Elk Velvet Use in Horses

by Dr. Clinton J. Balok

Horses have been a part of the American West for centuries. The animals were used for work, war, pleasure, and even food. Today, many working ranches still rely on the horse to gather and move cattle, brand and work calves, sort and separate animals, and visit neighbors. Pleasure and recreation, however, is the primary use of these animals today. Racing, rodeo, horse shows, trail rides and pleasure riding are popular in all fifty states and Canada. Keeping these animal athletes fit and healthy is a mega-million-dollar per year industry.

"Wait a minute," you say. "This is an elk breeder's publication. What is all this stuff about horses?" Well, there are millions of horses in the work and most of them suffer from various wounds, strains and sprains throughout their lifetime. If the elk breeders of the world, particularly those involved in the production of velvet antler, could access this potential market, the elk industry would thrive into eternity. But until we produce some data and educate this industry, we can't blow our horn. This article represents some initial work into a new potential market. The work is inconclusive an embryonic at best, but certainly work the effort. Mention it to your veterinarian. Try one of the quality products on the market on your animals and see if you detect a response. Although we are excited about the possibilities, more work needs to be done, and more people need to hear about it. Velvet antler is not a panacea, but it has tremendous potential and the horse will not lie to you. He will either feel better or he won't.


As I watched my assistant, Royce lead the powerful bay mare away from me ant then back toward me, I realized her persistent foreleg limp was as bad or worse than the last time I had seen her. When standing, the graceful animal shifted her weight and pointed her painful-foot away from her body to ease the pain. She was owned by a young Navajo girl and was a top-performing, barrel racing horse. She was a running quarter horse and had spent the early part of her life on the racetrack. Many rodeo horses in our area of the Southwest get their start on racetracks. Rodeo is the favorite sport in this region, and only the best horses successfully compete in the demanding competition.

Star was suffering from a painful, often career-ending condition known as navicular disease. Navicular disease is a degeneration of a small bone in the foot of a horse called the navicular bone. The disease generally occurs in horses that stop and turn hard, and usually the horse is affected in the prime of its life. Star was nine years old and barring injury would have been competitive for many more years. During the course of my career, I have seen countless valuable horses either retired or destroyed because of this ailment.

I discussed the prognosis and option possibilities with the Navajo family, and the sobbing young lady finally realized the gravity of her horse's lameness. I had previously searched the literature for a reference to use of velvet antler in horses, and had found none. Based on the often dramatic results we were seeing in dogs for treatment of chronic arthritic conditions, I mentioned velvet antler use as a possibility in Star's treatment. I explained the experimental nature of the treatment and told them the worst-case scenario would be no change in Star's condition. Other options included continued use of anti-inflammatory drugs such as butezolidin or Banamine, corrective shoeing and even a surgical procedure called a posterior digital neurectomy. I do not approve of the surgical procedure, which involves severing the sensory nerves to the navicular area, because it merely affects the horse's ability to perceive pain and numbs the entire posterior aspect of the foot. The family elected to try velvet antler in combination with Banamine and to totally rest Star for 30 days. We would reevaluate Star at that time and decide how best to proceed.

When Star returned in thirty days, I detected significant improvement in her condition. I could still see a slightly abnormal gait, but the shifting of weight and pointing of her affected foot were no longer noticeable. Her spirits were excellent, and she was in fine condition. The family told me they began noticing a difference in her about fifteen days after we had started treatment. Star was on five grams of powdered velvet antler daily, and I decided to reduce the dosage to three grams daily. The powder was mixed into a sweet grain mixture to improve palatability.

I advised the family to start star back into training from light to heavy workouts over the next few weeks. I also suggested they continue to use Banamine after competing. Star did not win her first race after her long layoff, but she did not come up lame. She continues to compete but with less frequency than before, and seems to be holding her own. Is Star's improvement only a transitory effect, or has the velvet antler improved the environment of the navicular bone? I can't answer this, and time will tell. I do know, however, that the use of this product has improved a chronic condition, if even for a short time.

Our hospital and several other hospitals, including a major university teaching hospital, are currently evaluating the use of velvet antler in navicular disease. It is too early to draw conclusions on the effectiveness of the compound, but we will report our findings as more animals are tested.


