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The Gut System

- The Mother of all the systems

Ulcers, Hindgut Acidosis/Dysbiosis (faulty fermentation) in the microbiome (SIBO), or Leaky Gut ... Either way, they're all connected.

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 waste.

All dis-ease begins with the gut. So said Hippocrates, who was way ahead of his time, because all these centuries later, there's no doubt about it. The digestive system is the Mother of all the Systems, with the large intestine, aka the 'hindgut', the Mother of all the Organs - everything starts with the gut.

A healthy gut is the ultimate gatekeeper of good health, and a healthy microbiome the game-changer - this may be the decade, or even the century, of the microbiome. The gut microbiome is probably the most important regulator of health; there are 100-trillion gut microbes sending messages throughout the body, interacting with the hormones, the immune system, brain chemistry, and every other system in the body. When the microbiome's microbes are are out of balance, a seriously malfunctioning body is the result. It really is as simple as that.

How a horse eats

(and we need to know this, because if we mess with this, which we do - often, it all goes horribly wrong)

"Anything that's going on in the digestive tract is influenced by what you put in the digestive tract! You put the wrong petrol in a Ferrari and we know what's going to happen there."

Dr Tom O'Brien, Big Bold Health

The gut system isn't just a tube where food gets shovelled in one end and eventually comes out the other end - well, it kind of is, but the whole gut system, from one end to the other, has a massive job to do in between. The good news is that a horse knows exactly how to do it - it's us humans that mess with it 😏

* First up, it's all about the forage, and trust me - size matters

It all starts with the initial chewing process which mechanically breaks down the forage into tiny pieces of between 2-5mm - this length is vitally important as the whole digestive process, including peristalsis motility, takes place through a very long - and thin - tube, the intestines to be exact, from start to finish, so a successful digestive process is entirely governed by the chewed length of the fibre.

*Choke Alert - if the food isn't chewed small enough, this can make horses prone to choking. We know that horses don't generally chew the contents of their feed bucket slowly - it's more of an inhale 😉 - so we need to take care of the particle sizes, especially with chopped pieces of carrot or apple. Make sure they're chopped into tiny pieces because if they're not chewed properly they can get stuck at the bottom of the oesophagus, too large to pass through the sphincter entrance to the stomach/foregut.

When grazing, the horse will naturally bite off the appropriate length of forage for his mouth, just like we put an appropriately-sized mouthful of food onto our fork – too small and we’ll swallow it straight down with very little chewing; too big and we’re chewing for ages followed by an uncomfortable swallow and most likely a bit of indigestion to follow!

The horse does the same – from free-growing long grasses (not what we have here in the UK), the horse will bite the right size mouthful size with their front teeth, then ‘roll’ it into the toothless gap where we put the bit. This is a tasting area - horses are very particular about what they eat as once they've committed to chew and then swallow means the job's done, ready for the huge process of digestion. Unlike us humans or dogs, they can't vomit anything nasty back up - horses don't have this luxury as they can't vomit, so in this tasting area they can sort out any toxic plant and spit it out to the side, because once it's swallowed, it's a done deal.

The grinding/chewing ...

Once they’re happy with the taste, they roll the forage into a ball and here’s where the grinding of the forage takes place, to break down the forage stem wall and expose the inner fibre that the hindgut microbes will then break down to produce the horse's energy. Grind grind grind, until it’s all broken down ready to be swallowed. This grinding/chewing also creates saliva which adds moisture and mucus to the mix, as well as starting to regulate the pH level.

Some interesting stats for you - to chew 1kg of hay takes up to 3,500 chewing motions over 40-50 minutes, and generates 3-5 litres of saliva!

And here’s where the fibre length is so important – the forage length needs to be 8cm or longer, or less than 5mm so it can be swallowed without grinding. If it’s in between this (apparently) the horse won’t grind it properly, so we risk unchewed fibres sitting in the hindgut for longer and fermenting, because the inner cellulose fibre won’t have been exposed by the teeth grinding the forage stem.

