Owners of dressage and eventing horses in Britain typically feed two nutritional supplements to their top-performing mounts, a study has found.
The researchers set out to determine which types of nutritional supplements were used in dressage and eventing horses, and the reasons behind owners using them.
An online questionnaire was distributed through British Eventing and Dressage websites to collect data on the demographics of owners and their horses, the supplements used, and their opinions on health and performance problems.
In all, 599 responses met the criteria to be included in the study, comprising 441 dressage and 158 eventing horse owners.
Participants were found to have an average of 26.4 years of riding experience, ranging from just three years to 60. They owned up to 10 horses, but the average was 1.2.
University of Nottingham Veterinary Professor Sarah Freeman and her colleagues found that owners used, on average, two supplements on their best-performing horse, with use ranging among participants from none up to 10 supplements..
The main health and performance issues identified for dressage horses were “energy/behaviour”, “lameness” and “back and muscle problems”.
The main issues for eventing horses were identified as “stamina and fitness levels”, “lameness” and “energy/behaviour”.
For dressage-horse owners, the main reasons for using supplements in their highest-performing horse were “joints and mobility”, and “behaviour”. For eventing-horse owners, it was “electrolytes” and “joints and mobility”.
Lameness and behavioural problems were significant concerns within both disciplines, the study team reported.
“There was incongruence between owners’ opinions of problems within their discipline and their reasons for using supplements.” the researchers reported in the journal, Veterinary Record Open.
Freeman and her colleagues noted that there was a lack of published studies on why horse owners used different supplements, and currently, the scientific evidence on their effectiveness in the prevention and management of health and performance problems was limited.
They said a large range of equine nutritional supplements was currently available in Britain, with 171,400 purchases annually.
In 2011, the market was worth £34 million, and the average annual supplement spend per person was put at £198 by the British Equestrian Trade Association.
Discussing their findings, the researchers said they determined that a wide range of different supplements were used, and most owners and riders perceived that they were important to their horse’s health and performance.
“Lameness and/or joint problems were identified as important issues in both disciplines, which is consistent with previous literature,” they said.
“This study also highlighted the perceived importance of behavioural problems within both disciplines.”
However, owners’/riders’ opinions of health and performance issues within their competitive disciplines and their horses did not necessarily mirror the supplements that they were using. This, they said, warranted further investigation.
Owners/riders of dressage horses identified behavioural issues and energy levels as the most important issue within their discipline, followed by lameness, then back and muscle problems. They also identified behavioural issues as the main problem in their highest performing horse, followed by ‘joints and mobility’. However, their main reason for feeding supplements was for “joints and mobility” problems.
There were different trends for responses from those with eventing horses.
“They identified stamina and fitness as the main issue in their discipline, followed by lameness, and behaviour issues and energy levels were the third most commonly identified health and performance issue for eventing. However, the main problem in their highest performing horse was identified as behavioural issues, followed by joints and mobility, which mirrors the response from dressage owners and riders to this question.
“Once again, their opinion of health and performance problems was not mirrored in the use of supplements, and the main reasons for giving supplements were for electrolytes, and ‘joints and mobility’.”
The study team said there were several possible reasons for the incongruency between owners’ opinions of main problems and their reasons for using supplements. Possible factors may include the limited number of scientific studies on behavioural issues in horses and limited evidence on the effectiveness of behavioural supplements.
In contrast, there are considerably more studies on the use of supplements to enhance joint function and mobility.
“This may explain why owners and riders consider these supplements to be important to use in their horse, although the evidence of efficacy is still low.
“Another reason for the perceived importance of using nutritional supplements for ‘joints and mobility’ may be because owners are using supplements as a preventative measure (to try and reduce the risk of developing joint and mobility problems) rather than using them as a solution to a current health or performance problem.”
They said that, despite the low levels of evidence for most supplements, their study showed that they were widely used across both disciplines, with only 29 of 542 participants not using supplements.
Most owners said they felt that the supplements made a marked difference to their horses.
The researcher said their work identified both the perceived importance of behavioural issues in dressage and eventing, and the frequent use of behavioural supplements in individual horses.
“This highlights the need for research into the incidence, frequency and causes of behavioural problems in performance horses, and further research into the efficacy of nutritional supplements in the horse.”
The researchers were variously affiliated with the University of Nottingham, the University of Surrey, Cockburn Veterinary Group and Elizabeth Smith Veterinary Practice.
The use of nutritional supplements in dressage and eventing horses
C. Agar, R. Gemmill, T. Hollands and S. L. Freeman.
Vet Rec Open 2016;3:e000154 doi:10.1136/vetreco-2015-000154