The digestive system is a crucial piece of health and wellness for your horse. There are two primary reasons proper digestion is important to health. First, it’s the vehicle or transportation system of your horse’s nutrition. Without proper digestion, nutrition will not be utilized or absorbed by the body. If the digestive system is compromised, even the best nutrition goes to waste. The second primary reason that a properly functioning digestive system is vital to health is over 70% of the immune system resides in the GI tract. Equine digestive health concerns and issues are sadly, widespread. It’s believed that 1 in 3 horses experiences mild to moderate gastric ulcers and that is just one digestive health concern from a list of many.
Hippocrates known as the Father of Medicine was quoted as saying, “All disease begins in the gut.” That view translates over to your horse’s health. Taking steps to clean your horse’s nutrition, which we will discuss later in this series, will serve to support a healthy digestive system. There will be fewer synthetics and chemicals for the body to filter and cleanse, thus reducing the work and effort to process the nutrients and transport them along the body’s systems. What else can you do to help repair, balance, and support your horse’s digestive system?
The Three Amigos of Equine Digestive Health
For horses that regularly graze on live grass or pasture, they will get these “three amigos” naturally. But for horses that have little to no graze time, or are under higher stresses (performance horses or horses that are ill or injured, horses being hauled for long distances, and so on), these key essentials to equine digestion will need to be supplemented. To maintain proper digestion, horses need prebiotics, probiotics, and digestive enzymes.
Before we explore the details and benefits of these Three Amigos of Equine Digestive Health, it’s important that you acknowledge and have an awareness of a few other crucial pieces to your horse’s digestive wellness. Even the best digestive supplement for horses will be ineffective if these critical factors are ignored.
First is regular dental exams. The feeds that most domestic horses are fed are much less dense and considerably “softer” than what a horse would encounter in the wild. Because your horse has teeth that continuously grow and their diets no longer wear down their teeth properly, it’s imperative that your horse have regular dental exams to ensure that they don’t have long tips. If your horse’s teeth are wearing unevenly, or have protruding tips that need addressing, they can cause ulcers within the mouth. Not only do the painful sores put your horse at increased risk for dental disease and infection, they can also reduce your horse’s ability to grind their food efficiently. As a result, the food matter sent through the digestive system will not be broken down and the accessibility to nutrients from feed can be dramatically decreased. Sometimes, the best digestive aid for horses is found within their care routine. This is especially true when it comes to equine digestive health.
The pH of your horse’s digestive system is regulated in part by the saliva your horse produces. But your horse only produces saliva in proportion to when they are eating and grinding food. So if your horse is like many others that experience long fasting periods of 6 to 8 hours or even longer, it’s common and likely they will be at higher risk for stomach problems and other digestive concerns. Utilizing slow feeders or adjusting your horse’s feed schedule alone can make all the difference in the health and function of their GI tract. Once you’ve had a dental exam completed for your horse and you’ve adjusted their feeding schedule to accommodate their body’s design, you can explore if your horse’s diet contains the Three Amigos of Equine Digestive Health.
Amigo 1 - Equine Prebiotic
A prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines. It helps maintain a healthy environment for the microbial population that promotes the proper function of the horse’s digestive tract. The large intestine of the horse has over 400 different kinds of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. This is one reason it is important to feed an equine digestive supplement that supports this microbial environment.
Amigo 2 - Equine Probiotic
Animals and humans are both full of beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that promote health and balance of the body. Probiotics are strains of bacteria that are known to benefit the body. It’s best if you can use species-specific probiotics when available. There are many supplements that claim to contain probiotics… If you do not see any benefits when adding it to your horse’s diet, it’s a red flag that either the supplement does not contain active or optimal probiotic strains, or your horse’s GI tract needs additional support to balance pH and the environment of the GI tract.
Amigo 3 - Equine Digestive Enzymes
The horse’s body is made up of trillions of cells, and there are different cells for different functions. Enzymes are what make chemical reactions in cells happen. They are vital for life and serve a wide range of functions in the body, including aiding in digestion and metabolism. The horse’s small intestine utilizes enzymes for digestion, so it is important to supplement equine digestive enzymes, especially if your horse does not have regular access to living grass and pasture to graze.
Ultimately, your horse’s microbiome diversity and balance are linked to its overall health. Extensive studies have been and continue to be conducted to explore all of the benefits and connections the microbiome has to various health concerns and conditions. An article featured by theHorse.com shared that a study conducted by Scott Weese, DVM, MSc, Dipl. ACVIM, a professor in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College reported, “...Bacterial populations were different among the six horses studied. This finding suggests that each horse’s microbiome is unique, adapted to each individual and that a “standard” intestinal microbiome might not exist.”
An imbalance or disruption to the gut flora can increase your horse’s risk of colic, diarrhea, laminitis, and much more.
Kathleen Crandell, PhD, equine nutritionist and consultant to Kentucky Equine Research in Versailles states, “Maintaining horses on forage-based diets with minimal amounts of concentrates and avoiding abrupt change in diet are key factors involved in gastrointestinal health.” This aligns with the principles and approaches shared within this series. Raising awareness to how crucial a stable and diverse microbiome is to your horse should increase the understanding that the use of antibiotics, steroids, and other medications, combined with the increasing residuals of herbicides and pesticides within your horse’s environment disrupt the microbial population within the GI tract, additional supplementation of prebiotics and probiotics can be seen as a general rule of thumb to promote health and provide proper care.
If you find you’re not sure if your horse would benefit from additional digestive support, here are some indicators to look out for:
• Your horse is experiencing high levels of stress. Whether mental, emotional, or physical. Note that even boredom or lack of exercise can increase stress for a horse.
• Your care routine has long fasting periods that are beyond your control.
• Your horse is experiencing an illness or is recovering from injury.
• When infectious sickness or viral conditions are spreading in your area and you want to boost your horse’s immune system.
• You plan to vaccinate or chemically deworm your horse.
If any of the following situations align with your horse’s current condition or lifestyle, then supporting them with equine digestive enzymes, probiotics, and prebiotics is highly recommended.
Your horse's digestive system is a crucial part of its overall health and wellbeing. Reach out to your Core Wellness Coach to learn more about effective digestive support products and systems to keep the digestive system at its peak performance.