How to Boost Equine Gut Health 

 

Have you checked in on your horse’s gut health lately? And by gut health, it really means nose to tail, throughout the digestive tract. The foregut and hindgut of horses can be described as long, complicated, linked to all systems of your horse, and prone to bad things. That’s just the nature of the horse’s digestive system, and when we boost equine gut health, we boost their overall health. 

 

Table of contents 

 

Signs of poor gut health

Equine gut health – colic and laminitis

Strategies for boosting gut health

Minimize stress to maximize gut health

FAQ’s

Jump to shopping 

 

hay net attached with caribener

 

Signs of poor gut health

 

  • Your horse probably won’t send you an email complaining about poor gut health – but they will undoubtedly give you signs! You, the horse detective, must look for immediate red flags and trends over time.  

 

      • Weight change
      • Picky eating
      • Changes in manure 
      • Girthy when tacking up
      • Dull coat
      • Colic episodes
      • Hot feet after turnout on grass
      • Past laminitis
      • Choke

 

Understanding Equine Gut Health – Laminitis and Colic

 

  • The equine gut plays a pivotal role in your horse’s overall well-being, particularly in conditions like laminitis and colic. Both issues closely link to the delicate balance of the digestive system. 

 

  • Laminitis is the inflammation of the soft tissues inside the hoof. It is a life-threatening condition with tremendous pain. Colic is the umbrella term for any digestive disturbance, and it may include blockages by sand, excessive gas, twisting of the gut, impaction of dried fecal balls, or any other digestive upset.  

 

horse rolling in the sand

Colic or fun rolling?

 

The importance of the microbiome – how laminitis and colic are triggered

 

  • The horse’s hindgut has a microbiome of bacteria and yeasts that help digestion. Fiber, a necessary ingredient in forage, is not digested by your horse. Instead, that microbiome eats the forage during fermentation. There is also a group of microbes that love sugars and starches.  

 

  • When the hindgut receives large amounts of sugars and starches, those microbes have an absolute party and eat all those sugars. Their resulting hangover changes the hindgut’s pH, which can then kill off other microbes. The resulting endotoxins, both from the hungover microbes and the deceased ones, permeate through the gut wall and into the bloodstream, causing damage to the laminae in the hoof. Hence, laminitis. 

 

  • Those partying microbes also produce tons of gas! Hence, colic. You may even see your horse getting rounder and rounder. Gas colic is painful and may cause twisting of the intestines.  

 

  • Not all horses are at a higher risk of laminitis and colic. Horses with metabolic challenges like PPID (formerly Cushing’s), insulin resistance, and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) are in danger with a high sugar and high starch diet. Also, this chain reaction can happen when your horse gets into the feed bin or hay storage and overeats, regardless of their metabolic status. 

 

Read about the signs of laminitis here and what colic looks like here.

Read more about PPID here and EMS here

 

Strategies to Enhance Your Horse’s Gut Health and Nutrition

 

  • The sole purpose of a horse’s digestive system is to break down, absorb, and use nutrients so the rest of the body can function like a champ. We need to mimic that since horses should eat a forage-based diet slowly for extended amounts of time. Add in a few more tips, and horse gut health can bloom. 

 

  • The best source of nutritional information for your horse is an equine nutritionist. Many vets are also knowledgeable about horse diets, but a nutritionist should have a PhD and, therefore, years of experience with one health topic—how to help your horse digest and utilize the proper nutrients in the right amounts. 

 

round hay bales in hay field

 

Offer high-quality forage

 

  • Forage is fiber, and horses process fiber via fermentation in their hindguts. Ideally, they cook hay and pasture for about 18 hours of the day. The rest of their time is spent snoozing, relaxing, and being horses. 

 

  • For the most part, high-quality forage provides many nutrients. By high-quality, we really mean fresh hay that’s not cut too early or late or pasture grass.  

 

  • Remember that pasture and hay will vary in nutrients seasonally and by age. The type of hay is also essential, as legumes and grass hays are often complementary and better fed together. As winter comes, pasture may become dormant, and the nutritional value decreases.  

