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Probiotics and Horses: An Overview

A healthy digestive tract helps protect your horse against infection and supports good health. Probiotics for horses are believed to help with digestion, an important aspect of overall health, and may be especially beneficial in certain situations or when certain conditions are present. If you’re wondering whether to give your horse probiotics, consult with your veterinarian.

What Are Probiotics?
You’ve heard them called “good bacteria” and “direct-fed microbials.” Simply described, probiotics are live, naturally occurring microorganisms that are fed in an attempt to maintain or restore beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract for healthy digestion.

Digestion 101
Every horse’s digestive flora is unique, and most bacteria in a horse’s GI tract live in the hindgut (his large intestine and cecum). To make an impact, probiotics must go through the stomach and reach the hindgut, where digestion takes place and the good bacteria help break down forage so the body can absorb its nutrients. A balanced pH level keeps the hindgut functioning.

Times of Stress
Because a horse’s well-being and digestive system are connected (like people), it is no surprise that during times of stress—a long trailer ride, competition, illness—the pH balance of his hindgut might turn acidic. When this happens, the good, fiber-fermenting bacteria might be less efficient and have a tough time surviving in an acidic environment. Increased acidity in the hindgut results in poor digestion, leading to decreased nutrient absorption and possible issues such as a dull coat, weight loss, diarrhea, hindgut ulcers, colic or weakened immunity.

Probiotics May Help
Your vet can offer specific guidance on how probiotics may help your horse, but here are a few ways:

1) Support healthy digestion.
As hindgut fermenters, horses break down forage by fermentation that is helped by the good gut bacteria. Probiotics may help populate the good gut bacteria in the hindgut to support the digestion process.

2) Help during times of stress.
Trailering, breeding, strenuous work, change in diet, deworming or a day trip are all possibly stressful for a horse. Taking probiotics during these times (when he could be eating/drinking less, too) might be a little insurance for his system.

3) Restore depleted good bacteria during and after antibiotic use.
An antibiotic, by nature, inhibits the growth of, or destroys, microorganisms, whether good or bad. When your horse has a bacterial infection, you’re probably glad for those antibiotics to kill the bacteria that is causing him distress. But that same antibiotic also kills the good bacteria your horse vitally needs for digestion. Probiotics might help restore the good bacteria.

Are Probiotics the Same as Prebiotics?
They’re different yet they work together, with each playing a distinct role in the gut. Probiotics may help to replenish the population of good bacteria, and prebiotics may keep those good bacteria alive until your horse’s gut reaches its natural balance again. Specifically, prebiotics are a special type of soluble fiber that can be used by the good bacteria as fuel. .

Keep in Mind
Heat and light can be damaging to a probiotic. If you’re buying one that requires refrigeration, make sure the retailer has kept it refrigerated. Also be sure the product you buy is tested to verify whether it still contains the advertised amount of live bacteria on delivery. .

Another aspect to consider is that adding probiotics to a horse’s diet might mean starting with one product and trying again with a different product until something works. As always, seek the guidance of your veterinarian before making any changes in your horse’s diet, especially if you are looking to address a specific issue such as diarrhea, weight loss or other medical condition.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only and not intended as veterinary advice.