Where is the Scientific Validation?
Dr. Ginger A. Rich
Rich Equine Nutritional Consulting, LLC
Eads, TN

In the past 10-12 years our reading radar began picking up several new words in horse magazines and on feed store shelves — nutraceutical and ergogenic aid. These terms are used to describe a group of dietary supplements with bewildering claims and uses. The scope of this paper will include only supplements/agents that can be administered orally and have a nutritional function.

Ginger A. Rich, Ph.D.

Virginia (Ginger) Rich, a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University , joined the faculty at Colorado State University in the Equine Sciences Program in 1980. There she conducted educational seminars, short courses and produced publications for adult and youth horse owners. She also taught courses in equine nutrition and conducted research in this area. In 1990, she started Rich Equine Nutritional Consulting firm, and her clients include feed companies, breeding farms, training facilities and racing stables around the world who use her ration evaluation, problem solving and formulation skills.

Perhaps the best way to start making sense of these products is to define the terms that will be used within this discussion.

Nutraceutical: combines the word “nutrient” (a nourishing food or food component) with “pharmaceutical” (a medical drug). Used by the dietary supplement industry, the term is defined as “nontoxic food component that has scientifically proven health benefits that include preventing, curing, mitigating or treating a disease.”

Ergogenic: Derived from the Greek word “ergon” (work) and “genic” (producing), thus, ergogenic aids are factors that increase or improve work. This paper will be limited to nutritional ergogenic factors.

Feed: “Edible materials which are consumed by animals and contribute energy and/or nutrients to the animal’s diet” — AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials).

GRAS: Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers feeds as ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS).

Drug: “A substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease in man or other animals” — AAFCO.

Nutrient: “A feed constituent in a form and at a level that will help support the life of an animal.” The classes of nutrients include protein, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.

According to word derivation, nutraceutical is a food with health benefits, i.e., a food/feed which can help in preventing and treating diseases. Consider this as the premise of these dietary supplements — they are nutrients being used as alternative drugs. Many of the advertisements make drug-like claims without research to support the safety or the efficacy of the product to produce the intended claim.

Ergogenic Aids
Think of ergogenic aids as performance enhancing dietary supplements for horses. In theory they are supposed to increase speed, endurance or strength and delay fatigue. Harris (1999) states a myriad of possible ways ergogenic aids may enhance performance: improve coordination of muscle fibers, provide a supplementary fuel source, increase levels of available stored energy, improve efficiency of conversion of the chemical energy of the feed, improve ATP/ADP homeostasis, decrease substrate depletion and/or decrease end product accumulation.

Ethics and Legality
With all theses possibilities, one first needs to consider the ethics behind using ergogenic aids. The questions include — should we try to make horses run faster, jump higher or go longer distances? Is evolution of the equine athlete complete? Have we reached the crest of genetic potential or should we keep striving to find better ways to train and nourish? When do we recognize a nutraceutical/ergogenic aid as an advancement in optimal feeding practices and legalize it? When do we decide the supplement is a prohibited substance?

The IOC’s (International Olympic Committee) doping legislation states that any substance taken in abnormal quantities with the intention of artificially and unfairly increasing performance should be considered as doping, violating the ethics of sport performance. In hindsight, perhaps fat supplements should be considered doping. Today we feed fats and oils to performance horses in amounts 3-5 times what is found in natural horse feeds. That could be considered an abnormal quantity and we certainly feed fat for the performance benefits. Surely we need to take the welfare and pain relief of the horse into consideration when evaluating the ethics of these supplements. Wouldn’t we be inhumane to ban agents which improve the wellbeing of the horses undergoing prolonged work performance? If feeding certain supplements enables a horse to return to its normal resting state, recover from work faster or repair damage which resulted from that work, isn’t that good horse nutrition and management? If electrolytes were discovered in 2006, perhaps they would be banned.

Theoretically, nutraceuticals and ergogenic supplements benefit the horse by increasing the components of natural building blocks in the body. As the supply of building blocks increases, disease is diminished and performance is improved. Today performance enhancing nutraceuticals are just as common as those for the treatment/prevention of disease.

If You Buy, Make a Plan
With the vast number of supplements on the market, use common sense with a good dose of skepticism when deciding if one or more are right for your horse. Logically, performance horses need extra nutrients. Be cautious of over supplementation — since too much of any nutrient can be just as detrimental in certain situations as a deficiency. Imbalances and interactions (tying up) of one nutrient by an oversupply of another are common.

There is no equestrian sport monitoring body overseeing these products, consequently they are not well regulated. AAFCO in a not-for-profit organization of state and federal (including Canada) feed regulators, but it has no regulatory authority. It has set up ingredient-recognition processes, ingredient-definition applications and publishes an extensive handbook with policies, definitions, labeling examples, recognized additives, medications and GRAS substances. USDA/FDA has the authority to enforce but it lacks the time and money to do so. It attempts to monitor and regulate the industry by selecting one or two products per year to enforce. Unfortunately, this agency is stretched too thin to have a major impact on a market with hundreds of products.

Never assume that because a product is sitting on your local feed store shelf or you see a full page ad in your favorite horse magazine that it is safe and scientifically validated. The price of research is staggering. Horses are large and expensive research models with long gestations and slow growth cycles. The cost of research using sufficient numbers of animals to see a “significant difference,” plus, registration, publication, advertising and marketing for one product can easily reach a million dollars. Few entrepreneurs can afford this.

