Nutritional Support for Equine Digestive Health

The digestive tract, one of the top health priorities in the horse, is the system of organs that takes in food, digests it to extract energy and nutrients, and expels the remaining waste. Some digestive supplements have the potential to help the body digest food by supporting digestive efficiency and reducing the potential for digestive upset. Balancing the digestive system is a key to maintaining health by improving nutrient absorption and reducing the risks of digestive issues.

Recent studies show that gastric ulcers occur in a surprisingly high percentage of performance horses. Jack Grogan, CN and chief science officer for Uckele Health & Nutrition, explained why gastric ulcers develop and nutritional methods for contending with them.

"The leading causes for gastric ulcers are the stomach's exposure to excessive acid levels, a reduction in the natural protection of the stomach's lining, or both," he said. "Most equine ulcers occur in the upper portion of the stomach near the esophagus due to excess acid."

Grogan said that under normal circumstances, the stomach is protected from excess acid by the production of the horse's saliva: "This happens because horses are naturally wandering, grazing animals with a digestive tract that is well adapted for a steady diet of forage and the continuous secretion of gastric acid throughout the day. When the horse produces saliva in adequate amounts by chewing, it buffers and coats the lining of the stomach, protecting the stomach from gastric acid."

However, whether grazing or not, the equine stomach secretes gastric acid in a continuous and cumulative manner. Therefore when insufficient roughage is provided or a high grain diet is fed intermittently, gastric acid continues to release without the buffer of the saliva, irritating the mucosal lining of the stomach.

Grogan explains that some horses develop ulcers with no obvious signs. However, once a gastric ulcer is formed, the stomach tissue becomes damaged and inflamed, which can bring about depressed appetite, irritability, colic problems, diminished performance, weight loss, chronic pain or discomfort for the horse, and can ultimately become a serious issue. The only way to know for certain if a gastric ulcer is present is through an endoscopic examination.

Some modern feeding techniques can contribute in part to the high incidence of ulcers, Grogan said.

"High grain diets can contribute to excessive stomach acid release and periods of fasting expose the horse's stomach to gastric acid," he explained. "For performance horses, diets high in grain are common as are periods of intermittent feeding, especially before training."

In contrast, it's less common for pasture-fed horses or those with ample turn-out time to develop stomach ulcers. Steady forage intake tends to allow for an increase in the production of the stomach-protecting saliva to match the steady release of stomach acid.

Grogan recommends supplying extra digestive support that, along with improving stress response and reducing gut inflammation, is vital to managing stomach acid reactions and preventing them in the future.

Another significant digestive factor Grogan identified is in immune health. All mammals have a complex system of lymphatic ducts that provide barriers to infection and play an important role in immune responses.

"Because 60% of lymph tissue surrounds the digestive tract, it is a main avenue for exposure to foreign substances that could contribute to diminished immune function, so it plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system," he said. "Horses have a highly developed, complicated, and sensitive GI tract and as a result, the digestive function is easily disrupted.

"Stress can easily upset digestive function," he continued. "That includes physical, mental, emotional, chemical, toxic, metabolic, and/or nutritional stresses. All of these can cause excessive free radical formation that can contribute to immune compromise."

Once this process has been initiated, digestive health can deteriorate, nutrient absorption can decrease, and pathogens and toxins can enter the system, increasing the risk of immune disruption or distress, he said.

Grogan observed that digestive health can be improved: "(Some) digestive enzymes can help maintain or restore normal function by improving digestive efficiency (and) absorption function."

In addition, he noted, some probiotics can help reestablish beneficial gut bacteria. A full-spectrum formula will combine prebiotics, microbials and digestive enzymes to aid in optimizing digestion and assimilation of nutrients from feed, forage, and supplements.

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Uckele Health and Nutrition

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