Do Horses Need Supplements?

The simple answer to the question of whether horses need supplements or not depends a lot on what the supplements are for and your horse’s lifestyle. For example, if your horse has a healthy balanced diet and you’re thinking of feeding him extra minerals then, of course, he doesn’t need them. If, on the other hand, your horse doesn’t have a lot of forage but has a high grain diet then topping his feed up with a mineral supplement such as potassium, iron or magnesium is a good idea. Also if your horse is very active due to being on heavy work then you may also consider a performance or energy supplement.

What are horse supplements?

Broadly speaking a supplement is anything that is fed to a horse on top of forage but this is more of a definition of the word rather than what supplements are in the real world. In reality, supplements are additional nutrients, vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc that are fed to horses to either boost their diet or to make up for something they’re lacking or are deficient in.

Just like us, there can be any number of reasons why a horse may need to supplements, they may have a health issue such as being slow to heal, have poor hoof growth or have joint problems. Supplements can also be used to improve a horse’s competition performance, increase their stamina or boost their energy levels.

Are supplements necessary for horses?

Some people rightly argue that horses survived for centuries (if not millennia) before the invention of supplements and while this is, of course, true, they lived very differently to how they do now. That’s not to say that supplements are necessary for all horses or that every horse will benefit from them though. Instead, you need to consider your horse’s diet, his needs as well as his workload.

Do horse supplements really work?

There’s no doubt that supplements can, and do, work but it’s important to give the right supplements to the right horses, after all, there’s no point feeding a performance-enhancing supplement to a riding school horse. Likewise, if you compete a lot then your horse probably doesn’t need an arthritis supplement.

Are all supplements good?

A lot of countries have strict laws in place that govern the sale of foods and drugs but as most supplements (with the exception of those prescribed by vets) aren’t classed as either there aren’t many regulations surrounding their sale. That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy and use supplements, just be careful of where you buy them from. There are plenty of supplements that have been scientifically tested but just because a product hasn’t it doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid it, instead, use your instincts – if it seems too cheap or you don’t know anything about the seller then its better to be safe. There are plenty of reputable companies that have a proven track record of selling supplements, companies such as Entirely Pets, Heartland Veterinary Supply & Pharmacy or LV Performance, both of which offer international delivery.

What supplements should I give my horse?

These days there are dozens of different supplements that offer a multitude of benefits so what you give to your horse should be based on your reasons for using it in the first place. After all, there’s no one supplement to cover everything, that said though there are a number of vitamins and minerals that have multiple benefits, vitamins such as biotin, for example, can be used to improve a horse’s coat, skin and hooves as well as help to promote a healthy gut.

Supplements for your horse’s coat and skin

If your horse’s coat is dull, lacks condition or is rather thin and brittle or if his skin is dry then it could be he’s not getting enough of the right nutrients from his diet to produce a healthy coat. If this is the case then you might want to think about feeding him a supplement that has been specially formulated to improve his coat. Most of these supplements will contain things like omega 3 and flaxseed, both of which will help to maintain a shiny coat as well as strengthening your horse’s hooves. Fatty acids, along with vitamins E, B12, niacin and biotin are also used to help improve the condition and health of a horse’s coat and his skin.

Supplements for your horse’s hooves

Horse’s hooves are made from keratin which is the same protein that our hair and nails are made from. Keratin is very tough but it can crack and split if your horse’s hooves aren’t healthy but don’t worry, just as we can take supplements to improve the strength and quality of our hair and nail so can horses. Calcium is one of the most important vitamins when it comes to producing healthy hooves but biotin, zinc and copper are also very important.

If you want to buy supplements for your horse’s hooves Entirely Pets have a great selection, plus they offer international delivery.

Supplements for your horse’s joints

Horses are no different to us in that as they get older their joints can ache and cause them a lot of pain and discomfort. The good news though is that despite the fact that horses put a lot more weight and therefore stress on their joints the same supplements that work for us also work for horses. The most common being cod liver oil (although I fully appreciate some people aren’t keen on feeding their horse anything from another once-living creature) and glucosamine, both of which work by slowing the breakdown of cartilage and therefore helping to heal existing injuries. Hyaluronic Acid and MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) are also used to help to treat joint pain but they work more as anti-inflammatories to reduce the swelling and pain rather than to repair the joints.

LV Supplements have an extensive range of joint and pain supplements.

Supplements for your horse’s health

Supplements for your horse’s health are probably the most popular and numerous but when you consider that it covers such a wide gamut it’s not surprising, for example, supplements to aid digestion, boost the immune system or even regulate breathing all fall under the banner of health supplements. Because there are so many supplements for health I thought it might be better to list the vitamins and minerals below along with a brief summary of what they’re used for or important for.

