Balancing Act

By: Jessica Lynn
As seen in: EWM Vol. 8 Issue 5
A healthy gut is the basis for a healthy horse - here's how probiotics can help

Have you had your Probiotics today? Products like activia have made people more aware of the benefits for themselves, but horse owners are also learning how probiotics can help their horses’ intestinal/digestive health.

Dairy products including yogurt or kefir are not meant for horses. Look for horse-specific probiotics blended with yeast cultures and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which help the fermentation process in the gut and provide essential nutrients for bacteria to properly grow and multiply.

It’s no secret that probiotics are good for your horse’s gut, but did you know they are also loaded with other benefits too? These include reducing inflammation, boosting immunity, preventing diarrhea, and helping to prevent gas and some types of impaction colic.

A Delicate Balance

Unfortunately, the microflora/microbial balance in a horse’s gut can be upset much faster than it can be restored. The effects may not show up immediately, but beneficial intestinal bacteria can be depleted or destroyed and the pH of their environment severely altered by many situations:

  • Stress brought on by sudden changes in food, unseasonable weather conditions, moving, travel, competition, training and showing
  • Chemical worming and vaccinations
  • Parasitic infestations
  • Viruses and fevers
  • The use of antibiotics

Another far too common source of digestive disturbance is starch and/or sugar overload. Grazing on rich spring grass, eating a diet too high in sugars, or relying on concentrated chemically-enhanced bag feeds can disrupt beneficial microbials, causing partial die-off of good gut bacteria. This raises acidity in the gut, changing the natural pH balance and resulting in massive destruction of the normal micro-flora. Recent studies have indicated that the toxins caused by this die-off can lead to laminitis.

Understanding the Digestive System

To fully appreciate beneficial microbials or probiotics, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the role they play in the equine digestive system.

1. When a horse starts grinding food with his teeth, his mouth releases enzymes, and thus begins that mouthful’s approximately 75- to 100-foot journey through the digestive tract.

2. The food mixes with digestive juices as it enters the stomach, where digestive enzymes and billions of microbials begin their work. Although a horse’s stomach is relatively small compared to his size, it is tasked with initiating the breakdown of nutrients using digestive enzymes and stomach acids; very little absorption takes place here.

3. Soluble carbohydrates, along with minerals, fats and proteins, are absorbed in the small intestine.

4. Insoluble carbohydrates that are not so easily digested, as well as any undigested soluble carbohydrates, then pass to the cecum, the “fermentative vat”, before moving into the large intestine. A variety of live microbials that live in the cecum break down the remaining nutrients into a viable usable form – absorbable volatile fatty acids which the horse uses for energy and nutrients.

Microbial Digestion

Microbial digestion is the breakdown of organic material such as hay and grass, and especially concentrated bag feedstuffs, by microbial organisms. It is the basic function of the horse’s large intestine, and can be seriously damaged by prolonged or heavy dosing with antibiotics or sulfonamides, or by relying on concentrated bag feeds.

The population of beneficial live microorganisms in the cecum remains relatively “stable” under normal conditions. As long as a horse is never stressed, never needs to be chemically wormed, is never vaccinated, never has a change in feed, and never needs antibiotics, then the balance should remain unaltered. However, as we all know, horses do experience stressful events, may need antibiotics or worming on occasion, and do have feed changes with the seasons and each load of hay.

Without a strong army of beneficial intestinal bacteria, food moving through the digestive tract is not “fermented” properly, and some remains undigested. When it hits the gastrointestinal tract, this undigested food may lead to colic, bloat, impactions or laminitis, and increase the possibility of developing food-related allergic conditions. A combination of species-specific bacteria, at approximately 20 billion CFUs (colony forming units) per serving/ scoop, along with digestive enzymes and yeast, will help support and maintain a healthy digestive tract in your horse.

Selecting a Probiotic

In her “Nutrition as Therapy” course, Dr. Eleanor Kellon quotes Dr. Scott Weese, DVM, an expert in equine GI tract diseases and veterinary probiotics. He estimates that, at minimum, a feed additive needs between ten and 20 billion CFUs per serving to have any effect on a horse’s intestinal tract/gut. Equine nutritionist Dr. Juliet Getty agrees that there should be at least 20 billion CFUs per serving for a supplement to be effective, and it should include multiple strains.

When selecting a probiotic (yeast culture) feed additive to reintroduce good bacteria after a round of antibiotics, or to maintain or replenish good gut bacteria, study all the products out there, read the labels, and find one that has the highest guaranteed CFU count you can. It should also include multiple strains of beneficial bacteria along with added digestive enzymes.

Just because a bag feed says “added probiotics” does not mean the feed contains enough for your horse, or that the probiotics even survived the pelleting process. The bottom line is – do your homework before you purchase a product or additive, and find out the types and CFUs of the probiotics included. A good product will help support your horse’s whole system, from the inside out!

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