Do horses actually need supplements?
By Dr Erin Roddy, DVM
As an Equine Veterinarian I often hear my colleagues and other professionals in the industry exclaim with confidence that horses don’t “need” supplements. Often this argument is followed by statements that supplements aren’t natural for horses, and that the supplement industry is unregulated and purely trying to scam horse owners. I wanted to unpack some of these ideas and statements both for my Veterinarian colleagues and peers as well as for horse owners and trainers.
Equine professionals and horse owners only want what is best for their horses, and what we feed our horses is a core component of that. Additionally, no one wants to spend unnecessary money in an already expensive field, or put our amazing horses at risk.
I certainly agree that there are a group of horses for whom supplementing the diet is unnecessary: these horses include healthy animals living in a natural (i.e. herd) setting, grazing continuously on a wide variety of forage, and being asked only to “survive”. Compared to most of our modern horses the horse I have just described is as close to “natural” as possible. Horses living in a herd environment, grazing continuously on a variety of forage sources and not performing more exercise than grazing and “horse play” are unlikely to need much supplementation. These horses should still have their diet analyzed to ensure all vitamin and mineral requirements are being met, which I describe as the “bare minimum” of ensuring an adequate diet. Wild horses would graze a vast array of land (thousands and thousands of acres) and in the process consume many different varieties of grasses, weeds, herbs, tree bark, roots, and soil types. It was this significant variation in forage types in their diet which ensured that wild horses consumed everything they needed for a balanced diet.
A varied, balanced diet results in a varied, balanced, and healthy microbiome in the hind gut of the horse as well. It is this microbiome which can produce a number of the building blocks horses need to be healthy such as Volatile Fatty Acids, Vitamins, and Amino Acids.
In my experience, very few modern horses are living the lifestyle described above. Horses being stabled or yarded and eating only 1 or 2 types of hay or grazing only 1 or 2 types of grass will often have a diet deficient in the basic vitamins and minerals required to keep a horse healthy. Further, the confinement, high grain diets, and lack of variety of forage associated with the lifestyles of most modern horses routinely results in an unhealthy gut microbiome which doesn’t process forage as efficiently as it should, and which doesn’t produce the key building blocks required.
Every horse, whether it be a pasture pet or Olympic athlete needs a complete, balanced diet to meet their nutritional requirements. Personally, I like to assess a horse’s diet using a version of the “food pyramid”:
- Forage sits at the bottom, making up the largest component of the horse’s diet. The forage should be plentiful and varied (a horse needs 2% of their body weight in forgage per day, depending on their condition),
- hard feed or concentrates in the middle, in an amount appropriate to the age, type, and workload of the horse, and
- supplements at the top which should be the smallest portion, but which can provide some crucial ingredients for the horse’s diet.
Evaluating your horse’s diet
There is excellent Equine Feed Analysis software available, such as Feed Assist which is free right here on the Poseidon Animal Health website, and Feed XL, which help you analyze your horse’s diet and highlight any gaps in protein, fat, or vitamins and minerals.
It is also very helpful to analyze your horse’s forage sources both for vitamin and mineral content as well as the carbohydrate make up.
An Equine Supplement to fill mineral and vitamin gaps
Most modern horses are not receiving even the minimum requirements of vitamins and minerals due to a lack of variety in their forage, lack of access to varied grazing, or underfeeding concentrates - so supplementation of at least a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement should be considered.
Digestive VM is a low calorie, low starch and sugar equine supplement which contains all the required vitamins and minerals in a bio-available format suitable for all classes and types of horses and ponies. It is the perfect daily equine mineral and vitamin supplement to safely meet any nutritional gap requirements.
Supplements for specific issues in horses
Once we have met the horse’s nutritional requirements, many clients turn to supplements to address specific health concerns such as poor hoof or coat quality or behavioural issues. Time and time again I see cases of horses being supplemented with numerous individual products as the owner attempts to address various specific health concerns.
In my experience, many of these specific health concerns are symptoms of poor gut health in general. This may be due to an unbalanced microbiome, chronic deficiency in a particular vitamin or mineral, chronic or acute stress, or even an underlying genetic predisposition.
So many of our health issues in horses are due to an unhealthy gut caused by an inability of the horse to adapt to their modern lifestyle.
