Equine supplements — or ‘complementary feeding stuffs’ as they are officially categorised by EU legislation — are fed when a horse needs an extra source of vitamins or minerals. They are available as powders, liquids, pellets and pastes and are designed to either make up for a deficiency in a horse’s diet, or help with a particular condition or problem.
Horses and ponies that are fed a well balanced diet of forage and hard feed, at the manufacturer’s recommended rates, won’t normally require extra supplements. But if your horse cannot have the ideal quantities of hard feed for any reason, your forage is deficient in a particular mineral, or the horse is under stress following illness or due to competing at a high level, then supplementation may be beneficial.
Equine supplements can be helpful when a horse has something missing from its diet or to target a particular requirement. If you are unsure whether your horse would benefit from adding a feed supplement to his diet then speak to your vet, or an equine nutritionist may be able to help you decide. A routine blood test can help identify if your horse has a deficiency.
Feed supplements for horses are not medicines so cannot be used to ‘treat’ illnesses or conditions and manufacturers are not allowed to make such claims on their packaging. However there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that some horses can benefit from having their diet supplemented in a particular area.
It is important to note that supplements may contain substances which are banned from use in competition under certain governing bodies. It is the rider’s responsibility to ensure that any supplements they are using do not include prohibited substances, so check the labeling carefully and call the manufacturer if you have any concerns.
Which equine supplements does your horse need?
When choosing a feed supplement for your horse, it’s important to understand which ingredients to look out for. These are some of the common ingredients that you will find in equine supplements, and some of the things they claim to help with:
Chondrotin sulphate — is not present in a normal equine diet and is quite often provided by feeding processed animal products that are high in cartilage and connective tissues. Chondrotin can inhibit destructive enzymes and help cartilage production.
Electrolytes — electrolytes get lost through sweat so it is important to replace them in horses that regular undertake strenuous activity.
Calcium — growing horses need a balanced calcium/phosphate ratio to allow normal bone growth.
Minerals such as copper, manganese and zinc — these are all key for normal cartilage and connective tissue formation, as well as immune function.
Magnesium — is important for normal nerve function and it has been suggested that some head shakers respond well to magnesium supplements. Magnesium is a common ingredient in ‘calming’ supplements.
Vitamin C — the horse is capable of manufacturing his own Vitamin C — however, it is a good antioxidant for inflammatory control, neutralising free radicals before they can damage normal body tissues.
Antioxidants — these are useful for horses who are starting to show signs of ageing. Also look for bioplex or chelated minerals for older horses.
Beta-carotenes — although most horses fed normal forage won’t require these, they are used for brood-mares and mares with reproductive problems.
Bioflavinoids — is an antioxidant that enhances the activity of Vitamin C.
It’s important to remember that not all equine supplements will work for all horses. Once you have identified a need for a particular type of supplement you may have to try a various brands to see which works best for your horse. Supplements rarely offer a quick fix (with the exception of fast-acting paste products, the effects of which are normally short-term), so make sure you give each brand a fair trial period because it can take some weeks before a noticeable improvement can be seen.
See the full ‘get set for spring’ equine supplements guide in Horse & Hound magazine (24 January 2013). It looks at a cross-section of the market to find out what you get for your money across different supplement types.