Here’s how to read between the lines

Mucking out is part of the daily ritual of being a horse owner. But what does the look and color of your horse's manure mean?

Whether you own a high-performance eventer, a working horse, or a much-loved pet pony, you need to know the answer to this. It’s one of the first ways your horse’s body will communicate distress.

Your horse produces around 9 tons of poop every year. That’s one big mound of messages coming direct from his digestive tract.

But what does it all mean? And what should you do if you spot a problem?

Recurring gut problems in your horse can lead to diarrhea, abdominal pain, or colic. Learn how to spot a problem before it gets serious.

We love our horses here at FullBucket. Our co-founders have worked with horses all their lives. You can read more about their own horses (and other pets) here.

For today’s article, we talked to our equine experts Dr. Keith Latson and Dr. Rob Franklin.


The Perfect Poop

If you’re the one who mucks out your horse’s field and stall, you have a good idea of what’s normal for him. Get to know how much poop he produces, and how often. And learn what is normal for him.

A healthy horse poop will take the form of soft, separate balls of feces, pretty uniform in color. There might be visible strands of food but no solid chunks of undigested matter.

It shouldn’t smell too bad (healthy manure smells mild and sweet, at least compared to dog or cat poop!) And it should not have any mucus or blood in or around it.

It’s normal for your horse to go upwards of eight times per day but frequency will depend on the horse’s age and diet.

Stallions and foals tend to poop more often than mares and geldings.

And, yes, horses use their poop as a social marker. So don’t be surprised if he goes more often when a new horse is in the vicinity.

Poop Problems

So you know what’s normal for your horse. What should you do when you notice that his poop is different than usual?

Horses are sensitive animals. Their bodies can respond to small changes that we would dismiss as insignificant.

Start thinking about all the factors that could be having an impact: changes in diet or environment, and external stressors.


If It’s Too Wet

Any horse owner who has watched their beloved horse writhing in pain from colic knows the agony of feeling so helpless.

Horses' guts are incredibly complex. There’s a lot that can go wrong, and things can spiral out of control fast.

Just like for us humans, diarrhea can signal complicated digestive issues, including infection. 

But diarrhea could also stem from something you’ve done - even with the best of intentions. Change your horse’s feed program or supplement program quickly, and your horse’s GI system might struggle to adapt.

What you should do:

Don’t hesitate to call your veterinarian if you notice wet, loose, or runny stools. This is particularly important for older horses, foals, or high-performance horses.

Tell your veterinarian if you have recently changed anything about your horse’s feed, grazing, or supplements.


If It’s Too Dry

They are prone to impactions, which is often thought of as being constipated.

There are some technical aspects to terminology that deal with motility vs dessication of the feces but regardless, I would never say they do get constipated (impacted) frequently.

Horses are prone to impactions (often confused with constipation).

If your horse’s poop is drier or grittier than usual, it points to a hydration or grazing issue.

Be sure he has access to enough water at all times. Remember that temperature, humidity, activity levels, and stress will affect how much he needs to drink.

If you are in a cold climate, make sure your horse’s water source hasn’t frozen over since you last checked on him.

Did you know that horses will drink 2.5-10+ gallons of water per day?

If their drinking water is cold or frozen, they often won’t drink enough, and this is a very common cause of colic.

Lack of enough activity can sometimes lead to hard, dry stools. So be sure your horse is getting enough exercise (particularly if you keep him in a stall).

What about gritty poop? Sand in the poop can be a sign of sand accumulation in the “uphill” portion of the horse’s intestine which is causing an obstruction.

If you notice sand in your horse’s manure, the abrasive nature of the grit on the gut lining could be causing diarrhea.

What you should do:

Check that your horse has easy access to fresh, clean, appetizing water at all times, and keep an eye on the water temperature.

Be aware of any changes in his environment or routine which could leave him needing more water than usual.

Make sure he is active enough even outside of structured exercise times.

Feed your horse on a mat, to avoid sandy surfaces. And reduce the amount of time he spends in sandy lots with nothing to do or eat - horses can eat sand out of boredom or while they are searching about for small morsels to eat.

If It’s Too Smelly

As you walk into your horse’s stall, it will be obvious if your horse’s manure smells different.

A sour, pungent smell usually accompanies a looser pile of manure. This can suggest that your horse’s body is not coping with a change.

The distinctive smell comes from a lack of normal fermentation in the gut.

The complex microflora numbers in the hindgut can upset the natural harmonious balance and narrow the diversity of gut flora. 

What you should do: 

A horse owner’s main job is to control risk factors that can cause stress.

Feed a healthful and routine diet, and make any changes progressively. Check your horse’s temperature (smelly manure can be a sign of something more serious, like pipestream diarrhea).

If in any doubt, call your vet. 

Does Color Matter?

Healthy horse poop is greenish-brown, as you’d expect. You don’t need to worry about any subtle changes in color.

But if you notice any red or black in your horse’s poop, it’s time to call your veterinarian.

