Owning a horse is a the never-ending quest to have healthier, happier, sounder animals—and athletes. So when a new “miracle” product comes around, it’s tempting to give it a try.
With loosening governmental restrictions, cannabidiol (CBD) health products are shedding the stigma of generations past and increasingly finding their way onto feed room shelves and into tack trunk drawers. Even Olympic medalist dressage rider Steffen Peters uses it.
But like all health products, not all CBD products are created equal. Many are not backed by research. Others make unsubstantiated claims. And some aren’t worth the bottle they’re packaged in.
We caught up with Warren Byrne, president of CannaHorse, to learn how to sort through the CBD hype. A lifelong equestrian, Byrne is currently working with researchers to develop a line of scientifically backed cannabis supplements specifically for horses.
These are, he says, red flags to keep an eye out for in a CBD product.
1. Products that make dosage claims without research
Cannabis is not like other medicines in that dosages are not standardized—in animals or humans. Byrne cites the example of bute. “Bute is bute. It doesn’t really matter which pharmaceutical company makes it,” he explains. “It’s basically the same.”
With cannabis, the whole plant and the target condition impact the dosage requirement.
“Cannabis is an interesting medicine in that it can help with a number of different conditions at the same time,” he continues. “That means it’s going to have different dosage levels for different desired effects. Anxiety is one that you typically need a higher dose. You can see dosages up to 100mg for anxiety in humans.”
Here’s the catch: no dosage studies have been done in horses yet.
“Anyone giving dosage recommendations would be extrapolating from human data and not equine data,” says Byrne. “It’s really just guessing at the moment. I’d be weary of how they came up with that dosage; where is that information coming from?”
2. Products that reference studies done on other species
Because cannabis was an illegal substance for so long, research on its medicinal properties is still in its infancy. While there’s much to be learned, we do know is that different strains yield different effects, depending on the individual.
“You may have heard the phrase ‘no strain, no gain.’ That means one strain of cannabis may make one person very anxious, while the same strain may settle someone else’s mind. So each individual product is very different and the dosage of one product is not going to be the same as another product,” explains Byrne.
Given that variation, research trials from one product cannot be used to ascertain the dosage of another. “Studies done on humans and other animals are interesting, it’s somewhat validating, but it’s not necessarily transferable,” says Byrne. “You cannot extrapolate from their data because it’s essentially a different medicine.”
A good CBD supplement will have research on not only the strain, but the actual product. CannaHorse is currently conducting research trials in Prague, CZE analyzing the bioavailability of each product in its line.
3. Any product that contains extremely low levels of CBD
While therapeutic dosages of CBD have yet to be determined in both humans and horses, extremely low levels of CBD is a red flag.
“One of the big issues with dosages is what goes in is less important than what is detected on the other side. What is important is the active dosage,” explains Byrne.
“Dealing with an oil or pelleted product that is absorbed through the gut, you have two factors at play. One is that the equine gut is not a great place for medicines to be absorbed. Theoretically, it should be filled with roughage and should never be empty, which slows uptake.
“Two, uptake through the stomach simply isn’t great. With a human product you’re looking at about 14%. So if you’re putting 50 to 100 milligrams into the horse in a traditional oil or pellet-based product, you may only be getting seven to 14 milligrams passing through to the blood—that’s not enough for a human,” says Byrne.
CannaHorse has partnered with a patented emulsion provider to turn its CBD products into a nanoemulsion, which operates at a bioavailability of 40 to 50% as opposed to 14%.
“Our product will work faster and we’ll need to use less to achieve the same result,” he says, noting that no animal products are currently using nanoemulsion at the time.
4. Products that make medical claims
While there are several ongoing research studies examining the effects of CBD in equines, there is currently no science to support any claims of “treating” medical conditions in horses.
“At least for horses, it’s not backed in science,” says Byrne.
So if a CBD product makes medical claims—as a treatment for laminitis, Cushing’s disease, abscesses, or ulcers, for example—dig a little deeper, he advises.
“Health Canada has not yet approved a horse health trial in Canada. So, if they’re claiming to have done trials, where are they doing them? Ask for a link to the study. You should be able to know where it was done, who did it, and importantly, whether it’s been peer reviewed. That costs a lot of money.”
Note: Anecdotal evidence (“It worked for my horse!”) is not scientific research.
5. Pelleted supplements
CBD products in pellet form are yet another red flag, continues Byrne. In this case, it’s not the CBD content in the pellet during manufacturing per se, but what happens once the pelleted bags are opened.
“Studies suggests that pellets are not a stable administration form for cannabis products,” he states, citing ongoing research by Murray State University in Kentucky. “The concentration seems to be degrading over time.”
The same effect has also been observed in cannabis flower products.
“If you leave a high THC, dried cannabis out on the table for two weeks, the THCA oxidizes and it becomes CBN, which is going to make you sleepier,” says Byrne. “So a product that’s in a bin, that’s open to the air, it’s going to degrade over time.”
CBD oils, in comparison, are naturally protected from oxidation. In either case, a quality CBD product will have been tested at multiple points in the supply chain and had a shelf stability test.
“Our products are grown in Colorado on approved farms. The hemp flower is tested for cannabinoid and terpene content, heavy metals and pesticides, that sort of thing. Once that’s turned into a raw oil and a 85% distillate, it will be tested again before it’s sent to the emulsion provider where it’s tested again on the way in and the way out. Once packaged, it’s tested a final time. So, we’re testing five times throughout the process,” explains Byrne.
CannaHorse products have at least a one-year shelf life. “We know that because shelf stability tests have been conducted on the patented nanoemulsion method we use. It’s much more stable and consistent,” he says.
6. Short withdrawal times
CBD regulations in horse sport are confusing and ever changing. In racing, some jurisdictions have a blanket ban on CBD, while others do not. The FEI, in comparison, has a zero tolerance policy as does the USEF and Equestrian Canada. In other words, if your giving your competition horse CBD, you’d better be sure of the withdrawal time and it’s not likely to be short.
“I’m seeing claims for withdrawal times that absolutely don’t add up,” says Byrne. “In humans, you’re looking at 30 to 45 days if someone has been using THC or CBD on a long-term basis. There’s no logical reason that horses will be able to clear that out of their system in the seven to 10 days that some products are claiming.”
While it’s possible that horses might metabolize CBD and THC faster than humans, it’s not likely, he continues. “That’s not been the case in lab studies involving other animals.
“Horse people need to be very careful with that. If you’re using a CBD product on a one-off basis, the horse would probably be clear in a few days; but if a horse was on it for long-term use, you’re looking at a much longer window.”
7. Any products or supplier that just doesn’t seem right
As a general rule, if the product doesn’t look or smell like a pure cannabis product, avoid giving it to your horse. A high quality CBD oil should have a golden or honey color to it; if it’s a significantly different color, texture or smell, other ingredients may have been added during the production process or it hasn’t been properly processed. The more ingredients in a product, the harder it is to know what’s actually in the bottle.
“If it doesn’t look like a human product, it’s not suitable for your horses either,” says Byrne, advising consumers to be curious and ask questions. “If a company won’t answer your questions, that’s a red flag.”
If you’re shopping online, how you’re asked to pay for the product is yet another. In the U.S., hemp products for animals seem to be permitted permitted by the 2018 Farm Bill. In Canada, animal CBD products are illegal under federal law, despite being legal for humans.
“A good rule of thumb for online cannabis products in Canada, if you have to pay by e-transfer, it’s an illegal website,” says Byrne.
CBD products hold tremendous potential for improving the health and wellness of horses. But at this early stage, there’s many more unknowns than facts.