The typical diet and management of the competition horse can be a significant departure from how the equine digestive tract has evolved to optimally function. The rigors of pursuing peak performance can leave the horse vulnerable to digestive imbalance and disease, which can become performance-limiting, in itself.
By focusing more on preventative approaches and supporting digestive tract health, the negative effects of typical competition husbandry can be reduced, and the goal of achieving both peak performance and optimal health more obtainable.
Challenging the routine approach to GI tract disorders
As many paraprofessionals are only too aware, gastrointestinal tract issues are worryingly common but, despite their ubiquity, diagnosis can remain difficult. Recognising and understanding the myriad of signs and symptoms is the crucial first step, and sometimes requires a bit of lateral thinking. The difficulty frequently lies in that overt signs can be both typical, such as weight loss or inappetence, and non-typical, such as lameness and subtle changes to the quality of work under saddle. To add to the confusion, the symptoms of gastric and intestinal complaints, while often very different, may just as easily be indistinguishable.
Gastrointestinal tract discomfort may manifest in numerous ways and so the key consideration for the paraprofessional is to explore causes, going beyond the presentation of symptoms. If a gastrointestinal tract cause is suspected, the ability to differentiate between an issue in the stomach vs. one at a point thereafter (intestinal) is then vital to formulate an effective and tailored treatment plan for resolution.
Whilst this approach is common, it does however underpin the sometimes cyclical nature of gastrointestinal disorders in the performance horse, reflected in the high degree of recurrence these horses experience upon cessation of treatment. Because a common and widely available treatment for gastric ulceration exists, gastric ulcers are often the presumptive “first choice” of diagnoses in our competition horses. That is, practitioners may be more likely to suspect ulcers simply because we have “the solution” at hand.
That widely-available solution to gastric ulcers is Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), the widespread use of which is of real concern. Whilst inarguably effective in the short term, particularly for squamous gastric ulceration, it is often administered without thought to the long-term or effects, especially on the remainder of the gastrointestinal tract. Conversely, intestinal disorders, whilst becoming better understood, remain challenging to diagnose and treat. Diagnoses such as Irritable Bowel Disease can often describe a range of pathologies, perhaps with different origins and causative factors. This can lead to a treatment plan of trial and error to establish the most effective route back to good health, which can be costly in terms of finances, time and, of course, welfare to the horse. Again, without a clear understanding of the specific cause of an intestinal problem once treatment is removed, will the horse remain at risk of relapse?
Emphasis on prevention rather than cure
It is widely appreciated that if the gut is not functioning properly, the horse cannot function properly. For our competition horses, that means they cannot perform at their best, and any downtime due to health issues is costly. The ability to avoid these problems in the first place would surely be preferable, as prevention is less expensive and troublesome for the owner and less risky for the horse.
Supporting GI tract health naturally
Clearly, implementing a gut-friendly management routine and diet is the ideal. Horses would have access to a diet of ad lib, low quality forage, movement would be unrestricted and stress kept to a minimum. However, this is rarely conducive to meeting the physical and nutritional demands of the hard-working horse and, from a practical aspect, often impossible to implement on some yards. So, it’s critical to elevate our management of optimal digestive health in an effort to offset the gastrointestinal risks that challenge our competition horses.
One way to do this is to supplement the diet with targeted nutrients to help normalise digestion, repair and replenish the structure of the tract, and enhance its natural defences against injury and disease.
A Nutritional Approach to Care
A daily supplement program is available which can be used to promote and maintain gastrointestinal tract health, particularly for horses faced with stressful conditions. This nutritional product, SUCCEED Digestive Conditioning Program (DCP) can also be a useful adjunct to PPI therapy in helping to protect the intestinal risks associated with longer term use of these acid-blocking drugs, while providing all-round gastrointestinal support following cessation of treatment.
Prioritising GI tract health
Although the stresses of competition, training and the often-necessary management that goes with it cannot always be eliminated, it can be possible to help minimise the effects with additional nutritional support. The health of the digestive system can create consequences for all the other biological systems, so optimising digestive health in the competition horse’s feed and management programme is an obvious priority.
Only when a horse is healthy from the inside out are they are best equipped to achieve their full potential.
SUCCEED DCP provides a unique and highly functional profile of oat-based polar lipids, beta glucans, amino acids and yeast products to benefit all components of the gastrointestinal tract.
Beta glucan, derived from micronised oat bran, is a soluble fibre and is well established for its benefits to gut health. Not only does it create a hydrogel with concentrates to promote their complete digestion, it also stimulates phagocytosis and macrophages to help mitigate infection and resist pathogenic challenges.
Polar lipids extracted from oat oil play a key role in the structure and function of cellular membranes, actively helping to maintain the integrity of gastrointestinal epithelium.
Amino acids, Threonine and Arginine are essential for maintaining the mucosal lining of the tract, as well as for increasing circulation to promote tissue repair and reduce recovery time.
Mannan oligosaccharides (MOS) and yeast beta glucan, are both prebiotics and also known to bind and safely remove pathogens, including bacteria and mycotoxins.