Digestion: An Approach to Health in Horses

How it's supposed to work:

Horses eat a variety of vegetation including grass, herbs, shrubs, tree leaves, twigs, and bark as well as licking various minerals from the soil and rocks to ingest a wide variety of essential nutrients.

The equine digestive tract is a complex and intriguing system. Its optimum function is essential for a healthy horse, and depends on many factors, the most important being what lives and thrives in it, and what passes (or doesn't) through it.

'In 35 years of working in the prevention of disease in horses, we have observed that allergy and disease seem primarily to originate in digestive problems and incorrect or unnatural feedstuffs,' says Jim Helfter, CEO of Advanced Biological Concepts in Osco, Illinois. Other underlying causes would be manmade environmental toxicity, and the reduced nutrient value in feeds grown by conventional (as opposed to organic) agriculture.

In particular, the horse's digestive tract is populated by microflora (bacteria and others); there are beneficial species and pathogenic (disease-causing) species. 'The health of these populations has a direct bearing on the horse's health,' explains Jim. 'When the wrong kinds of microorganisms proliferate, the horse becomes susceptible to allergies and disease.'

He adds, 'Before birth, the fetus is sterile; protected by the amniotic sac, it has no contact with microflora.' During birth, the foal picks up whatever microorganisms are present in the mare's birth canal; in addition, in the first few weeks of life many foals eat adults' feces to introduce beneficial microorganisms into their digestive tract. Of course, pathogenic organisms can be introduced at the same time.

When digestion is working well, the beneficial microorganisms in the gut digest and ferment the horse's food, breaking down indigestible cellulose and making its components available for absorption into the horse. In the natural state, horses eat desert species of grass as well as herbs and shrubs; tree leaves, twigs, and bark; and they lick various minerals from the soil and rocks, ingesting a wide variety of essential nutrients. Because the horse developed to fit the prairie environment, these foods support optimal populations of beneficial digestive microorganisms and suppress pathogenic ones.

'An important part of the beneficial microflora's job,' says Jim, 'is to put the major minerals (such as limestone/ calcium) and trace minerals from the soil into a biologically available form that can be absorbed into and used by the horse's body.' Plants also provide minerals in a biologically available form.

Most of the enzymes that break down foodstuffs into absorbable components are present in the living foods themselves. According to Jim, 'The horse's digestive system is not designed to produce great quantities of digestive enzymes on a daily basis.' Enzyme production requires a lot of energy that the body should keep in reserve for other functions.

Dysbiosis: what goes wrong?

‘Dysbiosis' means ‘dysfunctional digestive tract'. Reasons for the dysfunction can be:

- The population of beneficial microorganisms declines, due to lack of variety or the wrong kind of food. Stall confinement and mono-culture pasture and hayfields are major contributing factors, as are chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other environmental toxins.

- The population of pathogenic microorganisms increases, taking advantage of toxic conditions from the die-off of beneficial populations;

- The foodstuff contains insufficient living enzymes. 'Enzymes are de-activated or destroyed by temperatures over 118 degrees F,' Jim explains. That's the temperature at which you pull your finger out of a pot of hot water because it starts to damage tissue. Therefore, extruded (pelleted) feeds, and any feed that is a processing byproduct rather than a whole food, are essentially ‘dead', requiring the horse to secrete enzymes for its digestion. Even hay can be extremely low in living enzymes.

- The foodstuff contains antibiotics or preservatives, both of which disrupt populations of beneficial microorganisms. Jim asserts, 'We have found that about 10% of horses have allergies to the preservatives in molasses. Simply removing sweet feed from the diet clears up these allergies.'

'About 70% of the immune system's job is to protect the body from toxins, parasites, and pathogens whose route of entry is the digestive tract,' says Jim. 'With dysbiosis, the immune system is overworked to the extent that the horse's health is compromised. Disease and/or allergies follow.'

How to re-establish gut integrity

In addition to reversing the above factors (by increasing the variety of foods, changing to foods that contain living enzymes, and removing toxins, antibiotics, preservatives, and chemical dewormers), standard ‘alternative' practice has been to administer ‘pro-biotics' including several Lactobacillus species and Bifidobacteria, to re-populate the horse's gut with beneficial bacteria. This is important; however, Jim points out that great quantities of introduced pro-biotics can be problematic in that such practice can change the chemical balance in the gut or give an incorrect balance of digestive microflora.

'What we have come up with, that more reliably balances the horse's gut microflora, is ‘pre-biotics'. Pre-biotics are not viable microorganisms, but are fermented and pre-digested forms that feed, maintain, and balance the normal beneficial microflora of the gut,' Jim explains. They provide a ‘terrain' or environment that is conducive to the correct populations flourishing.

'Pre-biotics need not be refrigerated,' Jim points out. 'Their shelf life is indefinite. They have been fermented to completion, yet still contain enough bacteria in a dormant state to restart the digestive tract.' Fermentation is a natural process in which an organism, such as a yeast, changes a foodstuff into a different form, such as barley into miso paste, or milk into yogurt.

'Our success rate for alleviating allergies is about 80% when we correct dysbiosis,' Jim adds. 'Allergies represent a hypersensitive immune system, caused by digestive tract toxicity or imbalance; the allergies are relieved by a return to normal microflora in the gut.'


Natural Horse Magazine thanks Jim Helfter for his help in preparing this article.

For more information:

Advanced Biological Concepts
301 Main St. - PO Box 27
Osco, Illinois 61274-0027
USA 1-800-373-5971
Canada: 1-800-779-3959