Digestive disorders in horses can be difficult to detect as they are often mistaken for other, seemingly unrelated issues. Therefore, a whole horse management approach is critical to maintaining your horse’s digestive health.
Surprisingly, a horse that exhibits hoof problems may really be suffering from a digestive order that is showing up in a hoof or lameness issue.
“All of the systems in the horse’s body are inter-related. When there is a problem with one it affects the function of another,” said Dr. Bill Vandergrift, founder of EquiVision, Inc. an international equine nutrition consulting company servicing industry leaders in North America, Ireland, England and Japan.
In his opinion, digestive disorders are the biggest issue facing horses today. Digestive disorders can present themselves in various ways such as gastric ulcers, intestinal inflammation, fermentation anomalies, immune function, colitis and diarrhea.
Most often, gastric ulcers and intestinal inflammation are the culprits for digestive disorders in horses.
During a workshop in May, co-hosted by Triple Crown Nutrition, Inc. and CCE Equine, a division of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Vandergrift noted gastric ulcers are the most common digestive disorder in horses.
“Nearly 80-90 percent of racehorses and 50-60 percent of sport horses present with gastric ulcers,” he said.
Once a horse has a gastric ulcer, it must be treated with prescription medication to inhibit acid production and secretion. Depending on the location of the ulcer within the horse’s stomach and the severity, medications such as misoprostol and omeprazole are used, alone or in conjunction with one another.
“Omeprazole by itself is not very effective in the glandular area of the stomach, but ulcers in the non-glandular area of the stomach do respond well to omeprazole,” he said.
Prevention is more effective than curing a horse of developing gastric ulcers. To prevent gastric ulcers, he recommends offering horses access to free exercise, green grass or forage at all times. “The more time a horse spends in a stall, the higher chance of ulcers,” he said.
Low starch/sugar diets are also important for horses prone to developing gastric ulcers and gastric buffers, such as calcium and magnesium, offer protection from gastric acid. “Alfalfa is a natural gastric buffer,” he said, “vegetable oils, fish oil, lecithin, aloe and other products are others.”
Another common digestive disorder is intestinal inflammation. Intestinal inflammation is less prevalent than gastric ulcers, but is still relatively common in competitive horses. “Approximately 50-60 percent of race horses and 30-50 percent of sport horses suffer from intestinal inflammation,” he said.
Intestinal inflammation can be more difficult to diagnose because no two horses present the same symptoms. The warning signs can be as subtle as a bad attitude, a horse performing below expectations or simply “being dull.” Other symptoms can range from hip issues to resistance to leg aids to pinning of the ears during saddling, chronic impaction or a horse’s preference to eat hay rather than grain to name a few.
Intestinal inflammation is characterized by four phases; stale gut, mucosal inflammation (minor ulceration), ulceration and colitis. The best-case scenario is to avoid intestinal inflammation before it begins. More importantly, if a horse has intestinal inflammation, it’s critical to stop it from progressing to colitis.
“Colitis is life-threatening,” he emphasized.
The first step in treatment for intestinal inflammation is reestablishment of viable, healthy fermentation in the intestine. “The horse is essentially a fermentation vat on four legs,” he said, “probiotics fed or dosed at 10 billion CFUs or more per day promotes a healthy intestine.”
Hydration also encourages viable fermentation in the gut. “It takes 25-30 gallons of water to keep fermentation going,” he explained.
The next step is to reestablish normal immune function through the use of prebiotics and the last step is using an anti-inflammatory. “Anti-inflammatories should be natural, such as omega 3-fatty acids and fish oil,” he said, “you can’t use NSAIDs as these exacerbate inflammation.”
What many horse owners don’t realize is that nearly 60-70 percent of the horse’s immune system lives in the horse’s intestine. When the intestine isn’t functioning properly, the horse’s immune system is suppressed making him more susceptible to disease.
“Once digestive health and function are restored, so many other disorders disappear,” Vandergrift emphasized.
Work with a veterinarian to identify and reduce the sources leading to intestinal inflammation in your horse. “Use probiotics, prebiotics, buffers and natural anti-inflammatories to restore and maintain intestinal health,” he concluded.