All horse owners want what’s best for their horses. Many of the supplement advertisements play on the owners pride and love of horses. Since there is little regulation of these products, the horse owners and their beloved horses become the researchers and the proverbial guinea pigs, respectively. If you have questions regarding the safety or usefulness of a particular product, don’t hesitate to consult with an equine nutritionist or a veterinarian with nutritional training. If a product makes a claim that seems to good to be true, ask for scientific proof of claims from the company and sales rep. Get on the internet and check out the product’s web site. Go to equine nutrition chat rooms; some are sponsored by veterinarian groups (American Association of Equine Practioners), nutrition societies (Equine Science Society), and breed associations (American Quarter Horse Association) to name a few.

So let’s outline a plan to make safe and logical choices when selecting nutraceuticals or ergogenic supplements. If you are going to invest and test one or more, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Consult with a nutritionist or a veterinarian with nutritional training when selecting a supplement to avoid unnecessary cost and physiological interactions. Remember most commercial feeds are already fortified to meet the NRC’s daily nutritional requirements. As an example, your new iron supplement may provide excess iron that can cause liver damage or interfere with the availability of other nutrients, when fed with your hay and commercial grain.

2. Pay attention to shelf life. All supplements and feeds should be dated. Look for dates and follow them. Dates should not be so complicated or coded as to confuse consumer. Vitamins are particularly vulnerable over time and fats can go rancid.

3. Note any restrictions in storage, such as freezing, direct sun, heat or humidity. For example, vitamin A will degrade when exposed to the sun and many blood tonics will settle out of suspension and separate when left for any length of time.

4. Note carefully restrictions to individual animals. Some supplements cannot be given to young, old, pregnant or in combination with certain medications; some cannot be given to animals with impaired health. Some may not be approved for shows and performance events, causing grounds for disqualification.

5. Many are not single-purpose products. Many have a combination of uses with an overlap of ingredients. When feeding more than one supplement, check ingredients and levels for duplication and oversupply. Over supplementation of some nutrients can cause interactions, sub-clinical symptoms, dramatic toxicity and death. Do not use a broad-spectrum when a singe-purpose product is needed and available.

6. Manufacturers have become deliberately vague and ambiguous in their claims on labels and point of purchase literature. Restrictions by USDA/FDA in product labeling practically eliminates the buyer from knowing why the product was originally developed. If a label contains a health claim, the product is considered a drug by FDA. The company must then provide exhaustive scientific evidence that the drug is safe and effective. This is not the case in media advertising; here companies are still flagrant in their claims.

7. Ask product makers for research data and scientific validation to support their claims; do not base your buying patterns on opinions, celebrity endorsements or anecdotal claims. Request solid research studies conducted by a third party (such as a state university or commercial laboratory) where adequate numbers of animals and generally accepted scientific practices are used. Research results need to back up the claims on safety, effectiveness, or performance enhancements. Get help interpreting research data and principles used; call your nutritionist or veterinarian for help.

8. Keep records and log in your findings on a regular basis to fairly evaluate the product. If you plan to feed a supplement, try one at a time and give it time to work and evaluate its purported claims. A horse’s digestive tract need 2-3 weeks to adjust to any change in diet, so that should be the minimum time of your “trial.” Certain body parts and nutrients respond more quickly than others — electrolytes start working within minutes, while muscles slowly “learn” to use new substrates (4-6 weeks may be needed to see a change in performance), and it may take 8-10 months to see changes in a hoof.


AAFCO. 2004. Association of American Feed Control Officials, Inc. Official Publication.

Crandell, Kathleen and Stephen Duren. 1998. Nutraceuticals: What are they and do they work? Kentucky Equine Research Proceedings for Equine Nutrition Conference for Feed Manufacturers. Advances in Equine Nutrition II.

Harris, Pat A. and R. C. Harris. 1999. Nutritional ergogenic aids in the horse—uses and abuses. Kentucky Equine Research, Proceedings for Equine Nutrition Conference for Feed Manufacturers.

Hoestenbach, Roger D. 2004. Nutraceuticals—a regulatory paradox. Texas A&M Equine Nutrition Research Proceedings.

Kellon, Eleanor M.1998. Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals: A Guide to Peak Health and Performance. Breakthrough Press.

Lawrence, Laurie M. 1998. The use of nutritional ergogenic aids in horses. Advances in Equine Nutrition, Ed. By J.D. Pagan, Kentucky Equine Research.

McIlwraith, C.W. 2004. Licensed medications, “generic” medications, compounding and nutraceuticals—what has been scientifically validated, where do we encounter scientific mistruth, and where are we legally? 50th Annual Convention of the American Association of Equine Practioners, Denver, CO.
Niemeyer, Anja, Ingrid Vervuert, et al. 2005. Effect of L-Carnitine supplementation on heart rate and selected metabolic responses in resting and exercising horses: a placebo-controlled double blind study. Equine Nutrition Conference of Hanover.

Rich, G. A. 1996. Feed supplements: a costly extra or necessary addition? American Horse Council Annual Convention Proceeding, Washington, D.C.

Rich, G.A. and Leslie H. Breuer. 2002. Recent developments in equine nutrition with farm and clinic applications. Proceedings 48th Annual Convention of American Association of Equine Practioners, Orlando, FL.

Vervuert, Ingrid, Derek Cuddeford and Manfred Coenen. 2005. Effect of two levels of a chromium supplement on selected metabolic responses in resting and exercising horses. Equine Nutrition Conference of Hanover.

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