Poseidon Animal Health & the Thoroughbred Industry
The more we learn about the importance of gut health the more we recognise the potential for change across many equestrian disciplines and in particular the Thoroughbred and Racing industry.
The fact is improving a horse’s gut is transformational at many levels.
Great gut health (which is more than just the stomach and includes the whole approx. 30m digestive tract) can impact on every aspect of a horse’s performance and behaviour, so the earlier we can create and maintain a healthy gut, the better for every aspect of growth and development and overall performance of the thoroughbred horse.
The secret lies in tapping into the power of the horse’s gut bacteria, which until recently equine scientists haven’t known much about. The more we learn, the more we see an opportunity to improve horses’ performance and health.
Put simply, the good fibre loving bacteria can create the majority of a horse’s energy and keep the gut intact, preventing bacteria, pathogens and toxins from entering a horse’s body, where they will cause disease and inflammation. These helpful bacteria also create B Vitamins for behaviour and appetite and hoof condition. The unhelpful bacteria create lactic acid and they feed on starch (from uncooked or too much grain) and create inflammation and reduced performance. A balance in favour of the good bacteria creates an environment that keeps the gut wall intact and less opportunities for the lactic acid disease promoting bacteria.
Horses are designed to be powered by their hindgut bacteria which starts to colonise at birth. The establishment of the right beneficial bacteria in favour of the disease creating bacteria is essential for creating the foundation for great health and performance.
The earlier we can impact in a positive way on a thoroughbred’s gut microbiome, the greater the benefits.
Recognising the impact that stress can have during key periods such as yearling prep, pre training and racing allows us to prepare and manage from a gut health perspective.
During yearling prep, the horse is placed under differing types of stress. Moving from a paddock to a stable or yard, a change in type of feeds, separation from their herd, increased handling, transportation etc can all potentially impact on the gut. Research in production animals has recently found that not only does physical stress (such as infection, inflammation or trauma) activate the immune system but that psychological stress has the exact same impact. So potentially when a horse is psychologically stressed, the activation of their immune system uses up their incoming resources to activate the inflammatory cascade leaving less left to add condition, build lean muscle, or fuel the nerve junctions which result in peak focus and performance, growth and impact on behaviour and appetite.
When we improve gut health in Thoroughbreds, it can mean less reliance on gastric ulcer medications, better outcomes in yearling prep, longer time in training, improved performance, better recovery, better appetite, improved behaviour and the list goes on. By creating great gut health (through a fibre-based diet and using cooked/extruded grain, supported by great management and science backed supplements), the horse can utilise an efficient energy system and achieve better results.
Recent research has shown that when horses are fed a gut friendly diet, they can have a delayed lactic acid threshold and a reserve of glycogen stores. Meaning they may be able to sprint for longer and reach fatigue later. Such is the power of a healthy gut.
Poor gut health is linked to illness, increased risk of colic, poor doers, appetite, hoof condition, behaviour poor performance even possibly infertility.
Risk factors for poor gut health include:
- A low forage diet – not feeding enough forage will starve the good fibre fermenting bacteria
- An empty stomach increasing the risk of squamous gastric ulcers
- An unbalanced diet lacking in minerals like copper and zinc which are essential for gut wall maintenance
- Feeding uncooked grains – feeding unprocessed grains like barley or corn sends a lot of starch into the hindgut where it feeds and supports the ‘bad bacteria’ who then create acid build-up, hindgut acidosis, gut wall damage and when severe enough, laminitis and colic
- Competition – long hours of transport, long hours without feed and stress all combine to create the perfect storm for gastric ulcers and may negatively affect hindgut bacteria
- Sudden changes in diet – sudden changes don’t let your horse’s gut have time to adapt and can cause colic and shifts in hindgut pH and bacterial populations
- Change in living arrangements – often leads to stress and increases the risk of gastric ulcers and leaky gut
- Stabling or travel – long hours without feed is one of the worst offenders for disturbing normal gut health and creates high risk for gastric ulcers and leaky gut
- Big meals – feed and particularly starch will travel too quickly through the small intestine when big meals are fed, which means lots of starch gets dumped in the hindgut to feed the bad bacteria who will then kill off the good, fibre fermenting bacteria.
- Too much anti-inflammatory medication – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Bute are well recognised for increasing the risk of gastric ulcers in the lower section of your horse’s stomach.
- Overuse of antibiotics – Oral antibiotics will wipe out many of your horse’s good bacteria.
A thoroughbred can often have many of these risks from birth to retirement.
Relevance for the Thoroughbred industry
From breeding to yearling prep, from trialling to racing and life after racing, a thoroughbred’s gut will have a major role to play in the extent to which they can live up to their genetic potential.
The life cycle of a thoroughbred racehorse means they are often exposed to many risks for gut health.
Broodmares retiring from racing will often have a compromised gut microbiome which is then passed onto their foal. A high grain diet (not always balanced) can create further risk to the developing thoroughbred along with overuse of antibiotics and omeprazole with young horses adding to their gut health challenges.
Racing and intense exercise is stressful to the gut along with the ongoing stress of stabling, often low forage diets, transport and long-term use of omeprazole all create a gut that cannot perform at its best compromising not only the performance of the horse but its longevity and potential for life after racing.
Learn more about the specific ways how Digestive RP works - and why it's a gamechanger for the Thoroughbred world.