by Robo Hendrickson

How Tiny Bugs Rule The World (and your Horse’s Digestive System)

How Tiny Bugs Rule The World (and your Horse’s Digestive System)

I don’t recall if I was more curious than shocked the first time I heard about tiny bugs living on our eyelashes.

Mickey Higgins’ dad worked at a lab in Denver and told him about these itty-bitty skin crawlers we all have and as Mickey put it, “They eat on us and nuttin’ ya can do ‘cause it’s too small for anyone to see.'' 

As kids we didn’t ask questions because people working in labs just knew those kinds of things, so it just had to be true. 

It’s a weird kind of fact that freaks out an eight year old enough to make him stand in front of a mirror for hours, magnifying glass in hand, trying to see these microscopic parasites who invade and suck the life out of otherwise sterile bodies.

Mom told me they only attack filthy kids who don’t wash, especially behind the ears. 

Dad made it worse when he said you can’t just wash them off but you can kill ‘em with disinfectants like he used at the vet clinic. 

I walked around school smelling like I was about to go into surgery for weeks.

Soon after, a TV ad about bed bugs burned a horrifying image of what they must look like into my brain. For years, every time my skin itches, I imagine a fat-bellied monster, the size of a dust particle, with sharp appendages dragging a nasty claw under a skin flake or hair follicle looking for a meal. 

But, other than a few gross stories I heard as an impressionable kid with a big imagination… I never really gave much thought about microscopic aliens infesting us like the giant walking blood banks we are.

In 2010 I met Dr. Rob and Dr. Keith who had developed products to help fight various levels of digestive distress and diarrhea in their patients. And guess what? They were leveraging this minuscule community for good with their equine probiotics!

I’d heard the word “probiotic” before, maybe on a yogurt cup, but I gave it no more thought than I do “Techron” in my gasoline. 

“Keeps vital engine parts clean and doesn’t leave harmful deposits in my car’s engine…? Whatever. Fill ‘er up and I’ll have this Snickers and a Slushie to go.”

Who’d have guessed that, almost 10 years later, I’d have a career and business focused around those tiny lifeforms living in and on our bodies.

The amount of research and our understanding about this symbiotic relationship we have with microscopic organisms has really grown over the past few years because our ability to harvest and study it is vastly improved.

But we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

If the microbiota was computer language, we’re just at the point where a pre-pubertal Bill Gates is drooling through his braces after seeing C++ code for the first time.

I saw Moore’s Law applied to the subject of metagenomic sequencing of these microorganisms a few months ago… so you know it’s about to get spicy!

But, Why? 

Why are the scientific and healthcare communities so interested in little bugs I heard about over forty years ago that I can’t even see?

Well, it’s because they aren’t bed bugs and they affect not only our bodily health, but our gut health, moods, cognitive function, neurological systems, and so much more.

And, they could very well be a HUGE missing piece of a complex puzzle we’ve been trying to figure out for a long time. 

They’ve been living right here under our noses the whole time. Well… under, around, and in our noses to be more exact.

The more I learn, the more I want to learn.

I always thought my digestive tract was “inside” like my liver, heart and gallbladder. You know, under the skin, like a banana.

But we’re more like a donut.

Our digestive tract is a long hole down the middle. It starts at the mouth and ends, well... at the other end. This ecosystem lives throughout. Of course, if you’re a veterinarian then this description is juvenile - but I can be as such. 

As we humans evolved over thousands of years, so did the microbiota living on and inside of us; not really as parasites, but as an extension of our bodies. They stand guard to defend us; their territory. The tribes living on your eyeball are there to protect it from an onslaught of airborne pathogens. Without them we’d be weepy eyed with constant infections.

And they’re more diverse than fans at a Pink concert. 

In my mind, I picture a “Lord of the Rings" style tale with Elves and Goblins and Hobbits and Wookies. (Yes, I know Wookies were from Star Wars but that’s just how crazy this microbiome thing is!) 

The various groups occupy and defend their territories and no one is like another but they often band together when they need to fight the great evil Mordor, who in this case might be Salmonella or an ophthalmic infection which has to be more evil than Mordor, and they must win or the entire world dies, which in this case is us: the human host. 

And who wants that bummer ending - right?

This epic, real-life war rages on your body 24-hours a day, 365 days a year and you don’t even have a clue!! 

In fact, some of these microorganisms fight on after you’re dead because they’re not yet sure you’re completely dead. These are dedicated soldiers! 

Kinda like Hiroo Onoda who continued to fight in the Philippine jungles 20 years after World War II was over. The Japanese government found retired officers and flew them in to give stand-down orders so he would stop killing people in the name of Japan. Now that's some serious dedication to the cause.

How awesome is it that we have an army of dedicated micro-soldiers waging an invisible war against attacking pathogens day and night?

And the same goes for your horse’s digestive tract.



