Why Probiotics and Digestive Enzymes are Important Feed Additives for Your Horse
Pro-biotic is derived from the Greek word "pro" meaning "for" and "biosis" meaning "life". Therefore "pro-biotic" is, and means (for life), the opposite of "anti-biotic" (against life).
Probiotic and digestive enzyme supplementation is a way of encouraging the proliferation of certain "good" (beneficial) bacteria to work in concert with the digestive process. There is a microbial balancing act, which can be accomplished by feeding beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes, that can help to create an ideal environment for these microorganisms to flourish maintaining health and well being of the animal.
Thirty years ago a horse grazing in a typical pasture would have had the choice of approximately 30 or 40 different types of green plants and grasses, each bringing its own specific nutrients essential for a balanced diet, but at the same time also containing natural sources of digestive enzymes and naturally occurring beneficial bacteria. Today, in that same pasture, because of selective seeding, herbicide spraying, etc. the grazing is limited to sometimes as few as 4 varieties plants or grasses.
In this day and age, it is common that equine "feedstuffs" contain soybean meal, plant protein by-products, molasses and other cereal type ingredients. These ingredients are then mechanically processed, cooked, steamed, extruded, and cubed. All the processing coupled with extended storage often destroy essential enzymes. From all of this over-processing, depleted-nutrient deficient soils, and stress, some equines are also beginning to suffer from food enzyme deficiencies, which can by themselves lead to an array of non-specific symptoms related to this situation. Your horse's body requires enzymes to process and deliver its food, it also needs good bacteria to break down and absorb the nutrition found in that same food to maintain health and well-ness, to stay sound and active.
One of the most common sources of digestive disturbances in horses is caused by "stress", which may be brought on by: sudden changes, moving, competition, psychological stress of travel and training, breeding and pregnancy, worming, parasites, vaccines, viruses and antibiotics. Unfortunately, the micro flora/ microbial balance in a horse can be upset far faster then it can be restored. A horse's beneficial intestinal bacteria can be destroyed or depleted and the pH of this environment can be altered significantly during these times, however, the effect may not show up immediately and then last a long time.
"Stress" can also be created by unusual or unseasonable weather conditions, alterations in environment, feeds and water. Without the proper digestive enzymes being in place and beneficial intestinal bacteria, food passes through the system not being able to be "fermented" in the way it was intended and instead of being digested remains undigested. When this undigested food passing through the gastro-intestinal tract it may then lead to situations such as colic or colic like symptoms, bloat, founder, or set-up an ideal parasitic environment and it even increases the possibility of the horse developing feed related allergic conditions.
Some owners use common probiotics themselves (in the human forms such as yogurt, kefir, or liquid acidophilus) and have experienced some of the benefits of friendly beneficial bacteria, and are now beginning to understand the value of these nutritional supplements for their animal's health, well being and longevity.
The value of probiotics, occasionally coupled with digestive enzymes is becoming a little more commonplace in equine diets. However, what I have found is that not many owners understand how they benefit their animals and that there are very few products on the market that contain "guaranteed" bacterial/microbial counts which could provide their animals with the most consistent and highest quality beneficial bacteria and microbes per serving.
To fully understand the role of probiotics, as well as digestive enzymes in your horse's diet it is important to have a simple or even basic understanding of the equine digestive system: When a horse eats, his food begins an approximate 100-foot journey through the digestive tract. Food is ground by the teeth and its mouth releases enzymes, the food then mixes with digestive juices as it enters the stomach where millions of bacteria begin their work. As the food enters the stomach and small intestine a fermentation like process begins its journey. Although the stomach in a horse is relatively small compared to its size, it is one of the most important areas for initiating the breakdown of nutrients using digestive enzymes and stomach acids. Very little absorption takes place in the stomach, with the major part of absorption occurring in the small intestines, with a lesser amount of nutrient absorption occurring in the cecum and large intestine.
