What supplements does your horse need?

Open any tack store catalog or website today and you will find a plethora of supplement options. Is your horse a bit creaky? There are joint supplments for every stage of life and almost every budget. Horse need to gain weight? There are fat supplements promising “cool calories”. Horse a bit exciteable? Not to worry, there are calming supplements.

Hope in a bottle (or a bag) is a very appealing concept. And the price for that hope is commensorate with the intended results. It’s easy to end up spending many dollars/day on products that are meant to supplement your horse’s regime. In fact, this is an industry that has perfected the marketing guilt message. Your horse would feel/look/behave so much better if you just fed him this product.

Case in point. Smartpak (don’t get me wrong, I love Smartpak for many reasons and shop there all the time, but they are the masters of marketing)  has a supplement selection guide. If you answer their questions, they recommend what might work for your horse.

In the spirit of curiosity, I tried it. There are enough questions involved that it feels thorough and you feel invested in the process. The survey asks you about your horse’s age, breed, work load, turnout schedule, type of forage fed, overall stiffness, tendency toward ulccers, etc. Some of the questions don’t have the answers you want to give. There’s not enough nuance.  But I filled it out to reflect Freedom as a healthy 14  year old TB with a moderately heavy workload who is turned out 24/7, has good hooves, no skin problems and is a bit of a hard keeper and suffers from some anxiety. As a horse that raced until he was six, with 28 starts, I also worry about wear and tear on his joints.

The program gave me three recommendations:  basic support ($3.10/day), enhanced support ($4.53/day) and comprehensive support ($6.85/day).

The comprehensive package included

Joint supplement
Weight supplement
Calming supplement
Insect control supplement
Digestion aid
Vitamin E for immune support

Let’s think about this. That’s six supplements in addition to a balanced diet (I feed 7 quarts/day of Triple Crown Senior). I think that’s where you do a sanity check and remember that in this case, SmartPak is in the business of selling supplements.

I’m not anti supplements, I just have a limited budget — $197/month is more than I can spend and the low end package, which comes in at $86.90/month, is just for Smartflex III Resiliance and Weight Gain.

I prefer to look at the whole feeding regime and make sure that everything is balanced before I add anything specific. For example, feeding more grain or more forage may be the best way to add weight to your horse. I also like to feed flax seed as it helps add calories and good omegas — which in turn helps hoof and hair growth and may even help with joint mobility. I like to look at blood analysis to see if there are deficiencies before adding a vitamin or a mineral — it’s too easy to end up feeding too much of one thing and not enough of another.

I actually do feed Freedom vitamin E but only after my vet did a blood panel on him (when I was testing him for Lyme). I’m not sure it makes sense to feed the additional Vitamin E unless there is a deficiency.

For joints, my preference is to start with straight MSM, which is less than $0.35/day. I don’t have a problem with going to a more expensive solution if that doesn’t work, but the jury is still out on feed through supplements. I feed CortaFlx to Freedom because Chemphar has published some research that shows improvements to horses and because it’s pretty inexpensive — only a bit more than $0.50/day.

I do like SmartDigest. I had Freedom on SmartDigest Ultra while I was treating him for Lyme and I definitely think it helped him hold his weight better.

I’m on the fence about calming supplements. I believe that magnesium can help if, and it’s a big if, your horse is deficient in it. Otherwise, I think there’s not much evidence that they help. For my own horse, calmness is a direct result of wet blanket therapy. The more I ride him, the better he goes.

I may try a feed through insect control supplement this summer. Freedom is really bothered by bugs. I’m still weighing the pros of minimizing bugs with feeding a chemical to my horse. I may try fly predators instead.

To be worth the investment ($6.85/day is $2300/year) I need to either see a clear benefit or have a lot of faith. I’m encouraged that SmartPak offers a money back guarantee of you don’t see results from their SmartPak line, but wonder how many people just want to believe that the magic powder really makes a difference.

What are your thoughts on supplements? What do you feed? Or why do you choose not to feed them?


7 thoughts on “What supplements does your horse need?

  1. I feed joint supplements because a creaky senior with 222 starts needs a little bit of assistance — I have found certain formulas or ingredients that I FEEL work, and stick with those. With my own set of creaky joints, I have first-hand experience with what makes a difference.

    I do also feed garlic, the one that SmartPak carries as “Organic Garlic,” and have seen a major difference in the amount of tick bites — ie, none while my horses were on it. It helps a little with flies, but after dealing with Lyme one summer the tick repellent alone makes it worth it to me.

    I like flax for all the same reasons you do, with the added benefit of helping alleviate the old man’s allergies. It’s not exactly benadryl, but he is noticeably less weepy and itchy.

