Maintaining gut health
In previous articles I have talked a lot about the importance of gut health in horses. Your horse’s gut plays such an important role in maintaining health and wellbeing. The gastrointestinal tract works hard to digest feedstuffs, make essential nutrients that the horse can’t produce on its own, protecting your horse from disease and even shaping the behaviour of your horse. Thus, it is vital to maintain gut health and to ensure you are managing your horse in a way that promotes gut health through an understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the equine gastrointestinal tract.
Maintaining gut health in horses requires ensuring that enough forage is provided as horses are designed to eat large quantities of fibre on an almost continual basis and therefore feeding forage is important to satisfy your horse’s behavioural needs. If supplementary feeding is required then it is advisable to begin with highly digestive fibre sources, such as alfalfa and sugar beet pulp, and/or by adding oil to the feed. If feeds containing starch are fed, for example mixes containing oats, barley or maize, then these should be fed little and often to avoid overloading the capacity of the small intestine to digest starch.
If changes are made to the diet they should be done gradually over a period of one to two weeks and this also includes changes to the amount of turnout provided; for example, a stabled horse fed hay moving to 24 hours access to pasture is a sudden change of diet. Other management changes can also impact on gut health, and we know that stress from moving a horse to a different yard can upset the gut microbes as well as travelling and being fed antibiotics. It is also known that having an anaesthetic can impact on the microbial populations in your horse’s gut. A significant element of your horse’s immune system is also located in their gut, which is essential for immune stability and the health of the animal. Therefore, any disruption in the gut can affect your horse’s immunity.
Supporting gut health
In addition to the above measures to help support your horse’s gut health, feeding a gastrointestinal supplement can also be beneficial. Probiotics and prebiotics are extensively used in equine feeding practices to modulate the balance and activities of the gastrointestinal microflora. Prebiotics are described as additives that support microbial growth and one example of this is fructo-oligosaccharides that are not digested by the animal but are fermented by the microbes present in the gut. Fructo-oligosaccharides are included in many gut supplements for horses; however, there is some evidence that they may contribute to the development of equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) in horses and as such it is recommended feeding fructo-oligosaccharides as a preventative measure to horses with a history of EGUS should be carefully considered.
Probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. After antibiotics were banned in the European Union in 2006, alternative substances producing similar effects, such as probiotics and prebiotics, were developed. Probiotics that are used in animal feeds include bacteria and yeasts; however, whilst probiotics containing bacteria have been used in other species and in research trials in horses, there are none currently registered for use in horses in the European Union (EU). There are three yeast strains approved by the EU under the category of zootechnical additives and as part of a functional group of ‘digestibility enhancers’ for use in horses. Yeasts are single-celled micro-organisms that are part of the fungi kingdom. All of the yeasts that are registered are all strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. There is a wealth of scientific evidence that Saccharomyces cerevisiae (S. cerevisiae) has positive effects on health and wellbeing, digestion, gut health, and the performance and behaviour of horses, as well as helping to counter some effects stress and enhance the immune system.
Premier Performance Gut Ease Cookies have been designed to help support gut health and digestion. Each cookie contains 17g of live yeast, which as discussed above, is reported to have wide ranging benefits in horses. The cookies also contain L-arginine, which is an amino acid and a precursor to nitric oxide (NO). L-arginine has been repeatedly shown in other species to protect gastric mucosa (the inner lining) from damage, including gastric ulceration. Studies in horses have also demonstrated the role of arginine-derived nitric oxide in accelerating the healing of gastric ulcers and have shown L-arginine supplementation to enhance ulcer healing. L-tyrosine is also an amino acid and is a precursor for the neurotransmitter’s dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline that help animals respond to stress. When horses are stressed, tyrosine levels may be depleted. Moreover, studies in other species have found tyrosine to support gut microbiota and reduce the risk of gastrointestinal ill health.
Lecithin and apple pectin are included to help maintain gastric health and potentially help prevent gastric ulceration by attaching to the lining of the stomach and preventing it from damage by creating a barrier against acid. The mucopolysaccharide content of Aloe Vera has been shown to be effective in the prevention of gastric ulcers in humans, which has been attributed to the mucopolysaccharides helping to protect the lining of the stomach. Flax seed (also known a linseed) is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fibre. The soluble fibre in flax seed contains mucins that have been shown to have a beneficial effect on gastrointestinal health, whilst the omega-3 content support immune function. Soy flour is derived from soybeans and also contains omega fatty acids, as well as being a good source of protein, including the essential amino acid lysine. Peppermint leaf has also been added for its reported benefits in supporting gut health and digestibility.
Fenugreek is a herb that is commonly included in horse feeds and supplements as research has shown horses prefer this flavour over many others tested, including apple, carrot and mint. Fenugreek has also been reported to help with lowering blood sugar levels and has antioxidant properties. Some horses don’t like the taste of yeast and therefore fenugreek is added to help with palatability of the Gut Ease Cookies, along with a very small amount of molasses (1g). Whilst this amount of molasses helps to bind the ingredients in the cookies and helps with palatability, it provides very little sugar (or energy). Feeding one Gut ease Cookie, containing 1g of molasses, to a 500kg horse provides approximately 0.6 to 0.7g of sugar, which is equivalent to around 0.0014g/kg bodyweight. Recommendations for maintaining gut health in horses are to feed 1g of sugar (in the form of starch) per kilogram bodyweight, which is 1000 times more than the sugar content of 1g of molasses.
Zinc is an essential micro mineral, also known as a trace element, which has a variety of roles in the body, including aiding metabolism, regulating blood sugar and supporting a healthy immune system. Zeolite is a natural mineral that has a high silicone content and can help with the removal of pollutants from the digestive tract and expel them in the faeces. N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine is a supplemental form of cysteine and one of its important functions is to replenish glutathione, which is a powerful antioxidant. Himalayan salt is similar to table salt, but also contains some macro minerals and trace elements such as calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium.
The benefit of feeding a cookie is that you can ensure that your horse receives the full amount of the supplement. When adding powder to a feed the horse can often leave some of the feed or some of the powder can stick to the feed bucket. Cookies are also great for horses that don’t receive any bucket feed, it means they can still benefit from the supplement and you can also feed this in the field without having to bring your in to eat a feed away from other horses. The cookies can be used on a continual basis to support your horse’s gut health or during times of stress; for example, travelling, competing or if your horse’s gut has been compromised in any way (e.g. colic, EUGS). As much as we all love our horses, they are very prone to gastrointestinal disturbances and therefore part of their management should focus on strategies to help maintain a healthy gut.
Article written for Premier Performance by Professor Jo-Anne Murray.