When we address these cases by balancing the diet starting - with a variety of forage, providing appropriate amounts of protein and fat, and filling any remaining nutritional gaps - then work to improve the horses gut health, the overall health of the horse improves. It is for this reason that Poseidon Animal Health designed their whole-of-gut supplement Digestive EQ. Digestive EQ protects and supports the entirety of the horse’s GI tract from the stomach right through the horse’s hind gut allowing it to function as it should and would have in the wild.
With a balanced diet and a well-functioning GI tract, the gut microbiome and metabolism of the horse will function as they should and in case after case, I see almost all the horse’s niggling health conditions melt away. Weak, brittle hooves, dull coats, inability to gain weight, poor quality of manure, lack of energy, poor topline, spooky/erratic behaviour; these conditions are all symptomatic of a GI tract which is not functioning as it should.
And while addressing the diet and nutritional gaps will fix the problem, correcting an unbalanced microbiome can take months to years - and more serious issues such as Gastric and hindgut ulcers and leaky gut syndrome can take even longer if we only use dietary methods. Coupling dietary changes with the nutraceutical Digestive EQ is a much more effective way to restore your horse’s health.
Extra Supplement Support for Performance Sport Horses
High Performance horses may also require further supplementation beyond simply a balanced diet and healthy, protected GI Tract due to the athletic demands on their bodies. Supplements such as electrolytes, additional protein, and targeted joint support and protection may provide an additional advantage to horses at the highest levels of competition.
My caveat here is to be diligent and thorough about the research behind the ingredients and bioavailability of any supplement you choose to feed your horse. If the horse cannot absorb the ingredients or there is no research behind the efficacy of the ingredients, then it is unlikely that the supplement will actually benefit the horse.
These elite equine athletes will also benefit from a higher level of GI protection and support due to the added stress of training and competition and the need for their metabolism to be working as effectively as possible. Digestive RP is Poseidon Animal Health’s answer to the increased demand placed on racing and performance horses due to intense training, travel, and competition. Digestive RP offers an enhanced formulation for performance horses, with higher levels of the active ingredients and a fifth amino acid, leucine, on top of all the gut support provided by Digestive EQ.
Addressing stress in horses with supplementation
Finally, modern horses are exposed to a much higher level of stress than their ancestors. At each stage of their modern lives from breeding and weaning to breaking in, training, travel, and competition we are asking horses to cope with an ever-increasing amount of stress which their systems have not had an adequate amount of time to adapt to. This inability to adapt has shown up in the stress related problems we see so often in today’s “working” horse: GI ulceration, stereotypical behaviours, anhidrosis, recurrent colic, inconsistent appetite and thirst especially when travelling and competing.
Although providing your horse with Digestive EQ (or RP) is already likely to help reduce the effects of stress on your horse’s behaviour through better gut health, Poseidon Animal Health has specifically designed the intensive fast-acting option of Stress Paste, to address the increased strain placed on the horse in times of stress.
Stress Paste acts as an on-the-spot concentrated supplement which gives the horse a boost of nervous system and gut support. Stress Paste contains gastric buffers, pre and post biotics, Magnesium, B Vitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Amino Acids, as well as Betaine and Pectin which promote hydration and offer a protective layer of stomach coating, and acts in three important ways to protect the horse from the effects of stress:
- The gut protection means the horses gut microbiome is less likely to be negatively impacted by the stress event, and this also means the gut is less likely to affect the horse’s behaviour either through discomfort or via the gut-brain axis,
- the nervous system support is designed to help the horse remain calm which is great for their rider but also helps protect the gut from the adverse effects of stress,
- and finally the well functioning gut microbiome, amino acids and betaine all help boost the horse’s recovery ability.
Supplements - in summary
Unless your horse is living free on the wide open range and is never worked, then yes - there is an actual ‘need’ for supplements in their daily care routine so they can enjoy the best health, lead active lives and feel great - and we have the opportunity to further support them in times of high demand or stress.
I hope this was useful to hear from an Equine Vet, and helps you justify your use of daily supplements for your horse. If you have any questions on your horse’s needs, do pop over and create a record for them on Feed Assist and check their diet, or contact the Poseidon Animal Health Team.