by Casie Bazay

How to Strengthen Your Horse’s Immune System

How to Strengthen Your Horse’s Immune System

In recent years, the immune system has gained much attention, and most of us do whatever we can to make sure ours is up to par. The immune system has a big job, after all: to fight off the many pathogens we encounter in order to keep us healthy. 

Like us, horses also face an onslaught of pathogens, often on a daily basis. Therefore, it only makes sense that we pay close attention to the equine immune system as well, and do whatever we can to support it and keep it strong. 

The Immune System’s Job

The immune system isn’t one organ, but instead a complex network, consisting of white blood cells, antibodies, and other substances that all help fight off infections and reject foreign proteins that may try to invade the body. You may have heard that 70-80% of the immune system is housed in the gut. 

This is true, but the immune system also operates within the lymphatic system, bone marrow, mucous membranes, skin, spleen, and liver. Overall, immunity is regulated in the thymus, however, and this is where white blood cells (called T lymphocytes or T cells) are made.

As noted above, the main role of the immune system is to protect the body from pathogens that try to invade or attack. 

The white blood cells are the first line of defense, fighting off any recognized viruses, chemicals, or other foreign substances that try to invade. However, if the white blood cells cannot stop the invader, antibodies will come to the rescue. 

A healthy immune system will likely have plenty of antibodies to do this. However, a weakened immune system may not be able to ward off the invaders and, as a result, illness will occur.  

There are three types of immunity that a horse can have:

Foals receive passive immunity from their mother (specifically from colostrum) during the first few months of life. After that, they will need to build up their own immune system. This is typically when immunizations are first given in order to establish artificial immunity to a variety of harmful pathogens. As the young horse continues to grow and develop, they will be exposed to many pathogens and gain natural immunity as well. 

All three types of immunity are important in keeping a horse healthy.

What Can Weaken a Horse’s Immune System?

Most adult horses have a fairly robust immune system, but immunity can be weakened by a number of different factors. As their body declines with age, horses will naturally have a weaker immune system as well. 

The following factors are also known to negatively impact the equine immune system:

  • Poor diet
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Stress
  • Change in management (i.e. moving to a new farm or pasture)
  • Trailering (both short and long distances)
  • Nutrient deficiencies 
  • Toxins
  • Certain medications such as corticosteroids
  • Climate or extreme weather change

Due to the nature of what they are asked to do, performance horses are at higher risk of developing a weakened immune system. Therefore, these horses will likely need added support. 

Signs of a Weak Immune System in Horses

If your horse’s immune system has been negatively impacted by one or more of the above factors, there will likely be signs, some of which are more apparent than others. Some of these signs may include:

  • Recurrent infections
  • Concurrent infection (such as pneumonia and sinusitis)
  • Prolonged treatment/healing time
  • Poor performance
  • Poor hair coat
  • Unthrifty appearance (often in spite of a good diet)

How to Boost the Horse Immune System

Nutrition and good management practices are crucial for building a strong immune system in horses. Not only do they need plenty of down time just to be a horse, but they also need an appropriate amount of macro and micronutrients to support their work level, as well as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. 

Many of these nutrients can be found in fresh, green grass or in good-quality hay, but certain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients may be deficient in forage and need to be supplemented. 

As noted above, much of the horse’s immune system is housed in the gut. There, “good” bacteria stimulate the production of immune cells which then travel throughout the body. A healthy gut means a healthy immune system. 

Some basic rules for feeding and management to support a healthy gut include the following:

  • Provide plenty of high-quality forage. Horses should consume at least 1.5-2% of their body weight in grass or hay daily. Long-stem forage is best, but short-stem (hay pellets or cubes) can be partially or fully substituted for horse’s with dental problems
  • Ensure that your horse doesn’t go for long periods of time without forage. Using slow feeders can help prevent this problem.
  • Allow your horse to regularly interact with other horses. If you keep your horse stalled, make sure he can see other horses. 
  • Provide enough energy and protein to meet your horse’s work demands. 
  • Allow your horse plenty of time to rest after an intense workout. 
  • Add supplements as needed to fill in any nutritional gaps in the diet. These might include a vitamin/mineral, antioxidants, and omega-3 supplements. 

Probiotics as Immune System Support for Horses

Another important way to support your horse’s immune system is through pre- and probiotics. Prebiotics help to feed the good bacteria already living within the gut, and probiotic supplements can restore the population of good bacteria after a period of stress or after taking antibiotics. 

Studies suggest that probiotics improve the intestine’s immunologic barrier, helping to alleviate intestinal inflammation and stabilize the gut. Data shows that probiotics can improve dysfunction involving the lining of the gut (i.e. ulcers) and regulate hypersensitivity reactions.

Furthermore, studies in both humans and animals show that probiotics have the ability to reduce symptoms of intestinal diseases including diarrhea, skin disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, as well as allergies. 

To support your horse’s immune system, we recommend FullBucket’s Regular Strength Equine Probiotic Pellets. This product contains 25 billion CFU’s of Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii, a yeast strain of probiotic that is safe to use during antibiotic therapy and has added L-Glutamine and prebiotics. 

If you have performance horses, the Extra Strength Equine Probiotic Pellets might be a better bet. This product contains 50 billion CFU’s of Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii, as well as prebiotics and L-Glutamine. 

Strengthening your horse’s immune system doesn’t have to be difficult. With the proper diet and good management practices, plus adding high-quality probiotics into the diet, you should be off to a great start!

Read More:

Probiotics and Immune Health

Probiotics: Effects on Immunity


Photo by chris robert on Unsplash

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