Supplements 101

Overwhelmed by supplement options? Here's a handy summary of the most common types.

The market for equine nutritional supplements has exploded in recent years. Knowing which products might benefit your horse can be challenging and is a decision best made with the help of your veterinarian and, ideally, an equine nutritionist. Here, we offer a snapshot of the most popular types of supplements and explain how they might help your horse. They're presented by type, in the order of consumer popularity (for example, more joint supplements are sold than any other type).

Joint Care

Purpose: Joint supplements are designed to support the health of cartilage between bones and synovial fluid in joint spaces. 

Common ingredients: Glucosamine, a building block of cartilage production and repair; chondroitin, a component of connective tissues and cartilage; hyaluronic acid, a component of synovial fluid, connective tissue, and cartilage; and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), a source of sulfur, necessary for the production of collagen. Other ingredients may include ascorbic acid and extracts from such plants as avocado, the Boswellia tree, soybean, and yucca. May benefit your horse if: He has mild to moderate arthritis or is at risk of arthritis because of injuries; or he's older, especially if he's seen a lot of use. 

Words to the wise: Ingredient amounts vary widely among products. Determine which ingredients might most benefit your horse, then read labels to be sure a product's breakdown suits your needs.


Purpose: Digestive supplements aim to balance the microorganisms normally present in a horse's intestinal tract, potentially improving digestion and reducing chances of colic and diarrhea. 

Common ingredients: Probiotics, bacteria and yeasts meant to support popula-

[Supplements are meant to solve specific problems; your vet can help you choose]

tions of gut flora; prebiotics, sugars and other nutrients on which the good bacteria feed; and yeast culture that enhances the activity of bacteria. 

May benefit your horse if: He's ill, on antibiotics, or under stress, factors that may negatively affect the functioning of his digestive system. 

Also good to know: Digestive supplements often contain live organisms, which may be vulnerable to heat and light, so read and follow label instructions.


Purpose: Hoof supplements aim to enhance the quality of hoof horn to produce stronger, healthier hooves. 

Common ingredients: Biotin, a B vitamin that helps make keratin, the foundation of hair and hoof horn; methionine, an amino acid that also supports keratin; lysine, an amino acid needed for collagen and the absorption of calcium; copper, a necessary trace mineral; and zinc, an essential mineral.

May benefit your horse if: He has weak, shelly, crack-prone hooves.

Words to the wise: Research says biotin works. Supplements can influence only new hoof growth, however, so it can take months to see results.


Purpose: Skin and coat supplements support the production of keratin, collagen, and other key components of hair and skin.

Common ingredients: Many of the same as in hoof supplements, plus pyridoxine and riboflavin, B vitamins that support hoof and/or hair growth; and flaxseed, which contains omega-3 fatty acids believed to boost hair growth. 

May benefit your horse if: He has a dull, dry coat or flaky, itchy skin. 

Words to the wise: Always rule out a larger underlying cause of your horse's poor coat (parasites, illness) first.


Purpose: These supplements aim to calm fractious horses with ingredients that influence the nervous system. 

Common ingredients: Magnesium, a mineral important to function of both muscles and nerves; tryptophan, an amino acid that's a precursor to neurotransmitters that promote calming; thiamine, a B vitamin essential to proper nerve function; valerian, a plant extract believed to interact with neurotransmitters; chamomile, a plant extract used since ancient times to treat insomnia and anxiety; and taurine, an organic acid important to nerve function. 

May benefit your horse if: He's nervous and difficult to handle (first rule out a physical cause of his behavior). 

Words to the wise: Be sure any product you use isn't disallowed by your sport. □

For a wealth of additional information on nutritional supplements, search the phrase at

January 2013