The Gut System
Principal Body System: Digestive
Definition: A long tube called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and associated organs, i.e. salivary glands, liver and pancreas.
Function: Performs the physical and chemical breakdown and absorption of food for use by cells, and eliminates solid and other waste.
All dis-ease begins with the gut. So said Hippocrates. And all these centuries later, there's still no doubt about it. The digestive system is the Mother of all the Systems - everything starts with the gut.
A healthy gut is the ultimate gatekeeper of good health; when the gut environment is out of balance, a malfunctioning system is the result. The gut system isn't just a tube where we shovel food in one end and wait for it to come out the other end - the gut has a massive job to do, to break the food down, separate out the healthful nutrients and get them absorbed into the body to fuel it, while shuttling off the remaining waste to the main elimination point.
And it doesn't do all this by itself - the very function of the gut system relies entirely upon it's own army of elements; hydrochloric acid to kickstart the foregut into action; digestive enzymes to break down the protein, carbs and fats; microbes to break down the fibre, and fluids to lubricate and keep everything moving.
Without these essential elements, the gut system won't be able to do the very job it's meant to do to keep the body alive; without them it becomes no longer able to digest those essential nutrients we pay good money to feed to our horses to keep them healthy. Without them, so will begin a cascade of seriously chronic dis-ease. It really is as simple as this.
If you're looking to clear up the chronic symptoms that are chipping away at your horse's quality of life, there's only way to do it. Clean up the gut system. We need to look after our horse's gut health, first and foremost, as the top priority, and here's where our C.A.R.E. programme comes in.
- Clean - clean and detox gut irritants and toxins.
- Activate - activate healthy digestion and the integrity of the intestinal gut lining by repopulating the beneficial gut microbiota.
- Restore - restore health with essential micronutrients into the diet.
- Enhance - enhance immunity - energy, strength and vitality.
Feed the Flora!
Taking care of our horse's gut bacteria is so important - for starters it improves nutrient absorption. However, around 80% of our horse's immunity is created by the beneficial gut microbes in the intestinal tract. With this microbiota being the major regulator of the immune system, our horse’s overall health relies completely upon optimal performance of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Cultivating beneficial gut bacteria is the first line of defence against many serious diseases. To achieve a healthy digestive system, we must create and sustain a healthy population of beneficial microbiota (gut flora). Our horses don't make their own gut microbes, so incorporating a probiotic into your horse's daily feed will establish that very population, which means your horse will be able to utilise the full benefits of the nutrients you're feeding.
The gut microbiome is an incredible network of mega-trillions of organisms that live in and on the body. They’re made up of beneficial bacteria as well as fungi, viruses, plus bacteria that aren't so beneficial. The gut needs this microcosm to survive. The relationship between them and the gut system which carries them is symbiotic in nature.
Unfortunately, there are many bad guys out there which can really mess with the gut ecology, disrupting this relationship in a similar way that chemotherapy affects the human body. Chemotherapy wipes out perfectly healthy non-cancerous cells inside us humans along with the cancerous cells, annihilating our immune system. Similarly, antibiotics wipe out all the gut bacteria, the bad kind as well as the good kind we can’t live without.
A healthy gut system is absolutely essential for overall health and vitality - sounds obvious I know but an effective digestive process means your horse will absorb the nutrients you spend a fortunte on trying to get into them. The picture is so much bigger than this though; a healthy gut will also minimise the risk of laminitis and colic, and protect the horse against infections such as diarrhea-causing organisms like salmonella or clostridium.
However, the equine digestive system is extremely sensitive, and the concern is that it doesn't take much to upset the delicate balance of gut health; poor diet/dietary management, obviously, but stress can equally play an enormous part in affecting gut health.
The daft - or should I say frustrating - thing is that a healthy digestive system is actually really straightforward to manage and will help avert a host of difficult conditions. However, poor gut health can manifest itself in so many ways, from the obvious signs of loose - or impacted - stools to colick-y symptoms, from lack of overall vitality to significant pain, and aggression as a response to pain.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
Collectively the good and bad bacteria outnumber the cells in the body by at least 10-1, so cultivating the beneficial gut bacteria is the first line of defence against many serious diseases.
We need to centre our attention on the good gut microbes (microbiota), on regulating the permeability or leakiness of the gut lining - this is the connecting factor. When the gut becomes permeable, when the gut bacteria are disrupted, or foods or environmental toxins which upset the gut lining are ingested, then toxins in the gut get across the lining and triggers an inflammatory cascade which affects the whole body from top to bottom.
The leaky gut affects the whole process for just about every medical condition, be it joint, skin, brain and so on; everything has to do with the gut and specifically the lining, which is a mere 1-cell thick, so you can appreciate just how vulnerable the gut lining is.
These days we have the knowledge and the tools to get the diet right, not just in fibre but in prebiotic fibre which changes the microbiota for the better and nurtures it to flourish, in order to increase its production of the very important byproducts to benefit health.
For our horses, it's fundamentally important that we look after the gut bacteria. We need to feed the right stuff to nurture it, and avoid the bad stuff that feeds the bad bacteria, which is a whole separate chapter in itself - see our FEEDING OUR HORSES chapter.
The horse's digestion operates via enzymatic digestion in the ‘fore gut’, ahead of the cecum, or ‘hind gut’, where it's all about bacterial or microbial digestion of fibre. This dual system works by the fore gut dealing with most (over 50%) of the protein digestion and most soluble carbohydrate digestion, such as starch from grain. Fibrous sources such as grass and hay, grain hulls and beet pulp are digested 'microbially' in the hind gut. And because our horses mostly eat fibre, keeping the friendly bacteria well populated in the hind gut is crucial.
