Joint supplements remain the top selling nutraceutical for horses within the United States. This is because it is estimated, of the approximate 60% cases of lameness in horses, the main cause is osteoarthritis (OA).

This is a chronic and painful degenerative joint disease suspected to be experienced by as many as 1 million horses in the United States. Thus, many owners purchase joint supporting supplements in hope of improving their horse’s wellbeing.

Owners are rightfully concerned about how to either prevent or lessen the impacts of OA in their horses. This is because OA can affect horses of all ages, breeds and disciplines. The associated inflammation in affected OA joints presents itself with heat, swelling, stiffness, and pain. The most common areas of OA occur in the fetlocks, knees, hocks and stifle joints.

The sad fact of OA for horses is that there is, unfortunately, no cure. However, because of its prevalence, there are many treatment and management modification options available to horse owners to reduce any discomfort. These include:

  • Pain management with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs with products, such as Bute (phenylbutazone) or Banamine (flunixin meglumine), among others
  • Injections within the affected joints with a corticosteroid or other medications 
  • Training modifications to reduce stress on the joints 
  • Weight loss management of heavily conditioned horses to reduce stress on joints 
  • Dietary modifications to increase intake of omega 3 fatty acids, which help to reduce inflammation 

One of the most common measures owners now take is to provide joint supplements to horses. This is the reason we now see them as the top-selling supplements. The three most common joint-supporting supplements include:

  • Glucosamine 
  • Chondroitin sulfate
  • MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane)

Glucosamine is the most popular joint supplement on the market. It is a natural sugar that has been found to support the formation of connective tissue; the most important, of which, is cartilage. It is the breakdown of cartilage and other soft tissues in the joints that leads to OA. Glucosamine has been shown in many studies to help provide the nutrients that connective tissues need to grow and has also been shown to protect the horse’s joints all the way down to the cellular level. It has been attributed to healing damage and also reduces pain. Some have suggested pain levels significantly decreased within only two weeks after glucosamine was added to the diet. 

Chondroitin sulfate is found to be an important structural component of connective tissue, and thus, cartilage. On its own, chondroitin sulfate has not been shown to be very effective in relieving pain in horses suffering from OA. However, it is believed it can slow damage done to the joints. The major benefit of chondroitin sulfate is its synergistic effect when used in combination with glucosamine. Together, chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine have been shown to be superior to either product alone in reducing pain, inflammation, and damage to the joints. 

MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) is naturally occurring and is often given to horses to reduce inflammation in the joints. It is also believed to have antioxidant properties. This can be important in reducing the strain on joints, especially during exercise or times of stress. MSM is also used in the synthesis of collagen, which gives strength to connective tissue and cartilage. Thus, it now has become a more popular joint support supplement, especially in competitive horses.  

When looking for joint support supplements for horses, there are many products on the market. However, owners need to exercise caution. Because these are popular supplements with horse owners, worth nearly $1 billion in annual sales, there are many options. Sadly, some of these supplements are potentially not as effective or properly formulated, while some have been found to contain harmful substances, such as pesticides or heavy metals. Some have been found to be contaminated with other nutritional supplements not related to joint care. Therefore, when shopping for a joint supplement or products containing these joint-supporting ingredients, you should ensure they are from a trusted source. 

Reputable feed companies are keeping pace and offer many options for horse owners. Within Tribute®, you may notice many products tagged with “GC Plus.” These are specially formulated feeds that contain glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and MSM to optimize joint health in your horses. Specific products include:

The take home message is, if your horse is suffering from OA or you suspect they are, there are options available to you! These will help to not only reduce any discomfort in your animal, but also will help you to continue to compete and enjoy your animal. As always, if you have any concerns about your horse, you can contact us directly with any questions.

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.