Spices have been used in human diets for millennia and not just for their flavour – they have a variety of beneficial effects, many of which are now better understood via scientific research. Only relatively recently have most spices been fed to horses in the UK, although they have likely been used in other parts of the world for some time. Three that are becoming more widely fed to horses are turmeric, ginger and cinnamon. These can be fed to horses as fresh rhizome or bark, powdered, or in tincture form.

A rich golden yellow spice made from the root rhizome of Curcuma longa, turmeric is a traditional curry ingredient. It is a powerful antioxidant and would have been useful – along with other curry spices – in preserving food. The yellow colour of the spice comes from a group of pigments called curcuminoids , which make up around 3-4% of turmeric, and are believed to be the main source of the spice’s properties. Traditional use of turmeric seems to have been for digestive support, and recent researchers have proposed that curcumin may have activity in the gut cells independent of absorption, which could have a variety of health benefits. Research to date has shown potential for curcumin in the treatment of a wide range of health problems, including cancer, colitis, arthritis, diabetes, atherosclerosis, wounds, and cognitive disorders, and over one hundred clinical studies have been published. Turmeric is supplemented to horses mostly for joint support and digestive support, but recently it has seen a surge in popularity for a whole range of disorders. The bioavailability of curcumin has been questioned, and researchers are looking for methods to increase it, including using encapsulations, nanosuspenions and liposome-curcumin complexes. Some recommend that turmeric is fed to horses with vegetable oil to aid absorption, and also pepper, due to its piperine content. Piperine increases the bioavailability of a wide range of compounds (and therefore should be used with care for horses given drugs).

Turmeric rhizomes and powder.

Ginger is another yellowish spice, from the rhizome of Zingiber officinale, of the same family as turmeric, and a well-known culinary spice also used in drinks. Traditional use of ginger was for digestive support, osteoarthritis and rheumatism, and in more recent times it has been widely used for motion sickness. It is thought to help travel sickness via action on the digestive tract rather than centrally. Research has shown that ginger acts on inflammatory mediators and a number of clinical trials have shown efficacy (effectiveness) in human patients with osteoarthritis. It is also under investigation as a protective agent for stomach health. Ginger has been fed to horses for joint support for some years, although more research is needed to help understand how it works and what other beneficial activities it may have for horses. Researchers at Rutgers University, New Jersey found that ginger extract reduced cardiovascular recovery time in horses exercised to fatigue. Ginger could have more applications for horses than simply joint support!

Ginger rhizome.
Ginger rhizome.

A rich brown spice traditionally associated with puddings and also used in curry, cinnamon is made from the inner bark of Cinnamomum trees. Rich in volatile oils and tannins, cinnamon – like turmeric and ginger – has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Traditionally, cinnamon was used for digestive disorders, colds and flu. More recently, it is used for diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome in humans, and for insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and Cushing’s syndrome in horses. Researchers have shown a blood-glucose lowering effect of cinnamon in type 2 diabetes patients. Research is required before we understand how this spice affects glucose and insulin balance in horses, but it is quite widely used alongside careful management in horses and ponies affected with obesity, insulin resistance, laminitis and/or metabolic syndrome.

Cinnamon sticks (bark) and powder.
Cinnamon sticks (bark) and powder.

The warming, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of a variety of spices could hold a great deal of beneficial effects for horses. There are combination supplements and tinctures available if you prefer not to handle the brightly coloured powders!

Please note: Always consult a qualified veterinarian if your horse has a health problem – do not attempt to diagnose and treat yourself. Dietary supplements can help to support health but should not be used instead of proper veterinary care and attention.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.