How Joint Supplements Work

The first joint supplement for horses came out in the 1980s and was a chondroitin sulfate only product, followed by products containing Perna (green-lipped mussel). In the early 1990s, a patent was granted for the first equine combination joint supplement containing glucosamine, chrondroitin sulfate and manganese.  The market has grown tremendously since then, and with good reason.

It would be amazing if an animal the size and weight of a horse didn’t develop joint stress with what we expect of them. The stress is also cumulative so that even horses that are not upper level athletes can eventually develop joint issues over time. Things like being overweight, poor/imbalanced hoof care and less than perfect conformation also contribute.

Fortunately, the horse’s body is equipped with ways to balance these normal challenges to the joint and we can support efforts to do so by providing the correct nutrients.

Joint health begins with providing the young horse the materials needed to develop strong bones and joints. This requires correct levels and ratios of minerals including ultratrace minerals like boron and silica and good protein intake with adequate essential amino acids as the base. Whey and hydrolyzed collagen are rich sources of key amino acids for connective tissue such as joint cartilage and for bone. Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) may assist in maintaining a balance between cytokines involved in breakdown, remodeling and repair. Vitamins C, D and K play pivotal roles in cartilage and bone formation.

The three most familiar ingredients in joint support supplements are glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid). All three are naturally occurring components of healthy joint fluid, cartilage and the connective tissue matrix of bone. In addition to being structural elements in these tissues, they also serve important homeostatic functions.

Glucosamine has been found to support the expression of enzymes synthesizing hyaluronic acid as well as components of cartilage and help maintain balance between the activity of cells which break down versus build bone. Glucosamine also facilitates a healthy balance between cytokines favoring tissue destruction and those which repair and build.

Chondroitin sulfate has a similar action in supporting a healthy anabolic (builds) catabolic (breaks down) balance.  In fact, the actions of glucosamine and chondroitin complement each other.

Hyaluronic acid is a major contributor to the slippery, lubricating properties of joint fluid and it has many other functions, including the support of cell division and participating in normal clean-up and repair activities. Its presence in the joint cartilage gives it fluid holding capacity and resilience.

Vitamin C is critical to health of both bone and cartilage as well as soft tissues of all types because it plays an essential role in the formation of collagen, the basic protein of all these structures. Horses can manufacture vitamin C but it is unknown how well they compensate when requirements are high.

A number of herbs have been used for joint support, including Devil’s Claw, Boswellia and Yucca.  They all have in common antioxidant actions and support of a healthy homeostasis between anabolic and catabolic activity.

Your horse’s skeletal system takes a pounding every day. Supplementing the nutrients which support his ability to deal with these inevitable challenges and maintain healthy bones, joints and connective tissues is one of the best decisions you can make.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD



About Dr. Kellon

Graduate of University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions,, industry and private nutritional consultations, online nutritional courses. Staff Veterinary Expert at Uckele Health and Nutrition .
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