Beyond Acidophilus

My very latest summer 2015 catalogue of horse supplies includes a product that finally addresses my longstanding complaint about commercial horse probiotics. It turns out that someone out there was listening when I repeatedly asked WHY don‎’t horse probiotics have, if not variety, at least one single culture adapted specifically to the horse. As of now, I can buy:

• Lactobacillus Reutieri

Which is actually cultured from healthy horses’ hindguts, and the current ad states that it is effective in killing off pathogens in the horse gut such as:

• Salmonella
• E. coli
• Rota virus
• And more

I am not sure how long the FDA will allow such sweeping statements, but I am sure that the best defense in gut health is a prolific and varied population of friendly flora, so I will add L. Reutieri to my horse’s regimen.

Gut flora became a pressing issue I had to wrestle with as my two latest horses, both Thoroughbreds, came to me with chronic gut issues. Generally poor digestion left them with all the symptoms of ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. Large amounts of runny gassy poorly formed bad-smelling manure full of undigested feed combined with an insatiable compulsion to eat large quantities of wood made it obvious their tender insides were not happy. They also had rough coats, dull eyes, hypersensitive skin, and poor muscle tone, while injuries were slow to heal.

I was a bit taken aback by the severity of their misery, as my semi-feral Spanish Colonial horses were capable of eating everything from last year’s tumbleweeds to this year’s peaches without any noticeable ill effects. They, however, had never been subjected to prophylactic antibiotics at birth or the type of sterile environments most racehorses are kept in. Many people like to blame the breed as so many Thoroughbreds appear temperamental, demonstrating a low tolerance for change, whether that’s feed, heat, cold, new stimuli, or just being handled, but repopulating my Thoroughbreds’ guts with friendly flora seemed the obvious place to start relieving their irritability and discomfort.

It turned not to be as easy a process as I first thought. A brief look over a handful of human probiotic products that have passed through my own refrigerator recently includes at least the following variety of cultures:

• Acidophilus
• Bulgaricus
• Casei
• Lacti
• Plantarum
• Rhamnosus

• Bacterium b
• Lactis
• Longum

• Diacetylactis
• Florentinus
• Thermophilus

• Cremorus

• Oryzae
• Niger

• Reesei

But when I went to see what was available in the way of probiotics for horses I found extremely expensive small syringes containing but one single milk based yogurt culture, lactobacillus acidophilus. Besides being prohibitive in cost, the supplement made absolutely no difference in my horse’s digestion, condition, behavior, appetite, or manure. I suspect that is because most adult horses do not eat much in the way of milk products. I decided I needed to find probiotics that had been selected to digest the types of things horses actually ate. After looking at what was in even a low-starch bag of horse feed and realizing that the first few ingredients were reliably:

  1. Grains and grain byproducts
  2. Soybean meal and byproducts
  3. Beet pulp and molasses

I headed out to my nearby health food store and made my live food purchases:

  1. Amazake, a cultured rice drink from Asia, is one of my own favorite probiotic drinks as I tend to have problems digesting grains myself. The culturing agent, Koji, breaks down the starches and carbohydrates in grains into more absorbable complex sugars.
  2. Miso is a fermented soybean product that breaks down the complex proteins in soybeans into more absorbable amino acids. I figured that would help not only with the soy byproducts but also with other legumes and proteins horses are fed, primarily alfalfa but also peanut hay and with the like.
  3. Raw apple cider vinegar has the live flora capable of breaking down the sugars and pectin in apples, so it would help digest beet pulp, which is primarily pectin with some residual sugar from processing the sugar beets and some added molasses to hold the pulp in pellet form.
  4. And a variety of probiotic milk drinks with the largest variety of cultures I could find

Adding Amazake, miso, and raw cider vinegar to my horses’ diet did wonders for my horse’s insides. Within a matter of days, their manure was moderate in quantity, smelled like the vegetarians they are instead of stinking like dog shit and looked like reasonably well formed horse droppings.

The compulsion to eat wood continued unabated however, so I did some research into what is now being learned about horse digestion. Unlike cows, sheep, and goats that are ruminants with several large chambers in their stomachs that hold and ferment their feed with a few main digestive helpers, horses have a long and complex digestive tracts with numerous different types of live cultures whose proportions vary depending on where they are located in the different sectors. Each section of horse gut has its own particular array of friendly flora that digests different aspects of the horse’s diet, and horses in the wild do eat a varied diet. Although the bulk of their diet is grasses, they have been documented eating everything from lichens and bark to herbaceous twigs and leaves to roots and tubers to fruits and berries.

Making sure that my horses ate a varied diet, including mixed hay and browsing, along with a variety of probiotic aids, was right in line with the most recent research. All the same, nothing that I did made any impact on the quantity of wood being eaten until a new horse feed product that contains beneficial yeast and fungi showed up at the feed store. I picked up a bag because the label claimed that it would help horses maintain their calcium/phosphorus balance as my current gelding had been having kidney stones each fall (click here). Sure enough, adding a supplement with live cultures of at least two different types of yeasts:

• Saccaromyces Cerevisiae
• Saccaromyces Boulardi

And friendly fungi

• Trichoderma Longibrachiatum

and other friendly flora including:

• Enteroccoccus Faecium

to my horse’s feed rapidly cleared up his urine so he was no longer leaving a layer of gleaming white calcium crystals everywhere he took a leak. An unexpected benefit was that his compulsion to eat wood also vanished practically overnight. It turns out that Trichoderma specifically breaks down cellulose. It seems that it had not mattered how much roughage he ate, as he did not have the necessary cultures to digest it.

For now, my 1500lb Thoroughbred gelding’s diet includes a small amount of processed feed, just to make sure he has sufficient bulk and moisture in his hindgut and his gut flora stays varied and capable of addressing sudden additions and/or changes to his diet. I do up his oats a little on cold wet and/or windy winter days, but on most days he gets (by volume not weight) and split into two feedings:

• 1 quart beet pulp
• I pint whole oats
• I pint low-starch feed with cultured yeasts and other flora

I soak the whole lot in plenty of warm water for at least ½ an hour before feeding it to him.
The beet pulp needs the time to absorb 5-7 times its weight in water and the yeasts are less likely to produce gas colic if they have time to start fermenting, especially breaking down any sugars, before he eats it. I still occasionally add a little Amazake, miso, raw vinegar, sauerkraut, and/or some variety of yogurt/kefir products. Sauerkraut and/or Kimchee is not the horse’s favorite and sulphury cold weather plants like cabbage are not normally a huge part of a horse’s diet, but I include them now and then on the general principle of variety. However, the bulk of his diet is mixed roughage:

• 20-30 lbs of New Mexico mixed grass mountain hay each day
• Local browse of ragweed, Siberian elm, etc

The grass hay is from long established high altitude pastures. It is rarely fertilized beyond spreading some local cow manure over the land, nor is it sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. It does have a small percentage of a wide variety of weeds among the grass and alfalfa. Some of the ‘weeds’, like the occasional willow twig or brambly rose, the horse won’t eat. Other ‘weeds’ are delectable to him and I am sure add a variety of nutrients that science doesn’t quantify at the moment. Sorting through his dinner is also a natural behavior that keeps him occupied and content psychologically. The rest he gets from yard duty- I let him loose for a few hours most days to crop the weeds and browse the brush, as I don’t have sufficient land or water for pasture. A side benefit is that as he drops piles of manure everywhere he grazes, he ( and the chickens that follow him waiting for a pile to scratch about in) also inoculate the soil with beneficial microorganisms that it desperately needs (click here).


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