Performance horses are subjected to stresses on a daily basis. Horse owners, in turn, do everything possible to keep them healthy and comfortable so they perform to their highest potential. Spa therapy, magnetic blankets, ceramic wraps, joint supplements, hay steamers, gel-sole booties, massage therapy, acupuncture, vibration plates, and infrared light therapy are just some of the tools professional trainers and horse owners regularly use on their horses. Digestive support is often overlooked, but it is a powerful tool that can be safely added to any program. The most common form of digestive support is prebiotics and probiotics.
Research on digestive support in horses is still somewhat limited, but there is no doubt pre- and probiotics have a positive effect in a real-life setting. Veterinarians across the country are recommending these supplements in conjunction with antibiotic therapy, trainers are using them on horses that don’t travel well, and senior-horse owners are using them to help prolong the life of their valued companions.
So what are they and how do they work?
In simple terms, PRObiotics are live beneficial microbes that live in the digestive tract. PREbiotics serve as nutrient sources, or “fuel” for probiotics. These microflora are responsible for the health of the digestive tract, mental state of the horse, and the immune system. Although more research is needed, there is encouraging evidence that pre- and probiotics are very helpful in treating diarrhea, reducing digestive disturbances, improving brain and memory function, and enhancing the immune system.
Many factors can alter the microflora in the horse’s gut.
Sudden changes to diet, administration of drugs, dehydration, colic, stress from training, and travel can all have a dramatic impact on the balance of microbes in the digestive tract. Stress alone causes changes to hormone levels, immune responses, and other functions which in turn causes changes to the microbial populations. The digestive tract is typically capable of adjusting to these factors over time, but in the meantime, the horse may lose weight, lack mental stability, and have poor performance.
Adding a daily pre- and probiotic supplement, or choosing a feed with built-in digestive support, can help prevent some of the unwanted effects caused by an unbalanced gut. The simple act of adding pre- and probiotics to the diet can improve the immune system and enhance the horse’s defense of harmful pathogens. Pre- and probiotics can also increase the amount of nutrients absorbed from the diet which in turn helps with weight gain and body condition.
Providing horses with daily digestive support in the feed helps maintain balance and diversity of the intestinal bacteria, and promotes a healthy population of “good bacteria”. Human researchers have linked pre- and probiotic use to improved digestion, better hormonal balance, higher immune function, less inflammation, and lower stress response.
Our knowledge about pre- and probiotics is still in its infancy, but scientists are going so far as to call the microflora in the gut another organ. It is becoming incredibly clear that microbes in the gut directly influence physical and mental health. As we continuously search for new and innovative ways to help our horses cope with stresses of performance, veterinary care, and old age it is safe to say pre- and probiotics are a very safe and effective tool to add to your program.