Walk into a tack store or open an equine catalog and the choice for supplementation are staggering. Supplements are available to enhance shine, build hoofs, lubricate joints, improve digestion, give energy or calm them down, increase muscles, boost immune systems, gain weight, and more! For almost anything you can imagine there are multiple choices with a range of ingredients that manufacturers suggest will make your horse look better, perform better and feel better.
It’s easy to fall prey to the advertising because most of us want to do the best for our horses. And, let’s face it, we’d all like to think that sprinkling pixie dust on our horse’s feed will make him easier to ride, more talented and better looking.
I’ll raise my hand and admit that I’ve been a card-carrying member. The urge to add supplements to my horse’s feed came when I first moved him to a co-op barn. I had never been responsible for creating a feeding regime and honestly, I didn’t have a clue.
At the full service barn where I’d had him they were feeding him 8 quarts of pellets and 1 quart of oats per day. It was a custom milled pellet so I wasn’t even sure what was in it! All I knew was that compared to the other horses at the barn my horse was being fed vastly more.
At the full service barn I didn’t feed any supplements because they charged you an additional fee to add them to the grain. However, since I had a lot of learning to do about feeding horses I also started looking into feel better/look better supplements.
To begin with I added a coat/hoof supplement. I liked the results. My horse’s coat looked shinier, his tail grew longer and his hooves, which had always been fine, stayed fine. Then I read about pro-biotics. It sounded like a good idea so I added it. Then I read the back label on a supplement full of sea kelp and micro nutrients so I added that. I started feeding beet pulp as a way to increase my horse’s forage intake and I experimented with a number of feeds.
Finally I decided to do what I should have done first: I called an equine nutritionist. He came to my barn and looked at my horse (who was now eating significantly less than 9 quarts per day) and made some startling proclamations.
He explained that the basis for my horse’s diet was forage and he provided a general overview of the hay in the Northeast such as typical protein levels and regional deficiencies.
He suggested that while my horse was getting enough calories, he might not be getting enough nutrients. My horse was an easy keeper so to keep the total calorie intake a level that would keep him svelte, he recommended that I add a ration balancer to a moderate portion of the pelleted feed.
He pointed out that the ration balancer and feed together provided all the nutrients needed so that additional “micronutrients” where neither required nor desired. Since the feed included a probiotic, that didn’t need to be fed separately, either.
I kept the flax based hoof and coat supplement.
The end result? My horse looked and felt great. My wallet felt heavier. I turned in my membership card to oversupplementation anonymous and kept his card instead.
Supplements are not bad. Some can help. Some make you feel better, rather than your horse. What I learned was to base my decision on nutritional principles rather than on the promotional labels on the back of the packages.