As I said, this is fine if the horse is foraging on growing grasses, but when it comes to chaffs or hay, we need to be mindful of the fibre length, hence why chaffs become questionable. So, we're looking for an optimal forage fibre length of around 8cm minimum - we've heard of dramatic improvements in health when clients have changed the forage length they source.

Once the grinding/chewing's done, we're ready to swallow and pass the ground 'bolus' into the oesophagus. Think of the oesophagus as a garden hose, around 1.5-meters long in an average horse, but only around a tiny 1.5-cm wide, so each bolus has to pass through a long and very narrow tube.

Digestion - it's all about the how

The chewed food bolus now passes into the stomach/foregut to be broken down into a soupy mix (called 'chyme'), to then pass into the small intestine for everything to be broken down, and then for the microbiome microbes to separate out the essential nutrients - proteins, starches, carbs, fats, plus micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) - so they can be absorbed into the bloodstream to fuel the body. What's left at the end of the sorting process - forage/roughage fibre - gets shuttled off to the large intestine/hindgut for fermentation and energy production, with the resulting waste made up of 50% fibre fibre/50% micro-organisms, shifting on to the main elimination exit point and coming out as perfect parcels of poo. 😉

The intestinal tube doesn't do all this by itself - the very function of the gut system relies entirely upon it's own army of elements. The small intestineal digestion operates via enzymes with most (over 50%) of the protein pre-digestion and most soluble carbohydrate pre-digestion happening in the stomach; fats are then broken down in the small intestine by bile, ahead of the hindgut, which is where we'll find the cecum and two colons, and this is where it's now about bacterial, aka microbial, fermentation of the fibre sources, i.e. grass, hay, woody (lignan) fibres. And because our horses' energy comes solely from the hindgut fibre fermentation, keeping the friendly commensal bacteria/flora/biota well-populated in the hindgut is right up there at the top of the list of priorities.

Horses normally consume 2-2.5% of their body weight in dry fibre matter each day, although if they’re on pasture 24/7 this can go up to over 3%. Remarkably, the capacity of the stomach of the horse is small, about the size of a rugby ball and coming in at just 8 to 15-litres depending on the horse-size. So, it begs the question as to how a horse can consume such large amounts of food/water when constantly grazing. Easy - the time it takes for food to transit from the stomach to the small intestine is anywhere between 2-6hrs, and it never empties - this is so important as so many equine health issues are caused through not enough forage when stabled and letting the stomach become empty (cue squamous ulceration).

As the horse continues to eat, the digesta trickles through into the small intestine, hence the term ‘trickle feeders’. The rate of passage through the small intestine is about 1ft/minute, with the average length in total of the small intestine being around a whopping 70-feet.

The foregut

The foregut is the only part of the gut system that's acidic - once digesta moves into the small intestine and onwards, the gut needs a neutral pH - it's a huge problem if any part of the rest of the digestive system becomes acidic (which sadly is very common these days).

The stomach acid is there for a massively important reason, well, two actually - first to kill off contamination that's come in on the forage, and secondly to activate the protein digestive enzyme, pepsinase, into pepsin.

* Another really important factor when it comes to the conventional veterinary approach for ulcers using PPIs (proton pump inhibitors - those drugs ending in 'zole'). PPIs are designed to switch off the acid production, but without the acid we risk contaminants entering the small intestine, and worse, impaired protein digestion. And when undigested protein gets into the hindgut, the horse is in real trouble. All covered in our Ulcer page.