The small intestine is the area where most soluble carbohydrates are absorbed along with minerals, fats and proteins. Insoluble carbohydrates that are not so easily digested, as well as any undigested soluble carbohydrates, are then passed in to the cecum, which is the "fermentative vat" and comes before the large intestine.
The purpose of the bacteria in the "fermentation vat" (cecum) is that a large array of microorganisms are needed to breakdown the remaining nutrients passed from the stomach and small intestine into a viable usable form. The action of these bacteria within the cecum allow the fibers to be broken down into volatile fatty acids that can then be absorbed and used as not only an energy source by the horse but to help it in meeting its daily vitamin requirements as well.
The specific breakdown which occurs during this microbial fermentation process are of the volatile fatty acids, carbon dioxide, microbial proteins, and digestive enzymes with some vitamins such as K and B-complex. The concept of microbial fermentation occurs to some extent in all animals that eat foods of plant origin, including horses and humans. Horses (as well as some humans) depend largely or in some cases entirely on fibrous plant materials (hays, plants, and vegetables) have to rely upon the large colon portion of the intestinal tract for the fermentation and microbial breakdown to occur.
The population of beneficial microorganisms, in the cecum, remains relatively "stable" under "normal" circumstances and conditions. As long as a horse is never stressed, never needs to be wormed, never has a change in feed, and never needs antibiotics, then the balance should remain un-altered and remain "stable". The reality is that our horses do have stressful event occur, do need antibiotics occasionally, do have feed changes with the seasons and with each load of hay we buy, and will need to be wormed from time to time.
There are three kinds of "bacteria": good, neutral and bad. The horse needs a balance of the "bad" bacteria to keep the "good" in check. As long as the balance of "good & bad" bacteria remains constant and the gastro-intestinal tract is stable, the horse remains healthy. When the balance is upset, the horse may eat, but may not be able to digest properly or assimilate the nutrients he needs from his food. When this occurs it may begin to show up as a dull coat, skin conditions, inability to maintain weight, slow foot growth or other medical conditions including diarrhea.
Digestive enzymes coupled with probiotic supplementation are one way of encouraging the proliferation of certain "good" (beneficial) bacteria to work in concert with the digestive process.
Enzymes are one of the most important factors for digestion and begin the digestive process, they are functional protein molecules that can catalyze and accelerate the rate of feed digestion. The function of the most common digestive enzymes include:
Alpha Amylase - Breaks down carbohydrates, including starch, into simple sugars.
Protease - Digests protein into peptides and amino acids.
Cellulase - Splits the beta 1,4 glucose linkage in cellulose (fiber) into available glucose.
Lipase - Digests fat into fatty acids and glycerides.
beta-Glucanase - Breaks down beta-Glucan - long chain carbohydrate (arabinose, xylose & ribose).
Phytase - Aids in utilization of normally indigestible organic phosphorus in phytates (phytic acid).
Microencapsulated Live Beneficial Bacteria
Beneficial bacteria (Probiotics) including Lactobacillus acidophilus, Enterococcus faecium, and Bacillus subtilis are beneficial microorganisms, which have been proven to replenish essential microflora and decrease the incidence of gastrointestinal disorders. Beneficial bacteria, especially Lactobacillus sp. can produce specific anti-microbial substances that have been observed to inhibit the growth of some pathogenic microorganisms including Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella sp. These beneficial microorganisms are most effective to use during periods of disease or stress and following parasitic prevention programs or antibiotic treatment when no lactic acid bacteria are present.
Beneficial bacteria cause no tissue residual effect or possible microbial mutation. It is also important that the live beneficial bacteria fed be microencapsulated so that they may travel through the stomach acids intact so that they are released to do their job in the hindgut.
The microbial balancing act is necessary to maintain health, and it can be accomplished by feeding beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes daily, through the feed, into the gastro-intestinal tract where together they can create an ideal environment for these micro-organisms to flourish. Animals do not stop naturally producing their own digestive enzyme or producing naturally occurring probiotics because they are fed a "natural source" with their daily feed. Feeding probiotics and digestive enzymes is a preventative therapy, when a horse is given a balanced source it compliments and ensures that the horse is efficiently and effectively digesting its feed and feed rations for maximum absorption of it nutrition. Digestive enzymes along with probiotics assist the horse to utilize more of the nutrition available from his usual and daily feed rations supporting the entire digestive process.
