Curcumin, derived from the turmeric plant, is a spice that recently become popular to feed to horses as a dietary supplement. It has purported anti-inflammatory benefits and is used in horses with laminitis, arthritis, metabolic syndrome and other health conditions.

Turmeric has long been used in traditional herbal medicine to help relieve symptoms associated with digestive, skin, respiratory and joint disorders. There is growing medical and veterinary interest in turmeric for common disorders such as liver disease, skin problems, arthritis, infections, and digestive complaints. [1]

Turmeric contains more than 300 active compounds, the majority of which are polyphenols with antioxidant effects. Curcumin is the most well-studied polyphenol with extensively documented anti-inflammatory properties.

Horse owners typically feed turmeric supplements to help with osteoarthritis, joint stiffness or pain, skin irritations, sarcoids and ulcers.

While turmeric is well-researched in other species, there is limited clinical data about the effectiveness of this herbal extract on horses. This article reviews the academic research on turmeric and discusses the potential benefits for your horse.

Before adding a supplement containing turmeric to your horse’s feeding plan, consult with our equine nutritionists for free by submitting your horse’s diet online.

What is Turmeric?

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a plant that originates from Southeast Asia and is a member of the ginger family. The turmeric stem (known as the rhizome) is used as a spice in cooking and is considered to have medicinal properties in traditional herbal medicine.

Curcumin is one of the primary active compounds within turmeric. It gives turmeric its yellow colour and is the main source of medicinal properties. [1]

Interest in turmeric’s biological properties dates back to more than a century ago. Curcumin was first isolated from turmeric in 1815, and its chemical formula was identified in 1910.

By 1937, curcumin was credited with helping to treat biliary disease in 67 patients. It was recognized for its antibacterial properties in 1949, and in 1972 curcumin was identified as helping to reduce blood glucose levels in diabetic patients. [2]

More recently, curcumin has become a compound of interest in the veterinary world. It can now be found as an ingredient in companion animal feeds and in livestock and equine supplements targeting various ailments. [3]

Active Ingredients

The main active polyphenols found within turmeric that are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties are free curcuminoids.

The three main curcuminoids are: curcumin, desmethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin. [1][2]

As the most bioavailable of the three curcuminoids, curcumin is the best researched. Once digested and circulated in the blood, curcumin is metabolized into curcumin-O-sulfate and curcumin-O-glucuronide. [3]

Research shows that curcumin has extensive biological properties, including: [4]

  • Antiviral
  • Antifungal
  • Antibacterial
  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Pro-apoptotic (promoting controlled cell death)
  • Anti-proliferative

These benefits are attributed to the chemical bonds found within curcumin, including beta-diketone, and unsaturated bonds, methoxy groups, hydroxy groups, and double-conjugated chemical bonds.

Curcumin binds to various targets such as COX-2 and also works indirectly by activating various proteins, enzymes, growth factors, and transcription factors. [3]

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Benefits of Turmeric for Horses

Turmeric is commonly fed to horses to help with a wide range of conditions. A survey of horse owners found that it is chiefly supplemented for osteoarthritis (61%) and lameness issues (31%). [5]

What does the research say about feeding turmeric to your horse? Below are the top 6 benefits of turmeric for horses.

1) Inflammation

Curcumin’s beneficial effects are mainly related to its anti-inflammatory properties which can benefit a variety of physiological processes in the body.

In a study with 11 horses and ponies, supplementation with 10 grams of a blend of green tea and curcumin extract decreased the inflammatory response to a systemic immune challenge. The supplemented equines had lower expression of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-1 beta after an acute immune challenge with lipopolysaccharide compared to supplemented animals. [18]

Little research has been done to directly compare the effects of nutritional supplements to pharmaceuticals such as NSAIDs. In one study using isolated immune cells from horses, polyphenols including curcumin reduced inflammation as effectively as common NSAIDs. [19]

Therefore, curcumin and other polyphenols may provide an alternative to NSAIDs but more research needs to be done in vivo.

2) Metabolic Health

Metabolic health relies on proper insulin signalling to support blood sugar regulation. Horses that experience insulin resistance and insulin dysregulation have a higher risk of several other health conditions.

Research shows that horses with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) are more likely to develop painful and debilitating laminitis, as well as other osteoarthritis. EMS is similar to Type 2 Diabetes in humans.

Supplementing with curcumin has been found to support insulin sensitivity and stabilize blood glucose levels in diabetic mice and in vitro laboratory models. In animal models, it has also been shown to decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, which are major contributors to insulin resistance. [6]

The improvement in insulin sensitivity attributed to curcumin may also occur through bile secretion. Bile acids stimulate the secretion of hormones from the intestines, which in turn enhance insulin secretion and sensitivity.

However, horses are continuous bile secretors, unlike mice and humans. For this reason, it is unclear whether turmeric supplementation will have the same effect on equine insulin resistance as seen in mice and laboratory models. [7]

3) Joint Health and Arthritis

Curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory compound that influences inflammatory pathways associated with osteoarthritis in all mammals.

With an ageing equine population across the U.S. and Europe, there is growing interest in natural anti-inflammatories, to avoid the side effects of commonly prescribed drugs such as NSAIDs. [8]

In horses, curcumin has been found to down-regulate COX-2, an inflammatory mediator in osteoarthritis. Curcumin has also been found to increase interleukin 6, an anti-inflammatory cytokine that plays a role in protecting cartilage integrity. [11]

Cytokines are chemical messengers within the body that increase and decrease levels of inflammation.

Matrix metalloproteases (MMPs) are produced by chondrocytes (cartilage cells) in joints affected with osteoarthritis. MMPs degrade collagen and proteoglycan, which are the building blocks of a healthy joint. [8]

Curcumin suppresses pro-inflammatory cytokine and MMP production by preventing their gene expression. This reduces inflammation and joint degradation. [9][10][11]

Research Results in Horses

In one study, a turmeric supplement containing 150 mg of curcumin was administered to 7 mares with chronic osteoarthritis and 15 foals with osteochondrosis (a developmental orthopedic disorder).

Supplementation decreased pro-inflammatory cytokine production and increased anti-inflammatory cytokine production in all horses. This suggests a potential reduction in joint inflammation, although horse movement was not assessed within this study. [11]

In a small study, three horses with fetlock joint arthritis were supplemented with 50 mg of turmeric (containing 3.19% curcumin) per kg body mass to assess the effects on mobility. Turmeric was supplemented with 15 ml linseed oil and black pepper (six turns on a hind grind dispenser) to increase bioavailability.

A further three horses with fetlock joint arthritis were used as controls and were not supplemented.

The results found that after 10 days of turmeric supplementation, the three horses were more mobile and appeared to have a better mood.

Mobility level and moo