February 22, 2021
A healthy gut is one step towards a healthy horse. While we like to think of our horses as sturdy creatures, their digestive systems are delicate. A horse's gut is also long - at about 100 feet. Helping to keep this system balanced takes management, proper feeding, and specific supplements.
The horse's digestive system
Image courtesy of Dechra
It's a long and complicated road from the hay net to the manure bin. Let's break down the horse's digestive system:
The mouth and esophagus
The digestive system starts with your horse's mouth and esophagus. Your horse's teeth start digestion by adding saliva to the chewing action. Saliva contains digestive enzymes to begin the food breakdown process.
From there, the chewed meals and forage travel through the esophagus into the stomach. The esophagus is a transport tube made of muscle. The one-way cardiac sphincter separates the stomach from the esophagus and does not allow for burping or vomiting. Occasionally a horse will have food lodged in their esophagus, creating choke. Choke is a veterinary emergency; your vet needs to step in to help your horse.
The horse's foregut - stomach and small intestine
Once inside the stomach, your horse's meal mixes with hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes produced by the glandular mucosa, the lower part of the horse's stomach. The glandular mucosa also secretes bicarbonate and mucous to protect this region from the acids. The upper part is the squamous region and does not offer protection from your horse's stomach acids. When there is no forage in the stomach, those acids can interact with the squamous portion and create gastric ulcers.
The next stop is the small intestine. The small intestine does add some digestive ingredients, and most nutrient absorption happens here. The foregut expertly digests forage. However, large concentrated meals often zip through. The starches and sugars associated with fortified feeds and concentrates are insufficiently broken down, resulting in a large influx of sugars to the hindgut.
The horse's cecum, large colon, small colon, rectum
The cecum is a large sack, with only one opening that serves as the entrance and exit for your horse's food. Millions of microbes live here and break down the fiber in your horse's forage. These bugs also release some more nutrients for your horse. Due to the traffic at the cecum's opening, there is a chance of blockages happening here. Internal parasites taking up residence here compound the likelihood of blockage.
The colon reabsorbs water from the feed. Your horse's colon makes manure, and the colon houses its own set of microbes as well. As grain and concentrated feed meals zoom through the foregut and into the hindgut, those microbes quickly eat the sugars. Unfortunately, this can create sudden and long term health problems. The pH of the gut changes as the microbes eat and digest the sugars. A pH disturbance produces uncomfortable gas, a mass die-off of other microbes, and dangerous endotoxins that lead to colic and laminitis.
At the end of the line is the rectum and anus, which frequently deposit the manure for you to pick up. And that's how hay ends up as manure!
Horse health and feeding tips for maximizing gut health
A horse's digestive system can easily get upset. With a few simple feed and management techniques, you help your horse have the best digestive health.
Feed your horse a forage-based diet
Hay and pasture are the best foundation for your horse's diet. Hay comes in several forms, too, from long-stem in bales to cubes and pellets. Pasture grass is higher in digestible nutrients than hay, but not all horses can tolerate the starch and sugar levels, which fluctuate throughout the day and season.
Encouraging your horse to eat his hay slowly is often a challenge. The digestive system works best when there's a continuous input of forage. Using slow feeders, like hay nets, is one way to keep the hay input slow and steady. There are slow feeders and toys available to help your horse eat his concentrated meals a bit slower, too.
Hay before grain
To slow down the speedy movement of grains and feeds, allow your horse to have hay before his meals. The hay provides a physical barrier for the concentrated feeds, allowing the stomach and small intestine to digest more starch and sugar instead of sending larger amounts into the hindgut at once.
Feed your horse's feeds and grain throughout the day
Small and frequent meals do the trick, preferably after some hay or pasture. Spreading out concentrated meals also gives you a chance to check on your horse more frequently.
Make sure your horse's water is fresh and unfrozen
Clean your horse's buckets, tubs, and troughs regularly, and change the water regularly. Horses usually prefer to drink cold water, but they will drink more warm water if available. When given a choice, most horses will choose the cold water. Either way - it needs to be sparkling clean.
Add water to your horse's meals and hay
Using water in your horse's meals has several benefits. You help keep your horse hydrated, the meals will be less dusty, and supplements and medications can stick to the delicious tasting morsels.
Soak your horse's hay for the same reasons! In a large muck tub, place a hay net filled with hay. Add water and let things soak for five to 15 minutes. Pull the hay net out, and you are ready to feed.
Feed your horse on the ground
When possible, have your horse eat his meals in a neck-down position. This stance mimics the posture of grazing. Place mats on the ground under your horse's bowls and tubs to minimize your horse eating any grit. Sand in the digestive system can create blockages and colic.
Minimize the amount of time your horse spends in a stall. The movement supports a horse's mind, body, and digestive system. Exercise, turnout, and grazing are all great ways to keep your horse moving.
Fecal egg counts and targeted deworming
Work with your veterinarian to develop a targeted deworming program for your horse. The American Association of Equine Practitioners has new deworming standards, which include twice yearly fecal egg counts to check your horse's parasite load of ascarids. Your vet can advise you about the results, what medications to give, and when to administer them.
Popular Dewormers Amongst Corro Customers Include:
Supplementation and gut health support
There are many digestive aids to support your horse's gut health. These are all readily available:
Omeprazole is the gold standard in ulcer prevention. Ulcergard® is an over-the-counter omeprazole paste that works to reduce the volume of acid that the stomach produces.
