’t feeding the same thing in multiple forms. Even nutraceutical supplements can sometimes have a few added vitamins in them to make the analysis look better, which will instead throw off your balanced ration. Keep in mind, too much of a good thing can be bad.

Supplements can be beneficial. Of course, there are instances where unique health problems can create deficiencies that require supplementation and there are supplements that are designed to complement a balanced feed program, but make sure you know what you are feeding, why you are feeding it and exactly what is in it. Some supplements will have increased levels of cheaper ingredients to make the analysis look better than it actually is. You can compare tags of products but just because one or two ingredients are higher in one product does not automatically make it better. For example vitamin A is a cheap vitamin that can be seen in high levels in some products. At first glance those high numbers may look appealing, but don’t be fooled. A company may add extra vitamin A because the high levels will look good on the tag. Make sure that the ingredients you actually need are used and at the proper levels and that there are no “fillers” or ingredients that don’t need to be in there or that you are already feeding in another form.

Remember that feed companies have put extensive science and research into the formulations of their products in order to make your life easier and to save you from having to add multiple extra scoops of various products. Take the time to balance your horse’s ration and if needed ask your feed representative for help. The basis of good health is a properly balanced diet so make sure that basic, fundamental step is complete before looking into adding additional supplements.

Have a question you need answered or a subject you’d like to see covered? Email Kalina Rutledge at