Probiotics also provide a way of limiting the number of harmful bacteria, parasitic infestations and pathogens in the digestive system, thereby also limiting their effects on the horses overall health and well-being. The equine athlete, backyard horse or breeding stock all have certain nutritional requirements in order to support their health. All horses benefit from a well-balanced probiotics/digestive enzyme added to their daily feed ration because they all share common "stress" factors that are known to cause digestive disturbances.
There appears to be a small number of manufacturer's who are beginning to market a limited number of probiotics type formulas, because of customer demand, however, they are not all the same. Many only include one or two items in their formula at unspecified and un-guaranteed microbial or beneficial bacterial counts. It is interesting to note that most manufacturers' do not "guarantee" the microbial populations, or the live and beneficial bacteria counts, which is one of the most important factors to consider before purchasing a product. Most do not use a balanced blend of digestive enzymes in their formulas, because that is either not in their field of expertise or the public is not yet aware of their benefits. Some products are made up of mostly inert "delivery systems" or "fillers", they do not contain live concentrated foods that are most beneficial to the horse and are very cost effective.
There is no exact or "right way" to feed probiotic/digestive enzyme formulas. They do not have to be fed daily, however, for the best results and for the good of the horse I do recommend feeding them on a "regular" if not daily basis. I personally mix the formula I use with my horses "goolosh" which consists of Missing Link® (a whole food product), Source®, rice bran and dry COB. The probiotic/digestive enzyme formula I prefer is Equine Earth Biotic which is marketed and sold exclusively by Tobin Farms and was developed by a holistic vet, Dr. Anne Smith, of Cave Creek, Az. The Earth Biotic lines are a specific concentrated blend of beneficial bacteria, yeast cultures, and digestive enzymes, with organic minerals and anti-oxidents, formulated to maximize intestinal flora and digestive efficiency. They are pleasant tasting specie specific powders (they also have dog and cat formulas) with a guaranteed beneficial microbial count, designed to be used as a daily topping or dressing. Earth Biotics are meant to complement your animals feed ration, not replace it, to assist them in the absorption and utilization of what you already feed.
All horses seem to benefit from mineral fortification which can be found in most grain type feed formulas. However, there is a difference in absorption in the type of minerals used which consumers need to cognizant of. "Minerals are the requirement of all metabolic processes in the animal's body and the deficiency of some minerals can lead to poor performance. Minerals in feed supplements are available in both organic and inorganic forms. Inorganic forms of minerals consist of sulfates, oxides, and carbonates, these forms are less expensive and most commonly added; however, high concentrations of inorganic minerals can interact with other feed ingredients, thereby decreasing their bio-availability and bioactivity. Organic forms of minerals on the other hand are usually linked to an amino acid carrier where they are "escorted" across the stomach of the digestive tract with greater efficiency (Feedstuffs 1993)." Therefore, that also becomes an important consideration when researching products for your horses.
It has been my experience that all horses from backyard, to performance or breeding stock benefit from being fed probiotic/digestive enzyme formulas regularly. It has also been my experience that breeding mares who are feed a probiotic/digestive enzyme formula prior to breeding and during their pregnancies are healthier, the foals benefit from receiving the "maximum" amount of nutrition available in utero for optimal development and growth, and because the mare is absorbing the nutrients in her food she is not being "depleated" during her pregnancy or when nursing the foal. The added benefits and results I have also observed have been very healthy and lively foals who stand and nurse almost immediately with beautiful coats, good feet and are strong at birth. Once a foal is born I give the foal an oral paste probiotic at 12 hours after birth, and on the 4th and 10th day, to ensure that their intestinal tract is off to the best start possible. There are numerous paste probiotics on the market, the key is finding the ones with the guaranteed live microbial/bacterial counts.
