Supplements are commonly turned to in efforts to “improve” the horse, or to make him “better,” at least in the mind of the owner. This generally means that the owner wants the horse to be better than or somehow different from the way he actually is (actually, this is a problem that plagues many relationships).
Consequently, a variety of supplements are available that claim a mindboggling array of beneficial effects. The linguistic legerdemain invoked in support of various supplements strains even the thickest thesaurus. The following is a list of claims that have been taken from advertisements for various feed supplements:
• “Improves overall bloom”
• “Improves disposition”
• “Better general health”
• “Lengthens attention span”
• “Increases mental stability”
• “Helps hyper horses come down and lackadaisical horses come up”
• “Significant improvement in comfort”
• “Improves digestion”
• “Supports joint health [kidney function, immune system, liver function, etc.]”
• “Boosts the immune system”
• “Eliminates toxins”
All of these claims are truly amazing. In fact, they’re crazy! Unfortunately, they are almost totally meaningless. For example, a supplement may be promoted to “improve performance.” But in reality, since “performance” is such a vague concept and “improvement” is so subjective (and may even vary from day to day, depending on how the horse and rider are feeling), such claims are difficult, if not impossible, to measure.
Some of the claims made for supplements are just ridiculous. There are not “toxins” circulating in the horse’s body that need to be removed, and no evidence that products that claim to do such have any effect whatsoever. The term “support,” as applied to various systems, has no medical meaning, either. In addition, some of the claims may even be for things that you wouldn’t want. For example, a “boosted” immune system isn’t necessarily a good thing; allergies and autoimmune conditions are two diseases characterized by a “boosted” immune system (“boost” being a synonym for “greater than normal”).
If specific claims were made for supplements (“This product is proven effective for the relief of pain and inflammation associated with chronic arthritis,” for example), these substances would fall under all the rules and regulations that the manufacturers of drugs are subject to. Supplement manufacturers would have to prove that their products actually work if they were held to these standards. Since supplement manufacturers don’t want to have to be held to the same standards as the drug manufacturers, they usually don’t make specific claims as to the effectiveness or method of action of their products.
Supplements are also promoted by stating what the individual ingredients are in that supplement and how they are used in the horse. Then, either directly or by implication, the horse owner is led to believe that the horse may not be getting enough of that ingredient. For example, the statement “This supplement contains fourteen amino acids. If any one of them is deficient in the diet, the horse’s protein needs will not be fulfilled” is undoubtedly true. However, protein or amino acid deficient diets are essentially never reported as problems in the horse. Thus, supplementation with amino acids is rarely, if ever, required. Similar examples can be given for vitamins, minerals and electrolytes, the other most commonly supplemented substances.
Supplementing to prevent a problem that is almost undoubtedly not going to occur – such as an amino acid deficiency – just doesn’t make sense. Say, for example, someone tried to sell you a bottle of rhinocerous repellant, to prevent a tragedy just in case a rhino came rampaging by your horse’s stall. Unless you kept your horse in the middle of the African veldt, buying such a product wouldn’t make much sense, even if it could be shown to work. Plus, it would be awfully hard to prove such a product was effective under any circumstance. For example, if you bought a bottle of “Rhinomore,” and no rhinos came visiting your horses’s stable in, say, suburban Connecticut, would that prove to you that the product “worked?”
If a supplement makes vague claims that can’t be supported by good scientific evidence, there’s really no reason at all to buy it. Spend your money on something that your horse really likes, like carrots or apples!