Feeding joint supplements is a good idea but how many of us really understand the benefits of their ingredients? Steve Rix presents the science behind the most common ingredients and urges you to check the label before parting with your cash.
We all know that healthy joints are vitally important to the working horse. With wear and tear from competition, regular riding, and often just old age, our horses can unfortunately be susceptible to pain and stiffness. With the high quality feeds produced today we can be sure that they are getting the best possible nutrition to support overall health, but adding a supplement to the diet can be very beneficial when it comes to looking after joints.
GLUCOSAMINE Derived from the shells of crustaceans, glucosamine is the primary ingredient in the vast majority of joint supplements today and is usually combined with chondroitin. It is one of the compounds known as ‘chondroprotective agents’ and can stimulate the formation of joint tissue as well as keep joints and cartilage lubricated. Cartilage is the first part of the joint to be affected under stress, so any product aimed at supporting regrowth is a worthy addition to your supplementation.
Cartilage does not actually contain blood vessels and so grows and repairs more slowly than other connective tissues. This means that it may take a number of weeks before any improvement is seen. The horse’s body produces glucosamine naturally but a horse with excessive joint wear may not generate enough to repair any damage. This can result in cartilage that loses its ability to act as a shock absorber in joints, causing pain and stiffness. The studies on both human and equine use of glucosamine demonstrate that it is a very effective supplement for joint care.
CHONDROITIN Chondroitin sulphate also comes from animal sources. Most chondroitin sulphate in supplements is derived from marine or bovine sources. It is generally believed to work synergistically with glucosamine to provide maximum joint support and is included alongside glucosamine in the majority of supplements. Chondroitin is a component of cartilage, providing structure, holding water and nutrients, and allowing other molecules to move through cartilage – hugely important given the lack of blood vessels.
When produced naturally in the body there is no question about the effectiveness of this substance. However it should be noted that some scientific studies have shown that when administered orally, chondroitin may not be absorbed very efficiently. This is because it has a large molecular mass (anywhere from 250 times the size of a glucosamine molecule) which makes absorption through the intestinal wall more difficult. Some manufacturers claim to have addressed this issue by utilising a process which reduces the size of the molecules, and as there is still debate about the absorption issue it’s still worth choosing a supplement that includes chondroitin among its ingredients. And as already mentioned it is a steadfast of most joint supplements on the market today along with glucosamine anyway.
HYALURONIC ACID Hyaluronic Acid (HA) is a component of synovial fluid and joint cartilage, and is a member of a group of compounds called‘glycosaminoglycans’ (GAGS). These substances are what give skin its elasticity, cartilage its flex and fluids their lubricating properties. When joints are inflamed, the breakdown of HA makes the fluid more watery and less able to keep the joint propely lubricated. Inside the cartilage, hyaluronic a combines with another glycosaminoglycan called ‘aggrecan’ to form a complex that helps trap fluid and keeps the joint flexible and resistant to being overly compressed. It was originally developed to be injected into the joint and there is a question mark over how much can be absorbed orally (again due to molecular mass). There are however many reports of its effectiveness.
MSM Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a naturally occurring organic sulphur that is found in grains and grasses and is necessary for the correct synthesis of amino acids, vitamins and chondroitin sulphates, which are responsible for supporting joint lubrication. MSM also supplies bio-available sulphur to various types of tissues within the body including connective tissue and the tissue needed to support healthy lungs, bone, blood, tendons, hooves and skin. In comparison to glucosamine and chondroitin, few studies have been carried out into the effectiveness of MSM so it’s worthwhile carrying out some research if you plan to buy this as a separate supplement. The fact that it is included in many joint formulas means you may well be feeding it anyway.
DEVIL'S CLAW This herb is well known for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. The two main active ingredients are beta sitosterol and harpagoside which are known as ‘iridoid glycosides.’ Research has indicated that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic action is due to these compounds which reduce inflammation in the joints. Devil’s Claw is not as irritating to the horse as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, but if the horse has gastric ulcers it can aggravate the condition. Devil’s Claw must not be given to pregnant mares as it can stimulate the uterine muscle.
GREEN LIPPED MUSSEL Perna canaliculus (green lipped mussel) is found off the shores of New Zealand and is well known for its benefits in supporting joint health. It contains a number of useful nutrients, including glycosaminoglycans and chondroitin sulphate as well as omega 3 fatty acids. Four of these fatty acids are called eicosatetraenoic acids – better known as ETAs, and are unique to green lipped mussels. ETAs have demonstrated substantial anti- inflammatory effects in scientific studies and many horse owners testify to the effectiveness of this supplement. The omega 3s can also help promote healthy skin, coat and hooves.
ROSEHIP Rosehips contain an antioxidant that has an anti-inflammatory effect. The component responsible for this is believed to be a fatty acid called GOPO and trials in humans have recorded a reduction in pain, swelling and stiffness for arthritis sufferers. Similarly there have been reliable reports of its effectiveness in horses. Professor Kaj Winther, of the University of Copenhagen, is a bio- chemist and trotting race enthusiast. Having noticed that the joints of some trotting horses can begin to show signs of arthritis after a few years of racing, he began to administer a standardised rosehip preparation to affected horses. After a time it became clear that the joints were less inflamed and it was observed that gait returned to normal. It is also worth noting that rosehip contains many other beneficial vitamins, minerals and bioflavonoids ideal for supporting general health.
BOSWELLIA Boswellia Serrata, also known as Indian Frankincense, is a tree native to India and has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine (an Indian complementary medicine). It has been traditionally used for arthritis, rheumatism, bronchitis, asthma, dysentery, diarrhoea, jaundice, inflammatory skin disease and ulcers. A natural anti- inflammatory and pain reliever, it is being used by modern herbalists to treat arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Boswellia reduces inflammation by inhibiting one of the key enzymes in inflammatory processes It also relieves pain via a sedative effect on the nervous system. This herb is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to Devil’s Claw by many owners concerned about the latter’s gastric stimulatory effects.
SUMMARY Where horse joint supplements are concerned opinions abound. Even though a certain product works for one owner, doesn't mean it'll work for you. There is, however, a wealth of information available to help you make the best informed decision for your horse. Naturally, most of the information comes from the marketing departments of the manufactures, but take the time to read independent articles, and trawl the internet and forums to get a feeling for what is working for the majority of owners. Hopefully with this article we've been able to present the information in a way to help you make an informed choice and help you to take a closer look at the products you are buying to make sure you are getting what you have paid for.