As I watched Jeff unload the big sorrel from the trailer, I was shocked at the horse's condition. His entire body was swollen; even breathing was an effort. The swelling extended from his head to his hooves, and his feet were throbbing and hot. Jeff is a rodeo cowboy, and his horse helps him pay his bills as they compete in rodeos around the country. Jeff team ropes and steer wrestles, and takes excellent car of his animals. "Doc, are we gonna have to put him down? He can't move, won't eat or drink. Me and this horse have been through a lot, and I can't stand to see him suffer like this."

"Jeff, he's in bad shape, and he may never be the horse he was. We'll have to treat him and see how he responds." The horse was suffering from a condition known as Purpura hemorrhagica. A few weeks earlier we had treated this horse for distemper, or equine strangles. This is a bacterial disease caused by streptococcus equi. It causes large abscesses, usually under the jaw, in the mandibular lymph nodes. These abscesses have to be opened and drained, and normally recovery is incidental. In some cases, the bacteria con compromise the immune system of the horse, causing the animal to bleed into its muscles. Jeff's horse was one of the worst cases I had ever seen. My immediate concern was pain relief, but my long-term concerns were permanent muscle damage, laminitis and, most importantly, loss of athletic ability.

Jeff's horse was started on high doses of penicillin, steroids and velvet antler at the rate of five grams daily. The powdered antler was mixed into a paste with molasses and administered orally with a large syringe. Within a few days, the horse began responding and his appetite returned. As the swelling receded, he began moving with much greater ease. The antibiotics and steroids were discontinued after ten days, but he remained on velvet antler. Thirty days later, the horse appeared normal in every respect, and Jeff stated that he was as competitive as ever.

Four months later, the horse performs as well as he did before his illness, and his owner says, "I don't know what that stuff is, but my horses will be on it forever." The human literature states that velvet antler boosts the immune system, speeds soft tissue repair, and increases muscle activity and recovery. In this case, it helped to just that. I must again caution folks. This is not a cure-all; it is just another weapon in our arsenal of drugs to treat disease and injury. Would this horse have recovered as quickly and as effectively without velvet antler? Possibly, but my feelings are probably not.


"Royce, these x-rays are not good. Your uncle's horse has a condition called high ringbone, and the prognosis is not good at all. We have tried everything known to equine medicine, and a few other things, but the results are the same. This is an arthritic condition of the small bones of the lower leg, and the animal will get progressively worse."

Ringbone is another chronic arthritic condition of horses, caused by hard use, and it usually ends the careers of competitive horses. This particular horse was a steer wrestling horse, and a good one. It was not uncommon for several cowboys to mount this animal in a rodeo for a share of his winnings. We have tried blisters, pin firing, freeze firing, anti-inflammatories and numerous home remedies on this condition to no avail. Generally, the horse goes until he can no longer perform and is retired.

I explained the condition in detail to Royce, and he understood we were experimenting. We started the horse on five grams of velvet antler for thirty days, followed by reevaluation. Royce explained to his uncle what we were doing, and they took the horse home.

A month later, I asked Royce what the situation was with his uncle's horse and why they had not brought the horse back. He explained to me that the horse had quit limping a couple weeks after starting the velvet, and that they were using the horse again. "Have they used the horse in completion again?" I asked.

"Yeah, they used him last weekend. He ran thirteen times and placed first and second."

I was dumbfounded. This is a situation veterinarians deal with constantly. One more race, Doc, one more run. Many times the well being of the animal is secondary to winning. I have not seen this horse again, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions; but thirteen runs in one day sounds pretty substantial.


The cases presented in this article are clinical observations. Many other conditions in horses are being evaluated, and much more work needs to be done before we can draw any conclusions.

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©1998-2008 Sportswell Limited. All rights reserved. All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for veterinary advice or treatment for specific animal conditions. The FDA and the USDA have not evaluated the statements on this site. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease in animals. You should seek prompt veterinary care for any specific animal health issues and consult your veterinarian before starting a new health or fitness regime. Deer velvet is a dietary supplement. As animals differ, so will results. Use of this online service is subject to this disclaimer and the Terms of Use