Horse Supplement Overview

Jennifer Rice, DVM
By Jennifer Rice, DVM on Nov. 30, 2022

Why Do Horses Need Supplements?

The daily life of a horse has significantly changed over the years due to unnatural stresses that can pose significant risks such as colic, gastric ulcers, and arthritis.

Besides the lifestyle of horses changing, we know more about the nutritional needs of our four-legged friends. One of the best ways to maintain a healthy horse is through preventative care.

From athletes to senior horses, providing added nutrition through specific supplements can increase their wellbeing, performance, and overall health. 

What Horses Need Supplements?

While horses do not need a supplement to survive, it may help to promote a healthier lifestyle in specific conditions including:

  • Senior horse

  • Athletic/performance horse

  • Joint conditions

  • Horse traveling often or in high-stress situations

  • Hoof conditions

  • Respiratory conditions

  • Metabolic conditions

  • Digestive conditions

  • Muscle conditions

  • Behavior conditions

  • Skin/coat conditions

Senior horses are a great example of how supplements help provide joint support, weight, and digestive support along with antioxidants and immune support. As horses age they often develop joint issues such as arthritis, may also have a harder time maintaining their weight, and have a lowered immune system. An overall senior supplement may help to provide them with the added nutrition to help support the needs of a senior horse.

Athletic or performance horses are often under a higher level of stress and may benefit from joint support and digestive support to help prevent gastric ulcers and colic.

Horse Health and Wellness Supplements

Joint Supplements

Horse joint mobility is incredibly important for a horse to be able to move freely and comfortably. Often, joint support is added to a horse's diet once they are already becoming stiff or having joint issues, as arthritis is permanent and progressive. But by providing an active horse with a joint supplement early in their life, before there are any joint issues, you can proactively support healthy joints and help to prevent joint changes.

With exercise and aging, a horse's joint will go through a normal inflammatory response. Over time this inflammatory response can cause excessive inflammation inside the joint and lead to long-term damage to the joint structures.

Joint supplements can provide horses with the nutrients the body needs to repair and rebuild the damage that is associated with the inflammatory process from normal use.

Ingredients to look for in a joint supplement include:

  • Glucosamine: One of the most well-known ingredients in joint support as it is the building block for chondroitin sulfate. Research suggests glucosamine can stimulate new cartilage production and inhibit cartilage breakdown.

  • Chondroitin sulfate: This is the building block of hyaluronic acid and proteoglycans which are also considered essential parts of a healthy joint. Research has shown chondroitin to work alongside glucosamine.

  • Hyaluronic Acid (HA): An important component of joint cartilage and joint fluid, HA provides lubrication and shock absorption. HA has been shown to be useful in acute and chronic joint conditions as it helps to block inflammatory reactions and protects the cells within the joint.

  • MSM: A source of organic sulfur which plays a role in the formation of connective tissue (bones, tendons, and ligaments that make up a joint). MSM can also help with normal inflammatory response.

  • Vitamin C: An antioxidant that helps to protect tissue throughout the body and the production of cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.

  • Devil’s Claw, Yucca, Boswellia: Herbs that have been commonly thought to help fight discomfort in joints as well as supporting a normal inflammatory response.

If your horse is active and/or a senior, discuss adding a joint supplement such as Nutramax Cosequin or Lubrisyn HA plus MSM.

Hoof Supplements

If a horse’s hooves are unhealthy, it can cause lameness and discomfort. When a horse has an issue with their hooves such as cracks, chips, or even crumbling, it can take a long time to heal and grow. The average horse's hooves only grow about ¼ inch per month from the hairline at the coronet band down. Because of this, preventative care with a hoof supplement can be one of the best ways to maintain healthy hooves.

The quality of a horse's hoof can be influenced by genetics, environment, or even workload. But for any horse to be able to maintain a healthy, strong hoof, nutritional requirements must be met. Hoof supplements can provide the key building blocks a horse needs to grow strong by including the following ingredients:

  • Biotin: A B vitamin that is vital to the growth of strong and healthy hooves due to its role in collagen formation.

  • Lysine, Methionine, and Threonine: Three essential amino acids that a horse is not able to make on their own and must be provided it in their daily nutrition. If a horse is not provided these in adequate amounts in their diet, it may limit their ability to synthesize protein that is needed for hoof structures.

  • Copper and Zinc: Trace minerals that play a role in formation and maintenance of connective tissue. Zinc plays a role in the formation of keratin, the structural protein that gives a hoof its hardness.

  • Arginine: An amino acid that is important for healthy blood flow.

Any horse that tends to have a hoof that cracks easily or is prone to crumbling could be a good candidate for a hoof supplement such as Farrier’s Formula or Tribute’s Tough as Nails added to their daily diet.