Back to the foregut and the pre-digesting of the foodstuff, and it does it via 3-sections:

  • The first section, the pars nonglandularis, has a reasonably high pH, between 5-6, so not too acidic - there's no stomach acid in the front section of the foregut, but what we do have here is resident lactic-acid bacteria (LA), usually brought in by the horse ingesting it from their feed/forage. STOP PRESS!! Under normal circumstances the last thing we want in the intestines is lactic-acid bacteria, but in this front section of the stomach it's expected, and the good news is that at least here in the front section of the foregut they have a useful job to do (more on this throughout this chapter). These LA bacteria make lactic-acid (LA) from eating starch and sugar in the feed - it's where they derive their energy from as they can't utilise plant fibres. So, when the horse has ingested starches, the lactic acid bacteria in the pars nonglandularis start pre-digesting the starch molecules which makes them easier for the small intestine to digest further on. Clever 😉 (PS - this is also the region where the horse experiences squamous ulcers, caused by inappropriate feed or when the stomach has been starved (i.e. not enough hay in the stable) and allowed to empty).
  • Now to the middle section, and this is where the pepsinase enzyme, the protein digester, is produced. This then needs to be activated into pepsin by the stomach acid to perform the protein pre-digesting. This activation can only happen when the stomach pH drops to below 4, when the digesta hits the hydrochloric acid in the back section of the stomach.
  • The back section, pars glandularis, is where the hydrochloric acid sits - its role is basically to disinfects any nasties in the feed such as microbial contamination (it's how dogs survive eating other dogs' poop, as well as other revolting rotting foodstuffs, with their acid pH value at a super-severe 1!). This is also where, as mentioned earlier, the protein digestive enzyme, pepsinase, is activated into pepsin, and can now start to degrade the proteins in the feed. Horses have a hydrochloric acid pH of around 3 - less harsh than a dog or cat - to reduce the level of microbial contamination in the feed, but not 100%. (PS - this is also the region where the horse experiences glandular, aka pyloric ulcers, caused by stress resulting in poor blood flow to produce the protective mucus layer on the mucosa membrane).

In summary, here's the normal foregut process :

  • a horse should have a constant uptake of roughage so that the stomach remains constantly full, active and operating.
  • a pre-digestion of starch via LA bacteria in the first section producing LA.
  • pepsinase production in the middle section.
  • the back section activating pepsinase to pepsin, alongside inactivation of any remaining LA bacteria and microbial decontamination on the feed.

Once done, the pre-digested starches and proteins, along with all the fibre matter etc., are now ready to exit the stomach and head into the small intestine.

The rest of the journey

Once the digesta hits the small intestine, a bile trickle is released to digest the fats, while the small intestine's microbes assimilate the nutrients ready for absorption. Finally we get to the hindgut, where the fibre is fermented down by the hindgut's own friendly fermenting microbes, and this is where the horse's energy is produced. And all the while there have been fluids and mucus to lubricate and keep everything moving along the way as well.

Without these essential elements, the gut system won't be able to do the very job it's meant to do, which is to keep the body alive. Without them it won't be able to digest the food or supplements that we pay good money to keep our horses healthy. If digestion is impaired, so will begin a cascade of seriously chronic dis-ease (meaning the body is ill at ease)

This life-dependent function relies entirely on maintaining a healthy inner-gut environment, and the only way to do this is by feeding foods that feed the good bugs and starve the bad bugs - this is critical for maintaining that healthy inner gut-environment and preventing SIBO - small intestinal bacterial overload - which if left untreated can lead to leaky gut syndrome, which these days is now so widespread amongst our equines that it's now considered an epidemic - because of the way we feed them. See our Blog Post on The Misery of SIBO for the bigger picture.

So, 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 - feed a constant supply of quality, high-fibre, grass forage and roughage - barks, woods and roots. We need to look after our horse's gut health first and foremost, as the top priority. This applies as much to humans as horses too. 😉

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 foregut. Foals who are seen eating their mothers' droppings are thought to be obtaining a bacterial culture necessary for future microbial digestion, so if you see this happening, encourage it! See our separate chapter in this section The Foal's Microbiome - setting up a foal for life.

A quick intro to the all-important Microbiome, the body's 2nd Brain

Collectively the beneficial and pathogenic microbes outnumber the regular cells in the whole, entire body, by an astonishing 10-1 - at least (!). Think about that for a second - there are a whopping 10-times more bugs in the gut system, that long tube from mouth to the final exit point, than in the whole of the rest of the physical body. Which means - if the microbiome gets disrupted, we're in a whole lot of trouble.

