18 Jul SUPPLEMENT SAVVY– Time To Re-Think Your Feed Room!
When I walk into a feed room like this, I know I’ve got my work cut out for me. As an independent equine nutritionist, to be honest, this is the stuff my nightmares are made of, and it serves as a frustrating reminder that in the real world, we are still getting equine nutrition so very wrong.
Over the past decade, the world has seen an explosive growth in the dietary supplement industry, human and animal. In fact, despite the global recession, this industry reports substantial continued growth, and is estimated to be worth US$90 BILLION by the end of 2015. Given the impressive display of heavily marketed beneficial effects and eye-catching packaging, this isn’t at all surprising.
As conscientious horse owners, we want to provide the “very best” for our equine companions. As a result, we often turn to supplements, ranging from high-tech chemical formulas, to ‘all natural’ mixtures of herbs and plants, to try to “improve”, or make our horses “better”…but what are we trying to ‘improve’ or make ‘better’? Here are a few of the ways supplement companies claim they can help us in our quest for the perfect balanced diet:
- “Improves performance!”
- “Improves disposition!”
- “Improves mental stability!”
- “Boosts the immune system!”
- “Improves digestion!”
- “Promotes better general health!”
- “Supports joint health!”
- “Eliminates toxins!”
Such claims are impressive and alluring, but behind the words, the products sit in their attractive packaging remaining unproven, and protected from discovery by top-secret, ‘proprietary’ formulations. Would you trust a stranger who offered you something to eat, but wouldn’t tell you what was in it, even if it was in a pretty packet? Admit it would be just a little concerning!
What’s worse, the claims can be ingeniously misleading. For example, take the word ‘performance’. This is a vague concept that will vary depending on multiple inherent and external factors influencing how the horse performs, at a given moment in time. Consequently, ‘improving performance’ is highly subjective, impossible to measure, and cannot be proven.
‘Support” is another popular term supplement companies like to apply to important bodily systems, such as the musculoskeletal system – think of all those wonderful, and largely unproven, joint supplements. A recent review of all of the scientific literature concerning the effectiveness of osteoarthritis supplements in horses, dogs and cats concluded, “Evidence of efficacy…is poor”. In objective, measurable, medical terms, ‘support’ has no meaning either.
“Eliminates toxins” – the liver is the workhorse behind the processing and removal of toxins from the blood; think of it like a chemical processing plant, rather than a ‘filter’. Primary liver disease in horses is rare, unless they ingest something toxic. Horses do not have toxins casually floating around in their blood that need ‘supplemental’ help to be removed. If they did, you can most likely guarantee their feet are going to be the first to tell you about it…. at which point, you have way more of a problem on your hands in the form of laminitis. A serious and potentially life-threatening disorder that will require veterinary attention, not the ‘support’ of unproven, unregulated dietary supplements.
“Boosting’ the immune system (implying we want it to work better than normal) is not necessarily a good thing – just observe how miserable the horse is suffering from a ‘sweet itch’ problem, or your riding buddy suffering from seasonal allergies. Additionally, if a product tells you it can ‘boost the immune system’ and ‘treat allergies’ at the same time (probably my all time favorite asinine claim), this is an alarm-bell-ringing, red-flag-flapping, guarantee they are conning hard-earned cash out of your pocket!
Undeniably, these claims are all favorable qualities we would all want in of our horse health program. However, such qualities remain scientifically undefined, and are therefore impossible to measure. With no defining start point from which to ‘improve’ upon, or make things ‘better’, it is impossible to obtain scientific evidence to support any of these products do what they claim to do…exactly the way the supplement companies want it to be!
IF specific claims were made for supplements, such as “This product is proven effective for the relief of joint pain associated with osteoarthritis”, then it would fall under the rules and regulations that govern the manufacture of drugs. Supplement manufacturers would then have to actually PROVE that their product worked, and they would be upheld to strict quality and efficacy standards. So instead, they divert their energies into shrewdly promoting their product.