    Most other supplements I’m on the fence about. I haven’t had cause to try many (I have good-minded horses with good feet) and think most problems like ulcers and weight gain can be fixed by adjusting other aspects of the program — turnout, forage, TYPE of grain, etc. For things like chronic [mild] digestive upset, I have had better luck with the fairly cheap combo of ProBios and electrolytes than the heavy hitters like Succeed.

  2. Hi Liz
    I agree with you. The horse /supplement/food industry(actually the pet food industry) is more about making money & not necessarily what is best for your horse. It’s a little scary really. I’m a fanatic about reading & breaking down labels & analysis.
    My core diet for my horses & donkeys is grass hay. I analyze my hay & make up a custom mineral mix to balance my hay’s deficiencies & supply the proper ratios of each.
    They each get a supplement bucket twice a day with the custom mineral mix, iodized salt, stabilized ground flax & Vitamin E human softgels
    & whatever else (joint supplements, meds, etc.) each one requires. I use soaked/rinsed beet pulp shreds & timothy pellets as a carrier for the supplements. If my hay is older than 6 months I add Vit A softgels as well.
    As far as joint supplements go, I find that most combo joint supplements fall short in the effective dosages of each individual supplement (which may be why they do not seem to be effective) & more often than not contain substances that are either unnecessary or ineffective (waste of money). I usually buy each individual substance & combine them myself. I make my own hyaluronic acid gel, rather than pay for the expensive Conquer gel. The Horse Journal did a trial several years ago on joint supplements & found that the gel form of HA is the more effective than the powder or liquid.
    A good book on this subject is:
    “Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements & Nutraceuticals” by Dr. Eleanor Kellon.
    I simply will not use chemical feed-through insect control. Agree fly predators a better choice.

    1. Claire- I have been extremely interested in mixing my own hyaluronic acid but have not been able to find amounts of what I need to add (amount of HA to amount of preservatives.) if you don’t mind me asking, where do you buy the products from, how do you make it and what amounts, and what preservatives do you use? Thanks!

  3. Having come of age in a horse era where “supplements” meant a gallon of Red Cell if your horse had endured a lot of ticks, and a one-size-fits-all vitamin supplement that only the nervous horse owners fed, (That was it. Nothing else on the market.) I tend to see supplements as industry first, benefit second. I do supplement very specific for very specific things, as natural and low-tech as possible. (Joints, immune support, ulcer prevention) I’ve found a mix of things that work for Hudson very well, and don’t cost a ton of money. Homemade electrolytes, aloe juice and Cetyl M work wonders for him!

  4. I recently delved into my horses’ nutrition headfirst and the supplement options will make your head spin! Smartpak, too, told me I should be paying them upwards of $300 a month for my horses combined. I love them as a company (mostly due to their fabulous customer service) but they really are just trying to squeeze as much money out of you as possible.

    As for joints, I found a really interesting article from Kentucky Equine Research citing a study done at the University of Florida on Omega-3 supplementation and joints. I had previously heard that Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects and that your horse should have more of them than Omega-6s (which no one does because of the high levels of 6s in most everything the horses eat) but I had never seen anything close to proof that it would help. I can’t say I’m 100% sold, but there was strong evidence that they will help. Since I found a good supplement at a fraction of the cost of a regular glucosamine-chondroitin supplement, I am anxious to try it out on my creaky mare.

    Another fun thing about supplements I’ve come across is the “proprietary formula.” A lot of these wonder supplements won’t even give you a guaranteed analysis. Since I worked hard to balance my horses’ diet and am watching my elderly mare’s calcium intake like a hawk, there is no way in hell I’m going to fork over $75 for some mix of God-knows-what that is supposed to fix everything.

  5. Knowing all of the details of the components of your feed is important before choosing a supplement, and then of course paying attention to all of the ingredients of the supplement itself. There are lots of great supplements out there, but something that my horses won’t go without is a good enzyme supplement. No matter what the other components of their diet are, supplemental enzymes will help make sure that everything is getting broken down and fully utilized. Probiotics are also great for keeping a healthy gut balance. You may not realize how much the digestive health of your horse affects all aspects of their life until you get it in balance. A horse whose gut feels better will not only utilize their feed better and put on weight, but you may also notice a positive change in attitude and performance. Hindgut health is also important for prevention of colic and laminitis.

    You can check out my blog for more information on enzyme supplementation in horses and let me know if there are any particular issues that you would like me to address. I just posted a link to a really interesting study about alpha-amylase in horses and how it is a limiting factor in starch digestion (and how supplementation is beneficial!).

  6. Horse are non-ruminant herbivores of a kind known as a “hindgut fermenter.” This implies that horses have only one abdomen, as do people. So your details really beneficial for me.

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