So, looking after our horse's gut microbiome by feeding it what it needs - course, stemmy, cellulose-rich fibrous hay - is crucial, as amongst it's many vital roles, it's also the first line of defence against many serious diseases.

For starters, without a healthy microbiome, there's no nutrient absorption, crucial to fuel a healthy body. But it's so much bigger than this - the microbiome is the body's CPU - it literally runs the show. Over 70% of our horse's immune cells are created by the gut microbes in the intestinal tract and these microbes are also the major regulator of the immune system - the difference between healthy and unhealthy relies entirely upon the gut microbiome's performance.

Unfortunately, there are certain medical protocols which can really mess with the gut ecology, such as antibiotics, bute, PPIs and chemical wormers, which disrupt the relationship in a similar way that chemotherapy affects the human body. Chemotherapy wipes out perfectly healthy non-cancerous cells inside the human body along with the cancerous cells, annihilating the immune system. Similarly, antibiotics completely wipe out the gut bacteria, the bad bugs as well as the good bugs the body can’t live without. Feeding activated charcoal will also have this effect as well.

A healthy microbiome will also significantly minimise the laminitis/colic risk, and protect the horse against infections such as diarrhoea-causing organisms like salmonella or clostridium.

The good news is that a healthy, functioning digestive system is really straightforward to manage - it really is, provided we feed them the right stuff, as in the food that their gut is meant to eat. Because ... the equine digestive system is also extremely sensitive, and it doesn't take much to upset the delicate gut ecology and environment; poor diet/dietary management, obviously, but chronic stress can equally play an enormous part in affecting gut health. Poor gut health can manifest itself in so many ways, from the obvious signs of loose droppings, lack of overall vitality, allergies or pain.

For the full story on how critical a part the microbiome plays in overall health, see our separate chapter - The Microbiome - the Missing Organ? I promise you it's an eye-opening read ...

The Hindgut Acidosis/Dysbiosis/SIBO/Leaky Gut/Autoimmune domino effect

“Dysbiosis (also called dysbacteriosis) is a term for a microbial imbalance or maladaptation on or inside the body, such as an impaired microbiota.” Wiki

In other words, microbiome dysbiosis is when that very fragile microbe balance within the gut microbiome environment is disrupted and the biome/microbe ratios are not what they're supposed to be anymore. Cue a fault in the vital fibre fermentation process.

The lining of the gut's small intestine is supposed to be strong and tight, keeping food, microbes and waste safely inside the digestive tract. So why is 'leaky gut syndrome' now becoming a new epidemic?

As above, I can't stress enough how important it is to centre our attention on the microbiome, and specifically those beneficial gut microbes, to avoid dysbiosis. Another fact - it's the microbiome, as in a healthy one, filled with lots of happy, beneficial microbes busying away down there sorting out the nutrients and fermenting the fibre in the hindgut, that regulates the permeability, aka leakiness, of the gut wall lining - this is the connecting factor.

When the gut bacteria balance is disrupted and the balance between the friendly microbes and pro-inflammatory toxic microbes reverses, those bad microbes set up camp and create inflammation. This is known as SIBO - Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, and SIBO isn't funny. For starters, the inflammation then tears apart the tight junctions of the gut wall which makes it permeable, as in leaky, and allows the undigested, putrefactive toxic content in the small intestine to leak through the gut wall and into the bloodstream, literally poisoning it. This triggers an almighty inflammatory autoimmune cascade as the immune system goes into hyper-overdrive, trying to fight those leaked toxins.

Cue the battlefield. Special antibodies, aka immunoglobulins, live in the horse's gut to protect the body. The immunoglobulins IgA and IgM help identify the toxins and begin the attack by calling in the regiments of killer-army white blood cells. The more overwhelming the leaked toxin burden is, the longer the battle and the greater the inflammation, not to mention red-hot pain.

