While often used in horses suffering from chronic problems, supplements also can assist in the general health and well-being of the equine patient, many veterinarians believe.
Still, a veterinarian needs to emphasize to the client that supplements must be used wisely and chosen carefully to reap the benefits, nutritionists say.
Filling Nutritional Gaps
General health and well-being begins with good nutrition, which goes a long way toward boosting the immune system and providing physiological functions that allow the body’s organ systems to work properly. But a diet deficient in a nutrient—or with an excess of certain nutrients—can affect a horse’s health, says Dr. Gary D. Potter, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAN.
“There are hundreds of examples,” he notes. “Too little calcium leads to osteoporosis. Too much phosphorous leads to osteoporosis. Too little protein results in low milk production in mares. Too much protein results in excess metabolic heat in athletic horses. Too little zinc compromises the immune system. Too much zinc causes secondary copper deficiency.
“And diets consisting of only hay and cereal grains are not balanced nutritionally for some horses, such as mares in late gestation, lactating mares, immature growing horses and juvenile athletic horses. Thus, protein, mineral and vitamin supplements are needed to balance diets for those horses.”
Potter, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, says supplements are not effective and the components are excreted when added to an already balanced diet. Adding some nutrients to a balanced diet results in a nutritional imbalance, which in many cases is just as bad or worse that a nutritional deficiency.
“The only workable approach is to determine if dietary supplements are needed, then chose those that provide the extra nutrients needed,” Potter says.
Do Some Research
The tabular values from the National Research Council publication on nutrient requirements of horses is a useful source. And while the nutritional content of feed is shown on the bag, the nutritional composition of hay can vary a lot. County extension agents can point out publications for grading hay and the nutritional composition of hay in a given state.
County extension agents or state extension horse or forage specialists also can help, and every state has a forage-testing laboratory that analyzes hay routinely.
One ingredient that can be missing from the general equine hay and grain diet is salt, says Richard Godbee, Ph.D., a nutritionist at Morinda Agriculture of Provo, Utah.
“People usually try to replace that with salt blocks, but blocks [can be] terrible for horses,” he contends. “Horses have a tongue that’s like silk; they bite things rather than lick. Some blocks are held together with molasses, which horses love, so if you have a horse in a stall, it will lick or eat too much out of boredom. Too much salt makes the horse thirsty; they drink more water and urinate more, which costs the owner money in stall bedding.”
Godbee says other trace minerals are important for good metabolic function—energy, protein synthesis, building blood—and calcium and phosphorus are needed for bones.
“Good quality feeds will have some of these, but it’s hard to count on that. You might not deliver enough of what the horse needs if you’re only feeding a small amount. For a consistent intake, loose minerals are far superior. Clients can top-dress the feed or offer it free choice to pastured horses.”
Sarah Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN, an associate professor of animal science at Rutgers University, prefers to keep things as simple as possible.
“I recommend Vitamin C only during periods of extreme stress—not before or after—0.025 mg/kg (5gm/1,000-pound horse) twice a day. Vitamin E if the horse is stressed and has no access to pasture, 500 to 1000 IU once a day. And minerals if the hay/pasture has known [analyzed] deficits,” Dr. Ralston says.
“Edible oils are great to add if extra calories are needed. If the horse is fed good quality forage/ pasture, then [use] maybe a single hay balancer, which is a mineral supplement concentrate designed for the type of hay fed.”
Godbee says supplemental products are especially important in performance horses that travel frequently.
“Increased stress impacts the immune system,” he says. “Stress also causes a horse to go off his feed, and there’s no point in showing if your horse isn’t eating.”
A folk remedy for thousands of years in the South Pacific, the tropical noni fruit (Morinda citrofolia) has been getting attention in both the human and animal fields and has plenty of peer-reviewed research and science behind it, says Earl Loveless, senior sales and marketing manager for Morinda. Research has found that noni is a good anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and antioxidant, and it stimulates the appetite, he says.
Horses are more sensitive to the active ingredients in the fruit than other animals and can benefit, Loveless says. The immune system reacts to the noni, and horses can recover from illness and stress faster. Studies in newborn foals showed them less likely to get scour when given noni because of the fruit’s anti-inflammatory properties, he says.
Godbee created the first noni products for horses several years ago at Morinda. The products are Perform, with chondroitin and glucosamine for performance and senior horses, and Maintain, for recreational horses.
A holistic approach for a client’s horse may include Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), which Huisheng Xie, DVM, Ph.D., MS, says has been practiced for more than 2,000 years.
“TCVM, including herbal medicine and food therapy, is a very complicated medical system and needs a well-trained practitioner to practice it well,” says Dr. Xie, coordinator of the Veterinary Acupuncture Program at the University of Florida and the president of the Chi Institute in Reddick, Fla. “A certified TCVM practitioner can examine the horse and give you best advice on which supplements, herbals and foods are right. With proper TCVM assessment, most horses can benefit from herbal medicine in the treatment and prevention of diseases.”
Chris Bessent, DVM, the founder of herbal blend manufacturer Herbsmith Inc. of Hartland, Wis., is both a traditional and holistic veterinarian. She says Chinese medicine gives her additional tools to help the horse.
“I have herbals that address the issue in a more gentle way, such as with a herbal anti-inflammatory, or in a Chinese perspective that isn’t addressed in a Western perspective,” Dr. Bessent says.
"For instance, emotions mean something in Chinese medicine. We look at the emotional component of the horse. If all the blood work is fine, the X-rays are fine, but the horse is still unserviceable, Chinese herbals can step in. Horses that are anxious or spooky are reacting on liver or heart disharmony and benefit from calming herbs. I think that’s where herbals really fit, in maintaining health and overall well-being.”
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News