Are We Over-Supplementing Our Horses?

In a recent article, “Inside Elite Nutrition at the Olympics”, author Nathan Gray interviewed Jeni Pearce, head of performance nutrition at the English Institute of Sport. While not directly speaking to the issue of over-supplementing horses, Ms. Pearce did point out that the over-use of supplements in humans is higher at the amateur level than with the elite athletes. She points out that supplements with elite athletes are used to complement the diet. She called supplements, “supplementary to food.”

Many ingredients for many needs...but are we over-supplementing horses?
“What we need to do is to be honest and say ‘you know what, there are a lot of foods out there that we can eat to get these nutrients’.” (Jeni Pearce)

On the heels of this article came a short interview on NBC sports with Olympic Swim Team member Ryan Lochte, who after the Beijing Games said that he stopped eating fast food and started to really pay attention to what he ate. He contributes part of his recent successes at the Olympic Trials to his change in diet.

I realize over-supplementing horses may be an odd topic for a person who makes her living in the supplement industry, but a recent visit to a barn where literally every horse had 3-6 daily packs of supplements did stop me in my tracks.

If we look to the elite human athletes, their diets are finely tuned, and designed around each particular sport. But with horses the convenience and simplification factors weigh heavily. It is common in many barns to offer low starch as one feed alternative, and high fat/protein as another. There is no room for customization; no room for fine tuning.

Elite human athletes routinely tweak their diets as to training schedules and competitions. These diet adjustments are not only focused on performance but on recovery.

“Exercise breaks you down; rest builds you up.” (Tim VanOrden, competitor: Track & Field, Road Racing, Mountain Running)

I don’t think we in the horse world think about recovery as human athletes do; we don’t consider feeding our horses for recovery. Since rest is the build up process, it is important that we consider what we feed (concentrates, supplements) and how they affect the resting process. When we feed processed and refined foods we are adding stress to the GI tract, reducing the time the body has to rest, heal, repair, fix something. When we add supplements that are made with petro chemicals, solvents, methane gas, artificial colors, flavors, acetone, processed sugars, and coal tar we extend the breaking down time, we don’t increase the building up time — a crucial consideration when deciding whether we’re over-supplementing horses.

Nutrients in whole food and plants are in a complex of other vital factors: free amino acids, enzymes, micro nutrients, minerals, soluble fiber, phenols, protein chaperones, and anti oxidants. This complex reduces the body’s need to pull these co factors from cells ( the proverbial “rob Peter to pay Paul”) and reduces stress on digestive enzymes ,other enzymatic biological catalysts, and the micro organisms. Nutrients from food reduce stress on the body system at large, the digestive system in particular and can help increase the building up time.

What supplements to choose is a very personal choice, and label reading becomes even more important as we are coming to understand more about stress and recovery with our horses.


Daily training exerts stress on the body and increases cortisol, which breaks down muscle rather than building it up. There are four basic factors that can compromise the body’s ability to recover from daily training: sugar, salt, water, and rest.

The body uses sugar (glucose, fructose) as muscle glycogen, liver glycogen, and blood sugar. During exercise the body uses muscle glycogen to fuel the muscles and very little blood sugar. The longer the training session, the more muscle glycogen is depleted and the percentage of blood sugar use increases, and is also depleted. Of the glucose that is initially stored as glycogen and then converted for use, 75% is directed to the brain and the functions of the related central nervous system. The 25% remaining glycogen is used for red blood cell production, skeletal muscle, and heart muscle.

Elite human athletes now use specific fruits (bananas, dates, oranges) to replenish glycogen supplies after training. Fruit carbohydrates also provide enzymes, some B vitamins, fiber, a little protein, and water. The timing of eating fruit carbohydrates is critical: 30 minutes to 1 hour after cool down because these carbohydrates have been shown to speed recovery. The 30 to 60 minutes time frame are the muscles’ peak period for glycogen reloading.

When fruit carbohydrates are combined with some protein, increased glycogen reloading occurs. Based on studies published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the carb/ protein combination increased glycogen reloading by 38% over just carbohydrates. However, too much protein can have the opposite effect. The best place to start with recovery feeding is hay. You don’t want to feed too high a protein content (like straight alfalfa hay) for recovery so a timothy or an orchard grass, or orchard or timothy mixed with alfalfa would be best. For further hydration, soaked hay cubes are a good choice. As long as the horse is not metabolic, you can add a banana, or a chopped orange or a kiwi since the sugar carbohydrate is often desirably low in these hays, adding a fruit carbohydrate will assist in the glycogen reloading. It’s best not to feed concentrates, or grains, or processed feeds for at least one hour after the horse has been given it’s hay and fruit for recovery.

Salt plays a role in virtually every function of the cell and the homeostasis of mineral salts is essential; too much and we increase dehydration; too little and many body functions cease to work properly. Sodium and potassium are two of the key minerals involved in electrolyte balance. Sodium is the extracellular mineral, and potassium is the intracellular mineral.

To maintain the body’s acid/alkaline balance, alkaline minerals must neutralize the acidic byproducts of metabolism and physical activity. Chlorine, sulfur, and phosphorus are the acidic minerals; calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium are the alkaline minerals. Note: table salt (sodium chloride) has been processed to remove the alkaline minerals; its pH is 7.0, which is acidic.

Celtic sea salt, Redmond salt and Himalayan salt provide the acidic minerals and the alkaline minerals for a total pH around 8.0 (alkaline). Most equine electrolyte supplements use sodium chloride, not sea or mineral salts.

We all know how important hydration is; feeding a wet feed can be very helpful in maintaining hydration along with water buckets. Some Guinness stout beer at night can also help with appetite and hydration.

Rest includes sleep and absence of stress. Refined foods, processed foods, and supplements from non- food sources can increase digestive stress, thus slowing the rate of recovery. Quality forage, access to grazing, and whole food can encourage the most rapid recovery.

Show grounds can contribute to increased stress, so it’s important when you do night check to be as quiet and respectful to the horses as possible. Overstimulation is just another way of over-supplementing horses.


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