Supplements And Herbs For The Equine Practice

Sometimes holistic veterinarians recommend Chinese food therapy in chorus with specific herbs.

Cris Kelly

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While not all supplements are popular in traditional veterinary medicine practices, some are trusted as much as prescription drugs. Medical herbs, however, are a separate entity entirely, according to veterinarians practicing holistic medicine.

“If we talk about medical herbs, then you are giving medicine that is an extract of plants or minerals and it should be tailored to a diagnosis in an individual patient,” says Stewart Beckett, DVM, of Beckett & Associates Veterinary Services LLC in Glastonbury, Conn.

“The argument about herbs is that they are bioactive, but have precursors and metabolites that all have activity and potentially less toxicity (greater therapeutic safety margin) than a synthesized drug. It is the same principle as triple sulfas vs. a single sulfa in treating animals.”

Sometimes holistic veterinarians recommend Chinese food therapy in chorus with specific herbs.

“After determining the proper traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM) diagnosis, I prescribe specific Chinese herbal combinations,” says Patricia Baley, DVM, PhD, CVA, CVH, FAAVA, of TCVM for Animals in Hockley, Texas.

“There are also specific foods that I recommend for conditions. For example, fresh celery is a cooling food and I recommend it in the summer, especially for horses with anhydrosis. I also encourage horse owners to feed a whole food diet with some variety and to allow their horses to live as naturally as possible. Horses benefit from lots of turnout and access to a herd environment.” 

Because most horses are not fed a whole food diet and don’t have enough turnout and social time, Dr. Baley often recommends a yeast-based probiotic called Kombat Boots to encourage equine GI tracts to function properly.

“I also recommend a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement to protect the joints. I prefer GLC 5500; it has been tested and is guaranteed to actually contain what the label says it contains,” Baley says. “For mild lameness or after hard work or a long trailer ride, I recommend B-L Pellets. B-L Pellets work well and don’t have the detrimental side-effect of NSAIDS like bute. For specific conditions I also recommend Buck Mountain Organic Milk Thistle.”

Holistic practitioners say clients obtain equine supplements through a variety of catalogs, feed stores and sometimes from veterinarians. While many clients consult veterinarians before starting a supplement regimen, others do not. Some clients are inquisitive about the benefits of supplements and other substances that fall under the non-traditional category, while others largely dismiss the idea.

More owners are now willing to consider holistic medicine and supplements after traditional methods have been ineffective on their pets, experts say. More veterinarians study Chinese herbs and supplements, inspired by the same reasons plus dissatisfaction with traditional medications’ side effects.

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Why Holistic?

“Western medicine often does not have good answers for chronic conditions—anhydrosis, COPD, allergies, head shaking, etc. The horse just doesn’t improve, or improves for a while but the condition just comes back again and again,” Baley says. “Chinese herbal prescriptions, specific foods and supplements can and do help when other methods have failed.”

Veterinarians say some clients prefer holistic treatment because they have had great success with it themselves.

“We combine holistic methods along with appropriate traditional methods in our practice,” Baley says. “Traditional Chinese Medicine is just one of the medical tools available to help keep pets happy and healthy.”

Veterinarians practicing holistic medicine often welcome many traditional medical products; they’re looking for the best solution to each individual patient’s condition/needs.

“Regarding chronic conditions, which are the main reason patients are brought to our attention, we find that conventional drugs and surgery mainly address the symptoms of the patient, and they do so very well,” says Bert H. Brooks, DVM, of Cache Creek Holistic Veterinary Service in Woodland, Calif. “However, conventional medicine very frequently ignores the cause(s) of the symptoms—often because the etiology is not fully understood. We determine the causes through special testing and address those through supplementation concurrently with conventional therapy.”

Holistic Suggestions

Despite all the medicinal and supplement offerings available for horses, veterinarians say green grass is the supplement most needed and most ignored.

“Even 10 minutes of hand grazing is helpful for attitude,” Beckett says. “Green grass contains vitamins, live bacteria and chelated minerals. I was at an American Association of Equine Practitioners presentation talking about a new probiotic, and it reminded me of my externship in New Zealand, where almost everything grazed 365 days a year.

“The feeling there was that foals inoculated their gut bacteria with what grew on the grass. The presentation talked about the probiotics growing and colonizing the gut, but then shedding after several days. It makes me wonder if we fed animals live bacteria regularly to replenish those that shed off, if they would have fewer GI problems of all kinds, acting by competitive inhibition of problem bacteria. They do not get much or any in hay and processed feeds.”

