Now that we’ve discussed the primary building blocks of the equine diet, which includes fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals, it’s time to talk about some of those extra ingredients that you’ll often find in feeds and supplements--the ones that can really give your horse an added nutritional boost.
Of course, not all of these functional ingredients are needed all of the time, but it’s important to know which ones might be helpful for certain horses or in certain situations.
1) Probiotics for horses
Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when consumed in adequate concentrations, can benefit the digestive tract. They do this by improving digestion and producing B-vitamins needed for metabolism, among other things. All animals have “good” bacteria in their gut, which serve a number of functions, including maintaining immune health. However, these beneficial bacteria can become depleted due to antibiotics, illness, or high-stress events, allowing “bad” bacteria to multiply instead. This is when a high-quality probiotic supplement can help to restore balance and prevent the pathogenic bacteria from colonizing in the GI tract.
Probiotic strains may be included in certain feeds and supplements, but to ensure your horse is getting enough of these beneficial microbes, it’s best to feed a high quality probiotic supplement.
Prebiotics are nonliving, nondigestible ingredients that help to feed the good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. In other words, prebiotics are food for probiotics. Examples of prebiotics include fructooligosaccharides, oat hulls, soy hulls, beet pulp, and psyllium, so these ingredients are often added to feeds. Ensuring that your horse’s diet includes prebiotics will help to keep the good bacteria thriving, and in turn, the digestive system functioning correctly.
3) Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes help to break down feed nutrients so they can be absorbed and used by the horse. Some examples of digestive enzymes that are naturally present within the horse’s body include pepsin, lipase, amylase, protease, and lactase, which all break down different types of nutrients. When a horse is dealing with ulcers or other gastrointestinal issues, however, they may lose some of their natural ability to produce digestive enzymes. This is when adding them into the diet may be helpful.
Other horses that may benefit from supplemental digestive enzymes include older horses having trouble holding their weight or horses prone to diarrhea or gas colic.
4) Antioxidants for horsesOxidation is a natural process that occurs when oxygen is combined with various other elements in the body during metabolism. The rate of oxidation depends on the activity level of the animal. For example, at rest, the rate of oxidation is lowest, but during exercise, stress, pregnancy, or lactation, the rate of oxidation increases.
When oxidation rates are high, this is often referred to as oxidative stress, and it causes an increase in the amount of free radicals--damaged cells missing a critical molecule and on a “rampage” to pair with another molecule. An overabundance of free radicals damages healthy cells, which can easily lead to decreased immune function, illness, or nervous system dysfunction.
This is where antioxidants, substances such as certain vitamins, minerals, plant extracts, etc., come into play as they can help prevent damage from free radicals.
Examples of antioxidants include:
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin C
Horses in hard training or mares that are pregnant or lactating can often benefit from supplemental antioxidants in the diet.
5) Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that the horse’s body cannot make on its own. The ones we pay most attention to in the horse’s diet are omega-3 and omega-6, and though both are important, omega-3 is needed in larger quantities than omega-6 as it helps with metabolism and manages inflammation in the body.
The good news is that omega-3s are plentiful in grass and hay, but supplements such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and certain types of oils, can ensure your horse is getting additional omega-3 in his diet. Omega-3 supplements for horses may be especially helpful for inflammatory conditions such as skin allergies, insulin resistance, or arthritis.
Herbs are another popular functional ingredient added into some feeds and supplements. Since domesticated horses aren’t able to roam over large amounts of land and choose from a variety of plants to eat, adding certain plants into the diet can be beneficial not only as an added natural source of vitamins and minerals, but also for their medicinal value. Some common herbs for horses include:
- Marshmallow (digestive issues)
- Peppermint (digestive issues)
- Turmeric (inflammation)
- Licorice Root (ulcers)
- Raspberry Leaves (hormonal issues)
- Milk Thistle (detox)
These are just a few, but there are many more herbs that can be beneficial to feed to horses. However, keep in mind that just because herbs are deemed as “natural,” that doesn’t mean all are completely safe. Some herbs may interact with certain medications or can be toxic if fed in large amounts, so always check with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist before adding herbs into your horse’s diet.
These extra additions to the equine diet may be the extra “edge” your horse needs to perform at his best. While we always advise to stick to the basics and feed according to the horse’s digestive system, recognize that performance often requires more from our horses beyond the foundational basics. Consider adding digestive supplements for horses, such as probiotics, prebiotics and digestive enzymes, as well as powerhouse antioxidants to help protect the musculoskeletal system.