Understanding Ingredients in Your Horse’s Joint Supplement
Breaking down supplement formulas, labels, and research.
Updated February 2, 2023
Building Blocks of Equine Joint Health
- A 20-year-old school horse being taken on trail rides on weekends.
- A 10-year-old thoroughbred being shown in hunter/jumper classes.
- A 4-year-old quarter horse being trained for future reining competitions.
- A warmblood recovering from OCD (osteochondrosis dissecans) surgery.
What do all these horses have in common? They could all benefit from a high-quality joint supplement! Along with other treatments as recommended by your veterinarian, horses can experience improved joint health through appropriate supplementation. Proactive joint support can benefit horses whether they are old or young, in intense training or lightly hacked, have a joint injury/disease or just normal wear and tear. The main ingredients in joint supplements - glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and hyaluronic acid - help build, repair, and protect joint tissue and fluid.
Let’s discuss each of these and more joint supplement ingredients in detail.
Main Ingredients in Horse Joint Supplements
Three of the main ingredients you’ll find in joint supplements are glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and hyaluronic acid. These are what we like to call “Mother Nature’s Big Three” because they are forms of the nutrients your horse’s body already produces.
Glucosamine is the building block of chondroitin sulfate, a specific type of polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (GAG). It appears glucosamine has two beneficial actions in joints; Not only does it increase the production of new GAGs and therefore new cartilage, but glucosamine has also been shown to inhibit the enzymes that break down cartilage. This small but complex sugar molecule has an important role in both the production and protection of joints.
Chondroitin sulfate is synthesized by chondrocytes, the living cells inside cartilage. Chondroitin sulfate is the building block of the much larger molecules hyaluronic acid (HA) and proteoglycan (PG). Chondroitin sulfate also stimulates the production of new cartilage while inhibiting the enzymes that break down cartilage.
Scientific research on the joint supplement Cosequin
 suggests more beneficial effects were seen with the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate versus either ingredient alone.
Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a nonsulfated glycosaminoglycan (GAG) that is synthesized in two places: by the chondrocyte cells in cartilage and by the synoviocyte cells in the joint lining. It is an integral component of both joint cartilage and joint fluid, providing lubrication between surfaces.
Hyaluronic acid is what makes joint fluid “sticky,” and provides shock absorption. It is a long, chain-like molecule to which the proteoglycan molecule attaches. Since it has been shown through research to maintain cells in the joint, providing HA orally may be particularly useful during times of joint stress.
Other Key Ingredients in Joint Supplements
Some joint supplements include other traditional and novel ingredients, such as:
- MSM - (Methylsulfonylmethane) Highly bioavailable source of organic sulfur to help form, build, and repair the cartilage matrix. MSM has anti-inflammatory properties, meaning it helps support a normal inflammatory response.
- Vitamin C - A potent antioxidant, vitamin C protects tissues throughout the body and is required for collagen formation. Vitamin C has antioxidant properties and is vital in the production of connective tissues, including cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.
- Glutamine – This amino acid plays a key role in the recovery and repair of many types of tissues. While glutamine is not an essential amino acid, the body has the most of this than any other amino acid. Still, the body’s production of glutamine may not be able to keep up with its consumption, hence why supplementation can be a good option.
- Collagen - The primary structural protein that makes up connective tissue throughout your horse’s body. You may see this listed on a supplement label as “hydrolyzed” collagen, or gelatin which means it has been broken down into smaller pieces that are more readily available for absorption. Collagen supports joint health by addressing cartilage deterioration, supporting a normal response to inflammation, and managing discomfort associated with exercise.
- Resveratrol – A type of natural phenol, it is part of a plant’s defense system against disease. Resveratrol has been demonstrated to support joint integrity. This antioxidant is known for its ability to protect cartilage from the damaging effects of free radicals and to help address joint inflammation associated with heavy work.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa) - A plant in the ginger family that has been used to flavor food, add color, and provide health benefits for thousands of years. Its main active substance, curcumin, has been found to exert beneficial effects on many areas of the body, such as joints, the respiratory system, immunity, and the GI tract, but it is perhaps most valued for supporting a normal response to inflammation. The key benefits of turmeric supplementation include supporting a normal response to inflammation and helping address the discomfort that may occur with exercise.
- Devil’s Claw - A South African herb used to help maintain comfort in bone, joints, and other tissues. Data from 14 clinical trials in people conducted over the last 40 years suggest devil’s claw has beneficial properties in the musculoskeletal system. It is also listed on the US Equestrian Prohibited Substance list, so we do not recommend selecting a supplement with this ingredient if you plan to show your horse at rated shows.
- Boswellia - A type of tree or shrub that grows in tropical regions of Asia and Africa. It produces a gum or sap-like substance that contains many biologically active agents known to have therapeutic value in the body. Some of these naturally-occurring compounds are said to interfere with the enzymes that contribute to inflammation and discomfort.
- Jiaogulan – An herb that stimulates the vascular system to promote circulation and structural hoof health.
- Super Oxide Dismutase (SOD) - The body’s most effective antioxidant. SOD is the first line of defense against free radicals that can damage the cells in joint structures.
- Avocado/Soybean Unsaponifiables (ASU) - A vegetable extract made from avocado and soybean oils that helps protect cartilage and works synergistically with both glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to provide additional joint support.
- Green Tea Extract - This antioxidant helps protect the horse’s body from the damaging effects of free radicals, which may be released during times of stress, injury, or activity.
