Deciding whether to give your horse a joint supplement is easy, but deciding which specific product to use can be exhausting. There are literally hundreds of options---shelves, catalog pages and websites filled with powders, liquids and pellets all designed to maintain the health and function of equine joints.
How do you sort through them all? Start by reading the labels to see what they contain. Although all joint supplements have the same intended action---supporting the health of cartilage0 and synovial0 fluid to keep your horse moving with ease---they are formulated with a variety of ingredients. Some components are found in the majority of joint products; others appear in only a few. Learning even a bit about each one will give you a better idea of how a specific product may help your horse.
Here’s a closer look at some of the ingredients commonly used in joint supplements. Use this list as you shop to gain a better understanding of the various joint-support mixtures available. If a product doesn’t list ingredients on its label, do some investigative work. Many supplement companies have nutritionists who can answer your questions and, of course, your veterinarian is a great source of information and guidance about what your horse needs.
Avocado/soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs) are extracts from soybeans and avocados that prevent destruction of existing cartilage while stimulating cell tissue and repair. In France, ASU is available by prescription to treat arthritis. Recent studies in this country suggest it is effective in reducing the severity of arthritis symptoms.
Boswellia, also known as frankincense, is an extract derived from the gum resin of Boswellia serrata, a tree native to India. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, boswellia is used to treat asthma, colitis and arthritis. The primary component of the extract is boswellic acid, which studies show has anti-inflammatory effects through several actions. It is usually combined with other herbs in joint supplements.
Cetyl myristoleate is a fatty acid with anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties. An important component of synovial fluid, cetyl myristoleate was discovered by a National Institutes of Health scientist who observed that a certain family of mice seemed immune to arthritis. It can be derived from beef tallow or wild nutmeg. It is a relatively new addition to equine joint supplements.
Chondroitin, also called chon-droitin sulfate, is a large protein molecule that helps give cartilage its elasticity. This molecule is also thought to inhibit enzyme activity that can break down cartilage as well as stimulate production of synovial fluid. Chondroitin isn’t found in the normal equine diet and is typically manufactured from animal products high in connective tissue, such as bovine tracheas or cartilage. It is often paired with glucosamine in equine joint supplements.
Devil’s claw is an extract from the roots of a plant native to southern Africa. Its botanical name, Harpagophytum, means “hook plant” in Greek, a reference to the protrusions of the seed that attach to an animal’s coat and allow it to be spread. Devil’s claw has been used for thousands of years to treat fever, gout, arthritis and digestive disorders. Studies suggest that devil’s claw is as effective as some pain medications in reducing the pain of arthritis.
Glucosamine, which occurs naturally in the joint fluid, is one of the building blocks of cartilage production and repair. Research suggests that it may also help control inflammatory processes associated with arthritis. For use in supplements, glucosamine is extracted from chitin, a substance found in the shells of lobster, crab and shrimp. Glucosamine is often combined with chondroitin in oral supplements for horses.
Grape seed extract is added to many human supplements to combat heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Several current scientific trials are assessing whether grape seed extract can help inhibit tumor growth. It is included in equine joint supplements because it is also a source of oligomeric proanthocyanidins, an antioxidant thought to aid in the repair of collagen.
Hyaluronic acid (HA), also called sodium hyaluronate, is a component of synovial fluid, which lubricates joints and forms the matrix of the articular cartilage that covers the ends of long bones. It may also help to protect these tissues from the destructive effects of inflammation. One of the earliest applications of HA in human medicine began in the late 1970s, when it was used as a lubricant for the eye during surgical procedures. The use of HA to treat and prevent osteoarthritis in horses and people soon followed. Just a few years ago, HA was available only as an injectable product, but it is now a common ingredient of oral joint supplements.
MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), a naturally occurring compound derived from DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), is found in small amounts in alfalfa. An organic source of sulfur, MSM helps give collagen stability and strength and enhances the function of glucosamine. MSM may also have anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, research has been done into the potential of MSM for controlling hay fever and snoring in humans with varying results.
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in marine and plant oils. Although omega-3s have long been touted as helping to prevent cardiovascular disease, they have been shown to have some anti-inflammatory action as well. Flaxseed and linseed are high in omega-3s and have been a traditional feed supplements on racetracks for decades. Supplements that contain flaxseed or flaxseed oil are intended to provide the same level of omega-3 without the preparation of boiling or grinding the seeds yourself.
Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is thought to help preserve enzymes that block chronic pain, making it popular in supplements targeting arthritis in horses. You may see phenylalanine listed in different forms on a supplement label: D-phenylalanine is a synthesized version of the natural form, L-phenylalanine, and DL-phenylalanine is a combination of both of these.
Silica is a trace mineral. Although it’s most abundant in sand, it is also present in plants to give them structure and, therefore, is found in your horse’s diet in small amounts. At the molecular level, silicon is involved with the formation of articular cartilage and connective tissue. Research has found improved bone development in young horses supplemented with silica, making it a popular addition in joint supplements.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin and antioxidant. It is required to synthesize collagen and connective tissue and acts as a scavenger of free-radical molecules that can damage tissues. Unlike people, horses produce their own vitamin C and oversupplementation can interfere with that process, leading to a deficiency.
Yucca is extracted from the roots of the yucca, a flowering desert plant native to the American Southwest. It is a source of saponins and polyphenolics, natural chemicals that have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory action. Yucca has been used for centuries to treat circulatory and intestinal problems in people.