equine diet

Managing the equine athlete from the inside out, and why probiotics are so important to digestive health.

Most performance and competition horses are bred along specific lines for the sports they compete in. Theoretically, this give them the “the edge” in competition, be it barrel racing, reining, cutting, endurance, dressage or any other competitive sport. But all these horses are under a lot of stress from the rigors of training, competition, travel and other factors. So when it comes to getting that extra edge, the key is your horse’s health – and overall health is ultimately derived from digestive health.

Developing a healthy digestive tract

To achieve digestive health, your equine athlete needs the best nutrition possible, along with high potency pre/probiotics. This combination promotes and maintains microbial balance within the intestine, and the absorption of all nutrients. It also gives your horse the energy he needs to help him be the best he can be. To prevent ulcers, which are so common among horses in competition, it is necessary to feed frequent small meals by way of slow feeders. In addition, it’s important to make sure your horse has eaten prior to training, or just prior to competition, so that his digestive acids breaking down feedstuffs and not burning an empty stomach lining.

Let’s look at your horse from the inside. When a horse starts grinding food with his teeth, his mouth releases enzymes, and that begins the food’s approximately 75 to 100-foot journey through the digestive tract. 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. Soluble carbohydrates, along with minerals, fats and proteins, are absorbed in the small intestine. Insoluble carbohydrates that are not so easily digested, as well as any undigested soluble carbohydrates, then pass to the cecum, or the “fermentative vat”, before moving into the large intestine. A variety of live microbials in the cecum break down the remaining nutrients into viable, usable forms – among these are absorbable volatile fatty acids that the horse uses for energy and nutrients.

What is microbial digestion?

Microbial digestion is the breakdown of organic material such as hay and grass, and especially concentrated bag feedstuffs, by microbial organisms. This is the basic function of the horse’s large intestine, and it can be seriously damaged by prolonged or heavy dosing with antibiotics or sulfonamides and other drugs. 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 de-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 de-worming on occasion, and do experience 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 increases the possibility of food-related allergic conditions.

A combination of select bacteria (microbials/probiotics) at approximately ten to 20 billion or more CFUs (colony-forming units) per serving/scoop, along with digestive enzymes and yeast, will help support and maintain a healthy digestive tract in your equine athlete, giving him more stamina and energy. If your horse is competing or training heavily, then the higher dose would be recommended. In her “Nutrition as Therapy” course, Dr. Eleanor Kellon quotes Dr. Scott Weese, DVM, as saying: “… at minimum, a microbial feed additive needs between ten and 20 billion live CFUs per serving size, minimum, to have any effect in a horse.” Dr. Juliet Getty, PhD in Equine Nutrition, concurs that the guaranteed CFUs have to be in the billions, not the millions.

Digestive disturbances

A far too common cause of digestive disturbance can be starch and/or sugar overload, which can come from grazing on rich spring grass, eating a diet too high in sugars (including concentrated grain type feeds), or adding oil from GMO crops (such as corn oil) to bucket feeds. All these can disrupt beneficial microbials, causing partial die-off of good gut bacteria, which raises acidity in the gut and alters the natural pH balance. The result is massive destruction of the normal micro-flora, which can inhibit the absorption of vitamins and other nutrients essential to good health and superior performance.

Unfortunately, the microflora/microbial balance in a horse’s gut can be upset much faster than it can be restored. Beneficial intestinal bacteria can be depleted or destroyed and the pH of their environment severely altered by many situations, although the effects may not show up immediately. Your horse may just seem a bit off with no explanation, and you may think nothing has changed, but the truth is, he is not able to digest his feed and convert it to the energy he needs in order to compete.

Selecting a probiotic blend

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 supporting the immune system, reducing inflammation, preventing diarrhea, and helping to prevent gas and gas colic; they may even help prevent some types of impaction colic.

Combining probiotics and yeast cultures with digestive enzymes is an art, and if you can find a product that also includes natural vitamins C, E and D, minerals such as zinc and copper, colostrum and extracted beta glucan from mushrooms, then you have found an excellent product.

Dr. Joyce Harman of Harmany Equine Clinic has been an advocate of probiotics for horses for a long while, and is now also advocating mushroom beta glucan as an immune modulator. In her recent article “10 Herbs for Your Horse” she states: “Exciting research with immune system and cancer treatment support has been done with mushroom beta glucans or its extracts (as can be found in Mushroom Matrix products). The beta D-glucans appear to stimulate immunity for a broad spectrum of conditions. Extracts of the D fraction can be obtained in glycerin, which is palatable to many species.” A few companies have been using mushroom beta glucans in some probiotic blends for over 20 years now.

Your performance horse needs some extra support for his digestive health in order to keep him in winning form. When searching for a probiotic supplement, do your research and read the labels carefully. Your horse is only as good as what you feed him!

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Jessica Lynn regularly contributes articles to various national and international horse publications. She is the owner of Earth Song Ranch, is an Equine Nutritionist, and a feed and supplement manufacturer based in Southern California, specializing in immune enhancing probiotics blend. Her products include EquineZyme and Equine Zyme Plus and she is also a distributor for Mushroom Matrix (mushroom beta glucans) and Horse Tech Products. Jessica has been involved in alternative health care, herbs, homeopathy and nutrition for almost 40 years, as well as barefoot hoof care for over ten years. Contact Jessica@earthsongranch.com or 951-514-9700; visit earthsongranch.com for numerous published articles on equine digestive health.