Be under no illusion - leaky gut affects the whole process for just about every medical condition, be it joint, skin, brain - hooves especially as leaky gut causes laminitis. Everything depends on the integrity of that gut wall membrane, which astonishingly is a mere 1-cell thick, so you can appreciate just how vulnerable the gut lining is.

Vaccines don't help either, as vaccines can contain proteins and other food particulates. This is because manufacturers use cells from animals, like chicken embryo and bovine serum, to grow the antigen. When the antigen finishes growing, it's separated from the proteins, but sometimes small amounts still end up in the vaccine. During vaccination, these food proteins and other components get introduced into the body. Cue yet another exaggerated immune response. All these components are identified as enemies, and when any enemy shows its face, it’s time for battle.

More on leaky gut in our Blog Leaky Gut - a new epidemic?

The Gut:Liver:Kidney connection

Equally, if there’s something leaky going on, this is also going to have a profound knock-on effect on liver/kidney function, specifically a dysfunction in the detoxification process because when there’s leaky gut, there’s an overload of toxins for the liver to metabolise (correct name biotransform).

Thing is, the kidneys are very much involved as well because the liver shunts all the transformed toxins to the kidneys for excretion, but if there’s a toxicity overload the kidneys become overwhelmed as well, so can’t shift all the toxins quickly enough out through the urine. Result? These toxins get flushed back round the body and are either sent out via the emergency excretion route – the skin (hence why horses can suddenly get unexplained itchy/crusty skin for no apparent reason), or they’re sent off to the soft tissue for storage, and yes I mean tendons/ligaments/muscles, which can explain why there’s sudden ‘skin’ tenderness or inflammation, or unexplained tendon/ligament/muscle issues.

Of course, as science would have it, it’s a whole lot more complex than this! But at the very root of the problem lies a tiny, yet critical, micronutrient - vitamin B6. Here’s why.

The hindgut produces B6 in its activated form – scientific name Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate, aka P5P, and absolutely not the synthetic form we see in off-the-shelf B-vit supplements (Pyridoxine), which the equine body neither recognises nor knows what to do with, so shunts it straight out for excretion. (As the saying goes, 'An expensive way to make urine' 😉; seriously, save your money - and the extra work on your horse's liver).

I digress. However, when the hindgut microbiome is in the throes of dysbiosis, the activated B6 ‘P5P’ production becomes deficient, and here’s where it all goes badly wrong because … the liver needs this particular B6 form - P5P – to break down/metabolise – those toxins. So if the liver and kidneys can’t do their job the whole natural detoxification process gets messed up. This is all very much connected to a now widespread multi-metabolic detoxification disorder called Cryptopyrroluria, aka KPU.

Worse, not only is there the toxicity overload, but these toxins are also damaged, dangerous, putrefactive (relating to or causing decay) toxins because the liver hasn’t been able to break them down properly, and this is why the presenting symptoms can be such a profound nightmare.

You’ll usually know if your horse has developed a multi-metabolic disorder by the presenting symptoms, and there’s usually a multitude of them, everything from continuous gut disturbance, skin problems, hoof issues, unexplained tendon/ligament injury/musculoskeletal issues, chronic ongoing cough/wheezing, mallenders/sallenders, and so many more – even headshaking’s now on the list, and of course we can’t forget EMS. Basically it can lead to a whole range of symptoms continually shifting around the body which here at EquiNatural we see repeatedly, where ‘everything’s wrong’.

If this is the case it's likely that a gut:P5P:liver:kidneys restoration programme is needed, all covered on our KPU page.

These days we have the knowledge and the tools to get the equine diet right - forage/roughage fibre all the way - which nurtures the biota to flourish, in order to maintain its production of the important nutrients, aka postbiotics - which include producing the B-vits and several amino acids - that the body needs to be healthy.

Meanwhile, another very prevalent symptom of hindgut dysbiosis ...

Faecal water/Diarrhoea

Any metabolic gut disturbances, i.e. diarrhoea/faecal water, are all signs of dysbiosis in the hindgut.

