by Heather Zorn, P.A.S

A client of mine recently got back from a horse event that was sponsored in part, by a nationally known feed company that used the opportunity of a gathering of like-minded horse folks to sell their newest product.  The product that my client was specifically interested in was a probiotic.  The feed company representative/nutritionist clearly sold the product so well that it made my client want to use it.

 Keep in mind that my client is a well-educated and informed consumer and yet she was sold by the claims of the company after a short presentation.  Probiotics have become quite popular in human supplementation, and therefore the popularity filters down to animal use.

So, my discussion with her to whether or not probiotics would be suitable for her horse, prompted me to write this synopsis on the use of such products to help explain the basics.

Probiotics are live organisms, new organisms (or bacteria) introduced to an otherwise low bacteria environment.  Causes of a low flora population can be due to in short to stress, use of antibiotics, chronic illness, and compromised health or digestive inefficiency (both often found in older horses).  Prebiotics are concentrated fermentation products that “feed” the existing good bacteria (or flora) in the gut, creating a favorable environment and allowing for a healthy population of beneficial flora.

The “good” bacteria (or flora) are responsible for synthesizing many of the vitamins and minerals that are broken down during the fermentation process making them absorbable into the blood stream, providing maximum use.

 It is important to remember that horses are fermenters; meaning that their primary means of breaking down forage and extracting nutrients comes from a fermenting process that occurs in the hind gut.  Other livestock are ruminants, breaking down forage in multiple stomach chambers.  Many of the pre/probiotic formulas were developed for cattle and other ruminants, rendering them ineffective in a fermenting horse.   You can dump all the organisms you like into the gut and nothing will happen unless they have the food and environment they need to survive.

Generally, when feeding a horse like it was intended to eat, an all or high majority forage diet, meaning a fermentable diet, a healthy horse does not need either a pre or probiotic.  Most healthy horses are able to generate the gut flora that they need.  Less is more in this case.

Probiotics have very little research behind them in equine studies and concentrations of organisms don’t come close to human quality products.  Live organism probiotic products should be refrigerated to preserve them, but I have only seen one label recommending refrigeration.  A live probiotic product sitting in the summer heat of your feed room is probably well intended, but a complete waste of money.

 Also, due to the high heat of the fermentation process, the live organisms must be in concentrations much higher than a ruminant or a human would need, often making them cost prohibitive at beneficial levels.  Knowing that you will only pay so much for a product, the companies will sell them at levels that will serve your horse no benefit to feeding them, only they don’t advertise that little tidbit.

Prebiotics must be designed to feed the specific flora generated in a horse’s gut.  A probiotic for a cow or ruminant will do a horse no good.  A probiotic must be in a form that the flora residing in a horse can use, otherwise it is another waste of money.

I’m starting to notice a trend here, but at the risk of repeating myself once again: READ THE LABEL!  Look for amounts of live organisms.  “It’s in there” claim isn’t good enough.  You need to know the potency.  Look for fillers, often listed as the top ingredients.  You’re not paying for oat hulls, dehydrated alfalfa meal, stabilized rice bran or soybean meal in a product that is supposed to be introducing live organisms or feeding existing flora.  The bacteria aren’t interested in those things, they are there because they are names you recognize and are palatable to the horse.  Ideally, look for one with no fillers or carriers in the product.  Providing you have a balanced diet, specifically targeted to your hay and feed, you don’t need supplemental vitamins or minerals added to a digestive product.

In specific cases, like long term use of an antibiotic, I would recommend a probiotic, to replace the good bacteria that the antibiotic inadvertently kills off.  A prebiotic produces a favorable environment for the organisms to multiply, but that won’t help much if the antibiotic is killing them directly.

In an older horse, who may have dental problems ranging from missing teeth to saliva production deficiency, which can lead to inefficiency in rendering the forage suitable for fermentation, a prebiotic would be suitable.   Providing that the reasons for starting a prebiotic are not linked to a diet issue, such as difficulty holding weight due to inadequate protein, loose stools due to insufficient forage, etc.

Before adding potentially unnecessary supplementation to your horse’s diet, become an educated consumer. Decide whether or not you horse needs a digestive aid.  Providing he/she is healthy, the answer is probably not.  Spend your money on something beneficial to both of you~

Animal Nutrition Solutions Equine and Canine Consulting Services is a company committed to consumer education and improving the health of your dogs and horses. Our blog is here to provide you with quick access to nutritional information, and our products were created in the interest your dog and horse’s best health. Our supplements are designed to provide the nutrition lacking in a proper diet, without the unnecessary additives, chemicals, and by-products found in most other supplementation products.