Interesting Facts:

  • Horses are more bacteria than horse. Horse bodies contain trillions of bacteria. They have 10 times more bacteria than cells and they play a significant role in health and longevity.
  • If a horse weighs 1200 pounds, 30+ pounds of that are bacteria.
  • 36% of our blood is either made by the microbiome or processed by it.
  • The microbiome is as individual as a fingerprint. The gut flora varies dramatically by genetics, geography, stress, and feed. No two have been found to be the same.
  • There is a major connection between the gut and immune system. Estimates show 70% to 80% of the natural immune system exists in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Probiotics are proving to be more beneficial than added vitamins and minerals as a supplement.
  • Yeast strains of probiotics are not affected by antibiotic therapy as opposed to other bacterial strains.
  • The most scientifically proven probiotic for horses, Saccharomyces boulardii, is a yeast strain harvested from the skin of fruit.
  • The horse gut microbiome has a direct effect on mood, anxiety, depression, stress, and even laminitis and Equine Metabolic Syndrome.
  • The microbiome is referred to as the “second” brain.

Because this is a fairly new and expanding field, there are many confusing terms. Here is my attempt at descriptions working from the top down. As I mentioned, even the experts have disagreements about the definitions, but I’m just trying to make sense of it all.

  • Microbiota is all of the microorganisms present in a defined environment. Think of all the microorganisms living on your body as your microbiota. It’s the entire community.
  • Metagenome is the collection of genes coding for your specific microbiota.
  • Microbiome is a term referring to the entire habitat, including microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, lower and higher eukaryotes, and viruses), their genomes (genes), and the surrounding environmental conditions (what you eat, your health and surroundings are considered.)
  • Microflora (flora) is the microorganism tribe that helps you digest food and keep your guts in check. They live on plants and animals. We have both native and temporary flora and they battle for supremacy.
  • Microfauna show animal-like characteristics and they are found everywhere on earth. They’re most known for processing organic material in the soil but others can break down just about everything including rubber and TNT!
  • Probiotics are live microorganisms that may provide health benefits when consumed, generally by improving or restoring the gut flora.
  • Prebiotics are compounds in food that are indigestible by the host, but induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. It’s good food for your tiny troops.

Probiotic studies continue to reveal new, incredible results that demonstrate, among a few things, the ability to mimic antibiotics without causing resistance, the enhancement of neurologic function, anti-inflammatory effects and even improve cardiovascular functions. 

Of course, these studies only scratch the surface and we have a LONG way to go, especially in regards to the equine digestive system, but so far the news coming in has me as excited as my dial-up modem did in 1994.

I won’t go into detail here, but FullBucket is involved in a wicked cool equine microbiome study on the forefront of this innovative wave involving multiple groups and pretty smart people. Look for future announcements in the coming months.

FullBucket Giving Program

Zig and a working horse in Guatemala.
The locals like bright things so our supplement is pink which enhances their use.

As many of you know, our business is a little different than others in our industry. Instead of writing a 1% check at the end of the year, For Every FullBucket You Buy, We Give A FullBucket to Animals In Need.

In addition to providing life-sustaining nutrition to working equids in Central America, we manage annual Giving Trips where several of you have attended.

In addition to nutritional supplement and education, our work consists of an overall health check, vaccinations, deworming, parasites, podiatry, dental, saddlery and safe horse handling techniques. 

During this year’s 2 week excursion we worked on more of these under-nourished horses than ever - more than 100 a day!

The trip is coordinated in conjunction with the AAEP Foundation, Texas Equine Veterinary Association Foundation, and the FullBucket team and took place in November. This year's locations were Salama, Baja Verapaz and Chimaltenango, Guatemala, Central America.

A big shout out to the first round of Attendees:

  • Leslie Easterwood, DVM- Texas A&M 
  • Robby Schwyzer, DVM- New Mexico 
  • Concho Hernandez, DVM- Mexico 
  • Nacho Ramos, DVM - Guatemala
  • Michael Pintar - Covetrus, Colorado
  • Mike Zeigler - FullBucket, Texas
  • Carol Akers, DVM - Texas
  • Kathleen Morris, DVM - Texas
  • Rob Franklin, DVM - FullBucket, Texas
  • Keith Latson, DVM - FullBucket, Colorado

The second round of Attendees:

  • Fernando E. Motta, DVM- Pennsylvania
  • Matt Moskosky, DVM- Texas
  • Leroy Howell, DVM- Oklahoma
  • Concho Hernandez, DVM- Mexico
  • Chris Brasmer, DVM, New Mexico
  • Haley Jatzlau (TAMU 2020)
  • Breanthony Baker (TAMU 2022)
  • Erin Gatz, DVM- Texas
  • Emily Garrett, DVM- North Carolina
  • Jessica Huntington, DVM, Texas
  • Ciera Guardia, DVM & husband Pete- Texas


Robo, Dr. Rob, Dr. Keith and the FullBucket Team

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