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How To Improve Your Horse's Gut Health

January 21, 2022

How's your horse’s gut feeling? Is his digestive tract on track? Stomach a little acidic? Hindgut need an overhaul? The importance of supporting your horse's gastric system is something we hear often in the equine world. But good gut health is more than a trendy buzz word. The state of your horse’s digestion is a gauge for his overall wellbeing—and it's a rather delicate system to keep in line. In other words, if your horse doesn’t have a healthy gut, you don’t have a healthy, happy horse.

So how do you keep your horse’s digestive system healthy and active? This blog will get you up to speed on how the equine gut works, what happens when it doesn’t, and what you can do to help your horse’s digestive system perform better.

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Facts About the Horse Digestive System

It’s helpful to understand the mechanics of our equine friend’s digestion before we dive in, so let’s review some biology for a moment. A horse has two major components to its digestive system: the foregut and hindgut. You’ve probably heard of both. Maybe you've even wondered what their respective jobs are. Let’s talk briefly about each.

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The Foregut

A horse’s foregut includes a stomach and small intestine. Because the average equine stomach is relatively small—with a capacity of about 2.5 gallons—food passes through it quickly. That’s why horses can graze almost nonstop. In fact, horses will spend about 16 hours a day grazing pasture grasses if allowed. Foraging is their MO, what they’re wired to do. And since a horse is made to munch, its stomach is built to handle the almost constant flow of incoming forage by continually secreting acid to help digest it.

The Hindgut

The hindgut in horses includes the cecum, large colon, and small colon. It’s basically a large-capacity fermentation vat that holds about 25 to 30 gallons. With the help of trillions of friendly bacteria, the hindgut breaks down and ferments all that fibrous forage horses nibble on and turns it into volatile fatty acids they use for energy

The hindgut also allows horses to absorb and utilize all the minerals, vitamins, and amino acids they need for survival and optimal health. Pretty important work, right? Now we’re getting an idea of how crucial the hindgut is to proper horse nutrition and how dire a problem if it’s not fermenting and digesting food properly with the help of healthy bacterium. Let’s talk about those all-important gut bugs a bit more.

The Role of Horse Gut Microbiome

A horse’s intestinal tract contains a diverse neighborhood of coexisting microorganisms, including fungi, parasites, protozoa, archaea, viruses, and bacteria (National Library of Medicine). This community of microorganisms interacting in a specific space—like the equine hindgut—is known as the microbiota.

Like humans, each horse has its own distinct and rich population of gut microbiota. It’s like a unique fingerprint—or hoofprint, as the case may be—and has a direct impact on basic equine health. When helpful colonies of bugs are balanced and working together in harmony to ferment feed and make life-giving nutrients bioavailable, they have an incredible influence for good on a horse’s:

  • Nutrient absorption
  • Metabolism
  • Disease protection
  • Immune system
  • Weight
  • pH level
  • Gut lining

Factors that Influence Equine Gut Health

We know a horse’s gut is an amazing nutrient factory and health booster—but it’s also extremely sensitive. Many factors can affect your horse’s microbial balance and ability to maintain a healthy gut, including (National Library of Medicine):

Common Gut Problems & Symptoms in Horses

Disorders stemming from the factors above can arise in both the equine foregut and hindgut—with both exhibiting similar symptoms throughout a horse’s body. Here are some of the most common gut issues.

Ulcers in Horses

It’s the dreaded six-letter word any horse lover hates to hear: ulcers. They’re a pernicious problem, affecting up to 90 percent of racehorses and 60 percent of show horses, as well as non-performance horses and foals. Get the basics on ulcers in horses in this blog by equine educator Julie Goodnight.

Foregut ulcers in horses occur when acid builds up (usually because a horse is not eating frequently) and erodes the stomach lining. Colonic or hindgut ulcers in horses are caused by factors that disturb the gut microbiome. Ulcers are notoriously difficult and—as many horse owners will second—painfully expensive to treat when using pharmaceuticals.

This AAEP article notes equine ulcers are typically caused by one or more of the following instigators:

  • Stall confinement
  • No social contact with other horses
  • Limiting feed to twice a day
  • High-grain diet
  • Stress (environmental and physical)
  • Training, performing, and showing 
  • Hauling
  • Mixing groups of horses
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Worried your horse may have ulcers? Look for these typical signs of ulcers in horses (UC Davis):

  • Poor appetite
  • Dullness
  • Attitude changes
  • Decreased performance
  • Reluctance to train
  • Poor body condition
  • Poor hair coat
  • Weight loss
  • Low-grade colic
  • Girthiness
  • Grinding teeth

Hindgut Problems in Horses

Lots of things can go wrong if your horse’s hindgut isn’t operating at full function. Here are some common disorders and symptoms you may notice if your horse doesn’t have viable fermentation taking place in the hindgut:

  • Poor appetite
  • Poor feed utilization
  • Colic
  • Dehydration
  • Poor hair coat
  • Reduced immune function
  • Poor hoof quality
  • Changes in attitude
  • Laminitis
  • Hindgut stasis, inflammation, and ulceration
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Decreased performance
  • Reactive when being saddled

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8 Ways to  Provide Gastric Support for Horses

We’ve learned a bit about the equine gut, how it works and what factors can decrease its performance. Now let’s focus on the upside. What can you do to help ensure your horse’s gut stays in optimal fermenting and fighting form? Here are eight recommendations.

