Supplements… are they really necessary?

Supplements – are they really necessary?

By Elizabeth Owens B Sci Ag (Hons)

“As well as working as an animal nutritionist for 20 something years, I dabble in dressage (am obsessive if you ask people who know me) and now have a second horse at the cusp of Grand Prix. After years of research and training in both these areas, I have finally developed a powerful and unique “Grand Prix Mix” a supplement that acts as an aid in the development of piaffe and passage in all horses currently deficient in these abilities. Now I know one H. K Ryan who will have no need of this supplement, but Heath aside, I envisage a strong and profitable market for this product. Exclusive to the Horse Magazine – please contact the publisher for more details.”

If you found yourself flicking pages to find the phone number for The Horse Magazine to purchase this product then my guess is you are not alone. It is common for trainers of all persuasions – dressage, pacing, racing and western alike, to be tempted to find the solution to their horses performance deficiencies in a bag of feed or bucket of supplements. The price for this quest for a “quick fix” is extremely high. Vitamin E supplements cost up to $600/kg while many vitamin/mineral supplements cost between $3 and $30/kg.

Most of my professional life has been in the field of intensive livestock nutrition, pigs, poultry and dairy, where the first question asked when I suggest including an additive in a tonne of feed is “what is the pay back”? Commercial producers need to know that the product will a) produce a quantifiable response in the animals and b) the benefit will exceed the cost of inclusion. It goes without saying that the product will be totally safe for the animals, thoroughly tested and backed by research and will comply with regulations regarding withholding periods and efficacy. Judging by some of the unlabelled bags of white powder purchased by horse owners, many barely ask the “will it hurt” question?

A dietary supplement should be a non-toxic feed ingredient that has demonstrated health benefits. A supplement may include one or a combination of the following dietary ingredients:
• a vitamin;
• a mineral;
• a herb or other botanical;
• an amino acid;

If a supplement makes a claim, then it should be registered with the Agricultural and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Examples of a claim would be a statement that the product is an aid in the prevention of laminitis or will have a calming effect on a horse. Such products will bear a National Registration Authority (NRA) registration number and state that they are registered. The label of these products includes full disclosure of active ingredients, quantities of each and usually mode of action. Once a product makes a claim and begins the registration process, it is subject to much stricter requirements with regard to compliance and validation of composition – this is a good thing.

Imagine you are buying supplements or medicines for a baby or child. Clearly you want to be confident that what you are putting down the child’s throat has been subject to some testing and actually contains what the label states. In addition, I would want to see the ingredients listed on the side of the container. I may not know what they all mean, but there is a level of confidence that comes with full disclosure.

On the other hand, if a stall owner at a “bring and buy sale” handed me a brown bottle containing some liquid without any labelling or registration and said “Don’t worry love, give this to your child – it is wonderful for colds” – I would run a mile!!! This is not to say that products not bearing an NRA registration number are to be avoided, it is just that I have a higher level of confidence in those that are.

Quick fixes aside, what makes the majority of horse owners decide that their horse requires a supplement. For me, supplements fall into 2 categories:
Aids in prevention of deficiency – minerals, vitamins, electrolytes
Improve performance – joint supplements, muscle supplements, blood tonics, calming agents.

For the majority of horse owners, they need only consider the first category. As horse owners, we have a responsibility to ensure the animal is kept in good health, which demands good nutrition. Australian soils are deficient in a number of minerals and so it is beneficial to the horse’s health for these deficiencies to be corrected through the use of a mineral supplement. This may be delivered via a fortified feed, a mineral block or a powder. Obviously there are literally tens of thousands of horses who do very nicely thankyou without any supplement, but I contest they would look better, be sounder and live longer if they were on a balanced diet – and that is what I want for my horses.
For those of us training and competing horses, there will come a time when we either encounter a problem (tie-up, sore muscles, vague lameness, poor appetite, poor feet, lack of stamina to name a few) or we are looking for an edge – improved endurance, better coat, calmer nature and so on. There are supplements out there that can help us achieve these goals. Many of them actually work.