 

  • In some cases, horses may do better on low-quality forage to help regulate an obese horse or treat another medical issue. Grasses and legumes higher in calories are best for hard-keepers and sport horses with rigorous training plans.  

 

Ensure regular access to clean water

 

  • Water is life! Your horse needs water to maintain safe blood pressure, maintain hydration, and help digest and absorb nutrients.  

 

  • If your horse has ever had impaction colic, you understand the role that water plays in keeping fecal balls soft and moving. Dehydrated horses don’t have enough water to function, and digestion turns regular manure into rock-hard roadblocks. Of course, water helps with other organ functions and overall well-being, too. 

 

  • Here’s a funny thing about horses. Some clever researchers learned that horses prefer to drink cold water but will drink more warm water. This is especially important to your horse’s health when it’s freezing and quite hot. If possible, offer them warm and cold water when they are sweating excessively or the weather is cold.  

 

  • You can also make your horse some “Gourmet Water” by mixing a few tablespoons of supplement with water to entice them to drink. If you experiment with water additives to entice drinking, always have a non-gourmet bucket to offer, too. 

 

  • You can easily measure how much your horse drinks. If you fill buckets by hand, it’s easy to see trends about when and how much they drink. Automatic waterers can also have a measuring device, which you will reset daily to measure. If your horse lives in a herd, it’s trickier to monitor volume, but you can still check your horse’s vitals and gums for signs of dehydration. 

 

  • Also, please ensure your horse’s water is clean! Why are you giving it to your horse if you wouldn’t drink it? 

 

Read this to learn about checking for dehydration.

 

horse drinking fresh water from a blue bucket

 

Implement slow-feeding techniques

 

  • Slow and steady is for turtles and horses. Little bites over long periods of time are best. 

 

  • Use slow feeders for hay and commercial feeds. For hay, you can use nets, barrels, grates, play bags, and all manner of forage slow feeders. For pellets, cubes, and grains, there are toys, puzzles, and tubs with special compartments to slow down your horse’s eating.  

 

  • Slow feeding also encourages relaxation, staves off boredom, and is essential for your horse’s overall health and mental well-being. 

 

Use grazing muzzles when necessary for obesity, colic, and laminitis

 

  • Grazing muzzles are another way to use slow feeders. They are a hay net your horse wears to slow down pasture eating.  

 

  • Horses at higher risk of laminitis and colic or need help with weight management benefit from grazing muzzles. They slow the pace and volume of the high starch and sugar content from the grass as it enters the equine hindgut. When too much hits the hindgut, the microbes feast, changing the pH and overall gut health, which can trigger laminitis and gas colic. Colitis is another possible problem and may have similar symptoms as colic. 

 

fjord horse in greenguard grazing muzzle

 

Add water to your horse’s feeds 

 

  • There may be instances where soaked hay or soaked feeds are best for your horse. Soaking your horse’s hay helps with metabolic syndrome conditions and reduces dust for horses with heaves. It’s also a handy way to reduce dust flying around a trailer and add a bit more hydration. 

 

  • Adding water to commercial feeds and pellets does a few things. It slows eating, helps with hydration, and reduces the chance of choke. And it’s fun to hear their slurpy sounds.  

 

Gradually introduce dietary changes

 

  • Our horses sometimes tell us they need a supplement—perhaps for hoof health, skin and coat care, or arthritis. When changing the diet, do so gradually over a two-week period. This includes new cuts of hay, new commercial feeds or bagged foods, supplements, and even pasture.  

 

  • Consider any change in pasture grass to be a diet change, as is any abrupt change in pasture quality. Going from meh, dried-out winter snacking to the buffet of rich spring grass triggers some to have major problems. 

 

probiotics supplement label

 

Incorporate probiotics and prebiotics into the diet

 

  • Probiotics and prebiotics help your horse’s overall health by supporting the microbes in the digestive system, specifically the colon. Probiotics are live microorganisms that help the equine digestive tract remain balanced. Prebiotics are a food source for the beneficial bacteria in the gut. 

