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Poor Performance and Digestive Health in Horses

In equestrian competition, the slightest margin can make the difference between winning and losing. No matter the level you compete at, all of us want our horses to perform well, but sometimes their performance can drop. And while many factors influence how your horse goes, digestive health and nutrition are pivotal to good health and performance, so it’s important to ensure that you are supporting your horse’s digestive health with the right diet and management.   Lisa Elliott, MSc – our Nutritionist here at Castle Horse Feeds – explains the basis of digestive health, how it can inhibit performance and what you can do to prevent this.

Digestive Health In Horses – the basics

Horses are browsing herbivores, typically spending 16-18 hours a day moving and eating a variety of vegetation which flows through the digestive tract in a slow constant trickle.  With a small stomach and a large hindgut devoted to digesting a continual supply of fibre, horses are essentially ‘hindgut fermenters’ and their digestive system reflects this.  Within the hindgut, billions of microbes thrive on a digesting a constant supply of fibre through fermentation, which keeps them happy and healthy and promotes a healthy hindgut.  Digestive health in horses is, therefore, dependent on feeding in sympathy with their digestive system and microbial population.

However, performance and competition horses often have a diet and management routine far removed from this ideal, which can pose significant challenges to the digestive tract. Additionally, the stress associated with restricted turnout, isolation, travelling, unfamiliar surroundings and intensive training can all significantly affect digestive health, resulting in problems that will have an impact on performance.

Compromised digestive health and poor performance In Horses 

Stress caused by training, environmental or social factors can initiate a physical response leading to deteriorating gut health. Stress is a major cause of gastric ulcers, which in turn are a major cause of poor performance.  A horse struggling with poor digestive health may lack adequate nutrition and energy, or be physically uncomfortable, all of which will affect its ability to perform.

Diets low in fibre and high in starch have a serious impact on digestive health and are a major factor in the development of gastric ulcers, which are prevalent in around 90% of performance horses. In addition to gastric problems, the hindgut is a serious contender in health and performance issues. The health of the hindgut depends on a delicate balance between beneficial fibre digesting bacteria and more harmful bacteria, which can easily change. Poorly digested high starch diets can lead to a proliferation of less desirable bacteria who produce lactic acid, together with a reduction in beneficial bacteria.   As a result of this microbial ‘dysbiosis’, the hindgut becomes far more acidic, leading to a condition called ‘hindgut acidosis’, resulting in an inflamed gut wall. The acidosis also causes more beneficial bacteria to die off, producing toxins which can damage the gut lining and cause ulcers. When the tissue lining the hindgut is damaged, this leads to reduced digestion and absorption of nutrients which in turn causes a drop in performance.  Additionally, these conditions make the hindgut sore and uncomfortable, leading to poor temperament, lack of focus and training issues.    Just as you or I wouldn’t be able to work and perform well if we had tummy pain, it is exactly the same for your horse.


Tips to optimise digestive health In Horses 

Whilst there are good treatments for compromised digestive health, a treatment-based approach which maintains horses on daily long term medication is not ideal.  A preventative approach to promote good digestive health and reduce the chance of poor performance is always a better option:

  1. Feed plenty of fibre

Fibre is absolutely essential for a healthy digestive system to help beneficial microbes thrive, so try to ensure your horse is getting ad-lib forage at all times.  Good-quality forage that is well digested can provide levels of energy high enough to support harder work. Consider sources of highly digestible, soluble fibre to provide an additional energy boost when needed, instead of relying on large volumes of cereals.  Soluble fibres like mucilage (present in linseed meal) are thought to have a soothing, protective effect on the gut lining to benefit digestive health, whilst providing an excellent food source for beneficial bacteria.

  1. Reduce Stress

Ensure your horse is getting at least 12 hours turnout per day, ideally out 24/7, where they can move about, browse and socialise with other horses,  all of which are important to help reduce stress and its effects on digestive health and performance.

Make sure your horse is fully fit and capable of the work you are asking, to help reduce both mental and physical stress. When training, getting your horse out and about as much as possible will help him or her get used to both travelling and going to various places so this will become far less stressful when competing.

  1. Support hindgut microbes

Prebiotics can help promote digestive health by providing a feed source for beneficial hindgut bacteria. Yeast based prebiotics are scientifically proven in horses to not only promote optimum fibre digestibility but also to help nurture and stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria, so look for feeds containing these to encourage good digestive health.

If you are lucky enough to own your own land, increasing grass and plant diversity into your grazing will help support microbial diversity to promote a healthier hindgut.  Alternatively taking your horse browsing along hedgerows and roadside verges can be beneficial. Just 10 minutes per day will help increase diversity within the gut microbes to support optimum digestive health and performance.

If you have any questions about your horse’s digestive health and the best diet for optimum performance, you can email Lisa on or call 01497 570345.


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