Let’s consider the process of buying a supplement. Work through the following steps next time you are tempted to spend money on a supplement:

Why do I need it?
What benefit are you looking to achieve from the supplement? Some goals are realistic and some may not be. For example, if you have a horse with shelly, soft feet and you want to improve hoof strength and growth, then you will find products recommending a biotin supplement for just this benefit and most are registered. If you were looking for a supplement to prevent your recently purchased 3yo thoroughbred fresh off the track from being excitable, then you have less chance of success. Why? Because while there are many supplements that provide thiamin, tryptophan, magnesium or perhaps valerian – all valid additives recommended as aids in reducing grain related tenseness in horses, your expectations are unrealistic. None of these ingredients will work if you failed to ride your horse consistently, received good coaching and stopped feeding him high energy feeds because you wanted to put weight on him. In this instance, money spent on the supplements may be better invested in a good coach (or perhaps a more suitable horse). Under the right conditions, calming supplements are a boon for owners of horses who are generally well behaved, but get excited at competitions or are just coming into work after a spell. These products may help take the edge off the horse.

How does it work?
Here again, a well-labelled product will take the guesswork out. Products sold as an aid in prevention of exertional myopathy (tie-up) in horses, will contain Vitamin E, selenium and perhaps electrolytes. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps prevent muscle damage. The majority of vitamin and mineral supplements may simply state that the ingredients are an aid in the prevention and treatment of deficiency of a particular active or group of active ingredients – but at least you know.

How will you measure the response?
If you are clear about why you need the product, then you must also be clear about what response you expect to get from it. Some responses are easy to measure – some also impossible. Using the hoof example, you would not expect to see an improvement in the short term. Hoof takes 9 months to grow from coronet to toe so you will need to stay on the supplement for at least 3 months before any detectable improvement is noted. In the case of calming agents, assuming you have changed nothing else, you should see a response within days of commencing the supplement. If it doesn’t work within a couple of weeks then it probably isn’t going to. The effectiveness of a blood tonic would need to be evaluated via a blood test and before and after samples done (by the same laboratory). If you are adding a mineral supplement to the diet of your growing horses, then you will not be able to easily quantify the response, but you will certainly sleep better at night and long term, your horses will be recognized as sound individuals who will be sought after.

Will it swab?
Please don’t fall into the trap of assuming that if it is sold for horses, or is sold as “natural” then it won’t swab. This is naïve. Many of the positive swabs detected by racing laboratories in recent years have been to so-called “natural” products. Most of the herbal products will not swab positive of course, just as most of the non-herbal products won’t either, but here again, a well-labelled product will put your mind at ease. Many products, both herbal and NRA registered, will bear the statement “Administering this product will not contravene the rules of racing.” If you are competing in a sport where your horse is likely to be subject to a swab you- have a duty of care to ensure that everything you put down its throat is “safe” and will not swab. You should contact the manufacturer for verification and double check with your own veterinarian.

Make certain it is designed for horses?
Never, never, never use a product registered for other species on a horse. Also don’t be tempted to apply nutritional research from other species to your horse. Taking research on humans and applying to horses is terribly common but has a fundamental flaw – humans are omnivorous monogastrics while horses are herbivorous, hindgut fermenting monogastrics. Their physiology is completely different. Next time you are tempted to apply popular TV nutritional wisdom to your horse, think how appropriate the reverse would be i.e. you getting down on all fours and grazing grass for 17 hours, and you’ll realize how irrational the idea is.

Is it cost effective?
If you have some understanding of what the active ingredients are – sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium for electrolytes, biotin for hoof growth, Vitamin E for muscle damage, then you can do some intelligent shopping around. Two of my favourite Vitamin E supplements are a good example. One costs about $593/litre (sold in 236 ml bottles) but is highly concentrated and actually costs about 60c per 500 IU of Vitamin E. The other is a powder, costs $77.80 per kilo but each 500 IU of Vitamin E costs $1.16. The liquid product is more expensive to buy but is more cost effective in the long run. The biggest selling electrolyte mixture in the country has the lowest concentration of salts per 100 grams – it is just really well marketed. A good look at the label can save you a LOT of money.

You should apply these steps whether you are buying a bucket of supplement, a bag of feed or a herbal product. Next time you buy garlic granules consider why you are doing it, how does it work, how much and how long should I feed it and is granules the best form to get it in. Would fresh crushed garlic be better? Ditto for my personal favourite – seaweed meal. I am yet to see a product label on seaweed meal declaring its composition and stating how much iodine it actually contains.

Bottom line – do horses need supplements? Most paddock ornaments don’t but anyone who competes and trains regularly, or who wants their horse for a long time, not just a good time, will require their horse’s diet to be supplemented at some time in their career. Don’t be tempted by bags of white powder or green plant matter without any label. Remember the baby analogy. You have a responsibility as a horse owner to be completely informed as to the composition and mode of action of anything you put down the animal’s throat.

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