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Does my horse NEED supplements?

FAQ: Are supplements required?



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Supplements are quite the topic in both animal and human nutrition - chances are, if you ask your horse friends what supplements their horse is on, you might receive a laundry list in response. Similarly, if you walk into a feed store or scroll through a tack shop’s website, the supplement section is filled with all sorts of products, leaving you to wonder “does my horse need supplements too?”.


Before we can even give a definitive answer, we must first define what a supplement is! A supplement is a product that is intended to complete or enhance the diet, by topping up nutrient gaps between the animal’s current diet and the requirement. As such, whether a supplement is required will depend on the nutritive value of your horse’s base diet!


In addition, there are many types of supplements: vitamin/mineral supplements, joint supplements, digestive health supplements, calming supplements, hoof supplements, coat/skin health supplements, metabolic health supplements, performance/recovery supplements - the list goes on and on.


Supplements ingredients can range from vitamins and minerals; botanicals, herbs and botanical compounds; amino acids; and other ingredients such as probiotics. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to classify supplements based upon what they contribute to the diet, as either a “completing/balancing supplement”, or a “supporting supplement” - classified based on whether they provide nutrients with established NRC requirements, or ingredients outside of nutrient requirements.


NRC Requirements

The National Research Council (NRC) recommendations stem from an appointed committee, made up of scientific specialists in the field. This committee reviews existing scientific literature to summarize equine nutrient recommendations and requirements in the NRC publication “The Nutrient Requirement of Horses”.


NRC recommendations exist for the following: Energy, Protein, Lysine, Methionine, Threonine; minerals Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, Sulfur; microminerals Cobalt, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Selenium and Zinc; fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and water-soluble vitamins Thiamin and Riboflavin. These recommendations are used as a base estimate, and adjusted for the individual horse, by referencing factors that may modify an individual’s requirements, such as exercise or growth.


Completing/Balancing Supplement

If your horse’s base diet does not meet their requirements, then a supplement will be necessary to top up remaining nutrient gaps. This may include the following situations:

  • Feeding a hay-based diet: Hay often lacks mineral & vitamin content needed to meet a horse’s requirements.

  • Feeding a complete feed below the recommended feeding rate: A well formulated bagged feed can meet nutrient requirements, but only if fed at the recommended rate. If fed below that rate, nutrient gaps can result, on top of existing vit/min gaps left from hay.


Examples of these types of supplements include vitamin/mineral premixes, ration balancers, and mineral or vitamin packs (for instance, if you know your diet is deficient in a specific nutrient, or for horses with elevated requirements). Note: feeding a ration balancer below the recommended rate can also leave nutrient gaps in the diet. Read more here.



Supporting Supplements

These supplements often contain nutrients or ingredients which may provide additional support on top of a balanced diet. For instance, the horse does not have a nutritional requirement for probiotics, but supplementation can support normal digestive function. These types of supplements often are attempting to support and maintain normal physiological processes when the horse is in situations or physiological states which may alter the norm.


  • Arthritis/managing joint inflammation & cartilage degradation: Horse owners use joint supplements with the goal of preventing joint issues and supporting the animal’s comfort when faced with existing issues.

  • Digestion/gut health: Intensive training, stress and modern management practices can increase the risk of GI disturbances, so digestive supplements aim to support normal digestive processes and promote healing in affected horses.

  • Performance/recovery: Exercise can increase nutrient losses, especially for nutrients which have very short storage time in the body, so these supplements aim to replenish the body’s status of those nutrients, so that the horse can recover faster.


That said, supportive supplements do not always have sufficient, or quality, scientific evidence to back their efficacy in achieving the intended benefit. Due to the nature of supplement regulation, products do not need proof of efficacy in order to be on the market, so careful selection is critical.


Use of products which have been evaluated in horses is the gold standard, as data resulting from quality scientific evaluations suggest that the effect of supplementation results from the product's feeding rate and shows safety in horses when in that formulation. Evaluation using the specific formulation rather than individual active ingredients is also gold standard, as this will also suggest that the final product is:


  • Bioavailable enough to elicit a benefit.

  • Remains stable in manufacturing and storage to deliver that bioavailable dose to the horse.

  • Supplementation does not have any negative effects elsewhere on the animal.


Unfortunately, equine research still remains lacking in many areas. So, when in vivo evidence is not available, consulting a qualified professional to look into the formulation can be a great strategy to avoid getting lost in the sea of supplements on the market (we also offer this service)! Products that feature a complete ingredient list and guaranteed analysis are great ones to start with. While anecdotal evidence - that is, “my friend used this on her horse and he looks great!” - can highlight prevalent products, and can be a great starting point, but it’s still important to be critical and curious!


So…are supplements required?

It is common to see diets where completing/balancing supplements are required due to the low vit/min content in hay, and the common trend to underfeed bagged feeds. Evaluating your horse's whole diet can help you identify whether any additions or alterations are required.


A complete and balanced diet will support your horse’s health on its own, so supporting supplements are not necessarily required. However, when chosen and used correctly, and used on top of a complete and balanced diet, supporting supplements can be useful additions to promote your horse’s wellbeing.


 

We're always here to help with your horse's diet. As an independent nutritionist, our solutions are unbiased and horse-focused - so let's connect!


NRC. 2007. Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 2007. https://doi.org/10.17226/11653.


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