A horse that is fit, feels good and has energy is a healthy horse. Good health comes from within. How does the digestive system work and how does it affect your horse’s health? Read all about it in this article.
The gut is an important indicator
Whatever the discipline, a horse must be healthy in order to perform. It all starts with a healthy digestive system. Horses are hindgut fermenters. This means that fermentation takes place in the large intestine. Many microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and yeasts, live in the equine gut. Together, these make up the microbiome. We like to keep the denizens of the intestinal microbiome happy because they protect the horse from “bad” bacteria. High-quality, high-fibre feeds support the development of a stable and healthy microbiome. Research shows that improper diet (for example, too much sugar and starch), stress, and antibiotics can have a negative impact on the intestinal microbiome.
The development of a healthy digestive system begins very soon after birth when the foal drinks colostrum and the first antibodies enter the bloodstream. The first bacteria also settle in the bowel.
These intestinal bacteria communicate directly with the immune system. They also produce substances that interact with the immune system. Healthy gut bacteria, for example, produce short-chain fatty acids such as:
- acetic acid
- propionic acid
- butyric acid
These short-chain fatty acids strengthen gut health and increase certain substances that encourage immune cells to move into the gut.
Healthy horse = strong immune system
A healthy horse has a well-functioning immune system that protects it from outside invaders. Anything harmful, such as a virus, that tries to enter the horse’s body is attacked by an army of white blood cells. The better shape this internal army is in, the less chance invaders have of making our horses sick. The intestines are the body’s largest immune organ, with 80% of all immunological screening cells that detect any pathogens located there.
A healthy intestinal environment is therefore important for good natural resistance. This, however, is easier said than done. Good intestinal health doesn’t come from a supplement – it involves total management of the horse. Stress, for example, can greatly weaken resistance. This is because the horse’s body responds to stress by producing cortisol. Cortisol reduces the production of white blood cells.
But stress does even more: it impairs conditions in the gut microbiome and can also cause stomach ulcers. Chronic (mental) stress therefore has an enormous impact on physical health. Immunity requires good physical and mental health. To maintain a well-functioning immune system, a horse absolutely needs these things:
- A healthy diet
- A regular routine
- Frequent rest periods
Extra help may be needed
A diet overloaded with sugar and starch, mould and mycotoxins, or antibiotics can disrupt harmony in the large intestine and give unfavourable bacteria the upper hand. This brings fermentation out of balance. One of the characteristics of the gut microbiome is that it likes stability. The same hay and feed every day is not boring for the microbiome; on the contrary, it maintains balance.
Fortunately, there are certain things that can restore balance to the gut when disruptions occur. Pre- and probiotics support the positive gut bacteria, preventing “bad” bacteria from disturbing intestinal health.
The power of nutrition
Fibre is essential to promote and even restore intestinal health. Forage is a highly important source of fibre for horses. It’s therefore essential to know the quality of the forage you feed your horse. A forage analysis also provides insight into its composition. The forage analysis must be relevant to your situation – if you feed your horse different forage (meaning from different sources) every month, a single analysis makes no sense. But do you buy large batches of forage for long-term use? Then an analysis can be quite useful. The variety of plant species, soil quality, fertiliser, sunlight, harvest period, storage conditions, and many other factors will have impacts on its nutritional value. Concentrate feed, especially muesli, can also contain lots of fibre.
Tip: To learn how much fibre a product contains, look at the percentage of crude fibre on the packaging
We can’t say it often enough. Good health comes from within. A horse in good health will shine on its own. Can you do more for extra shine? Maybe. Care products are the icing on the cake. Make sure that you always use products that are specially developed for equine skin and coats. These products are pH-neutral and provide extra hydration instead of drying out the skin.
Our skin has a natural acidity of 4.0–5.5. The pH of equine skin is 7.0–7.4. The pH is determined by the skin’s topmost layer. It is an important part of a
horse’s natural defence mechanism. It protects against heat and cold as well as against bacteria and other harmful invaders. That’s why it’s important that the pH – neutral in the case of a horse – not be unbalanced in order to avoid infections. Products with a low pH, such as shampoos made for humans, have a hydrophilic nature. They attract moisture and dehydrate the horse’s skin, resulting in dry, flaky skin. Bleaches and good degreasers have a high pH, and a hydrophobic nature; they will absorb natural sebum, making the coat dull and the skin dry and sensitive, opening the door for infections.
Four tips from our nutrition experts
An well-functioning intestinal system is the foundation for a horse that’s healthy and performing well. Is your horse showing signs that may indicate digestive problems? Then we have some tips for you.
- Add pre- and probiotics to the ration to support the gut microbiome. Probiotics are microbes that can stabilise digestive disorders. Prebiotics are food for “good” gut bacteria. Well-fed microbes are healthy microbes! Use Cavalor Vitaflora to help bring your horse’s gut microbiome back in balance.
- Feed your horse enough fibre. A horse needs to eat at least 1.25% of its body weight in dry matter from forage. Read here all about how much forage your horse needs. Like forage, concentrates can also contain fibre. Cavalor FiberForce is a high-fibre concentrate feed.
- Don’t give your horse too much starch or sugar, and choose specific feeds that are easier to digest
- Always provide small quantities of food throughout the day. When a horse goes for too long without access to forage, it may develop health problems. Unlike humans, horses only produce saliva whilst chewing. This promotes digestion, which in turn neutralises stomach acid. Does your horse have a sensitive stomach? Cavalor Gastro Aid, available as a paste or powder, has a neutralising effect. It supports normal acidity levels in the stomach and helps to protect the stomach wall.
Do you find equine health from within to be an interesting topic? Then read more about it in our magazine, Valor. Read Valor here: packed with information on forage and the power of fibre. Read more about immunity in this issue of Valor.