Coarse stemmy hay is going to be your saviour here – absolutely not haylage as this creates lactic-acid in the hindgut, nor grass as this is too leafy with no fibre, and full of pectins which also create lactic acid in the hindgut. With a horse being nothing more - and nothing less - than a hindgut fibre fermenter, we need to get those all-important equine-appropriate forage plant fibres, cellulose and hemicellulose, found only in long, dry, growing grasses or in stemmy hay, back into the hindgut to rebalance the biome.

Also, many essential nutrients are produced by the hindgut biome, known as postbiotics - these include several amino acids, vit.K, vit.B12, and the critical B6 for the liver biotransformation process. If the faecal water has been profound and prolonged, there’s every chance that the disruption is significant enough to have affected liver function, which may be a whole other complex issue called Cryptopyrroluria, aka KPU for short, which is very much connected to the gut:liver:kidneys pathway, ultimately affecting the immune system as well.

It's well worth a read of our KPU page for the full story, as well as a list of all the typical symptoms which these days are very common and well recognised, and for an affected horse this could literally have started from birth - https://equinatural.co.uk/i/kpu-cryptopyrrolura

Long and short, this dysfunction underlies many of the well-known metabolic diseases we see; in hooves it manifests as poor hoof quality, thrush, WLD, frequent abscessing, permanently footy. It can also trigger laminitis, recurrent colic, a constant chronic cough, sweet itch, mallenders/sallenders, persistent diarrhea, loss of performance – even headshaking’s been associated with it …

As at 2020/2021 it's slowly being understood as a stealth problem behind so many of our horses’ issues today, and one of the reasons why so many horses are continually sick, the owners barely getting getting on top of one issue before something else occurs, despite their heroic efforts.

Whether it's KPU or not, basically, when there's faecal water we have to regenerate the hindgut microbiome, and then get the liver working properly again. Feed hay 24/7, but if you feed your horse haylage, forget it. If you let your horse run out of hay, especially if stabled overnight, forget it.

For the feedbowl feed a grass forage-based carrier only, i.e. a basic grass-fibre cob such as the Agrobs' WeisenCobs or WeisenFlakes, or if your horse is happy, just a plain chaff (thankfully my lot are just as happy with Agrobs’ fatties chaff (their Leitchgenus) but I bung a few cobs in to make it a little tastier and for the chew factor). Make sure to add in a mineral balancer, salt, and micronized linseed for the omega-3 EFAs. See our 'What I Feed' page.

If haylage has been fed, the gut also needs to deacidify, so feed Spirulina for a couple of weeks which is an excellent toxin-binder and is mainly excreted via the liver-bile-intestine, thus relieving the kidneys.

Meanwhile, what not to feed. No beet, no alfalfa, no sugars, no pectins, no muslis, no pellets, no treats, and definitely no feedbags with wheatfeed, oatfeed, soya, NIS in any form for at least 6-months, basically anything listed in our ‘The Feedbowl – what’s really in those feedbags’ page. The more basic the feeding program – in other words, the more species-appropriate, as in what a horse is meant to eat and what a horse’s gut is meant to digest – the faster the hindgut environment will be restored to normal.

Now we need to clean up the gut, liver and kidney function. We start with clearing up the dysbiosis and a 1-month course of our SIBO-CARE blend, alongside repairing the gut membrane - see our GutAminos.

Leaky gut/SIBO hurts - you would have likely seen gut flinching, biting, head swinging back to the hindgut, maybe even cow-kicking. In extreme cases, alleviate with our TriBute alongside our SIBO-CARE for 7-days; then continue with our DuoBute.

Meanwhile, we need to feed the activated form of vitamin B6 - Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate, aka P5P, to kickstart the liver repair - we sell it in human-grade powdered form, which is a whole lot better - and a ton cheaper - than buying tiny 100mg capsules from Amazon and sitting there for ages breaking them apart.

