Proper nutrition is vital for the health and well-being of our equine companions. Many horse owners rely on nutrition supplements to address specific needs and support overall horse health. However, navigating the plethora of horse nutrition supplement labels can be overwhelming. To make informed choices for your horse's nutritional needs, it's crucial to understand how to decipher these labels effectively.
Claims. There are strict rules about what manufacturers are allowed to claim on labels. For example, we are not allowed to claim on the label that an ingredient fixes something even if it does - we have to say, for example, "may assist with the symptoms of", or "aids in the prevention of". So when you read those expressions on the label, the manufacturer is not being cagey, it's the law. Unfortunately, these rules are not really helpful for customers to know if a supplement does or doesn't do a thing, because manufacturers are not allowed to say either way. What we try to do at Sound Advice is write posts about the ingredients that are in the products we make, and then links to studies and research on those ingredients, where they are allowed to state whether a particular ingredient/substance works or not, and how they figured that out.
Active ingredients. When a label talks about 'active ingredients', then there might be inactive ingredients. When you are reading a label, look at how much of the active ingredient there is per kilo. For example: Here is a list of the ingredients in a very commonly recommended Joint Supplement: Calcium (Ca) 3.85%, and volcanic minerals Magnesium (Mg) 0.23%, Potassium (P) 0.03%, Phosphorus (P) 0.03%, Sodium (Na) 0.6%, Sulphur (S) 0.01%, Iron (Fe) 0.7%, Copper (Cu) 3mg/kg, Manganese (Mn) 282 mg/kg, and Zinc (Zn) 33 mg/kg. If you add all the ingredients together, this makes up 5.45% of what's in the bucket, and the rest is wheat bran. None of these ingredients specifically "assist with the symptoms of" joint pain. They are also not useful doses of the other ingredients. Say for example, you would like to supplement your horse an optimum of around 800-1000mg of zinc per day, you would need to feed them 30kg (yes, kilos per day) of this supplement. The recommended dose is 50 grams per day. At 33mg of zinc per kilo of supplement, there would be negligible amounts of zinc per scoop. Basically, you are paying $22/kg for bran.
Is it just salt? Two particular ingredients to look for on labels are sodium chloride - often broken down into sodium and chloride, and calcium carbonate. In layman's terms sodium chloride is salt and calcium carbonate is ag lime. These are both very important to be included in your horse's diet, but to put it in perspective, I have seen in a produce store a 1kg bag of calcium carbonate in the horse feed aisle tagged at $20, and a 20kg bag in the vegetable section tagged at $10. So when you see those two ingredients listed in high amounts what else is listed in the ingredients that makes it worth the price you are being asked to pay?
Are you doubling up? If you are feeding more than one supplement, read your labels and see if you are doubling up on any ingredients. Aside from not wanting to spend more than you need to, more is not always better when it comes to nutrition. Some ingredients like selenium and iodine have relatively tight ranges, meaning that not enough is a problem, but too much is worse.
Dosage matters. To figure out if a supplement is cost effective you need to work out not just the cost per kilo, but the daily dosage. A popular gut supplement, for example, has a recommended dosage per day for a 400kg-600kg horse of 130g (over a metric cup!), meaning a 4kg tub for $130 lasts one month for an average horse. So it's $32/kg, which is cheaper than our gut supplement Bio Mos, which is $35/kg. But our supplement has a daily dosage of 10g (a teaspoon) per day, meaning 4kg at $140 for one horse would last you 400 days. More than a year!
Equine nutrition supplements are a huge market. Most horse owners are trying to do the right thing to make sure that their horse is receiving the very best for their health and well being. While there are limits to what can be said about what supplements do, manufacturers have to be explicit on their labelling about what's in it and what is the recommended dosage. Doing a little research, and some quick maths will help you make informed decisions, and probably save some money in the long run.