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Probiotics Basics


By Leigh Ballard
Photo by Pam MacKenzie

A horse’s overall health depends on good digestive health. The role of beneficial organisms in a horse’s digestive system is very important, and maintaining a good balance of these organisms is critical to keeping a sensitive system operating properly. In natural circumstances, horses are generally able to maintain the balance of the complex microbial system in their gut. However, artificial stresses and feeding practices often throw the digestive system out of balance. Digestive supplements are widely used in the equine industry, and are second in popularity only to joint pain supplements.  Probiotics (sometimes fed together with prebiotics) are a widely used supplement fed to support and protect a horse’s sensitive gastrointestinal system.

Feeding a probiotic supplement can enhance the hindgut’s population of beneficial microbes. Many beneficial bacteria or microflora (often loosely called good bugs) live in the equine digestive tract.  These microbes help break down the glucose bonds in the plant material the horse eats. The majority of these microbes are concentrated in the cecum and the large intestine where much of the forage is broken down, fermented and digested. Without these microbes the horse could not effectively digest his food. When the bacteria in the gut get out of balance, and the bad bugs overpower the good bugs, the horse can have devastating problems like colic or laminitis. That’s why it is important to keep them in balance.

Probiotics are live yeast and bacterial cultures:  SaccharomycesBifidobacterium,  and even some of the same bacteria that is found in yogurt like Lactobacillus. In horse supplements, millions of colony-forming units of these yeast and bacteria are included in a dose. Another supplement, prebiotics, is a “food” that feeds the probiotics. Prebiotics are digested by the probiotic microbes, and the probiotics multiply and are more active. In other words, the prebiotics stimulate hindgut microflora to do an even better job. Probiotics and prebiotics are often combined and called synbiotics, working together synergistically.

Pre- and probiotics are fed to encourage the growth of good microbes and build up a protective microbial population, thus minimizing the overgrowth of bad microbes like E. coli, Salmonella and Clostridium which cause diarrhea and other serious illnesses. The “good bugs” make the gut inhospitable to harmful bacteria, because they have anti-viral properties that inhibit harmful organisms.  Synbiotics protect and lead to better overall health and efficiency of the digestive system.

When would it be helpful to feed probiotics? Research shows that constant feeding rather than sporadic or intermittent feeding of probiotics is best. Regular use of probiotics stabilizes the microbial population on a daily basis for minor digestive upsets, but also for the larger digestive upheavals that arise. Additionally, probiotics are especially helpful for particular health problems. In the case of diarrhea, probiotics help the colon return to normal more quickly. For foal diarrhea, since foals have not yet developed a complete microbial population, probiotics can build up the population. Antibiotic use kills off many bacteria, including the good bugs, so probiotics can replenish microbes after antibiotic use.

 In the case of improper feeding practices whereby the fermentation process in the hindgut is disrupted from grains, thereby killing off the good bugs, probiotics can help restore the digestive system and help counteract the disruption in the balance of microflora. Colic and laminitis come about because of complicated chemical reactions. The equine digestive tract is designed to utilize forage, grass and hay, more fiber than carbohydrates. Horses digest most of their feed by microbial fermentation in the hindgut. Because the system is designed for mostly forage, food is transferred to the hindgut rather quickly. Grain, however, is largely starch and sugar, and is digested in the stomach and small intestine. When horses are overfed grains, especially when the amount of grain is too much to digest quickly, the grain moves out of the small intestine and arrives in the hindgut before it is digested. Here it starts fermenting, causing a disruptive chemical process which kills off the microflora that attempt to keep things in balance. Then all sorts of digestive upset and problems arise, including colic and laminitis.

It’s best, when possible, to feed horses as they were intended to eat. However, with probiotics, we can help them maintain digestive balance in a less than perfect world.

“Pre- and Probiotics for Horses” Kristen M. Janicki
“Probiotics: Worth the Price?” Sushil Dulai Wenholz  www.
“Feeding to Prevent Colic” Heather Smith Thomas, www.thehorse.commm/print-article/28134 

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