Should You Use Joint Supplements for Horses?
There are a number of things horse owners can do to protect joints, keep horses sound and discourage soreness. Many owners opt to give a joint supplement. In fact, products marketed to target joint health are the most popular supplements on the market.
"Most joint supplements include glucosamine and/or chondroitin sulphate with other ingredients such as manganese, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, polyunsaturated fatty acids, rare earth minerals, unsaponified avocado soy, cetylmyristoleate, methylsulphonylmethane and herbs," says Tanja Hess MV, MSc, PhD, an equine nutritionist and associate professor of equine science and animal science at Colorado State University.
There have been published studies showing the benefits of some popular ingredients, but researchers note that more studies on joint supplements are called for. As Dr. Hess points out, certain ingredients are routinely used in joint supplements. Let's look at a few of them:
Cetyl-m (cetylmyristoleate) — fatty acid that may help relieve inflammation due to overexertion or exercise.
Chondroitin Sulfate — natural building block of cartilage; supports production of cartilage and slows breakdown; helps relieve swelling due to overexertion or exercise. Shown to work synergistically with glucosamine.
Glucosamine — naturally found in healthy joint cartilage; believed to support cartilage and help manage inflammation due to exercise and overexertion. Shown to work synergistically with chondroitin sulfate.
HA (hyaluronic acid) — natural component of synovial fluid and articular cartilage; helps lubrication and viscosity of joint fluid; may encourage the body's natural production of HA.
MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) —naturally occurring sulfur compound with antioxidant properties; may help relieve inflammation due to overexertion or exercise.
Omega-3 fatty acids — may help reduce inflammation due to overexertion or exercise.
Perna Canaliculus/perna mussel — may help reduce inflammation due to overexertion or exercise and exhibits antioxidant properties.
Vitamin C — may limit damage by free radicals; may address oxidative stress induced by exercise.
Yucca — may help reduce inflammation due to overexertion or exercise and exhibits antioxidant properties.
Choosing a Supplement
If you're considering giving your horse a joint supplement, you should talk with your veterinarian and ask for input. Hess encourages owners and trainers to have their veterinarian correctly identify any joint issues. Once your veterinarian has provided feedback, then you can decide on the use of a joint supplement.
"Looking at scientific results helps to decide if a supplement is worthwhile," says Hess.
As a veterinary surgeon at the largest equine hospital in Florida, Faith Hughes, DVM, DACVS, has treated many horses with joint issues. Hughes has been with Peterson & Smith Equine Hospital in Ocala, Florida, since 1991 and is a partner in the practice.
Hughes explains that the benefits perceived from the use of joint supplements are typically "grayer" than "black and white." For example, a horse might seem to be moving more smoothly and act less stiff when exercising. In Hughes' opinion, if an owner notices even subtle help, it's worth giving the joint supplement for the horse's sake.
When a client asks how to choose the best joint supplement, Hughes gives the following advice:
- Buy from a reputable company that makes other products, not just one supplement.
- Select a supplement formulated specifically for joint health, not a general supplement.
- Use one joint supplement at a time.
- Use according to label directions and give that supplement a 30-day trial period, then reevaluate.
- Continue with that supplement if you thought it helped. If it hasn’t, stop that one and give a different joint supplement a 30-day trial period.
When shopping, Hughes points out the importance of choosing a products specifically made for joint health. "If the supplement is promoted for joints as well as every other ailment you can think of, then it is probably not a good supplement for joints," she observes.
Basic Joint Health
Joint health plays a major role in keeping a horse staying sound over the years. Hughes encourages horse owners to do everything they can to support healthy joints and overall health through preventive maintenance, which includes:
- Appropriate balanced nutrition
- Regular exercise with wise warm-up and cool-down practices
- Making sure the hooves are balanced and not too long
- Maintaining regular professional hoof care, whether the horse is barefoot or shod
- Keeping the horse at a healthy weight
- Seeking veterinary attention to promptly address any injuries or lameness
In the Trenches
Joint supplements are routine in the barn of AQHA Professional Horsemen C.R. and Rosie Bradley of Collinsville, Texas, whose horses compete at the highest levels in roping and barrel racing.
The Bradleys bred and owned Twisters Enola Rey, who was crowned 2014 Farnam Superhorse at the AQHA World Show that November. C.R. Bradley showed the gelding who earned 33 points, winning the world championship title in Junior Tie-Down Roping and the reserve championship title in Junior Heeling.
"We do not have a horse in the barn that is not on a joint supplement. The horses that come in our barn require a lot of physical use and we put them all on a joint supplement. We believe in them and have seen the results," says Rosie Bradley. "To me, you cannot afford not to. I can feel a difference when the horses aren't on them. I take a human joint supplement myself; I know it helps me."
Bradley emphasizes that it's far better to put a horse on a joint supplement before they show soreness than to wait until you think they need it.
"I think it can keep them from getting sore," she notes. "It's not a drug and it helps support normal joint function. I think it really helps them every day once it's in their system."
Bradley has seen a number of horses recover from injury and return to competition and believes part of their success was due to being on a joint supplement.
When choosing a supplement, notice if the label bears the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) quality seal. This guarantees that the product is made by a member of the NASC, and that the member has undergone a scrupulous independent quality audit and adheres to stringent guidelines for manufacturing, labeling and adverse event reporting.
Did You Know?
Keeping a performance horse sound takes proactive management. In addition to balanced nutrition, which may include putting the horse on a quality joint supplement, don't overlook the importance of routine hoof care. For any horse, barefoot or shod, regular appointments with a hoof care professional are essential. If his feet are not balanced, the horse will land unevenly, placing stress and abnormal concussion on his joints, which can take a toll over time.
Did You Know?
Synovial joints are most vulnerable to injury because they are high-motion joints in weight-bearing areas associated with the horse’s limbs, including the shoulder, elbow, knee, fetlock, pastern, hock and stifle.
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