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Supplemental Knowledge
By Carla Huston, BES

Today's horse market holds a bewildering array of supplements that claim to be essential to your horse's good health, or promise to cure a variety of ailments. Deciding which claims are justified and which are the products of the copywriter's imagination can be both a lengthy process and an expensive one. Manufacturers have plenty of competition for the horse owner's dollar, and it is often easier to follow the company's every recommendation rather than doing the necessary research to determine if your horse really needs a particular product. For those who do not understand the horse's requirements it is easy to be swayed by the advertisement words; backed with knowledge of what the products really do for the horse the owner can make informed choices about where to spend his money.

A salt block is one of the simplest and most essential equine supplements. The sodium and chloride provide many functions in the horse's body; they contribute to the fluid and acid-base balance, nerve impulses and muscular movements. The requirement for each individual is variable, dependent on environmental temperature, water intake and exercise level. Free access salt should be provided. A horse will consume the appropriate amount, provided adequate water is available; in the absence of a suitable supply of water one may overeat. With resumed water intake the result is a loose bowel.

Another common and important supplement for the horse is a trace mineral block. Unlike the salt block that is white, the trace mineral one is red and contains the essential minerals required by the horse's body in very small amounts. Some of those included are copper, zinc, iodine, iron and selenium; the amount needed in the horse's diet is expressed in parts per million (ppm). The amounts of these trace minerals required again varies by individual. Growing foals, lactating mares and pregnant mares have different needs from the mature horse. Another predisposing factor is the bioavailability of the minerals, meaning the efficiency with which the animal absorbs and utilizes the minerals. A third factor is the amount of minerals found in the soil the horse is grazing or from which the hay was produced. For this reason it is very important to feed a balanced ration. Free access to a trace mineral block will generally provide the proper amounts assuming the rest of the diet is balanced for the individual.

Many horse owners add a protein supplement to their horses' diets. For animals with a high-protein requirement - growing foals, lactating mares, and mares in the late stage of pregnancy - the additional supplementation may be indicated. Common protein supplements are alfalfa, soybean meal, legume pellets, milk products and dried brewer's yeast. However, most rations contain excess protein. There is a mistaken assumption on many people's part that as the horse's work load increases or as outside temperature decreases the protein requirement goes up. Additional protein is not harmful to the horse and some of the excess is converted to energy. Nitrogen is a product of the conversion process and is eliminated from the body via urine (urine output is increased as is the ammonia smell). But protein is an expensive nutrient to feed, and it makes more financial sense to increase the energy provided by the diet and keep the protein levels close to the recommended amount for the individual.

Biotin is a currently popular supplement for the horse. It is a part of the B-complex vitamins, a group of ten water-soluble vitamins. Many believe that supplementation of biotin to the horse's diet will promote hoof growth and cure hoof ailments. The normal horse, though, has sufficient biotin syntheses by the intestinal bacteria at a high enough level that a supplement is not required. The only time a biotin supplement may be necessary is with a horse that has a reduced intestinal function. This may be an older animal, one with an intestinal illness or one that has been on long-course antibiotics. Some feed companies automatically add biotin to their commercial feeds and charge the consumer accordingly. However, it may be wiser to feed a ration that provides the required nutrients and add an outside source of biotin as your veterinarian or farrier prescribes.

In the last decade a new food supplement has hit the market that has veterinarians, farriers and owners impressed by its actions. Methyl-sulfonyl-methane (MSM) is a source of bioavailable sulfur, a nutrient with assorted uses in the animal body, one of the most important being the ability to keep tissues elastic. It is most often used by owners searching for a therapy for arthritic horses or lameness problems. There is little scientific evidence of its efficacy, but anecdotal reports are very promising. It should not be considered a cure-all, even though claims may be made about its multiple uses. It is still essential that the owner investigates all possible causes of the discomfort and consults a veterinarian for diagnosis and therapeutic prescriptions.

There are many other supplement products on the market. The "flex" products are a chondroitin source that claims to act on joints and elastic tissues to promote flexibility. Many companies have begun marketing herbal supplements that contain kelp, rose hip and a sprinkling of vitamins, minerals, biotin and probiotics, and are designed to affect hoof growth, hair quality, weight gain and energy level. Other supplements are made up of individual vitamins to address a specific malady - nervousness, stamina, etc. Often, in the owner's attempt to cover all the bases of equine nutrition and performance, they top feed more supplements than there is grain in the base ration. Some of these supplements may even contraindicate one another. If a little is good, more is not better.

The important thing to remember is most of these supplements are categorized as nutritional additives, and therefore, are not under Food and Drug Administration influence. Limited scientific testing is usually done. While none of these products are dangerous to the horse themselves, it is dangerous to rely on them for health care in place of routine veterinary checks, proper daily maintenance, good nutrition, clean environment and professional farriery. Take the manufacturer's words with a grain of salt; advertisements are designed to sell product and may contain a fair amount of hyperbole. Always consult with professionals before starting your horse on a new additive.


This article is copyright of Equine Management, Auction, and Appraisal Services, Inc. All rights reserved.

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