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In the Herbal World of the Horse?



Presented by vet Stephen Ashdown of Global Herbs


three horses by lake


Faced with 101 equine supplements on the shelves of your tack shop/feed merchant how do you really know what works well for what?


Most people either rely on what they have used before, ask a friend what they use or ask someone in the shop what they think.  The likelihood is that all of these approaches will leave you a little short changed of the best information about what is REALLY the best for your horse:  There could be something a lot better than what you have found was helpful before. What your friend uses will not necessarily be useful for your horse at all and shop staff may be great but more often than not they are just as confused as you.


If you have the time the best option is to get all the helpline numbers you can from different companies and ask the most experienced people on the end of those helplines what they think.  By comparing the different responses you can then weigh up what you think is the best option for your horse.  Most people do not have time for or the inclination for this kind of approach.  Advice from your local vet can also often be a bit frustrating because even vets like myself get a bit dismissive of the huge variety of different products available.  Every company in the horse world seems to be trying to bring out its own supplement range.


In this article I cannot give you a definitive guide as to what is best but I can give you a framework which you can use when you phone up helplines.  Firstly there are a few key things that you need to know:



A. There are different categories of Feed Supplements:


  1. Minerals and Vitamins (replace what is missing in the food)

  2. Herbal (similar to what a horse would select themselves from wild plants in nature when they feel not quite right)

  3. Neutraceutical (chemical).  Relatively harmless chemicals like Glucosamine that have been found to supportive of general health. Herbs can in some ways be classified as neutraceuticals too.

  4. Probioitics (harmless bacteria that balance out gut working)

  5. Combinations of the previous 1-4.



B  Supplements are not drugs


Drugs are medicines which are used to combat specific disease in specific ways and are restricted in availability because of the danger of side effects that are associated with their use.



horse and foal eating grass

Minerals in particularly are often the most important supplements for good health.  Many many diseases are directly linked to inadequate minerals in your horse’s body.


Often the best forms are those that are bound to proteins (chelated) which means that the minerals are absorbed more efficiently into the body like normal food.  Much of the mineral content of cheap mineral formulas shoots straight through your horse’s body into the droppings and does not do much good.


Seaweed is a great source of minerals but more balanced formula are better for long term use.  It is worth noting that most nutritional recommendations for the correct levels of minerals to feed your horse are based on the minimum levels necessary in order to avoid disease.  These are very different to levels necessary to keep your horse in the best possible health.  No man made food will have exactly what your horse needs.  Requirements vary between individual horses, vary with the time of year and whether your horse is healthy or not healthy.  Giving access to a wide variety of different mineral sources is the only way of getting it just right.




This is a huge subject.  In general skilfully designed mixes of herbs work best but the quality of the constituent herbs also needs to be of the highest quality assessed for safety and effectiveness using highly scientific fingerprinting techniques. (spectrophotometry etc).  For example take the commonly used plant Echinacea for the immune system.  Poor quality Echinacea leaf is almost completely useless for the purposes that you want.  High quality root material can make a huge difference to your horse’s well being.


It is impossible for me to tell you which pot on your tack room shelf is the best (except of course for the ones that I use myself).  Even if I tell you that Echinacea is worth buying, many brands will not be worth buying and brands combining Echinacea with a few other herbs are more than likely to be quite a bit superior.  Saying that if the person that formulated the product is not an expert it will more than likely not be very useful to you.


In summary: try advice lines and weigh up what you are told carefully.




Neutraceuticals (chemicals used for nutritional purposes in order to improve the way your horse’s body is working) are perhaps more easy to understand because they are often of standardised quality.  Some of the most common neutraceuticals are Glucosamine, MSM, Chondroitin, Tryptophan.


Generally  speaking good chemical neutraceuticals are a lot less effective than good herbal mixes but combination with herbs can be very useful.  Glucosamine for joints is useful but weak, as is Chondroitin. 


MSM is so effective that there have been major moves by pharmaceutical organisations to ban its use (probably mostly because it competes with drug sales). 


Typtophan is an amino acid (what proteins are made from) and useful for calming.  

white horse looking over stable door


In general sensible use of neutraceuticals is very valuable for health care but they need to be used in the right way as part of a comprehensive approach to health problems.  Just feeding something like MSM for a joint problem is not the best way of tackling an aching joint or tendon damage but it is still very useful.




Gut function along with mineral balance often lies at the heart of your horse’s good health. In my work I always try and make sure the digestive system is improved before anything else by using a good liver tonic and prebiotics.  Probiotics are mixes of bacteria which when fed to your horse improve the levels of good bacteria in the overall population of bacteria in the bowels.  When the balance is right then digestive has a chance of working right and good gets absorbed properly.  Generally however I prefer to use prebiotics which are formulations that when added to the diet help good bacteria grow better rather than artificially boosting their numbers.  I find a herbal formula which does this very useful.


The problem with horses is that we feed them lots of things like concentrates and grains that are not a normal and natural part of their diet.  These feeds do disturb the normal release of digestive enzymes and worsen overall digestive efficiency.  An example is the acknowledged fact that around 70% of competition horses have stomach damage due to excessively high acid levels.  These high acid levels are caused by the feeding of grain based diets.  Herbs can however be used to effectively eliminate such problems and work better than chemicals and neutraceuticals.



So have I helped you very much?  I apologise that I cannot tell you that you definitely need to use X herb blend or X neutraceutical for your horse problem.  All I can say is that you need to use the advice lines that are given on the back of tubs and try and talk to the most qualified person available on the team of people available.  


For simple problems like: ‘my horse keeps eating earth’ it is easy to say – feed seaweed as a good source of minerals because there is obviously a mineral deficiency but for a complicated problem such as ongoing lameness you need to consult your vet properly. Get his or her advice on the use of neutraceuticals along with specific nutritional advice from a helpline of the manufacturers of the product that you might use.




Other Horse related pages on Hints and Things

Management and Prevention of Sweet Itch

Moody Mares

Herbs for Horses

Lameness in Horses

Horse Colic

Mud Fever

Horse Breed/Horse Mating

Skin Condition in Horses

Stress in Horses

Horse Flies and Biting Insects




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