Is There a Science Behind Equine Nutrition?

When it comes to feeding horses, many owners and managers strive to construct the most efficient and healthiest feeding program for their four-legged dependents. As researchers continue to study and understand equine nutrition, there have to be dozens of options for owners to choose from when selecting scientifically advanced feed and supplements for horses, right? Wrong. According to David van Doorn, PhD, of Cavalor Equine Nutrition Research, a lack of scientific research in equine nutrition makes it difficult to base a feeding program solely on scientific advances. He presented on the topic at the 2011 Alltech International Animal Health and Nutrition Industry Symposium, held May 22-25 in Lexington, Ky.,

The Issues

"The discussion 'how to apply scientific principles in equine nutrition' is probably blurred by different perspectives and interpretations towards the meaning of the word 'science,' " van Doorn said. "Developing science-based feeding concepts for horses should involve nutritional concepts that are based on the nutrient requirements of horses; nutrient value of feed, roughage, and raw material; scientific research; or literature review on the efficacy of nutritional concepts."

Carrying that ideal out is easier said than done, he noted, as he explained the challenges that revolve around integrating scientific advances into a "practical" feeding program.

Van Doorn explained that only a small amount of scientific research about equine nutrition and supplementation concepts for health and performance exists. This is likely due to the high cost of equine research studies and the "limited funding opportunities" available, he noted.

Another important consideration, he added, is that unlike feed for production animals in which the only desired nutritional "benefits" can be measured or valued objectively, the endpoints in horses are more subjective and difficult to evaluate. The lack of these defined endpoints makes it difficult for both manufacturers and horse owners to quantify a nutritional strategy's effect.

Additionally, van Doorn suggested, "science and industry are (sometimes) confronted with an equine community that sets ethical boundaries for animal experimentation that may limit the application of the scientific models available."

Van Doorn also explained that there's a lack of scientific support for the health effects (positive or negative) that certain feed and supplements provide, and there's no independent quality rating system for evaluating the science behind horse supplements.

Possible Solutions

Van Doorn offered some suggestions as to how the horse community as a whole can work toward a better scientific understanding of additives to the equine diet.

He explained that in both human and veterinary science, an "evidence pyramid" has been developed to aid in a systematic evaluation of the "scientific strength of existing or new nutritional strategies." Along the same lines, for example, van Doorn suggested evaluating feed and supplements in a pyramid grading method such as the following:

  • The product's ingredients are safe, but there is no evidence that the ingredients and/or product is effective in horses;
  • The product's ingredients are safe, but there is no evidence to confirm or refute the logic behind its use;
  • There is some evidence to support the product's use under certain circumstances, but not consistent enough to confirm efficacy; or
  • The product is scientifically proven to have an effect.

"This proposal implies a 'dynamic' grading system," van Doorn explained, adding that any proposed grading system would be subject to further debate and refinement before implementation."If a system could be arranged that a scientific dossier (a file containing detailed records on a particular person or subject ) of a product or nutritional strategy could be submitted for independent review, this would also in part tackle the problem as the company filing the dossier can be awarded by the grading system."

He added that this particular proposal was developed in conjunction with several European Nation companies at a 2006 equine industry meeting regarding European Union legislation.

While he stressed that this process won't be completed overnight, he suggested setting some goals for the future of scientific advancements in equine nutrition:

  • Define measurable 'endpoints' for performance and health traits against which nutritional strategies can be tested, and encourage the scientific community to facilitate in the development in these endpoints;
  • The Industry should ideally provide feed analysis and nutrient values of feed, mineral and trace element content of supplements;
  • For supplements, provide safety and efficacy data, possibly inspired by the principle and concept of evidence-based veterinary medicine; and
  • Develop an internationally respected (and independent) committee or body to evaluate a nutritional strategy or product. The first steps to be taken are probably the development of spokespersons or bodies that represent the Industry and scientific community. This would urge the need for a better organized equine feed and supplement industry as such grading system should be supported by the industry as a whole.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, News Editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in three-day eventing with her OTTB, Dorado, and enjoys photography in her spare time.

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