What factors influence horse owners’ nutritional supplement choices?

stock-foal-feed-rear_5898Dressage riders and eventers ranked vets as the most reliable source of information about equine nutritional supplements, but were most likely to have used other horse owners as the information source for their most recent purchase.

Researchers in England set out to investigate the factors affecting horse owners’ choice of nutritional supplements for dressage and eventing horses.

They gathered data through an online questionnaire, which sought information on the demographics of the owner/rider and their horses, the sources of information used when choosing nutritional supplements, and their opinion on these different sources.

In total, 757 responses were analysed, all of whom competed in dressage, or eventing, or both.

It was found that 49.8% had obtained information on nutritional supplements from vets, 39.4% from internet articles/reviews, 38.7% from other horse owners, 36.5% from a coach/trainer, and 33.4% from nutritionists.

They ranked the most reliable sources of information as vets, followed by nutritionists, then research studies. They ranked the most influential sources of information as vets, followed by coach/trainer and nutritionists.

“Most participants had used other horse owners as their source of information for their most recent supplement,” the study team noted.

Dr Teresa Hollands and colleagues, writing in the journal, Veterinary Record Open, noted that while supplement use in horses had been studied, such work did not provide information as to why the riders had chosen those supplements.

“Decision-making in selecting the most appropriate supplements is difficult because, unlike pharmaceutical products and medicine, supplements are categorised within ‘feed’ law as complementary feeding stuffs.

“Medicinal claims are therefore prohibited; however, some products are marketed as nutraceuticals, often with information on possible health benefits.

“Horse owners are therefore presented with a wide range of supplements which usually purport health benefits, but research studies, if available, are often of poor quality with little or no scientific evidence to support efficacy.”

The study team got 820 responses in all, of which 757 were suitable for analysis as they competed in dressage, eventing or both disciplines. It was found that 56.6% competed in dressage, 19.9% in eventing and 23.5% in both. Most were aged between 22 and 34 (35.4% of respondents) and were female (96.1%). It was found that 90.3% were both the owner and rider of their horse or horses. Respondents had been riding for an average of 26.4 years and competing for an average of 9.5 years.

When asked for further details about which specific internet source or magazine articles were used, the 471 participants who acknowledged this source used nutrition websites most frequently (60.9%), followed by discipline-specific websites (53.5%) and internet forums (45.2%) . When using magazines as a source of information, participants used non-sponsored articles (55.9 per cent) most frequently, followed by advertisements (52.9 per cent).

Participants were asked where they normally obtained their information on nutritional supplements,
Participants were asked where they normally obtained their information on nutritional supplements.

Participants, when asked to identify the main source of information that they had used before purchasing their most recent supplement, identified other horse owners (18.1%), vets (17.9%), coaches/trainers (12.4%), internet advertisements (1.4%), magazine advertisements (10.4%) and stockists (10.2%).

Other factors that influenced respondents’ purchase of nutritional supplements were price (69.6%), followed by research backup (57.5%), personal recommendation from a friend (55.6%) and availability (51.3%). A total of 602 of the survey participants responded to this question.

Only 19.9% of participants thought there was enough information readily available to help decide which nutritional supplement to use, with 61.4% thinking that some of the time there was enough information and 18.6% thinking there was not enough information at all.

Respondents were asked to comment on whether vets should be more involved in the transfer of information on nutritional supplements, and if so how. The response was varied. Some praised their vet as a useful source of information, while others considered that vets had limited expertise in the area of supplement use, generally promoted supplements they sold, or “all they want to do is sell drugs and never look at the bigger picture”.

However, the majority of responses (70%) were positive about veterinary involvement.

The use of a coach/trainer as a source of information was found to be significantly higher in owners and riders under 34 years of age. Respondents with more riding experience were found to be less influenced by price.

bill-bucket-feedDiscussing their findings, Hollands and her colleagues noted that participants identified other horse owners as the main source of information used for their most recently purchased supplement, despite identifying vets as their main and most influential source of information.

“The discrepancy … might be due to bias in responding to the questionnaire (based on respondents being aware of veterinary involvement in the study) or may reflect the accessibility of different sources for advice (there is likely to be a lower level of contact between an owner and their veterinarian compared with an owner and other horse owners and coaches/trainers).”

They suggested this discrepancy needed investigating further to determine the decision-making process and also evaluate different options for improving knowledge dissemination.

The study team noted that most of the information streams available to horse owners, for example, vets and nutritionists, were based within profit organisations. Accessibility and non-commercial pressure might explain why horse owners use “other people” as a common source of information, and why commercial bias was mentioned frequently in the free-text sections of the online survey.

“The current research also showed that an owner’s/rider’s background can have an effect on the information they choose to inform their decision-making, including their education, age, competitive discipline and riding experience,” they wrote.

“The level of education was significantly related to the use of research papers as a source of information.”

The researchers were variously affiliated with the University of Nottingham, Elizabeth Smith Veterinary Practice, Cockburn Veterinary Group, the University of Surrey, and Dodson and Horrell Ltd.

Factors affecting owners’ choice of nutritional supplements for use in dressage and eventing horses
R. Gemmill, C. Agar, S. L. Freeman and T. Hollands.
Vet Rec Open 2016;3:e000155 doi:10.1136/vetreco-2015-000155

The full study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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