Horses normally consume 2-2.5% of their body weight in dry matter daily, although if they’re on pasture 24 hours a day, this can go up to over 3%. By adding processed feeds, the nutrient proportion from this will increase, so horses will reduce their total dry matter intake.
For enzymatic and microbial action to digest feed efficiently, the horse needs healthy teeth to grind feed to allow enzymes and bacteria to attack the plant cell walls of what he's eating. Thus, it is really important that horses teeth are checked every year to ensure that they are wearing normally and are effectively grinding the feed.
Remarkably, the capacity of the stomach of the horse is small, about the size of a rugby ball and coming in at just 8-15 litres. So how can a horse consume large amounts of food or water? The emptying time of the stomach after filling is around 12 minutes, and the rate of passage down the small intestine is about 1ft/min - this means that food can go from the mouth to the cecum in about 1½ hours. The small volume of the stomach and rapid passage of food from the stomach is the reason horses eat almost continuously, thus the phrase ‘trickle feeders’. Total passage time is 2-3 days from when food is ingested until it is passed out.
NB. The foal and growing horse have undeveloped cecal and colonic digestion compared to the adult horse. There is very little microbial digestion before 3 months of age, so the foal requires a diet low in fibre and one that is easily digested in the fore gut. Foals who are seen eating their mothers' manure are thought to be obtaining a bacterial culture necessary for future microbial digestion.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Despite the similarity in their names, Probiotics and Prebiotics are not just two different forms of a similar supplement - they are actually two completely different types of digestive supplement with unique mechanisms of action on the equine gut. Probiotics promote the population of the 'good' microbes and bacteria; Prebiotics are the foods that feed those good microbes and bacteria. Together they are fed to stimulate the growth and activity of the good bacteria that live in the horse’s gastrointestinal tract.
My personal choice? I feed Alltech's probiotic Yea-Sacc 1026, a live yeast culture based on Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain, alongside Brewers Yeast as a general prebiotic, a highly nutritious non-active yeast providing (almost) the full compliment of B vitamins (with the exception of B12, although there's the tiniest trace); at times of dire digestive compromise or risk of, I'll add BioMos as a prebiotic as it specifically binds to bad bacteria (e.g. salmonella and e coli) and eliminates them.
I also feed my horses our EquiVita mineral balancer which contains both Yea-Sacc and Brewers Yeast, but we also sell them separately (INDIVIDUAL ITEMS) to add independently to feed. Look to add 2g/100kg bodyweight for YeaSacc, so for an average 500kg horse, add 10g. Brewers Yeast can be fed at around 20g daily/pony, 40g daily/horse.
General pointers for a healthy gut system
- Horses are herbivores and are designed to graze on a diverse range of fibrous, low-energy forages up to 20 hours per day. They should receive a minimum of 60% of their dry matter intake from good quality forage (e.g. hay, pasture).
- The best feed your horse can put in his mouth is grass. The second-best feed is hay, grass in its dried form. The bulk delivered by a fibrous grass/hay diet is a key weapon in avoiding colic because consistent gut-fill maintains a continuous level of digestive activity. Additionally, horses usually chew hay twice as long as grain. The more they chew, the more saliva is generated and mixed in, which helps buffer the stomach against acids.
- Unfortunately, domesticated living usually challenges the horse's sensitive digestive tract with inappropriate processed feedstuffs, irregular feeding schedules and ration portions that are far outside the norm of the natural plan. One of the primary reasons horses colic is the difference between what the digestive system is meant to process and what it actually gets.
- Make changes in feed slowly over a period of 7-14 days and be careful about overfeeding manufactured feeds or grain prior to an event.
- Keep your horse moving – stabled horses are much more prone to abdominal illness than those who live out. Turnout with companions keeps horses happy, allows them social interaction and lets them eat their favourite food. Not only is the horse free to consume the ideal fibrous diet, but the simple, continual act of moving to eat, keeps the food moving along in the gut.
- Provide clean, fresh water at all times - essential for gut motility.
- Check for gut parasites regularly.
- Get your horses’ teeth checked at least once a year.
- Aloe Vera juice can help support the stomach and colon. It is high in digestible fibre, which gives it the properties of lowering bowel transit time, absorbing toxins in the bowel, supporting colonic bacteria, and soothing the digestive tract.
Aloe also contains a complex mixture of mucopolysaccharides (complex sugars) that nourish cells and support them in replicating. This property is especially important for gut acid. The polysaccharides can also be helpful for horses who have been on buffering agents or similar that destroy healthy bacterial populations in the gut and allow pathogenic bacteria to multiply.
Good quality Aloe juice can be found in most health food stores, and Aloe concentrate powder is also available. Add 50-100ml of Aloe to feed when your horse is displaying symptoms.
- Slippery Elm v Marshmallow Slippery Elm is a renowned soothant herb with similar properties to Aloe. However, the native populations of the Slippery Elm tree are suffering due to its popularity and the tree is now considered extremely rare and as a result, a protected species. The good news is that the herb Marshmallow can be suitably substituted for Slippery Elm because Marshmallow has almost identical properties and is so much more widely available.
Add 50ml Aloe and 1 desertspoon of Marshmallow to feed or syringed directly into the mouth.
- Aloe and Marshmallow are not only beneficial for digestion in general but also support gut acidity as well. They can both be fed long term with no negative effects.
- Apple Cider Vinegar is also invaluable for gut health - not only is it a beneficial supporter of immunity, it's also rich in natural probiotics, beneficial enzymes and acids that help absorption of nutrients.