6 ways to promote a horse’s gut health

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6 easy ways to promote your horse’s gut health

Your horse’s gut health affects everything from his temperament to his immune system, so it’s important to make it a priority. Here’s how.

We all want the best for our equine partners, and optimum health is right up at the top of the list. As with humans, a horse’s ability to absorb nutrients is of paramount importance in maintaining health and well-being. In fact, the central role that gut health plays in the overall health of your horse may surprise you.

A 2015 USDA NAHMS study notes that GI issues are the second leading cause of death among equines. Other studies indicate between 50% and 70% of working horses can have gastric ulcers, or experience an overly acidic or inflamed gut. Dr. Bill Gilsenan, internal medicine specialist at Lexington’s Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, notes : “Even minor changes in the GI tract can have very large negative consequences.”

Dr. Olivia Rulolphi, DVM, member of the USEF Endurance Team Veterinary Commission, agrees, and observes that gut health impacts every system in the body. To maintain optimal digestive functioning, horses must have a proper gut environment, including optimal “good” bacteria levels and pH balance, especially in the hind gut – the site of fermentation – from which the horse derives over 70% of his energy.

Thankfully, there are number of easy ways to support your horse’s all-important gut health without breaking the bank.

1. Access to high-quality forage

Horses have a “trickle-in” digestive system that’s meant to ingest forage on a continual basis for optimum health. The colon, notes Dr. Gilsenan, never empties — nor should it, because its stability in terms of temperature, pH balance and bacteria is paramount to proper digestive functioning, and therefore to maintaining health.

However, Dr. Rudolphi advises, if your horse already has an irritated or inflamed digestive tract, try limiting long-stemmed roughage and incorporating more easily-digested forage, such as soaked hay cubes or pellets, until the inflammation diminishes.

2. To grain or not to grain?

It depends. Some breeds, such as those that evolved in harsh conditions, are able to maintain health on much less nutrition than, say, Thoroughbreds, who typically need higher protein counts than other breeds. So, first and foremost, determine the needs of your horse with the help of your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist. One-size-fits-all does not apply here.

If fed in excess, the sugar levels in grain can impact the health of the hoof and might result in metabolic disease in breeds that store fat readily, notes Dr. Gilsenan. But in all breeds, it’s important to remember that sugar in grains can have a large negative impact on intestinal flora necessary for digestion.

The goal, says Dr. Rudolphi, is maintaining balance. She notes that not every horse should be cut off carbohydrates, but a large load, especially if introduced too fast, can cause a pH imbalance and inhibit digestion by creating a more acidic environment due to the breakdown of sugars being digested.

Keep in mind that horses didn’t evolve eating grain, so make sure you’re feeding judicious amounts. If you have to make changes in feed, do it slowly – stability in the equine diet is of paramount importance, especially when it comes to gut health. Increasing or decreasing amounts too quickly can cause problems.

3. Supplements for gut health

Supplementation isn’t always necessary, but it’s a great way to support your horse’s health. Dr. Rudolphi suggests buying encapsulated digestive aids, such as bicarbonates or electrolyte mixtures designed to balance an acidic overload. These won’t be digested in the stomach and will pass to the hind gut where the supplements can be fermented and so digested.

Editor’s note: To ensure the quality of the supplements you give your horse, reach for those that have received the NASC Quality Seal.

Several Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, fish oil, flax and plant oils may help decrease inflammation in hind gut disorders.

Psyllium, too, is helpful in absorbing and eliminating toxic loads, aiding digestion, adding bulk to the diet, and managing water in the gut. This is especially useful in sandy areas of the U.S. where too often grit is ingested, inhibiting digestive viability.

Several Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, fish oil, flax and plant oils may help decrease inflammation in hind gut disorders.

4. Antibiotics and probiotics

According to Dr. Gilsenan, “There’s simply no alternative to administering antibiotics when there’s a need.” However, he advises supplementing them with a course of probiotics to protect intestinal bacterial balance.

In addition to probiotics, you can include the hind gut buffer sucralfate, an oral medication. Its coating properties support the mucus lining and so mitigates against an overly acidic environment, which can impede gastrointestinal wall healing.

5. Limit use of chemical dewormers

Our perspective has changed on intestinal parasites over the last ten years. “We’ve realized that we’ll simply never get rid of them all,” says Dr. Gilsenan. Rather than routinely deworming your horse every three months, even if you rotate the dewormers, he advises doing a fecal test twice a year, say in the fall and spring. “Testing for levels of worm burden will sort out those horses who are constitutionally resistant to worms from those that are susceptible to them.” Then you can treat only those horses that need it.

Why should we do this? “Just as in human antibiotic use, the overuse of dewormers can result in developing resistant strains,” says Dr. Gilsenan. In other words, you may be doing more harm, than good, in the long run, by routinely deworming when there is no need.

The use of unneeded dewormers can negatively affect gut health by damaging the gut wall, allowing undigested nutrients to pass into the bloodstream. Leaky gut syndrome is something we all want to avoid. Overuse of dewormers can also damage the GI tract wall and result in ulcerations, muscosal thickening and inflammation, leading to horses that aren’t able to absorb nutrients.

The use of unneeded dewormers can damage the gut wall, allowing undigested nutrients to pass into the bloodstream.

6. Exercise

Horses evolved as roaming herd animals, which means horses out on pasture 24/7 do best. Movement stimulates digestion and reduces the body’s stress levels, so there should be a concerted effort to get stalled horses turned out every day. With performance horses, be vigilant about overwork, which stresses both mind and body, and make sure they get enough “down time”. As with people, horses that are relaxed and have a balanced amount of exercise, are more likely to have a healthier happier experience.

Overall, it’s clear that gut health is of paramount importance to the overall health of your horse. But, just as with people, each horse has unique and specific needs, and these can change as he ages and his workload changes. Know your horse, and be wise in selecting just the right interventions at the right time to ensure his safety and health.