 

  • Both pro- and prebiotics help balance the gut after colic, a diet change, while grazing, during and after anti-biotics, or any other time you know your horse’s digestive system is challenged. 

 

Avoid overuse of NSAIDs to help prevent ulcers

 

  • Some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) create ulcers and hindgut acidosis. While very helpful for pain and injuries, these medications need to be limited in use, and indeed, not all NSAIDs are beneficial for long-term use. Your vet is the best resource to help your equine partner stay comfortable while protecting their digestive tract from damage.  

 

Use digestive supplements

 

  • Special digestive supplements help maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Some supplements support general gut health, while others target gastric ulcers, hindgut acidosis, or any digestive upsets.  

 

  • Your vet is an excellent resource for helping you choose the best equine digestion supplements and diet additives. 

 

flax for horses

Flax-based Omega-3 supplements are delicious and long-lasting.

 

 

The importance of Omega-3 fatty acids in horse gut health

 

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial in maintaining your horse’s gut health. These essential fats are known as anti-inflammatory and help your horse’s entire body. Equines need Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids, but the typical horse diet has too many 6’s and not enough 3’s.  

 

 

  • Using flax products, chia seeds, or fish oils provides those amazing Omega’s in the 3 forms. Using corn oil will give your horse the same shine as flax, chia, or fish oil, but it has too many Omega-6’s, which throws your horse’s entire diet out of whack. 

 

Using hindgut buffers

 

  • Hindgut buffering supplements neutralize the pH of a horse’s hindgut. This helps protect those partying microbes from changing the pH too much. Hindgut acidosis is when the pH of the horse’s hindgut remains too acidic. It is commonly caused by a low-forage and high-starch diet. Buffering supplements with sodium bicarbonate can help!

 

large bolus of quidding from a horse

This is a quid that a horse with bad teeth spit out. 

 

Regular dental check-ups

 

  • None of your efforts to support your horse’s gut health will pay off if your horse can’t chew properly! For most young and middle-aged horses, dental check-ups and floats (as needed) are part of their routine vaccine visits in the spring and fall. As equines age, their teeth are more likely to need extractions, corrective floats, and other dental care. The most important thing is to have your vet inspect their teeth twice yearly, even if they shouldn’t need a dental float at that time. Hooks and other painful conditions can pop up.

 

  • When horses’ teeth are painful or misaligned, chewing is compromised. Their food may not be broken down enough for proper digestion, which can lead to quidding, malabsorption of nutrients, and choke.  

 

Read about quidding here.

 

For more info on choke, this one’s for you. 

 

Establish a deworming schedule

 

  • Internal parasites and digestive problems in equines are directly related. Worms and bots steal nutrients and create physical barriers in the digestive tract.  

 

  • The most appropriate way to treat internal parasites is with fecal egg counts. For too long, we have been throwing dewormers at our horses on a rotational schedule, and now those parasites and worms are resistant to the meds. To prevent this and save some money, do a fecal egg count where your horse’s parasite load is measured. Then, if necessary, you can treat with a dewormer. 

 

  • Your vet can perform a fecal egg count, or you can order a kit online and send off some fecal balls for analysis.  

 

Learn more about fecal egg counts here.  

 

Know your horse’s metabolic status

 

  • When our equine buddies have metabolic issues, their diets become more critical. It’s so easy to have your vet do a few affordable blood tests as part of a preventative plan rather than finding out your horse has EMS or PPID when they develop laminitis.  

 

  • Switching to a low non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) diet helps mitigate the increased risks of laminitis and colic that metabolically challenged horses have. Ideally, an at-risk or overweight horse eats a diet with a total NSC value of less than 10%. Better safe than sorry! 

 

blood drawn from jugular vein on horse

Simple tests can reveal your horse’s metabolic health.

 

The Impact of Lifestyle on Equine Gut Health – Minimize Stress

 

Creating a calm environment and a consistent routine can go a long way in minimizing stress levels and maximizing equine gut health. 