Digestive Supplements

Digestive horse supplements help to promote the overall health of the horse’s hindgut. The hindgut of the horse is responsible for digesting the complex carbohydrates your horse eats with the primary function being fermentation. During fermentation, good bacteria break down fiber into volatile fatty acids which can then be used for sources of energy. These bacteria are also responsible for producing B vitamins and other vital nutrients. 

A horse's digestive tract is meant to be constantly grazing–and therefore constantly digesting. The modern horse today is often not able to constantly graze and frequently receive large grain meals which can cause digestive disruptions, upsetting the pH balance within the hindgut which impacts the bacteria living in the hindgut. These digestive changes can lead to horses having colic and laminitic episodes.

Digestive supplements have been developed to help horses better handle the digestive upsets. These supplements often contain:

  • Probiotics: Direct fed microorganisms or “good bacteria” that naturally live in the digestive tract and support a horse's daily digestion and immune function. They help with the breakdown of food, produce energy and certain vitamins, support GI cells, and help keep harmful bacteria from growing.

  • Prebiotics: Source of non-digestible, soluble fiber that can serve as food for the “good bacteria.”

  • Yeast: Some research has shown that yeast can help to stabilize cecal and colon pH. Yeast may also help to aid in fiber digestion and assist in beneficial bacteria of the cecum in adjusting to feed changes.

  • Enzymes: Amylase, lipase, and protease work together to break down fats, protein, and starch in the diet which helps support feed utilization and nutrient absorption.

Every horse can benefit from a digestive supplement such as AssureGuard Gold, Equishure, or FullBucket Probiotics.

Gastric Supplements

Gastric supplements focus on supporting a healthy stomach. Unhealthy horse stomachs can lead to weight loss, poor performance, and stomach ulcers, and irritability due to pain.

As mentioned, horses are meant to be grazing all day and because of this, their stomachs were designed to continuously produce acid to aid in digestion. Because the modern horse today is likely not continuously grazing, this “extra” acid then leads to gastric issues such as gastric ulcers.

Gastric supplements support your horse's stomach primarily in three ways:

  • Providing ingredients to support the normal structure and function of a horse’s stomach

  • Serving up ingredients that can help to buffer sensitive stomach structures against acid

  • Offering ingredients that can help to soothe any existing irritation

Ingredients that gastric supplements often include are:

  • Calcium and Magnesium: Two macro minerals that help to neutralize excess stomach acid

  • Glycine: Amino acid that has been shown to inhibit gastric secretions and can protect gastric mucosa against stress

  • Glutamine: Amino acid that plays a role in the repair of intestinal tissue including a horse's stomach lining

  • Sea Buckthorn: Berries of this shrub have shown to have some antioxidant and immune-modulatory properties that can help with GI tissue healing and repair

  • Aloe Vera: One of the most common herbs used today; gel inside the leaves has shown some effect on GI tissue

Gastric supplements such as UlcerGard or U-Gard could be beneficial for any horse, but especially horses in training and traveling regularly with added stress or horses with a history of stomach ulcers.

Skin and Coat Supplements

Healthy skin is vital to your horse's daily health. A horse's skin has several important jobs:

  • Defense against injury, insects, and infections

  • Help with thermoregulation by activating the sweat glands when it gets too hot or by standing up the horse's coat to seal out the cold.

  • Turning sunlight into vitamin D

  • Contain nerve endings that keep the brain up to date on changes in the surrounding environment

Skin and coat supplements support your horse by providing fats to support healthy, resilient skin and a shiny coat. These essential fatty acids support the structure and function of skin cells and increase the oil production to enrich the coat. It is important to note that not all fats are created equal. Omega 3 fatty acids from the following ingredients are the best for promoting healthy skin.

  • Flaxseed: One of the best sources of Omega 3 fatty acids

  • Fish oil: Enriched in EPA and DHA, these two ingredients are known for many proven health benefits.

  • Paprika and Nutmeg: Commonly found in skin and coat supplements designed for horses with darker coats. They are believed to help protect black horses from becoming bleached in the sun. Paprika may contain a low level of Capsaicin which is banned by USEF for use in competition.

Skin and coat supplements, such as Platinum Healthy Weight or EO-3, could be beneficial for horses with dull coats or dry skin. Also, adding healthy fats to your horse's daily diet is a great way to add shine to your horse's coat.

Multi-purpose Supplements

Multi-purpose supplements have been developed to help save time and money for horses that may benefit from a combination of some of the key supplements such as joints, hooves, digestive, gastric, and skin/coat. Combining several of the key supplements can help to provide comprehensive coverage.

Horses that could benefit from more than one of the above supplements may do well with a multipurpose supplement such as Joint Combo Hoof and Coat or KER Total Wellness.

