Choosing the Best Supplement for Your Horse [2020]

31 JANUARY 2020

This article is written by one of our veterinarians, Dr Teagan Lever BVSc (Hons)

The world of horse supplements can be tricky to navigate at the best of times: how do you know if your horse needs a supplement? Which one should you use?

Read on for an explanation of how, why and when some common horse supplements should be used.

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Performance & Recovery Supplements

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Performance and recovery supplements fall into a number of different categories to meet the various needs of horses in heavy work or training at a high level.

Vitamin E

When to use: For horses experiencing muscle problems and during periods of stress, illness, recovery from injury or strenuous exercise.

How does it work?

Free radicals are natural by products of metabolism which can cause damage to the cells of the body. Strenuous exercise generates free radicals, so it is thought that supplementing with antioxidants, which fight free radicals, may help to reduce muscle soreness and damage.

Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant, helping to protect cells from free radical damage and may reduce recovery time, increase endurance, improve fertility and support immune system function.

'Blood building' nutrients

When to use: For horses with low red cell counts due to heavy training or recovery from illness. May also be used to darken the coat if desired.

How do they work?

Heavy training or illness can reduce the production of red blood cells or reduce their lifespan, which in turn can cause decreased blood red cell counts resulting in anaemia, lethargy and reduced appetite. Supplementing with the essential nutrients for red cell production, including iron, copper and B vitamins may help to support red blood cell production and restore appetite.

Branched Chain Amino acids (BCAA)

When to use: For horses suffering from muscle cramping or prone to 'tying up'

How do they work?

Branched chain amino acids are used by the body to build muscle proteins and promote muscle recovery. With heavy exercise, the BCAA levels in the blood can be depleted, leading to proteins in the muscle or liver being broken down, lactic acid build up and muscle cramping. Providing a BCAA supplement immediately following (or in some cases also prior to) strenuous exercise may help to reduce muscle cramping and lactic acid build up and aid muscle recovery.

Electrolytes

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When to use: During and immediately following periods of heavy sweating.

How do they work?

Electrolytes are particular minerals which when dissolved in water within the body become ions (particles with an electric charge). These electrolytes are vital in maintaining the fluid balance in the body, and play many other important roles including maintaining normal function in the nerves, heart and muscles.

While electrolytes are normally lost from the body through a variety of ways, such as through the manure and urine, large amounts of electrolytes (particularly sodium, potassium and chloride) can be lost in the sweat during periods of heavy work. It doesn't take long for electrolyte losses from heavy sweating to start causing problems; large losses can result in muscle cramps, "tying up" and "thumps." Counterintuitively lowered sodium levels can also reduce your horse's thirst - meaning they drink less and the dehydration worsens.

Electrolyte supplements can be used to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat during and immediately after periods of heavy sweating. When choosing an electrolyte supplement for this purpose, look for one which has similar electrolytes to those lost in equine sweat (sodium, potassium and chloride). Alongside supplementing electrolytes, it's also extremely important that your horse has access to fresh water to help prevent dehydration. Try to keep the water at room temperature, and for those who can be fussy about taste consider bringing water from home when you travel or adding a little molasses to mask any unusual flavours.

Electrolyte supplements for horses may come as powders which are added to the feed or water, liquids to be added to the water or given as a drench and pastes to be administered orally.

Vitamin & Mineral Supplements

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When to use: Horses on home-mixed diets, those consuming forage only diets, and when feeding pre-mixed feeds below the recommended intake.

How do they work?

Trace mineral and vitamin imbalances are not uncommon in hay and pasture only or home mixed feeds. For example, horses fed lucerne hay may require a phosphorus supplement to balance the high levels of calcium present in the lucerne.

Vitamin and mineral supplements contain a mixture of vitamins, minerals and electrolytes to help ensure that your horse is eating a complete and balanced diet with all of the nutrition they require to stay healthy.

Further Reading

Want to read more? Check out our other pocket pet articles:

Horse feeding guide

Managing common skin problems in horses

First aid for horses

Horse worming guide

How to keep your horse's hooves healthy

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