Prebiotics and probiotics are buzzwords in different diet plans and can help restore gut and digestive health. But are they necessary for your horse? Learn what pre- and probiotics are and how they can be part of a healthy, nutritious equine diet.
About Prebiotics and Probiotics
Probiotics, also called direct-fed microbials or direct-fed microorganisms, are live bacteria that, when colonized appropriately in the gut, are part of efficient digestion. There are many different kinds of probiotics, and they work together as part of the digestive process in a healthy gut. The exact composition of gut bacteria varies between species and even between individuals, and will change with an animal’s health, age, and diet.
Prebiotics are the food that probiotics can best digest, such as carbohydrates and fiber, that help probiotics stay healthy and maintain adequate population levels. Providing enough prebiotics in a horse’s diet can ensure the necessary probiotics are healthy and can do their jobs well, improving the horse’s gut health. Popular prebiotics that can be fed to horses include oats, legumes, soy hulls, and beet pulp, and feed manufacturers may have supplemental prebiotic mixtures in their feed blends.
Working together, prebiotics and probiotics keep a horse’s gut in a healthy balance. This reduces inflammation of the digestive tract and aids the immune system. More efficient digestion also helps with weight control and improves nutrient absorption for better overall health.
Are Pre- and Probiotics Good for Horses?
Both pre- and probiotics are a natural part of a horse’s gut and diet. Though there has been very little scientific research dedicated to how supplemental prebiotics and probiotics may affect horses, it is known that these elements of gut health have to stay in a good balance for the animal’s overall health. When digestion is efficient and the horse can get as much nutrition as possible from its diet, its overall stress is lower and it is able to resist disease and inflammation more easily.
Depending on an individual horse’s gut health, pre- or probiotic supplements may be helpful, but they must be administered carefully. Before making any changes to your horse’s diet or adding any supplements, check with your veterinarian for a dietary analysis to be sure you are meeting your horse’s nutritional needs.
Adding Prebiotics and Probiotics to Your Horse’s Feed
Horses have a complex gut, and the exact microflora and microbiomes of pre- and probiotics will vary between different animals. As a horse ages, its nutritional needs change and its gut health also shift, which can make pre- and probiotic supplements tricky to balance well. For example, foals are born with a sterile gut and no probiotics at all, but they quickly pick up the necessary bacteria through their diet. Just what extra probiotics could be useful will depend on what they are able to acquire naturally through their diet.
Similarly, senior horses tend to need prebiotics in greater amounts than younger horses to keep their gut bacteria well nourished. Because older horses are more susceptible to inflammation and gut upset, keeping their guts well-balanced can improve their health and weight condition.
If a horse has a history of digestive trouble, such as chronic colic or diarrhea, it can be helpful to use pre- and probiotic supplements to normalize the animal’s gut. Dietary changes should be made slowly and carefully, however, so as not to upset the horse’s digestion even further.
Even how a horse may be kept can influence whether pre- and probiotics could be useful. Horses kept extensively in stalls with less time to forage naturally may need more supplements, as they will pick up fewer pre- and probiotics through grazing. Horses with good access to a rich, diverse pasture, however, will need fewer supplements to achieve the best gut balance.
Regardless of the reason to try pre- or probiotics in your horse’s feed, add supplements only under the guidance of a veterinarian, and make dietary changes slowly to minimize the risk of digestive stress. Watch the animal carefully to see how it adjusts to a new feed regimen, and note whether the additives are making the expected improvements to the horse’s health and condition. With care, prebiotics and probiotics can be useful parts of a horse’s feed, helping with digestive balance for proper nutrition and a long, healthy life.
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