Joint Supplements: What’s Hip and What’s Hype

By: Dr. Lydia Gray

A 20-year-old grade 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 of 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 whether they are old or young, in heavy training or used recreationally, or 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 ingredients.

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, 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 molecule proteoglycan (PG) and 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 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.” It is a long, chain-like molecule to which the proteoglycan molecule attaches.

Some joint supplements include other ingredients, known as co-factors, such as:

MSM—source of organic sulfur to help form the cartilage matrix, also has anti-inflammatory properties
Vitamin C—required for collagen formation, also has anti-oxidant properties
Manganese, copper and zinc—needed for the synthesis of GAGs and collagen

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 a 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.
  • Have performed independent scientific research on their product and are willing to share that information (while rare in the industry, it does happen)
  • 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.
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.

SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.