- Silica – Helps maintain the strength of soft connective tissues and supports hard tissue growth and density. Silica has also been found to have beneficial uses in would healing, maintains the appearance of skin, hair, and hooves, and is a requirement for cartilage to form.
Continue reading about each of these ingredients in-depth by visiting SmartPak’s Supplement Ingredient Glossary.
Research Behind the Absorption of Joint Supplement Ingredients
There are misconceptions abound in the area of the absorption of supplement ingredients, but fortunately, several studies show that all the major joint supplement ingredients – glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, hyaluronic acid, and MSM – are absorbed from the digestive tract and available for use throughout the body
Researchers reported that within two weeks of giving a product containing glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to unsound horses, the lameness grade, flexion test, and stride length were significantly improved
. This study showed that horses with tarsal (hock) degenerative joint disease showed a significant reduction in gait asymmetry after receiving oral supplements indented to support joint health for two weeks compared to a placebo treatment.
Further, an eight-year study demonstrated that consistent use of an oral glucosamine and chondroitin supplement resulted in a decreased need for distal tarsal joint injections to maintain soundness in a group of show hunters/jumpers
Regarding the absorption of MSM, a study by Pratt
 used MSM with radio-labeled sulfur and demonstrated an absorption rate of 55%. A study performed in Europe showed that MSM exerts a protective effect on oxidative and inflammatory exercise induced injury in the horse
, or in laymans terms, MSM has been shown to help reduce wear and tear of joint tissues caused by exercise. There are a number of other studies that show the benefits of MSM specifically in horses to the musculoskeletal system (especially joints), respiratory system, and skin.
And research hasn’t just been done on the fundamental joint ingredients that we all know and love – new, innovative ingredients are also being researched. In fact, a team of veterinarians recently studied the effect of giving resveratrol to performance horses with hock lameness. They found that the horses that received joint injections and the supplement containing resveratrol were significantly less lame on the basis of objective criteria (i.e. Lameness Locator) and subjective criteria (i.e. rider assessment of horse performance) than the horses that received joint injections and the placebo
. This suggests that supplementing with resveratrol may be beneficial in horses with hock lameness.
Read the clinical papers listed below in the references section or go to our Equine joint supplement research to learn more.
Reading and Understanding Your Horse’s Joint Supplement Label
Now that you know which ingredients to look for in a joint supplement, it’s time to select a specific product. First though, know how to evaluate an equine supplement manufacturer and read a product label. Try to choose companies that:
- Provide a guaranteed analysis. This shows the minimum amount of each nutrient.
- List their product’s complete ingredients on the label.
- Include ingredients that are backed by research in their products and are willing to share studies validating such ingredients.
- Have a reputation to protect and aren’t willing to risk everything for a quick buck.
- Don’t make bold claims or direct references to curing or treating disease on the label – this is the surest sign of a bad actor.
NASC Quality Seal
Another key sign of a high-quality company is membership in the NASC or the National Animal Supplement Council. The NASC is a not-for-profit organization formed by a group of supplement manufacturers to bring some level of accountability to the industry. The NASC has implemented standards for labeling and manufacturing so consumers will know what they are getting for their supplement dollar. Only NASC member companies that have been audited by the NASC for manufacturing, labeling, and adverse event reporting are permitted to use the NASC Seal of Quality. So whether you’re looking to prevent joint problems, maintain your horse’s soundness, or repair damage to a joint, consider including a high-quality joint supplement in the treatment plan outlined by your veterinarian.
Joint Supplement Resources and Shopping Tips
- Horse Owner’s Guide to Shopping for Joint Supplements
- Equine joint supplement comparison chart
- SmartPak’s Top 10 Joint Supplements
- Biopharm Drug Dispos. 2004 Apr;25(3):109-16. The bioavailability and pharmacokinetics of glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate after oral and intravenous single dose administration in the horse. Du J, White N, Eddington ND.
- Proc 17th Equine Nutr Physiol Soc:141-2. A study of the absorption of methylsulfonylmethane in horses. Pratt SE, Clarke AF, Riddolls L, McKee S.
- Watts, AE, Dabareiner R, Marsh C, et al. A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of resveratrol administration in performance horses with lameness localized to the distal tarsal joints. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2016 Sep 15;249(6):650-9.
- Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS; Patricia E. Almeida, MS, DVM; Marta Prades, DVM, Diplomate ACVS, Diplomate ECVS; Jennifer Brown, DVM; Caroline Tessier, DVM; and Joel L. Lanovaz, BS, MS. Double-Blind Study of the Effects of an Oral Supplement Intended to Support Joint Health in Horses with Tarsal Degenerative Joint Disease. 2002 /Vol. 48 /AAEP PROCEEDINGS
- Intern J Appl Res Vet Med. Vol. 4, No. 2, 2006. Effects of Oral Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfates Supplementation on Frequency of Intra-articular Therapy of the Horse Tarsus. Martha R. Rodgers, VMD.
- Acta Vet Scand. 2008 Nov 7;50:45. The effect of methyl sulphonyl methane supplementation on biomarkers of oxidative stress in sport horses following jumping exercise. Maranon G, Munoz-Escassi B, Manley W, et al.
- Orth MW, Peters TL, Hawkins JN. Inhibition of articular cartilage degradation by glucosamine-HCl and chondroitin sulphate. Equine Veterinary Journal Suppl. 2002;(34):224-229.