For as long as joint supplements have been used in the horse world—over 20 years now—their efficacy has been debated. On a Monday, you might read a study saying they help, and on Tuesday you’ll see one that calls them a waste of money.Download a PDF of this article.
In barn aisles, you may hear that a horse can’t “absorb” the molecules through its digestive system (and that it’s been “proven”). Your vet may say only injectables work, because they’re the only ones with FDA proof.
Your barn manager may discourage you, stating you can’t be sure your horse eats enough of the supplement to work. We’ve even heard some people don’t use these products because, they say, they’re called “supplements” because your horse doesn’t need them.
Well, in the real world, horse owners notice such a positive difference in their horses on joint nutraceuticals that they skip the research articles, ignore the gossip and feed the products. Then they happily pick up the reins and gallop off into the sunset.
So, if your horse has symptoms like the ones in our box below, you need to decide which product to purchase. It’s not easy. Some people get so frustrated they close their eyes, point to a product on a catalog page and hope for the best.
WE’VE GOT THE BEST. In the past, we’ve discussed the injectable joint supplements (Legend, Adequan, Pentosan) that your vet might suggest. We broke them down in a cost/benefit analysis to help you choose the one best for your horse.
Now we’re tackling oral joint supplements, which are used 7 to 1 over injectables, mainly because they’re easily available, simple to use and don’t involve an injection.
As we make our way through the facts, you’ll learn to bypass the ad hype and look for value, spending your money wisely while your horse reaps the benefits.
ONE SCOOP OR TWO? Can anyone actually make sense out of a supplement label? Some products are measured in ounces, some in milligrams . . . others don’t even tell you how much of each ingredient they contain (advertisements are notorious for that!).
The key to reading a label is to break things down into a simple per-serving basis. And, no, they don’t always do that for you. Also, the scoop that the manufacturer includes doesn’t always equal one serving. You may need two or you may need a half scoop.
We’ve found three simple criteria —all of which should be somewhere on that label—needed to make an informed purchase:
1. The number of scoops that equal one serving,
2. The quantity of active ingredients in each serving,
3. The cost of one serving.
Most scoops are marked to show their capacity (either in milligrams or ounces), but that may or may not equal one serving. You’ve got to read the label to make that determination because if the label says to feed 2 scoops per day, and you feed only 1, you’re wasting your money.
That’s because your horse needs to consume specific amounts of a joint supplement to receive maximum benefit. Of course, these findings are based (and debased) by research . . . lots of research.
Once you figure out how many scoops constitutes one serving, the next task is to determine if each serving actually has enough joint product in it to make a difference. Herein lies the rub.
In our Minimum Dosages chart, we’ve included our recommended daily doses for an average-size horse (1,100 lbs.). While there are literally thousands of research articles that may support or refute these recommendations, we feel that they’re sound. We’ve based this on research and clinical evidence from the past decade. Note: When you begin adding other ingredients to a joint supplement, the required levels of some ingredients can vary, which we discuss in “Some Pricey Ingredients are Worth Your Money.”
Now you can compare your joint supplement to our chart to figure out whether it’s making the grade.
As an example, consider these ingredients, from an actual label:
1 oz. equals one daily serving.
Each 1 oz. serving contains:
Glucosamine - 5,000 mg
Vitamin C - 5,000 mg
Zinc - 200 mg
Manganese - 250 mg
Yucca - 100 mg
The label clearly indicates that 1 scoop is 1 ounce, which equals 1 serving, which is good.
When you break down the ingredients, it’s clear that one serving only provides half of our recommended amount of glucosamine, manganese and zinc. It contains enough vitamin C, but yucca is too low. If you’re going to pay for an ingredient, it needs to be at a level that will make a difference. (To determine if it’s a quality product, consider a one bearing the NASC seal.)
VALUE FOR THE DOLLAR. If you’ve looked around, you know that joint supplement prices vary tremendously from as little as 26¢ a day to over $5 a day, with most selling at about $2 per day. It may be tempting to purchase a large container to save money, and most of these ingredients have about a one-year shelf life. However, once you open the container, that shelf life is greatly limited. We recommend not purchasing more than 30 to 60 days of product at a time.
Sometimes a product may appear to be a good value because it has a relatively low purchase price compared to other products.
That’s why you need to know:
1) If it contains the required amount of an active ingredient needed to work, as discussed, and
2) How many servings are in the container (not just scoops).
For example, Joint Product A comes in an eight-lb. container and costs $100. It says it contains 128 scoops, which might sound like enough for around four months. But wait. It only contains a 1 oz. scoop and the label states one serving is 2 ozs. Now you know you have to use 2 scoops to achieve the concentration that the product lists in its ingredient list and the container will last about two months.
You note that each 2-oz. serving contains 10,000 mg of glucosamine, 10,000 mg of MSM and 5,000 mg vitamin C, so the levels are good (remember our chart on page 3). There are 16 oz. in 1 lb., so at 8 lbs. in the container, that $100 is buying 128 ozs., which is actually 64 two-oz. servings. Therefore, that $100 container costs $1.56 per serving. That’s a pretty good deal!
BOTTOM LINE. Learning to evaluate these products on a per-serving basis is pretty easy, and we’ve done that for you for a number of popular simple joint products in our chart.
If you’ve never given your horse a joint product before—because you didn’t see signs of arthritis earlier or just learned that these supplements do even more to prevent inflammation and joint breakdown than they do to treat it once it’s started—you can begin with a basic glucosamine product, containing 10,000 mg per serving. Although glucosamine works a little more slowly than other ingredients, it remains an excellent economical option, which is why we recommend starting with it.
Don’t skip the suggested loading dose (double the daily serving size) when starting a product, as it will just take longer for the ingredient to begin working (literally, the body needs to be “loaded” with the product before it begins to work and doubling the ingredients for the first 10 to 14 days is the most efficient method of accomplishing that). You should see some improvement within 14 days, however. If not, consider changing products. Download a PDF of our favorite affordable joint products.
If your horse shows some improvement on glucosamine, but you think you could get more, work your way up in ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and MSM. We’ll discuss those and more in detail next month. Remember, supplements such as glucosamine, yucca, and chondroitin represent the basic, most popular joint supplements that act as anti-inflammatories in the body.
If you see no difference at all, consult your veterinarian. The problem may not be one that can be addressed with a joint supplement. In fact, if you’re not using the product as a straight preventative, we recommend getting a veterinary evaluation of the problem first.
Joint ingredients aren’t “pain pills” per se. Rather, they act as anti-inflammatories, which in turn help limit pain. If your horse is head-bobbing lame, however, a simple joint supplement likely won’t be enough to fix the problem.
Article by Contributing Veterinary Editor Grant Miller, DVM