Gut Health For Horses

The digestive tract is fundamental to the horse’s overall health and wellbeing – not only is it where food is digested and absorbed but it is also an important part of the immune system.

For the horse, the microbial population living in the gut breaks down fibre providing a source of slow release energy – this process is what enables herbivores to thrive on a fibre based diet and is why looking after the good bugs is so important for good gut health for horses.The basic rules of  how to keep the horse’s digestive system healthy on a day to day basis are:

The horse’s stomach is only the size of a rugby ball and so can’t accommodate large meals. As fibre takes longer to eat than cereal mixes and cubes there is no need to restrict the amount fed whereas cereal based feeds can only be fed in small quantities at any one time.

Fibre has many functions throughout the digestive system but it is in the hind gut where it is utilised by microorganisms such as bacteria to produce energy and nutrients such as B vitamins. Fibre-digesting bacteria have important functions for gut health for horses, including keeping harmful species of bacteria at bay. Heat is also produced as a by-product of fibre digestion and so high fibre diets help to keep the horse warm.

The bacteria in the horse’s digestive system thrive in a stable environment. Sudden changes to the diet can cause bacteria to die off as their environment becomes less hospitable. This can result in the production of toxins which may result in problems such as laminitis or colic.

If a horse can’t chew their feed properly then it can compromise the rest of the digestion process. As horses are living longer they are more likely to suffer with dental problems, including loosing teeth. Ensuring that those with poor dentition have access to fibre they can chew easily is vital for horses gut health and their condition.

Using poor quality forage that is mouldy can compromise respiratory health. Cheaper feeds may also contain sources of starch that are uncooked and so more likely to cause digestive upsets. They may also contain poorer sources of protein that contain less of the essential amino acids the horse requires. Dengie alfalfa is one of the very few ingredients grown specifically for horses in the UK – it is not a traded commodity or co-product from another industry.

Around two thirds of a horse’s bodyweight is water so it is no surprise that dehydration can compromise health and performance and the quality of gut health for horses..

Washing out feed buckets and scoops helps to avoid putting your horse off eating as well as digestive upsets. Where horses are competing under rules it is important to ensure that no contamination has occurred with medications that are being used for other horses. Good stock management is also important to ensure that older product is used first.

Sometimes things can go wrong and the horse can experience problems such as loose droppings, diarrhoea and even colic. The following articles may be of help if your horse experiences any of these issues and should help to ensure gut health for your horse!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. I feed 2kgs of Alfa-A Original with 500grams of Performance Plus Balancer a day. It’s hard for me to feed my horse in the morning – can I just give this in one evening feed?

A. Yes you can! Alfa-A Original is a fibre feed so you can think of it in the same way as hay – there is no limit to meal size like there would be for a cereal based feed. If your horse is stabled overnight you could feed 0.5kg of Alfa-A Original with your balancer and then put the other 1.5kgs in a trug that your horse can browse on overnight.

Q. My old boy can’t chew hay very well any more as his teeth are really bad – is it right that this could be causing his diarrhoea?

A. If a horse can’t consume enough fibre then it may result in loose droppings as undigested fibre from the gut gives faeces its structure. Too little fibre in can mean too little fibre out! Low fibre intake can affect gut health for horses, because it could also have an impact on the good bacteria,  allowing harmful bugs  to take over. This can result in  digestive upsets. Make sure you are giving your horse fibre in a form they can manage either short chopped such as Hi-Fi, pelleted such as Grass Pellets or a mash such as Alfa-Beet. You could also try adding a digestive aid supplement to restore a healthy population of bugs and good gut health!

Q. What’s the best supplement I can give my horse to ensure his gut is healthy?

A. Generally speaking the best thing to promote good gut health for horses is a high fibre, low starch diet. You could also add yeast which has been shown to improve fibre digestion and/or prebiotics which are substances that aid the microbial population living in the gut. Most horses and ponies would benefit from these additions apart perhaps from good doers as we don’t want them to be any more efficient at utilising feed than they already are! There are lots of other additives promoted for different health benefits, for example, psyllium husk for sand colic but they shouldn’t be needed for a healthy, normal horse.

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