When the gut regeneration is done, take a 1-week break before we start on the liver/kidney function. Feed our LKL-CARE for 1-month (1kg), and if your horse doesn't have access to natural browsing, i.e. trees, leaves, barks, berries, fruits, maybe have a look at our WildFed mix as it’s vital to support the horse's natural eating behaviour.


* When we refer to ulcers, we're talking foregut ulcers. If you've been told your horse has hindgut 'ulcers', this is a myth - they don't exist because there are no acid-secreting cells in the hindgut. There is, however, hindgut acidosis, as mentioned above, caused by lactic-acid being produced in the hindgut by lactic-acid bacteria).

Here’s a thing – foregut ulcers are there because the gut environment has been already altered, usually due to either some form of stress, pharma meds, or inappropriate feed. These factors are the cause of why our horses – and us humans – get ulcers. Stress, pharma meds and/or poor quality feed destroy the gut environment, literally, which means that without a strong, healthy protective mucosal gut lining, the stomach acid will splash onto the mucosa and create an ulcerated sore, because it’s almighty strong hydrochloric acid, same as a car battery.

Sounds simple enough doesn’t it. Yet most of us have no idea how many vital roles the stomach acid plays in the body, whether horse or human, and ... the drug companies know it too. You can’t watch TV without seeing an advert for some chalky tablet to ‘calm’ the acid burn, especially after we've eaten a red hot curry.

The claim that the acid is causing the ulcers is a myth. The acid splash/leak is merely a knock-on effect of the initial cause which has caused the damage in the gut.

See our separate chapter on equine gastric ulcers, link below.

Top TIps

  • Remove the stressors which are stressing your horse.
  • Refocus on your training/discipline practices - considerate short bursts to allow your horse to process what you're trying to communicate.
  • Switch feed to species-appropriate (see Why what we feed has to be right in our Feeding our Horses section).
  • Make sure there’s continuous ad-lib hay.
  • Let a horse be a horse, allowed to express their natural behaviour with freedom, buddies and social interaction - as the saying goes, 'Friends, Forage, Freedom'.

This isn't complicated - it's straightforward horsecare. Sadly we inherit a lot of damage when we take on a new horse so there's often a lot of unravelling and unpicking to do, but if you remind yourself that a horse is a horse (and not a cow, human or robot), and factor specific horse needs into your care, you'll very likely witness a remarkably quick, not to mention a safe and natural recovery.

Finally, to Pre/ProBiotic - or not?

Updated May'21. Long and short, there’s been little research in the use of probiotics specific to the equine gut. Preliminary studies to identify the best bacteria to include in an equine probiotic were apparently carried out a few years ago, but we’re still a long way from seeing the findings of these studies being developed to actual products on the market. As I type, there are no approved equine gut-appropriate beneficial bacterial probiotics for use in horses.

What the latest peer-reviewed studies are saying implies that we should perhaps be mindful of added an unrecognised microbe into the biome colony and focus more on re-establishing the actual species-appropriate cellulose-digesting microbes in the hindgut, that only source coming from stemmy, cellulose/hemi-cellulose-rich hay. If you're feeding haylage, forget it. If you're soaking your hay for a long time, forget it. And It should always be about diversity of the forage species our horses eat, because at the end of the day it’s all about enough of the species-appropriate forage fibre and roughage passing through the equine hindgut.

Currently there’s no probiotic available that truly mimics the microbiome of the horse. Even with prebiotics, the most important prebiotic fibre for the hindgut is cellulose; if you look at products sold specifically as equine ‘prebiotics’, i.e. inulin, you’ll see they’re based on pectins, which feed the lactic-acid bacteria in the hindgut, contributing to acidosis which lowers the pH value, dysbiosis/SIBO, gas bloat/inflammation, and hence leaky gut, so everything we absolutely need to avoid.

