Good Performance can make all the difference between winning and losing and everybody wants their horse to perform well, but sometimes their performance can drop. Digestive health and nutrition are pivotal to good health and performance, whether you own a show jumper, dressage star or racehorse, these principles are essential for optimum performance. Lisa Elliott, MSc – Equine Nutrition Solutions explains the basis of digestive health, how it can inhibit performance and what you can do to prevent this.
Digestive Health – the basics
Horses are browsing herbivores, typically spending 16-18 hours a day moving and eating a variety of vegetation which flows through the digestive tract in a slow constant trickle. With a small stomach and a large hindgut, devoted to digesting a continual supply of fibre, they are essentially a ‘hindgut fermenter’ and their digestive system reflects this. Within the hindgut, billions of microbes thrive on digesting a constant supply of fibre through fermentation, which keeps them happy and healthy, promoting a healthy hindgut. A horse’s digestive health is dependent on feeding in sympathy with their digestive system and microbial population.
Compromised Digestive Health and Poor Performance
However, competition horses can often have a diet and management routine far removed from this, which can pose significant challenges to the digestive tract. Additionally, the stress associated with restricted turnout, isolation, travelling, unfamiliar surroundings and training can all significantly affect gastric stress and digestive health, resulting in problems that will have a huge impact on performance.
Stress caused by training, environmental or social factors can initiate a physical response leading to deteriorating gut health. Stress is a major cause of gastric ulcers, which in turn are a major cause of poor performance. A horse struggling with poor digestive health may lack adequate nutrition and energy, or be physically uncomfortable, all of which will affect their ability to perform.
Diets low in fibre and high in starch have a serious impact on digestive health and are a major factor in the development of gastric ulcers, which have a prevalence of around 90% in the performance horse population. In addition to gastric problems, the hindgut is a serious contender in health and performance issues.
The health of the hindgut depends on a delicate balance between beneficial fibre digesting bacteria and more harmful bacteria which can easily change. Poorly digested high starch diets can lead to a proliferation of less desirable bacteria that produce lactic acid, and a reduction in beneficial bacteria. As a result of this microbial ‘dysbiosis’, the hindgut becomes far more acidic, leading to a condition called ‘hindgut acidosis’, resulting in an inflamed gut wall. The acidosis also causes more beneficial bacteria to die off, producing toxins which can damage the gut lining and cause inflammation, potentially leading to colitis and colic.
When the tissue lining the hindgut is damaged, this leads to reduced digestion and absorption of nutrients which in turn causes a drop in performance. Additionally, these conditions make the hindgut sore and uncomfortable, leading to poor temperament, lack of focus and training issues. Just as you or I wouldn’t be able to work and perform well if we were uncomfortable, it’s the same for your horse.
Tips to Optimise Digestive Health
Whilst there are good treatments for compromised digestive health, a treatment-based approach, maintaining horses on daily long-term medication is not ideal. A preventative approach to promote good digestive health and reduce the chance of poor performance is always a better option:
- Feed Plenty of Fibre
Fibre is essential for a healthy digestive system to help beneficial microbes thrive, so try and ensure your horse is getting ad-lib forage at all times. Fibre also promotes chewing which in turn increases saliva to act as an natural buffer to stomach acid.
Good-quality forage and that is well digested can provide levels of energy high enough to support harder work (Richardson and Murray, 2015). Additionally, sources of highly digestible fibre such as Coligone Fibre Cubes or Fibre Bio will provide an additional energy boost when needed, instead of relying on cereals. Soluble fibres such as those present in Coligone Fibre Bio and the Coligone Balancer range are also known to have a protective effect on gut membranes and provide an excellent food source for beneficial gut bacteria, further promoting hindgut health.
- Reduce Stress
Ensure your horse is getting at least 12 hours turnout per day, ideally out 24/7, where they can move about, browse and socialise with other horses, all of which are important to help reduce stress and its effects on digestive health and performance.
Make sure your horse is fully fit and capable of the work you are asking, to help reduce both mental and physical stress. When training, getting your horse out and about as much as possible will help him get used to both travelling and going to different places, which will make it far less stressful when competing.
- Support Heathy Acid Levels
In addition to feeding ad-lib forage, which helps to buffer stomach acid through chewing and saliva production, promoting a healthy acid balance daily, through feed, will further support optimum digestive health. Feeding Coligone Liquid prior to travelling or competing can help support your horse during these stressful periods, guarding against gastric irritation.
Coligone Powder and Liquid supply generous levels of natural buffers, actively helping to soothe the gut wall and guard against excess acid within the stomach, ensuring the horse feels at its best as any discomfort can lead to poor performance. Coligone promotes healthy acid levels throughout the entire digestive tract.
- Support Hindgut Microbes
Prebiotics and Probiotics are essential for optimum performance but it is essential that the supplement fed, contains enough volume to make the difference needed.
Coligone contains a 30% combination of MOS and ScFOS and Yeasac, which is essential to harmonise and repopulate the hind gut microbiome. Compare this to a popular product, which only contains 2% and you can see why Coligone is so effective.
Probiotics and Prebiotics can help promote digestive health by providing a feed source for beneficial hindgut bacteria and encourage the growth and proliferation of beneficial microbes. Coligone Powder and Liquid contain three separate Pro and Prebiotics which are scientifically proven to not only promote optimum fibre digestibility but also help nurture and stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria, whilst helping to prevent disease causing or ‘pathogenic’ bacteria and support a healthy microbial balance and optimum immunity.
- Promote Biodiversity
If you are lucky enough to own your own land, increasing grass and plant diversity into your grazing will help support microbial diversity to promote a healthier hindgut.
Alternatively taking your horse browsing along hedgerows and roadside verges can be beneficial. Just 10 minutes per day will help increase diversity within the gut microbes to support optimum digestive health and performance.