 

Exercise and gut motility

 

  • “Move it or lose it” is a common phrase when it comes to mobility and joints, but it applies to the gut, too. Movement and exercise promote regular bowel movements and keep the large and small intestine moving. Exercise also helps your horse keep a healthy weight and avoids the joint problems, thermoregulation struggles, and metabolic issues accompanying being overweight.

 

  • Appropriate exercise is excellent for boosting digestive health. Grazing and playing in the herd are as critical for mental health as they are for physical health.  

 

two horse friends in a foggy pasture

Buddies are best.

 

Stress reduction lifestyle changes

 

  • To help your horse be as “happy” and stress-free as possible, can you help your horse:

 

      • Maximize herd time
      • Maximize turnout
      • Keep a regular feeding schedule consisting of slow feeders and many smaller meals of commercial feeds
      • Groom for your horse’s health and monitor vital signs and behaviors
      • Have regular vet checks
      • Notice any signs of gastric ulcers 
      • Monitor your horse’s manure and urine and look for changes
      • Pay attention to eating habits and measure water consumption
      • Allow ample time for rest and acclimatization when traveling
      • Use preventative care like ulcer supplements, hindgut buffers, and grazing muzzles
      • Train your horse using kind techniques like positive reinforcement

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What are the signs of poor gut health in horses?

 

Signs of poor gut health in horses include weight loss, diarrhea, colic, decreased appetite, a dull coat, and behavioral changes. Monitoring these signs with your vet’s help is crucial for early detection and intervention to maintain your horse’s digestive wellness.

 

How long should I take to change my horse’s diet to improve gut health?

 

To improve your horse’s gut health, gradually introduce dietary changes over a 2-4 week period. Consistency is vital; sudden modifications can disrupt the digestive system. 

 

horse eating from hay net attached to a tree outside

 

Can stress affect my horse’s gut health?

 

Chronic stress can negatively impact your horse’s gut health, leading to issues like colic and ulcers in the esophagus and horse’s stomach. Stress management through routine, proper nutrition, ample turnout, and companionship is crucial for maintaining a healthy equine digestive system.

 

Are there any specific supplements you recommend for supporting equine gut health?

 

Consider incorporating prebiotics and digestive enzymes like amylase, protease, and lipase. Probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus can aid in gut health. Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids like flaxseed oil can be beneficial, as can hindgut buffers.

 

How do you tell if a horse has hind gut issues?

 

Look for signs like loose stools, diarrhea, weight loss, colic episodes, or changes in behavior. Consult a vet for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

 

 

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Stock up here for your horse supplies to boost equine gut health! As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, but it’s ZERO extra cents to you. 

Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

Omega 3's plus gut health support in a delicious cold milled flax formula. It's delicious and it will turn your horse's coat into a mirror.

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Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.


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03/11/2024 08:48 am GMT

You can also visit my Amazon storefront here:  PEG storefront.

Big Hoss Equine Supplement - Outlaw Nutrition

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Prebiotic & Probiotic Equine Formula
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Ernst Grain & Livestock Midwest Agri Shredded Beet Pulp with Molasses, 30 lbs
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The molasses makes it more delicious, but that's not great for all horses.

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Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

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Halters – GG Equine

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Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings sitewide on muzzles, halters, slow feeders, and more.

Grazing Muzzle Accessories – GG Equine

Help your horse have the best-fitting grazing muzzle.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for a site-wide discount on halters, muzzles, slow feeders, and accessories.

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Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

Omega 3's plus gut health support in a delicious cold milled flax formula. It's delicious and it will turn your horse's coat into a mirror.

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Jolly Pets Horsemen's Pride Amazing Graze Toy
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Keep your horse's brain happy!

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FORTEX INDUSTRIES Feed Saver Ring
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Great to use with buckets to discourage cribbing

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Equiessentials Slow Feed Hay Ball Large
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Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings sitewide on muzzles, halters, slow feeders, and more.

HayPlay Slow Feed Bag XL – GG Equine

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40 lb. Alfalfa Cubes
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