The balance of bacteria within the gut and throughout the body is as unique as a fingerprint, so there's no guarantee that even feeding a probiotic supplement will establish the right balance in the biome, so there's no guarantee of crowding out the gut-damaging, pro-inflammatory pathogen bacteria. The current thinking is now about feeding more ‘probiotically’ - provided the appropriate prebiotic diet is fed to our horse (cellulose/hemi-cellulose fibre from stemmy hay), there's no need to feed a probiotic. At least that’s what the scientists are saying (as per the peer-reviewed study link a couple of paragraphs up), so I hope that made sense 😉

General pointers for a healthy gut system

  • Horses are herbivores which evolution has designed to graze on a diverse range of high fibrous, low-energy forages up to at least 20 hours per day - in the perfect world this forage should consist of multiple diverse grasses, plants, barks, roots etc., to create a diverse microbiome.
  • Here In the UK the best feed your horse can put in his mouth is hay, grass in its dried form. The bulk delivered by a fibrous hay diet is a key weapon in avoiding colic because consistent gut-fill maintains a continuous level of digestive activity.
  • Allowing your horse's stomach to become empty is one of the biggest causes of stomach ulcers, so always make sure hay is fed ad-lib - don't ever ration it.
  • Additionally, the more horses chew, the more saliva is generated and mixed in with the mouthful of hay, which helps buffer GI tract acidity.
  • Steam hay, don't soak it - soaking increases the bacterial content of hay.
  • Definitely don't feed haylage (high lactic-acid %).
  • Unfortunately, domesticated living usually challenges the horse's sensitive digestive tract with inappropriate ultra-processed feedstuffs, irregular feeding schedules and ration portions that are far outside the norm of the natural plan. One of the primary reasons that horses colic is the difference between what the digestive system is meant to process and what it actually gets.
  • Avoid any sweet feeds (Musli's/Beet) - it's what the pro-inflammatory gut microbes gorge on which causes them to multiply and kill off the beneficial microbes that do all the good stuff like digestion.
  • Keep your horse moving – stabled horses are much more prone to gut issues 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, enhances motility of keeping the food moving along in the gut.

Top Tips

  • To promote healing of the gut, this is where the right kind of gut microbe comes into play. The right kind of microbe will break down fibre in the diet into molecules that are really easily used by the gut cells as energy sources. So, other than making sure our horse has plenty of fibre and the right kind of microbe in the gut, there are two essential amino acids you can use, especially if you're dealing with gastric ulcers or leaky gut. N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC), the precursor to glutathione (arguably the most powerful antioxidant in the body) replenishes glutathione production; Glutamine is a building block for proteins that maintain cellular health and tissue repair. During critical illness, trauma, intestinal disease, excessive loss of lean body mass, and extreme endurance exercise, Glutamine is shown to be beneficial. Glutamine also works in synergy with NAC to help promote glutathione. We've blended both these amino acids together as a gut support in our GutAminos blend.
  • Aloe vera juice is a beneficial gut supporter. It's high in digestible fibre which gives it the properties of lowering bowel transit time, supporting hindgut bacteria and soothing the digestive tract overall. Aloe also contains a complex mixture of mucopolysaccharides (complex sugars) that nourish cells and support them in replicating. Aloe juice is also especially important for gut acid; its polysaccharides can be helpful for horses who have been on buffering agents that destroy the healthy bacterial populations in the gut and thus allow pathogenic bacteria to multiply. Good quality aloe juice can be found in most health food stores - add 50-100ml to feed when your horse is displaying symptoms.
  • Slippery Elm v Marshmallow Root Slippery Elm is a renowned gut-healing herb with similar properties to Aloe. However, the native populations of the slippery elm tree are suffering due to its worldwide popularity and the tree is now considered extremely rare, which occasionally makes it tricky to source; as a result it's now a protected species which is reflected in its price - slippery elm isn't cheap! The good news is that marshmallow root can be suitably substituted for slippery elm because marshmallow has almost identical properties and is so much more widely available - and a tad cheaper too! Marshmallow root has a higher mucilage % than the leaf so is the better one to go for for gut soothing, with the leaf more indicated for respiratory tract soothing. Add 50ml Aloe and 1-desertspoon of marshmallow to feed.
  • Aloe and Marshmallow are not only beneficial for digestion in general but also support excess 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.