Beckett says some owners have had a bad experience with modern allopathic medicine. These clients want an alternative from the start.  Others have had no results from current treatment and want to try an alternative.

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“To clients, failure of the treatment is not an option,” Beckett says. “Sometimes holistic treatment is a miracle, and sometimes it does not work. But it is worth exploring the possibility that pain and suffering, or wellness, can be helped.”

Beckett recommends chondroitin/hyaluronate supplements with MSM for soreness and lameness issues.

Salt and Minerals

“I think sea salt has the broadest range of minerals,” Beckett says. “Most people use red trace mineral salt. I think, at least in the north, they need more minerals than iodized sodium chloride.”

Horses need more chloride and more iodine than is normally present in their diets, experts say. This means diet supplementation.

“Salt blocks are made for cattle, who have much rougher tongues and a stronger drive for salt than horses do,” Baley says. “Adding a tablespoon of iodized table salt twice a day to their feed in the winter and 2 tablespoons twice a day in the summer for an average 1,000-pound horse is a good way to provide the chloride and iodine they need. This will also encourage horses to drink water and stay hydrated so their GI tract can function properly.”

Some owners find providing sea salt  is too expensive, but any salt is better than none, the veterinarians say.


“Many regions of the U.S. are selenium deficient,” says Christine Aiken, DrMedVet, of Kilshannagh Veterinary Clinic of Ancramdale, N.Y. “If a horse is eating food grown in these deficient areas, I recommend a selenium supplement. Most of the time, equine patients simply need to get away from concentrates and eat a diet with flax seed, fatty acids and vitamin E.”

Dr. Aiken says supplements might be given more to horses than companion animals, especially in winter months.

“Horses can almost always benefit from some supplementation,” Aiken says. “But feeding horses the best balanced diet means less supplementation will be necessary.”

Some holistic veterinarians say many equine diets are too sugar-based, adding that using sugar feeds contributes to obesity, insulin resistance and even laminitis.

Other Benefits

“I recommend supplements based on the needs of the horse after getting as detailed a history as I can,” says Colette Bergam, DVM, of Animal Healing Alternatives in Spokane, Wash.

“Horses, like humans, have more than just physical needs. Horses are very sensitive creatures and may not necessarily need supplementation for physical issues but an emotional one. Flower essences are often used for those horses with emotional stress. Injectable glucosamine for arthritic horses or Ayurvedic herbs work well for physical stresses.

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“The proper use of holistic modalities and supplements is similar to the traditional methods by first getting to know the horse and horse owner. We have to take that relationship into account as well.”

Horses that might not have a physical or mental need for supplementation can still benefit from a maintenance supplement, some practitioners say.

“I like a maintenance supplement of Chlorella, which provides vitamins and minerals to both horses and humans,” Dr. Bergam says. “Good maintenance starts with foundational health, that being adequate and proper nutrition. There is lots of talk over the best nutrition for horses, that being fewer to no carbohydrates and more forage feeds.”

As with traditional veterinary medicine, a need for supplementation and benefits from TCVM are individual.

“I recommend supplements based more on the horse’s need and functionality,” Bergam says. “(For) the high-level working horses, I usually recommend oral chondroprotectants or ASU extracts along with probiotics. With the insulin resistant horses we encounter, I have had some good feedback with whole food extract from Standard Process or The Missing Link. Often blood work will determine high liver levels from medicinal stress and tinctures recommended.”

Most animals benefit from eradication of internal parasites, veterinarians say. While recommendations vary, often even veterinarians practicing TCM and holistic medicine can get on board with using traditional wormers as opposed to ones considered holistic.


“I think traditional wormers have worked better than any alternative that I have been exposed to,” Beckett says. “Resistance problems may change that in the future, but we still use Panacur and ivermectins.”

Just because a substance is labeled holistic doesn’t mean it won’t have an adverse side effect, Baley notes. Care must be taken when prescribing TCM just as in traditional Western veterinary medicine.

“Some holistic dewormers can be a beneficial add-on to conventional dewormers,” Baley says. “Owners need to realize that just because it’s ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t have side effects. For example, black walnut is recommended by some as a dewormer–but black walnut can be very toxic to horses and ingesting just a small amount can trigger laminitis.”

Holistic veterinarians say new things keep enhancing the holistic modality.

“Dealing with equine regenerative medicine, more than drugs and supplements, is new,” Beckett says. “Herbs, shock waves and lasers all work with the holistic approach. The clients keep pushing to keep their athletes going and performing at the highest level they can.” 

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