Look through any equine supply catalog or go into any tack or feed shop, and you’ll likely encounter pages and shelves full of supplements. Supplements aimed at improving gastrointestinal (GI) health are especially popular, given that research has shown most performance horses suffer from gastric ulcers.

Melyni Worth, PhD, PAS, of Foxden Equine, a nutritional supplement company, spoke about common ingredients in equine supplements aimed at improving GI health at the 15th Annual Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference in Hunt Valley, Maryland, on April 6, 2017.

“Since the horse has been domesticated, GI disruptions have been an issue,” Worth said. “Very often, these issues are handled best by changing management.”

Ingredients Targeting Ulcers

In humans, research has shown hydrogen ion inhibitors, such as the drug omeprazole, can contribute to osteoporosis. Long-term studies haven’t been done in horses. Nonetheless, other acid buffers, although not proven to cure ulcers, are common in equine supplements aimed at managing the condition. These include calcium, magnesium, and aluminum salts. Sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda, is also a natural acid buffer, but too much can disturb normal electrolyte balance, Worth said.

Ulceration in the small intestine is less common than in the stomach, but impaction colic is still a risk. Similarly, the large intestine is at risk for physical blockage and even ulceration. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to diagnose ulcers in the small and large intestines, Worth said. Properly balanced, forage-based diets and plenty of water are the best places to start for preventing GI disturbances, said Worth.

Beta-glucan. Beta-glucans are sugars derived from the cell walls of fungi that absorb fats and fatty acids. Beta-glucan is a common ingredient in supplements, but there’s no evidence it is useful for managing ulcers.

Mucilage providers. Mucilage is a plant-derived polysaccharide (string of sugar molecules bonded together). Mucilage is a viscous, gelatinous substance that can coat damaged tissue, such as an ulcer. It won’t cure ulcers but might help protect damaged tissue. Common sources of mucilage include flaxseed, chia seed, aloe vera, hydrolyzed collagen, pectin, and lecithin. Additionally, slippery elm is a medium-sized tree with an inner bark that can be powdered and mixed with water to form a mucilage.

Other ingredients. Sea buckthorn berries are rich in vitamins C and E, fatty acids, and lignans and have shown promise in reducing the severity of gastric ulcers. Some other natural remedies, such as marshmallow root and licorice, have not been fully investigated in managing ulcers in horses, Worth said.

Take-Home Message

The number of supplements on the market geared toward managing GI health can feel overwhelming. The key is to know what each ingredient is and if it has any real effectiveness. Buy products from reputable manufacturers, and seek the advice of a nutritionist before supplementing your horse. If you suspect your horse suffers from ulcers or other abdominal pain, contact your veterinarian immediately.