There are a lot of companies out there touting how their supplements will help improve the gut health of your horse, and, to be fair, gut health is very important. These supplements usually include probiotics and/or prebiotics. When talking about probiotics and prebiotics, even if they don’t know it, people are talking about the health of the horse’s hind gut, which includes the caecum and the colon. This is where probiotics and prebiotics can have a beneficial effect on a horse’s health.
To understand how, it is helpful to understand what happens in the hind gut of the horse.
What Happens in the Hind Gut?
In very simple terms, the hind gut is where beneficial bacteria and microbes play a critical role in breaking down the fiber and other nutrients that a horse consumes. Like most mammals, horse do not produce all the necessary enzymes needed to break down these feed components, so nature has devised a symbiotic relationship between the horse and the beneficial bacteria and other microbes that inhabit its gut. The horse provides the bacteria a place to safely live and reproduce. The bacteria, in turn, provide critical digestive functions for the horse.
In addition to breaking down (or fermenting) the feed a horse consumes, these critical bacteria also manufacture certain nutrients, such as some of the B complex vitamins, protect the lining of the digestive tract, and help ward off harmful pathogens, thus improving the horse’s immune system.
Feeding Probiotics is Problematic
So it would seem to make sense that a simple way to improve a horse’s gut health would be to increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This is what supplements that include probiotics attempt to do directly. Probiotics are, by definition, the live beneficial bacteria that, when in a horse’s gut, provide the benefits described above. There are two distinct problems, however, with “feeding” probiotics to a horse.
First, probiotics are inherently unstable. They are, after all, live organisms. They can easily be killed by pressure, heat and other mishandling during processing, packaging and transport. So once you have a probiotic supplement in your hand ready to give to a horse, there is a very good likelihood that a large percentage of the bacteria that were once alive are now dead and therefore completely useless.
Second, a horse’s stomach, which precedes the hind gut in the digestive process, is not a friendly environment for probiotic bacteria. Studies show that once in the highly acidic environment of the stomach, probiotic bacteria are killed in such numbers that any remaining live bacteria that pass to the hind gut do so in such small numbers that the net impact on the horse’s gut health is essentially zero.
How can we overcome these problems? The answer is prebiotics.
Prebiotics: Feeding the Beneficial Bacteria
Prebiotics act as a food source for the beneficial bacteria already found in a horse’s hind gut. They are generally made up of complex sugars found in the cells walls of yeast. Hence, many prebiotics are manufactured through a yeast fermentation and dehydration process. This type of process creates a product that is, unlike probiotics, highly stable, resistant to the digestive process, and able to pass into the horse’s hind gut without being damaged by the stomach.
Not only are prebiotics stable, but they are a prime source of food for the beneficial bacteria that already inhabit a horse’s hind gut. Once in the hind gut, prebiotics become a sort of massive buffet for the existing beneficial bacteria, allowing them to rapidly grow and reproduce, thus increasing the number of beneficial probiotic bacteria in the hind gut in a way that cannot be achieved with supplemental probiotics.
This improved gut health has significant desirable effects on a horse’s overall health by improving nutrient absorption, boosting the immune system , increasing feed conversion rates, increasing vitamin production, reducing the likelihood of colic, much and more.