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What is Living in the Horse’s Gut and How it Influences Health

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There seems to be more and more discussion about the bugs, or microbes, that live in the gastro-intestinal tract of animals, including the horse and human. Particular attention is being directed to the microbes that live in the hind gut of the horse. This microbial environment of the hind gut is often referred to as the microbiome.  Research regarding the equine microbiome have been conducted since the late 1980’s, and have continued to evolve with the advent of technological advances in assessing and categorizing microbiomes. The majority of horses are not being fed a nutrient dense ration like many production animals.  Equine diets are higher in forage and lower in soluble carbohydrate thus, having less risk of negative effects on their microbiome that what we may see in production animals. However, the nutritional advancements utilized in other species can positively benefit the equine microbiome and contribute to improved health in the horse.


There are several nutritional advancements influencing the equine microbiome that may prove to be beneficial to the horse’s health.  Some medical conditions that compromise intestinal integrity, benefit from a greater understanding of the equine microbiome and how these nutritional advancements can positively impact the health and well-being of the microbiome and the horse. Improper feeding practices in horses can lead to an imbalance in the microbiome resulting in an excess of undesirable bugs (pathogenic bugs) leading to any number of inflammatory bowel disease conditions, such as colic or laminitis. Any feed related actions that are associated with an increased risk of colic/laminitis are probably causing some degree of microbiome disruption. The severity of that disruption will determine the need for medical intervention. Some groups of horses such as equine athletes and geriatric horses are always at greater risk than others for digestive upset. Equine athletes consume a higher percentage of their diet as soluble carbohydrate, and also experience greater stress on a regular basis such as trailering and changing environments. Both the competitive equine athlete’s diet and stressful environment can contribute to the compromised microbiome. Geriatric horses experience age related reductions in total digestive efficiency both in the fore and hind gut.  .


Several new products and recent technologies that directly impact the microbiome may provide for greater digestive health and efficiency. Several have been applied to aid in addressing disrupted microbiome and associated gastrointestinal conditions. There are those such as short chain fatty acids, glutamine, zinc, selenium and vitamin E which have been shown in other species to have anti-inflammatory effects and able to improve intestinal tissue integrity in animals with colitis. These ingredients when added to the diet demonstrate improved microbiome health and intestinal tissue health. Probiotics and prebiotics are another group of feed ingredients that have shown positive effects in other species toward the microbiome and associated gastro-intestinal health. Providing pro- and prebiotic ingredients in feeds, or as supplements, can provide the same benefits to horses at a relative cost.   Lastly, some buffering agents have shown some benefit to the microbiome environment by maintaining a desirable pH in the face of diets that may cause an undesirable change in hind gut pH.  There are several products available for the equine that take advantage of these recent nutritional technological advances in feed supplements (Equilistic®)  or complete feeds (all Excel Equine® feeds).   For the majority of horses under good management and being fed a predominantly forage diet, the equine microbiome remains alive and well.