A common marketing tactic is to state the individual ingredient in the supplement, and then explain how it benefits the horse. From here, the supplement company can either directly, or indirectly, lead you into believing your horse may not be getting enough of that specific ingredient. For example, “A highly concentrated source of amino acids. Amino acid deficiencies can result in poor growth and development of young horses and poor overall health of adult horses.” This is a factual statement, however, in practice, protein or amino acid deficiencies are rarely reported, unless the horse is on a sustained diet of poor quality foodstuffs…. in which case, your money would be better invested in good quality forages and feeds that can be measured, and proven, to result in the desired effect!
The fact of the matter is, while we have come a long way in equine nutrition research in the last decade, we have still not elucidated the perfect, ‘balanced’ diet for horses, or arguably any species. Even if we did, it would vary considerably from horse to horse, depending on a number of physiological, genetic and environmental factors affecting the nutritional demands of the animal, at any given time. Our best estimates come in the form of scientific publications such as the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements for Horses, but even these are based on recommendations for a broad classification of horses, & are supported by reliable, but largely incomplete, data.
So, supplementing to prevent or treat a problem we don’t really know is, or was going to be, a problem, is not only nonsensical, it’s a complete waste of money. More importantly, it risks exposing the horse to overfeeding and dietary imbalances, some of which can induce life-threatening conditions, such as obesity & laminitis from excessive energy intake, or sudden death from selenium poisoning. But, before you start to panic you may be unintentionally killing your horse with supplemental kindness, recent research on several of the leading supplements in the US, revealed they didn’t actually contain enough of anything to be of any use, and thankfully of any detriment to the horse….just your wallet! However, the serious side of this is, if your horse really does have a genuine nutritional deficiency, it may mean your supplement cannot be relied upon to make up the difference.
Do not dismay! There is a way to at least begin to work towards the afore mentioned claims of dietary bliss, and more encouragingly, it’s a tried and proven method that’s been around for millions of years. But first, assimilate this. The horse has evolved over 55 million years (maybe even more according to recent findings), and still thrives to this day in situations where little or no human intervention is encountered. Their survival would not have been possible if they were unable to fulfill their nutritional needs. If the horse had such a precise requirement for a nutritional component, such as Cobalt for example, that he could not get in his normal diet, he would not have made it. It makes absolutely no evolutionary sense to have such strict demands on nutritional requirements. So contrary to what we are led to believe, or maybe even want to believe, it turns out your horse is actually pretty good judge of how to get enough of the nutrients he needs to sustain himself (remember he’s been been practicing for millions of years), provided he is in a supportive environment that allows him a varied and free-choice to do so. Here’s a little insight into his secret to health and longevity (by the way, this is the feed room of my dreams!):
By doing this (eating), in a well maintained pasture with a varied selection of forages and shrubs, for the majority of his day, he not only “improves his disposition and mental stability”, but he also greatly “improves his digestion”, “supports his joint health”, overall he will be in much “better general health”, and will therefore more likely to ‘perform’ better…if only he is managed, and fed, like a horse. It really can be that simple.
Bottom line is SUPPLEMENTS DO NOT MAKE A HEALTHY HORSE HEALTHIER. It is evident from the escalating incidences of nutrition and management related health problems, our current horse care practices are failing to meet the demands we place upon our domesticated horses. Quick fix, empty supplement promises will not solve the problem, in fact, they may not even help us alleviate the symptoms, and may make matter’s worse.
Break your unproven and unnecessary supplement addiction, the shelves will look bare…but it will be liberating! Think of how much easier feed time will be and all that extra time you will have to ride! Your horse, your wallet (and spouse), and me personally, will thank you! Start with the fundamental basics, i.e. forage, and supplement only where necessary. Invest your time into gaining unbiased, informed knowledge of economical, practical, and sustainable nutritional and management methods that WILL benefit the health and welfare of your horse; your returns will far exceed those of any self-proclaimed, ‘proprietary’ concoction. In the meantime, I will continue to digest and eliminate my feed room nightmares a bucket at a time, in the hope my dreams will become somewhat absorbed into reality.
If you do suspect your feeding and management regime may not be meeting the needs of your horse, or you just want piece of mind you’re on the right track, consult an independent, qualified equine nutrition professional. They can discuss with you your individual concerns, and tailor a program suitable for you and your horse.
(Thank you to Dr David Ramey who always helps to provide a common sense, no-nonsense approach to all matters equine)