Horse Supplements for Specific Issues

While supplements can be extremely beneficial for wellness and preventative care, they can also be useful for specific conditions or issues. Supplements should never be used as a quick fix, and always discuss any issue or supplement with your veterinarian to make sure this is the best recommendation.

Calming Supplements

Calming supplements may be beneficial after ruling out with your veterinarian any medical reason (such as lameness, stomach ulcers, dental issue, ill-fitting tack) for your horse’s behavior. These supplements can be broken down into three categories:

Nutrient based: This type of calming supplement provides nutrients that are already in your horse's diet. If a horse is not getting enough of these key ingredients for their nervous system to function properly, they may be anxious. Nutrient based calming supplements work by bringing your horse's levels into the optimal range for proper function of the nervous system.

Nutrient based ingredients may include:

  • Magnesium

  • Vitamin B1

  • Inositol

  • Serotonin

  • Tryptophan

Herb based: This type of calming supplement includes herbal ingredients for their effect on the horse’s nervous system. Herbal based calming supplements may have stronger effects than nutrient based calming supplements.

Herb based ingredients may include:

  • Valerian

  • Chamomile

  • Hops

  • Vervain

  • Passion flower

Moody Mare: A calming supplement that includes many herb-based ingredients but also adds in ingredients that offer support for balancing hormones and an even disposition.

Moody Mare ingredients may include:

  • Raspberry

  • Vitex agnus castus

  • Cramp bark

Insect Supplements

Insect defense can be tough in the warm months and without a comprehensive defense strategy, lead to major health issues. Insect defense supplements work one of two ways:

  1. Make your horse unappealing to biting bugs

  2. Work by inhibiting the development of larvae

Ingredients in insect supplements may include:

  • Garlic, apple cider vinegar, brewer’s yeast

  • Diatomaceous Earth

  • Diflurobenzuron and Cyromazine

Respiratory Supplements

Respiratory supplements may be beneficial for horses with allergies or other respiratory conditions, but it is important to first rule out any serious issues with your primary veterinarian. These supplements work by supporting healthy tissues and structures throughout the respiratory tract, including the trachea and lungs. Some supplements also add in herbs that are known to help support a healthy immune response for horses that may have allergies.

Respiratory supplement ingredients may include:

  • MSM

  • Vitamin C

  • N-Acetyl cysteine

  • Grape Seed extract

  • Super Oxide dismutase

  • Bioflavonoids

  • Licorice and marshmallow

Metabolic Supplements

Metabolic supplements may be useful for horses or ponies that are overweight and are having trouble losing weight. Being overweight puts any horse at a higher risk for several health issues including joint issues and laminitis. If you have a horse that you cannot get its weight under control, discussing your current diet and exercise plan with your veterinarian and considering adding in a metabolic supplement may be needed for additional support.

Metabolic supplements work by adding ingredients to support proper insulin function, opposing oxidative stress (low antioxidant levels), and helping to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Metabolic supplement ingredients may include:

  • Chromium and magnesium

  • Cinnamon and bitter melon

Muscle Supplements

Muscle supplements can help to build up muscle or muscles to recover from injury. Horses build muscle by having adequate nutrition and exercise. As a normal process of building muscles, the stress and strain of normal exercise creates small tears in the muscle that are then repaired and over time become stronger and bigger. Muscle supplements work to build muscles by providing the adequate building blocks for muscle and ingredients that help to maintain healthy muscle function.

Muscle supplement ingredients include may include:

  • 10 essential amino acids: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, methionin, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine

  • BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids): leucine, isoleucine, valine

  • Vitamin E

  • Magnesium

  • Selenium

Miscellaneous Horse Supplements

  • Anhidrosis: Anhidrosis or the inability to sweat is a condition that can affect horses. There are a few supplements such as One AC that can help promote a horse to sweat with this condition.

  • Energy or Iron supplement: Energy supplements may be useful for horses that are lethargic or easily fatigued due to insufficient levels of red blood cells. These work by providing iron and vitamins to support red blood cell production.

  • Immune Support: Horses that are in high level of training, trailer frequently, recover from an illness, or are older may benefit from additional immune supportive supplement.

  • Sand Colic: Horses that live in environments with sand and eat off the ground may have a buildup of sand in their digestive tract. Sand colic supplements may be beneficial for these horses to help prevent colic. Psyllium is often the ingredient in these products.

  • Weight Gain: Weight loss is a common issue in horses, especially in older horses. Weight loss can occur due to a variety of reasons. Your veterinarian may recommend a weight gain supplement for your horse to provide extra support.

Featured Image:

Jennifer Rice, DVM


Jennifer Rice, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Rice is a 2017 graduate from Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine where she specialized in Equine medicine. Since graduating...

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