Digestive Health

Wild Horse herd showing the arid terrain

Photograph Nancy Florence, Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates

Microbiome tests

When the nerves and the muscles of the intestinal tract are functioning optimally, and when the diet is high in fibre, in our experience there is no need for microbiome tests.

Correcting the diet with emphasis on the suitability of forage should be priority to ensure optimal functioning of the whole digestive tract. Inefficient peristalsis influences hind-gut flora populations as well as lack of diversity and/or fibre in the diet.

Bio-Diversity – a ‘double-edged’ sword

Bio-diversity in their diet IS desirable so hay cut from pastures containing a variety of grasses is healthy but allowing uncontrolled access to pasture swards in their vegetative state, which contain more than a scattering of plants like plantain and legumes like clover, is the CAUSE of many of the health problems of modern day horse.

Because our domestic horses are living on fresh green grass for most of the year and therefore don't have to move far to get to it, they are already ingesting too much potassium and nitrogen so adding fresh herbs for biodiversity is adding to this load.

Sowing 'meadows' which include grasses, legumes and herbs, sounds idyllic but remember, the horses diet needs to be sparse and diverse - not prolific and diverse. Too much potassium and nitrogen has an adverse affect on the gut flora.

When forage is excessively high in both potassium and nitrogen, it becomes a 'fertiliser' to the flora in the gut causing rapid population explosions of opportunistic, pathogenic organisms in the gut .

"Potassium promotes the overgrowth of saprotrophic (micro-organisms that normally grow on dead matter), commensal (organisms that live together but don't harm each other) and pathogenic (microbes that cause disease) micro-organisms in plants, especially plants damaged by droughts, frosts and freezes.

Thus, such forages become the source of many opportunistic, potentially pathogenic bacteria and fungi.

​After ingesting them, livestock face an overgrowth of opportunistic, pathogenic organisms in the gut. The organisms rapidly proliferate to produce toxic by-products, like excessive ammonia, which is acutely toxic to foetuses and the immune system.

​These pathogens infect not only the foraging animals but their foetuses. Early and mid-term foetuses may abort, while near-term foetuses may suffer premature birth, and/or septic weak neonatal birth.

Similarly, it's felt that high-potassium forages encourage excessive growth of endophytic and other pathogenic fungi, especially in Fescue and Rye Grasses. The toxins these fungi produce add to the reproductive problems in cattle and horses."
T.W. Swerczek, DVM, PhD


So to correct problems, in our experience, we take these out, not put them in.

​Fecal Water Syndrome

This is where the form of the manure balls is solid but there is accompanying liquid with defecation. Or fecal liquid can be passed any time without the presence of solid manure.
This ‘dribble’ soils their hind legs and tail and is unpleasant for horse and owner. In our experience it is a sign of a problem with the functioning of the vagus nerve and peristalsis (gut motility/inflammation) and is rectified relatively easily by feeding Alleviate Gold.

Since implementing management strategies outlined here, we have very few, if any issues with gut health. 

The slowing down of the passage of food alters the internal environment for the gut flora, precipitating changes to the microbiome.

Avoiding Digestive Issues

Chew Time:

The horse is designed to eat for 16-18 hours per day. This means he is chewing and producing saliva for most of the day. Saliva contains a ‘buffer’ which helps maintain the gastric juices at exactly the righ pH to begin the breakdown of the coarse, fibrous material which should make up the majority of his diet.

​This is why long periods without food (more than 4 hours) will cause the pH of the gastric juices to drop.

Many horses subsist on forage which is not supplying the constant stream of coarse, fibrous material causing them to be lacking chew time.

Examples of this are:

Nibbling  grass through a grazing muzzle
Short, green grass

Longer, mid-mature soft green grass

Running out of food for periods of 4 hours or longer eg: while traveling or having insufficient hay.

Gastric Acidity

Gastric juices NEED to be acidic. Altering the acidity in any way interferes with many aspects of the digestive processes.

Gastric acidity should never be tampered with.

​The feeding of inappropriate forage has resulted in questionable advice to feed pH neutralising Calcium products such as that derived from red marine algae or Lucerne.

The addition of Lucerne to the diets of horses already grazing ‘cool’ season grasses and clovers can result in dangerous behaviours.

The more appropriate course of action is to correct the basic forage then there will be no need to alter the acidity of stomach acid.

The low pH (acidic) is necessary to activate enzymes which begin the break-down processes. Equally important, many microorganisms are destroyed in an acidic environment, preventing potential infection or sickness.

​Lessening the acidity of the gastric juices interferes with ‘Intrinsic factor’ which plays a crucial role in the transportation and absorption of the vital micronutrient vitamin B12 ranging from haematological to neurological disorders.