Any red in the stools can be a sign of bleeding from a rectal tear or other problems in the lower intestinal tract.

Black spots can actually be old blood, originating from higher up the gastrointestinal tract. It’s not common, but a definite cause for concern.

What you should do:

Red or black spots in your horse’s feces warrants a call to your veterinarian.

The Aftermath Of Antibiotics

If your horse has recently been on a course of antibiotics, he may develop diarrhea. This isn’t necessarily linked to the initial infection or illness that you were treating.

Most antibiotics could cause diarrhea in horses, but don’t let this concern you. If your veterinarian has advised you to give your horse antibiotics, then trust his guidance. 

Here’s something many horse owners don’t know about antibiotic therapy.

Although equine antibiotics are widely considered to be non-discriminate killer, yeast can actually survive a course of treatment. That’s why we use a yeast-based strain of probiotic (Saccharomyces boulardii) in our horse probiotic products.

Most other equine probiotics use bacteria strains, but those won’t survive a course of antibiotics.

If you’re feeding a probiotic to a horse that’s going through (or recently finished) antibiotics, be sure to use one which contains a yeast strain.

If you don’t, the probiotic will get killed off along with the infection!

How Can I Keep My Horse’s Gut Healthy?

Your horse’s gut is truly fascinating. (I guess we would say that - we are equine veterinary nerds!) 

Here’s a Horse Gut 101:

Horses digestive systems reflect the fact that they're designed to graze for 16-20 hours per day.

The stomach and small intestine are designed to cope with a continual intake of food, and the large intestine extracts as much nutrition as possible for all that fiber.

But modern domestic horses don’t often get to graze on wild pasture for 16 hours per day while on the move with their herd.

Digestion starts with the teeth, tongue, and mouth. From there, food passes to the stomach where it is liquefied further and then passed into the small intestine.

It’s here that the digestive process starts in earnest. The small intestine of your horse is around 60 feet in length. Food type, exercise, and meal size can all affect how quickly things move here.

Horses are “hindgut fermenters”: the job of the colon and cecum is to continually ferment dietary fiber.

Why do you need to know all this? If you choose to give your horse a probiotic, it needs to withstand that entire digestive process and arrive intact at the problem site.

A huge challenge for any horse probiotic (but one we have solved!)

Choosing The Best Horse Probiotics For Gut Health

Your horse has billions of microscopic organisms in his gut right this minute. The problem starts when that intestinal flora get out of balance.

This can affect the digestion of nutrients or produce toxins. Managing these microbes should be a central part of your health program as a horse owner.

As a caring horse owner, you already know about the role of probiotics for gut health. But here’s where many people get it wrong (with the best intentions!) They buy products that replace the natural bacteria population of the horse’s gut.

Why is this a bad idea? It’s a fallacy to think that every horse’s gut has the exact same amount of good bacteria in the gut.

Every horse is unique. Even two horses grazing in the same pasture will have a different gut culture. A “one size fits all” probiotic will do little to help the horse’s gut heal itself.

If you badly hurt your back playing tennis on the weekend, would you walk into your local drugstore and pick up a generic painkiller? Right.

But you would be sure to grab the correct dosage and formulation for you. You wouldn’t pick a children’s or infants’ pain reliever, or take one tablet if the recommended dose was two.

It’s important to approach your horse’s treatment the same way. Don’t grab a generic horse probiotic from the feedstore. Because one size most definitely does not fit all. And most of the products you’ll find in the store are grossly underformulated and contain very little active ingredient.

You know the value of expert advice and specialist products for your own health.

Probiotics for your horse are no different. If you go to your local feed store and pick a probiotic from their shelves, it won’t be as effective as something your veterinarian recommended. It could have the wrong ingredients, at weak dosages, or ineffective concentrations. It could even be for the wrong size or type of animal!

What you need is a strain of probiotic that works to normalize gut function. That’s what we use in FullBucket products - we refer to it as a “United Nations” effort for the gut.

The probiotic we use is heat stable, and micro encapsulated, so the active ingredient makes it way through the acidic environment of the stomach and all the way through the 60+ feet of intestine to the hindgut. That takes some doing! But it’s crucial if the product is actually going to do your horse any good.

There’s a lot of research going on right now into the viability of probiotics, and how they can withstand the pH swings of the gut.

If you want to nerd out a with us little more, we recommend you read our white paper about probiotics - specifically the yeast probiotic Saccharomyces boulardii which is the main ingredient in our horse products.


The Final Word On Horse Digestive Health

Prevention is always better than cure.

So do everything you can to minimize the risk factors that can lead to gastric problems in your horses. These factors are: stress, over feeding, quick alterations to a feeding program, administration of medications (specifically antibiotics), and changes in the horse’s environment.

If your vet recommends a probiotic, choose one that will actually survive the digestive process.

We are proud of the hard work and intense research which goes into our horse health products. We feed them to our own, much-loved horses.

Read more about our horse probiotics here and check out our story to see how it all began.