MineralUse
CalciumMainly for healthy teeth and bone as well as an enzyme regulator
MagnesiumFor muscle and nerve function as well as relaxing a horse
PhosphorusHelps in the production of energy but also contributes to a healthy pH and electrolyte balance
PotassiumAn electrolyte used for overall health but also for normal muscle function
SodiumRestores salts lost during exercise but also helps with the central nervous system and movement of fluid around the body
ChlorideLike sodium, chloride is a salt that helps with the movement of bodily fluids but also to regulate the central nervous system and keep it healthy
Sulfur To help produce healthy hair, skin and hooves
CobaltOriginally used to treat anaemia it has, in recent years, been used to boost a horse’s performance
CopperTo reduce inflammation as well as producing strong blood vessels, bones, joints and hair
FluorineCan improve strength of teeth and bones in small doses. Can cause lameness if used too much though
IodineTo help regulate a horse’s metabolism but a lack of iodine can result in a dull coat and flaky skin 
IronIron is vital for the health of red blood cells and prevention of anemia
ManganeseHelps to breakdown fats and carbohydrates but is also vital in the production of cartilage
SeleniumTo help boost the effectiveness of the immune system and protect against viruses and infections
ZincTo help maintain healthy hooves, a well-conditioned coat and strong bones. It’s also used to strengthen the immune system
VitaminImportant for
Vitamin ANight vision, fertility (and fetus development), hoof and skincare as the immune system 
Vitamin CThe immune system but also for protecting the lungs from damage
Vitamin DFor absorbing and transporting calcium around the body
Vitamin EProtecting the body from everyday oxidative damage and developing and maintaining healthy muscles, nerves and immune system
Vitamin KHealthy blood and preventing blood clots
Thiamine (B1)Metabolizing proteins, fats and carbohydrates as well as for improving a horses power and energy 
Riboflavin (B2)The production of energy but also the immune system
Niacin (B3)Performance but can also help with digestion and the health of the skin
Pantothenic Acid (B5)Digestion and metabolism of proteins, fats and carbohydrates
Pyridoxine (B6)Muscle development by metabolizing protein 
Biotin (B7)Hoof health as well as the condition of the horse’s coat
Folic Acid or Folate (B9)Preventing (or controlling) anemia by keeping red blood cells healthy
Cobalamin (B12)Fighting tiredness but also used by red blood cells

Supplements for your horse’s performance

When you talk about supplements to improve performance most people automatically think of steroids but while there may or may not be a use for steroid supplements within the equine world I’m not going to cover that here, instead, I’m just focusing on the ‘natural’ supplements.

With this in mind, most performance supplements will contain a certain amount of glucosamine to help prevent any stiffness of joints. Supplements are also likely to contain minerals such as phosphorus and potassium, both of which are electrolytes that are used in the production of energy and muscle function. 



Supplements for your horse’s weight

If your horse is a hard keeper it can be very difficult to maintain his weight (or increase it) with diet alone which is where the use of supplements can be very helpful. On top of your horse’s diet, you can also use supplements to increase his intake of fiber, starch, protein and fat as well as certain vitamins and minerals. As a rule supplements for hard keepers (or just general weight gain) will include some form of fat, whether it’s from vegetable oil or some other oil, protein and fiber along with a mix of vitamins and minerals.

When it comes to weight loss though there are two types of supplements, the mix which as you would expect contains a mixture of different ingredients or the single-ingredient supplements. The most common weight loss ingredients are:

  • Chromium* – A mineral that helps the body to metabolise carbohydrates, lipids and proteins. It controls the sugar levels in the blood which helps to maintain a normal body weight
  • L-carnitine* – Sometimes called a weight-loss wonder, L-carnitine works by increasing the amount of energy the body uses to metabolize fat and sugar.
  • Zinc – Another mineral, zinc works by helping the body to better use the insulin it has. When feeding zinc to your horse it’s important to feed it with a 5:1 ration of copper, this is because too much zinc can result in a copper deficiency.
  • Cinnamon – This is a natural spice that has been used for a long time to help regulate the metabolism of glucose, insulin and lipids.

* There have been no definitive studies carried out with horses as to the recommended dose so it’s important to seek medical advice from a veterinarian before feeding them to your horse.

Supplements to keep flies away

Okay, so I know that you wouldn’t call something you feed your horse to keep flies away a supplement but technically it as, as I say, anything that is fed to your horse on top of his forage is classed as a supplement. With this in mind, I thought I would include supplements for this purpose.

Probably the most effective and widely used supplement used to keep those pesky flies away would be garlic. That said though it’s important that you feed dried garlic rather than raw garlic to your horse. This is because garlic, like onions, chives and leeks, contains a toxin called N-propyl disulfide. This toxin, which is what makes our eyes water when cutting onions, is known to cause anemia is horses.

Supplements to calm and destress your horse

Some horses can get very anxious and tense when they’re on box rest or in transit so it’s not surprising that there’s a demand for supplements to help with this. While lavender oil (either rubbed into your horse’s coat or used in a spray) can help, most supplements developed to help relax your horse will have magnesium and or chamomile in them. Magnesium is great for regulating your horse’s blood pressure and relaxing his muscles which will help to alleviate any tension while chamomile, on the other hand, has been used for centuries to aid calmness and even help with sleep. Chamomile also has the added benefit of helping reduce some digestive conditions such as indigestion and flatulence.

If you’re looking to buy calming and destressing supplements for your horse’s then you can’t go far wrong with Heartland Veterinary Supply & Pharmacy.

Can horses have human supplements?

You might think that horse supplements have been developed for horses and human ones only for us and while a lot the time this is true there are some supplements that are the same, except for the price that is!

For example, most vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E or omega 3 are the same regardless of whether they’re packaged for horses or humans. That said you should never feed human multi-vitamin supplements to horses, this is because while a lot of the vitamins are okay for horses some of the additional bulking agents, etc that are added to human supplements are good for a horse’s digestion.

Some people choose to use human supplements instead because they’re often cheaper but while the initial cost may be less it’s important to keep in mind that a human does will be far less than a horse dose and when you’ve factored that into the price isn’t always that different.

Conclusion

On balance yes, horses can and do need supplements but they should never be used as a substitute for a balanced diet. If your horse is getting all of the vitamins and minerals he needs from is diet and is on light work then, in the vast majority of cases, he won’t need supplements. If, however, he’s not able to absorb all he needs from his diet or is regularly used for intensive work (ie for competition) then he will more than likely need, and benefit from, supplements.

Further reading