Maintaining your horse’s digestive health is integral to maintaining their overall health.

Digestive issues such as colic, ulcers, and hindgut acidosis are some of the most commonly diagnosed health conditions in horses.

Furthermore, without a healthy gut, horses could experience secondary nutrient deficiencies, impaired energy metabolism, lower feed efficiency, and could be at higher risk of pathogenic diseases.

Unsurprisingly, nutrition is a major component of optimizing your horse’s stomach and hindgut health. How and what you feed your horse can help to maintain a healthy gut environment and support the microbiome.

Looking for the best digestive health supplements for your horse? Several nutritional supplements have been investigated in horses and have demonstrated efficacy for maintaining a healthy gut.

In this article, we will review the scientific data behind fifteen popular ingredients used to support digestion and gut function in horses.

We will discuss the potential benefits of these supplements and their efficacy according to the available research and clinical trials.

Overview of Equine Digestive Health

The digestive system of the horse is unique compared to other mammals. Horses are non-ruminant herbivores, meaning they naturally only eat plants and have a single-compartment stomach.

The stomach and small intestine of the horse function similarly to that of humans. The hindgut consists of the cecum and colon, in which the cecum and large colon are similar to the rumen in cattle and other ruminants.

Horses are also hindgut fermenters. This means that they rely heavily on fermentation processes in the hindgut to derive energy from the forage they consume.

Microbes in the hindgut are responsible for fermentation of cellulose and other plant fibres to produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs). These fatty acids then get absorbed in the cecum and large intestine and used for energy, supplying approximately 40% of the horse’s caloric energy.

Horse Digestive Tract Hindgut Foregut

Steps of Digestion in Horses

Digestion of food involves the following steps in horses: [1]

1) Mechanical Digestion (Chewing)

The breakdown of food starts with chewing or mastication in the mouth. While often overlooked, chewing is important because it breaks food down into smaller pieces.

This increases the surface area of the feed for digestive enzymes to further break down these particles.

Saliva is also produced when chewing, which promotes gastric health by acting as an acid buffer in the stomach.

Horses that have dental issues or missing teeth will often need to be on a modified diet because they cannot chew their food well.

2) Chemical Digestion (The Stomach)

Food enters the stomach and is further broken down by digestive enzymes, microbes, and gastric acid.

The naturally acidic environment of the stomach plays a key role in the immune system. It can prevent infectious or harmful microorganisms from entering the rest of the digestive system.

The predominant stomach acid is hydrochloric acid and horses can produce 16 gallons per day of this acid.

It is continuously produced by stomach cells even when there is no food present in the stomach, which, incidentally, is why horses with intermittent feeding schedules are at higher risk of ulcers.

3) Nutrient Absorption (The Small Intestine)

When food leaves the stomach, it enters the small intestine. Enzymes continue to break down the food even more.

Importantly, the small intestine is the major location for the absorption of nutrients from starches, proteins and fat in the diet.

4) Hindgut Fermentation (Cecum and Colon)

The vast microbial population in the hindgut is primarily responsible for breaking down fibre from hay, pasture and other forages.

This produces large amounts of volatile fatty acids (VFA), which are the major energy source for the horse.

Leftover, or undigested, food moves through the rest of the colon where water is absorbed and feces is formed and excreted.

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How to Support your Horse’s Digestive System

Horses are known for having particularly sensitive digestive systems. They are very susceptible to digestive upsets, particularly when anything in their diet or routine changes.

If you are reading this article, your horse is likely experiencing one of the following complaints which can be linked to gut health:

Horses with any of these digestive complaints can benefit from dietary supplements. Improving your horse’s gut health can not only impact digestion and nutrient absorption but also immune function, performance, comfort and overall well-being. [19]

Additional benefits of a well-functioning digestive system include:

  • Improved synthesis of vitamins and key nutrients
  • Improved pathogen resistance
  • Protection against toxins
  • Better gut-barrier function
  • Influencing the gut-brain connection to promote positive behaviour and mood
  • Improved body condition
  • Increased resistance to stress

Before adding supplements to your horse’s feeding program, we recommend consulting with an equine nutritionists. You can submit your horse’s diet for analysis online and our nutritionists can provide a complimentary review.

Top 15 Supplements for Your Horse’s Digestive Health

1) Visceral+

Visceral+ is Mad Barn’s gold-standard digestive health supplement. It is designed to support gastric and hindgut health and immune function.