What’s in YOUR supplement?

On Sunday, November 20th, 2011, I lectured to the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s conference about a study that I did, evaluating five supplements for horses:  Platinum Plus®, Vita-Flex Accel®, Grand Meadows Grand Vite®, Farnum Vita-Plus®, and Dynamite®.

gobbledygookIf you use any of these things, you already know that they’re expensive.  But you, being a caring, concerned horse owner, don’t mind the expense so much, because you’re feeling good about giving your horse  – hold on, this is a blend of what I remember off the top of my head about all of them – a comprehensive, balanced, unique blend of essentially all of the nutrients that your horse needs to feel each of the 12 trillion cells in your horse’s body for optimum health and performance from research by top trainers.  Or something like that.

I get confused clients asking me about this sort of stuff all of the time.  They want to know what the “best” supplement is.  And, frankly, I had no idea what to tell them.  So, for my AAEP presentation, I set about figuring it out.

animated_black_stallion_with_riderThe first thing that I did was figure out what the horse needs.  I picked a 500 kg horse in light work – that’s about an 1100 pound (if you don’t like metric) horse that gets out reasonably often and trots around for a while.  I was able to find a list of the requirements from the guidelines published by the National Research Council – I figured that was pretty good.

Next, I made sample diets for the horses.  I made one with grass hay, and one with legume (alfalfa) hay, and added a pound of oats (the supplement has to be fed in something, and I wanted to see what they added).  The diets gave enough calories for our sample horse to do his job, and not lose weight.  And then I analyzed them.


CONCLUSION #1 – Based on my analysis, if you’re giving your horse enough alfalfa or grass hay so he can keep his weight (in my sample horse, that was about 15.5 pounds of alfalfa hay, or about 20 pounds of grass hay), and a pound of oats a day (you don’t have to use the oats, but if I was going to compare diets, I had to put the supplement in something), he’s getting pretty much 100% of what he needs.  Throw a salt block in his stall to make sure he’s getting enough salt.  If you live in an area that’s deficient in selenium (like parts of Michigan, or Wisconsin), a little extra selenium is a good idea.  But other than that, hay, oats, and water (and you don’t need the oats as long as you give enough hay).

ASIDE – Really, this shouldn’t be a big surprise.  If horses couldn’t fill their nutritional needs from good forage, and water, they wouldn’t have survived.  There’s no way that a biological system thrives since prehistory if it has such a precise requirement for, say, cobalt, that it can’t get it in the stuff it normally eats.  If the nutritional requirements were that tight, the horse wouldn’t make it.


Part two of the study was to analyze the supplements.  I took what’s on the label of the supplements at face value (which is another issue, at least according to research), and compared them to what the horse needs.  Simple.  I made a very busy looking table, and then I cleverly calculated the percentage of the daily requirement of the needs of the horse that the recommended dose of each supplement provided.  So, if a horse needed 30 grams of calcium, and the supplement had 30 grams of calcium per serving, you’d be fulfilling 100% of his daily nutritional requirement.

Only that’s not what I found.

banjsalvTurns out that, according to their labels, the companies apparently aren’t trying to fulfill 100% of anything;  in fact, it’s pretty hard to tell what they’re trying to do (other than get you to buy them).  Looking at all of the products, and all of the nutrients, the products supplied from 0.18% (yep – that’s a LOT less than 1%) to 875% of the horse’s minimum daily requirement.  Exactly NONE of them had any sort of effort made at supplying a consistent dose of nutrients, you know, like “Our product supplies 100% of the daily needs of 15 critical vitamins and minerals,” or something like that.

In most cases, there’s not much there there.  You might be feeding 200% of his cobalt needs, but you might only be feeding 3% of his lysine needs.  It’s kind of crazy, actually, a sort of nutritional roulette.

CONCLUSION #2 – In general, there’s often not enough nutrients in supplements to make an difference for the horse.

money_down_drainAs part three, I added the supplement to the diet.  Here’s what I found.  If the horse’s diet supplied enough of a nutrient, adding the supplement added more.  But if your horse’s diet were missing something, the thing is, in general, the supplements I studied wouldn’t add enough to make up the difference.

CONCLUSION #3 – If he’s not getting enough of most nutrients, you can’t count on any of the supplements that I studied to make up the difference.

There was a really great article in the Wall Street Journal on October 26, 2011, entitled “The Case for Dietary Supplements is Collapsing.”  It noted a couple of recent studies in human medicine where people actually did worse when they took supplements (Vitamin E for men with prostate cancer;  multi-vitamins in aged women).  And they had a great quote from a professor of nutrition at New York University, who said:

“Supplements don’t make healthy people healthier.”  It’s the same thing with horses.

FacepalmASIDE #2 – I can hear it now.  “Dr. Ramey, you’re in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies.  You just want to give horses those toxic drugs.  You’re threatened by anything that’s not veterinary medicine.  We want to have freedom of choice.”

I know, I know.

Look, honestly, if you want to waste money, I will not lose any sleep at all.  I’m not in anyone’s pockets – if you think I am, please explain to me how I’m supposed to make money by telling you this.*  And, in the greater scheme of things, my study is unlikely to make much of a difference.  Even the Wall Street Journal article quoted the CEO of GNC (the big supplement selling company) as saying that studies don’t affect their sales;  people will believe what they want to believe.

Still, it seems to me that there should be some supplement in your supplement.  Coming up with a catchy advertising line is great, but it should be used to sell lipstick, not nutrition.  Mostly, your horse doesn’t need supplements.  Based on nutritional content, they won’t help him, and if you don’t buy them, you’ll save money, too.


* I think I shouldn’t have written that, because somebody is bound to come up with something – WAIT!!!  By depriving the horse of his supplements, I’m actually hoping that he’ll get some disease that I’ll have to treat.  But if that was it, I’d have to prescribe a supplement.  Which would make me money.  Which I could do by prescribing the supplement in the first place.  I’m getting a headache.

CLICK HERE for the PowerPoint presentation that Dr. Ramey gave to the American Association of Equine Practitioners on November 20, 2011

CLICK HERE for the paper published in the Proceedings of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, 2011

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