So your horse is already a poster boy for healthy eating. He spends most of his time turned out in an immaculately kept pasture, enjoying a diet long on fibrous grass or hay, and short on grain. You administer his deworming paste well-timed to eliminate a potential parasite threat before he suffers any damage. Even so, he’s had one mild bellyache, and you want to do everything in your power to make sure he doesn’t colic again. In such cases, you may want to investigate the holistic nutritional supplements known as “probiotics.”
Probiotics, meaning “for life” are live bacteria cultures, believed to restore or enhance the natural flora in the gut. In other words, probiotics increase the number of food-processing bugs present in the gut and improve efficiency. When prescribing antibiotics — which can upset digestion by killing off beneficial intestinal bacteria along with pathogens elsewhere in the body — some veterinarians suggest giving probiotics.
“If you give a horse an antibiotic to fight infection, you can change the balance of the bacteria in the gut,” says Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS of the Harmany Equine Clinic in Washington, Va. “The good bacteria will repopulate but in the case of a horse with a weak immune system, sometimes the bacteria won’t repopulate without some help.”
Fermented products, also sold as digestive aids, do not contain live bacteria, but are also thought to improve the intestinal environment.
“Fermented products aren’t alive but they act in a similar way in the gut,” says Harman. “They balance the pH so the good bugs can live happily.”
Probiotics and fermented products are sold in tack shops and health food or vitamin stores and are available in powder, liquid and paste form.
There is little scientific evidence proving that probiotics significantly aid digestion, but with no particular risk in administering them, some horse owners feed them as a preventative measure. How do you gauge if the probiotics are working?
“If your horse requires less food, if his coat is better and if his manure appears to have more thoroughly digested food in it,” says Harman, “those are signs that he’s more comfortable.”