1.  Frequent Feedings & High-Quality Forage

Giving your horse plenty of free-choice access to hay or pasture grass is the first place to start improving your horse’s digestion. A slow and steady supply of high-quality forage will neutralize the continual production of acid in a horse’s stomach and suit his natural need to graze.

If your horse is stabled and frequent turnout time just isn’t feasible, try a slow-feeder container or hay net. It simulates grazing and keeps feed in front of your horse without overloading. Daily Gold Stress Relief is also a simple and natural solution to help buffer excess gastric acid and keep pH levels in the stomach neutral.

2. Make Feed Changes Gradually

Making a sudden feed change can throw your horse’s hindgut microbiome into chaos. A horse’s digestive tract needs time to transition to any new food, and equine nutritionist Dr. Juliet Getty recommends doing it this way:

If you have to change hay every few weeks… do a little advanced planning and set aside a few bales of old hay while slowly switching over to the new hay. You may find yourself regularly blending old and new hays since it is best to take approximately one week to make the adjustment. If you’re adding a commercially fortified feed to your horse’s diet to meet additional energy demands, make sure he already has some hay in his belly before feeding a concentrated meal. If you need to introduce a new product, take two to three weeks to safely change to a new feed.”

3. Limit Grain Consumption

Though high-quality forage should be the foundation of a horse’s diet, concentrates like oats, corn, and pelleted grains are still commonly fed—even though they’re not necessary to meet every horse’s dietary requirement. An overload of grains, which are naturally high in starch, can lead to lactic acid accumulation, hindgut acidosis, and diseases like colic, metabolic acidosis and laminitis.

Free-choice grass hay with an appropriate vitamin and mineral supplement is adequate for most horses with lower caloric needs. If your horse needs additional calories and you choose to feed grains, feed them in small amounts. A hard-working horse should receive less than 4.5 pounds of grain per meal if feeding twice a day. Also look for commercial feeds with highly digestible fiber and fat over starches and sugar.

4. Decrease Environmental Stress

HubSpot Video

Horses are emotional creatures, and situations of all sorts can be gut-churning experiences for them. Limiting stressful physical and environmental factors will keep your horse happier and ease the stress on the gut. Here are ways to do it.

  • Address your horse’s job description. Is he overworking or struggling under the pressures of competition or showing? Consider lightening the load.
  • Horses are creatures of habit who thrive on consistency, so keep to a regular feeding, training, and exercise schedule.
  • Let your horse socialize with other friendly pasture pals to help him stay relaxed and engaged. If your horse is stalled, situate him where he can see and interact with other horses.
  • Ample grazing and/or constant access to forage reduces physical and emotional stress and will help keep your horse, and his gut, happy.
  • Maximize turnout or paddock time by giving your horse adequate (though not excessive) exercise. It’s great for boosting endorphins and keeping things moving along in the gut.
  • Add a healthy mineral Rock on a Rope, ball or other toy to your horse’s stall or paddock as a stress and boredom buster. 
  • Traveling also creates stress in horses and can affect their digestive systems. Follow the three tips in the video to your right from Dr. Jessica Huntington to keep your horse healthy on the road.

5. Routine Dental Care

If a horse has a problematic tooth or dental abnormality, he may be unable to chew properly, leading to longer forage length in the gut and difficulty digesting food. Have your horse’s teeth examined regularly for problems.

6. Deworm Regularly

Dangerous parasites can infect and breed in even well-cared for horses. An infestation may disrupt gut function and cause diarrhea, weight loss, colic, or other health risks. Talk to your vet about a specific plan for deworming and stick with it.

7. Discontinue Drugs

NSAIDs—short for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—are used to treat inflammation and pain. The two most used in horses are Bute and Banamine. While they reduce pain levels, they also wreak havoc on a horse’s gut, causing harmful side effects like diarrhea, loss of appetite, and a dull attitude—all clinical signs of more severe colic-related problems (USEF). Want to help keep your horse’s digestion normal? Nix the NSAIDs.

8. Add Daily Gold Digestion and Ulcer Supplement for Horses

Redmond’s all-natural Daily Gold gut and ulcer supplement is one of the best ways to help your horse maintain a steady, healthy digestive system and stay in peak form. Daily Gold comes in three forms: original powder, pellets for increased palatability, and a quick-relief syringe

A horse that’s dealing with disrupted digestion needs gentle and natural gut support. That’s why Daily Gold is made simply, without dyes, artificial flavors, added sugars, or fillers. It contains healing montmorillonite (bentonite) clay that coats and soothes a horse's gut and helps restore normal function by:

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Thousands of horse owners have helped improve and maintain their horse’s gut using Daily Gold. It’s an effective, affordable—and best of all, a completely natural equine ulcer supplement and gut balancer for horses. Click below to try it today and get your horse’s digestion, health, and performance levels back on track!

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Sources:

  1. The Basics of Equine Nutrition – Rutgers
  2. Introduction to Digestive Disorders of Horses – MSD Manual
  3. Factors Influencing Equine Gut Microbiota – National Library of Medicine
  4. The Gut Microbiome of Horses – National Library of Medicine
  5. Equine Hind Gut Health – Retired Racehorse Project
  6. Digestive Anatomy and Physiology of the Horse – Iowa State University
  7. Equine Gastric Ulcers: Special Care and Nutrition – American Association of Equine Practitioners

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