Probiotics are live microorganisms, typically bacteria or yeast, that help your horse's hindgut. Generally speaking, give probiotics if you suspect your horse will be stressed or have digestive issues. Probiotics are usually lactobacillus bacteria and are measured in colony-forming units (CFU). CFU's indicate how much of the live bacteria will be viable when the container expires.
Prebiotics are ingredients that are beneficial to the bacteria your horse has in their gut. They are not alive like probiotics are! Prebiotics usually contain the ingredients mannan oligosaccharides (MOS) and fructo oligosacchrides (FOS).
Electrolytes replace the salts and minerals that a horse loses when sweating. Give electrolytes before your horse sweats, and they will help stimulate the desire to drink. In colder weather, electrolytes can remind your horse to keep drinking!
Psyllium is a unique ingredient in horse supplements. It turns into a jelly-like substance inside your horse's gut in an attempt to bind to sand and flush it out.
Hindgut buffers prevent drastic changes in your horse's hindgut pH. For horses with a high risk of colic, gas, and laminitis, hindgut buffers may reduce the risk.
Your veterinarian is an excellent source of information and guidance when designing your horse's feeding schedule and supplements.
Here are top gut-related supplements that Corro customers use to help support their horse's gut:
Probios Dispersible Powder
Probios Dispersible Powder is a probiotic that aids in digestion and promotes a healthy digestive system. It contains live, naturally occurring microorganisms. It's also suitable for use with foals and adult horses as well as cattle, swine, sheep, goats, and pets. You can also get Probios as Feed Granules.Shop This Product
Uckele Equine G.U.T. Digestive & GI Support Pellets
UCKELE Equine G.U.T. Pellets Horse Supplement features a blend of probiotics and prebiotics to sooth digestive function. It maintains proper gut flora with prebiotic and probiotic support for stomach, foregut, and hindgut. It also comes in a paste and powder form.Shop This Product
MannaPro Opti-Zyme Microbial Supplement
MannaPro Opti-Zyme Probiotic Horse Supplement is a source of naturally occurring viable yeast, enzymes, and probiotics that help promote optimal digestion in your horses.Shop This Product
MVP Exceed 6-Way Pelleted Supplement
MVP Exceed 6-Way Pelleted Supplement not only contains prebiotics and probiotics for better digestion and immune health, it also includes a nourishing formula supports joint, gastric, vascular, hoof, coat, and digestive health.Shop This Product
Perfect Products GastroPrep EQ Paste
GastroPrep EQ is a fast-acting supplement paste that relieves digestive discomfort often associated with pre-show nerves. GastroPrep EQ contains a blend of natural probiotics that balance gut flora, prebiotics that support the hindgut, acid neutralizers, and other soothing agents that are safe enough for continual use. GastroPrep EQ works for all horses with gastric discomfort, and since it's made with no prohibited substances, it's safe to use before competitions for fast digestive relief.Shop This Product
Squire Stress-Dex Oral Electrolyte Powder
Loaded with electrolytes and vitamins, the Stress-Dex Powder can be administered daily to maintain your horse's health. This supplement is rich in salt, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus.Shop This Product
Farnam Apple Elite Electrolyte Powder
Apple Elite Electrolyte Powder helps to quickly replenish essential minerals lost during exercise. It replenishes vital minerals depleted due to hot weather, exercise, and stress, as well as helps combat dehydration.Shop This Product
Cavalor Electrolyte Balance
A fast-absorbing electrolyte mixture, CAVALOR Electrolyte Balance helps facilitate recovery after physical exertion. It's ideal for use in hot weather, after intense training and competition, or during transportation.Shop This Product
Equi Aid Natural Psyllium Fiber Pellets
Equi Aid Natural Psyllium Fiber Pellets use the natural fiber of premium psyllium seed husks to help remove sand that may enter your horse's digestive tract from grazing or eating off of the ground, and may help reduce a horse's chances of developing digestive colic.Shop This Product
Farnam SandClear Natural Psyllium Fiber Crumbles Supplement for Digestive Support
Farnam SandClear Natural Psyllium Crumbles are perfect for horses that graze or eat off the ground, helping to reduce the risk of digestive colic. The psyllium seed husk in SandClear supports the removal of sand and dirt from the ventral colon and is recommended by veterinarians to keep your horse feeling great.Shop This Product
Cavalor PasSand [DISCONTINUED]
Cavalor PasSand is designed to help sand work its way through and out of the horse's system quickly and effectively while protecting the intestinal lining which isn't achieved with only psyllium. It also includes added probiotics to repopulate the intestines with good bacteria that may have also been removed with the sand.Shop This Product
Finish Line U-7 Gastric Aid Liquid Ulcer Control
Finish Line U-7 Gastric Aid Liquid is a proven vitamin/herbal blend that supports a healthy digestive system, which is critical to maintaining your horse's overall health and happiness. Ideal for gastric health, colic, diarrhea, poor appetite, stress behaviors, weight loss, and immune health.Shop This Product
Cavalor Digest Aid
Ideal for horses suffering from chronic diarrhea or have sensitive digestive systems especially stemming from mycotoxin exposure. CAVALOR Digest promotes and strengthens beneficial intestinal flora, improves digestion, and restores the gut to good health.Shop This Product