​Neutralising the gastric juices also interferes with the metabolism of Vitamin B1.

Vitamin B1 and Vitamin B12 are two of the very nutrients the horse needs to prevent problems with his digestive and nervous system in the first place.

​So therefore, it is not advisable to continue administering Omeprazole or other antacid products.

The Importance of Forage


In the vast majority of cases digestive issues are indicative of
- inappropriate basic forage

-Disturbance to normal gut function due to sub-optimal vagus nerve function

Inappropriate forage not only directly affects the balance of the hind-gut flora populations but also indirectly by causing the mineral imbalances which affect the entire metabolism.

Metabolic inefficiencies can be caused by a deficiency in any of the micronutrients, which can also be induced or exacerbated by a variety of chemical, metal, or environmental toxicities.

The Chicken or the Egg?

The Significance of the Vagus Nerve!

Mineral imbalances which affect the more obvious neuromuscular system, will of course also affect the vagus nerve (the major nerve which innervates and controls the entire digestive tract plus the internal organs).

The first thought for treatment of digestive issues typically focuses on enhancing gut flora with pre or probiotics in order to promote ‘good’ bacteria over ‘bad’. This would seem a logical approach but which comes first - the chicken or the egg?

Gut dysfunction can be a symptom of an underlying metabolic issue which is causing a problem with the nerves and muscles of the gut.

The vagus nerve is one of the MAJOR nerves in the body. It is critical that it functions optimally because it is responsible for the regulation of ALL internal organ functions digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as the constriction or dilation of blood vessels, and certain reflex actions, such as coughing, sneezing and swallowing.

​The vagus nerve connects the brain with the ‘gut brain’ and plays an important role in the toning down of inflammation,  maintaining intestinal and energy homeostasis, regulating food intake and satiety.

The efficiency of the vagus nerve is determined by nutrition and can influence food intake and weight gain.

Significantly, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the control of emotions and other stress-induced and inflammatory diseases.

Any mineral imbalances that adversely affect the brain and nervous system, are automatically also adversely affecting the vagus nerve.

If the vagus nerve is not working optimally, peristalsis (the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine creating wave-like movements that push the contents of the intestine forward) can either slow down or even stop altogether (Colic).

Gaseous Colic

The slowing down of the passage of food alters the internal environment for the gut flora, precipitating changes to the microbiome.

The food sitting in one place for too long causes overfermentation resulting in excess gas which is evident by louder than normal gut noise.

Normal gut sounds (borborygmi) are caused by the peristaltic movement of the intestines which should contain a mix of gas, water and feed. Rumblings and gurgles are normal in healthy horses, and suggest proper function of the gastrointestinal tract (normal motility).

​Any time these gut noises can be heard from a few metres away, is a significant cause for concern because it signals the over-production of gas which will cause discomfort and the danger of colic if part of the inflated intestine floats up and wraps around another part of the internal anatomy.

​It is far better to target the cause rather than the symptoms.

Gaseous colics are common any time there is a surge in grass growth (Spring/Autumn)

Leaky Gut Syndrome

This is also a downstream result of disturbances to the optimal functioning of the vagus nerve. The entire intestinal tract has a single cell, epithelial lining, and the junctions between these cells need to be TIGHT to prevent 'leaky gut' syndrome occurring.

When the vagus nerve is not operating at full efficiency, these junctions become loose and there is increased intestinal permeability, allowing molecules through that wouldn't normally enter the blood stream.

​Gastric Ulcers

Either the horse’s basic forage is not high enough in fibre, or it is not supplied to the horse such that he does not go more than 4 hours without food.

Being ‘girthy’ and ‘twitchy’ can be due to the presence of gastric ulcers OR the result of a disturbance to normal nerve function. The horse’s skin is densely populated in nerve endings and certain nutrient/mineral imbalances cause them to be hyper-sensitive or ‘twitchy’ where they show obvious adverse reactions to being touched, brushed, saddled, girthed up or covered.

This is why it is necessary to verify the presence of ulcers by scoping, then omeprazole products can be administered for a short period of time - 1 month, to facilitate healing.

Symptoms of Gastric Ulcers

  • Showing signs of discomfort – girthy, grumpy.

  • ‘Twitchy’ (hyper-sensitivity of the skin)

  • Going off their feed

  • Losing condition

  • Reluctance to work

  • Wind-sucking

  • Bad coat

  • Colic

The main indicator that horses have ulcers is that they go off their feed.

(Physiology, Gastric Intrinsic Factor Hashim M. Al-Awami; Avais Raja; Michael P. Soos).