Glucosamine for horses: Does it work?

Key Points

  • The benefits of supplementing glucosamine for horses aren’t support by scientific data.
  • There are no known harmful effects of giving your horse glucosamine supplements, either.

Horse owners will do almost anything they can afford to prevent lameness. One of the most appealing methods of soundness support is the use of nutritional supplements. Supplementation is popular because it’s accessible and practical.

Feeding supplements can also be comforting for the caring horse owner. As an owner, it’s reassuring to believe you’ve gone above and beyond for your horse’s nutrition. Supplement companies have done a great job marketing to these diligent caretakers by convincing them of health benefits that may or may not be fully supported by science. 

Caring horse owner petting horse.

What’s the matter with supplements?

Most nutritional supplements fall into the category of “nutraceuticals.” This term refers to feed additives that claim health benefits, but are technically neither nutrients nor pharmaceuticals. Due to their ambiguity, nutraceuticals are unrecognized by the FDA, and are therefore poorly regulated.

As a consequence:

  • Nutraceuticals are not required to provide nutritive values, ingredient profiles, or undergo any drug approval.
  • Companies are not required to provide proof of safety or efficacy.
  • There are few limitations to the claims a product can make. The Center for Veterinary Medicine does prohibit false or unproven claims of treatment, curative, or mitigative properties of a product. Hence, commonly used terms like “health benefits” or “health support” are used to describe supplements because of their purposeful vagueness.

There are over 100 equine nutraceutical companies in the United States. The market is drowning in products with unsubstantiated contents and misleading labels. 

Oral joint supplements in particular are the most popular equine nutritional supplements on the market. The most popular types of joint supplements have glucosamine as the primary active ingredient. 

What is glucosamine?

Glucosamine is an amino monosaccharide, a type of sugar molecule, made naturally in the body. This compound is a necessary building block for joint cartilage by helping to form proteoglycans, which work to lubricate articular cartilage. 

What are the beneficial claims of glucosamine for horses?

  1. Promotion of tissue regeneration 
  2. Anti-inflammatory effects
  3. Antioxidant properties

Mainly, due to glucosamine’s crucial role in forming articular cartilage, it is thought that oral supplementation will support and promote healthy production of that joint tissue.

How do glucosamine claims stand against science?

A major constraint in understanding how glucosamine works is with the studies themselves. Many popular glucosamine studies are fraught with conflict of interest, poor study designs, too few participants, inconsistent dosing, and unclear supplement preparation.

Often, negative results are not published, skewing any available information. There’s difficulty in developing a consensus on glucosamine’s effectiveness since most studies use different product sources, dosages, study designs, and measurement strategies. 

The most compelling support for glucosamine supplements comes from in vitro studies — studies done in the lab vs. in the horse’s body. These laboratory findings show that glucosamine protects against cartilage degradation. 

The mechanisms behind this include:

  1. The  “Excess Supply Theory” — essentially meaning that abundant glucosamine ensures enough building block material for the production of cartilage. 
  2. Glucosamine inhibits factors involved in inflammation, therefore preventing inflammatory damage in joint tissue.

When it comes to in vivo research, or studies done on horses, the results aren’t as promising. The bioavailability of glucosamine appears to be very low, meaning that the digestion and absorption of the compound interferes with its integrity, and its entrance into the joint tissue might not be possible. Therefore, the hypothetical role of orally supplemented glucosamine doesn’t match up to reality.

What now for glucosamine?

We can hope for better study designs for the future, which might give us a clearer idea of how supplementing glucosamine affects our horse’s joints. For now, equine nutrition and physiology experts can’t say for certain whether this supplement will protect your horse’s joint condition.

Doesn’t hurt to try

While science doesn’t definitively support the efficacy of supplementing glucosamine, there aren’t any known harmful effects either. In other words, it doesn’t hurt to try a glucosamine supplement for your horse, apart from the financial cost. 

If anecdotal accounts of soundness improvement compel you to try glucosamine on your horse, then lean towards the most reputable supplement products on the market. The best brands to buy from will:

  • Provide a nutrient profile, manufacturer phone number, and lot batch number
  • Have a quality seal from the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC). This proves:
    • The company follows standard operating procedures for quality control
    • Has a system in place for customers reporting complaints
    • Follows proper labeling guidelines
    • Provides necessary ingredient advisories
    • Has their ingredients tested by independent laboratories 

Just don’t forget the power of the placebo effect, and always consult your vet with soundness concerns. 

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