I know of many people who are now using a variety of probiotic products, who feed the probiotics/digestive enzymes formulas daily in the manner in which I do. Their horses receive the best benefits including healthy beautiful coats, consistent energy levels, good hoof growth, improved health, keep consistent weight, with few if any digestive disturbances, and have limited or no parasitic infestations to speak of. I have recently been informed the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is doing a study on probiotics and horses which tells me that there will be more information available in the future, because of my experience with them my guess is that they will come out supporting their use.
I also have friends and customer's who only feed probiotics/digestive enzyme formulas for 5-7 days after worming, or after a round of antibiotics as a preventative measure (like many women do by ingesting yogurt or kefir after taking antibiotics so as not to get a yeast infection). These same people will also feed the probiotic/digestive enzyme formulas just prior to travel or competition, or during stressful situations such as schooling or training. Some have told me they double the dose during competition, feeding the normal amounts at other times and also have good results.
In the process of developing our formulas we have provided products to some of the top horse breeders and trainers in our area to try. When I have checked back to find out their results it was interesting to note the different ways in how they in fact had used them. One top, award winning breeder/trainer used them during conditioning and training of young horses (2-4 year olds), one was using the formula only for horses they used for breeding or were training for show that had trouble maintaining weight even after their teeth had been floated. Yet another was using it for the mares and foals during weaning, which as we all know is a very stressful time. This particular breeder, who would have upwards of 30-50 foals at their facility, per year, had re-occurring illnesses and health problems during weaning time for several years. A large number of their weanling would come down with upper respiratory illnesses or diarrhea brought on from the stress of being taken from the mares. This breeder has said they now see less "stress" related illness in the weanlings and they have far fewer vet calls with less need for using antibiotics because they are giving the babies the probiotics/ digestive enzymes during those times.
Some people believe that if you feed probiotics/digestive enzymes all the time that the horse looses its ability to naturally produce their own, we have not found this is to be the case. However, what we have found is that the horse has been loosing its own "natural" ability to produce all that it needs to properly digest and absorb the nutrients from its food, and/or its ability to recover what it needs because, let's face it, for the most part it is fed an "un-natural" diet of stored hays and over-processed feed stuff which has lost the naturally occurring enzymes the horse needs. In some areas of the country horses are kept in barns in small stalls with no pasture available during winter months, some never get pasture because they are in "show barns", some are on western show, barrel racing or rodeo circuit and some are just fed straight alfalfa, with no variety of hays, which seems to be the case especially in Southern California. While other more fortunate horses may get a variety of grasses and hays but may be given monthly or daily wormers, and/or rounds of antibiotics, or are vaccinated regularly because of barn, boarding facility, or show requirements, all of which alter the horses ability to properly digest and absorb the nutrients from its food. While it may be true that you do not "need" to feed probiotics on a daily basis, it is advisable to feed them at least as a preventative measure as mentioned earlier in this article.
I would like to leave you with this quote:
"Whatever the nutritional potential of a food, its contribution is nonexistent if it does not pass the test of absorption. Those nutrients that have not been transferred through the intestinal mucosal cell to enter the circulation have, for all nutritional intent and purpose, never been eaten. The variety of nutrients from the organism's environment that have been made available by absorption must be transported through the circulatory system to the aqueous microenvironment of the cells. There, they serve their ultimate purpose: participation in the metabolic activities in the cells on which the life of the total organism depends." (Nutrition: An Integrated Approach p. 283)
Jessica Lynn is an author who has written health and nutrition related articles for several health publications and websites. She has been involved in holistic/preventative health for humans and animals since early childhood. Jessica is of San Marcos as an equine nutritional products researcher and designer. Her formulas are based upon the knowledge and expertise of allopathic & holistic veterinarians, nutritionists, microbiologists, zoologists, immunologists, herbologists and other specialists in the field of animal nutrition. Jessica lives in Southern California with her cats, 4 Border Collies and raises Arabian horses.
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