Since we introduced the concept of gut balancers back in 1989, this approach to feeding horses has become widespread, with similar products offered by all the major feed companies in the UK. But how important is a feed balancer – and can you do without it?

Your Horse’s Digestive System

Caring for your horse’s digestive health can be complex but it’s also absolutely crucial for their wellbeing and performance. Not only does digestive health have an impact on how well they can utilise the nutrients in their feed, but it’s also where much of your horse’s immune system is housed.

Horses are what are known as hindgut fermenters, with a small rugby ball sized stomach and very complex and sensitive digestive systems which need careful management. In their natural environment in the wild, horses would have lived in a very different way, often travelling miles in a single day and grazing across many hours.

The fundamental changes to activity levels and diet in horses in the modern world can have far reaching effects on their health, and nowhere more so than in the gut. Horses can be susceptible to all sorts of digestive health issues, including ulcers (both in the stomach and the lower intestines), laminitis, colic and even behavioural changes. Well documented links between the gut and the brain mean that digestive health issues can have an impact on stress and mood in horses.

Caring for Your Horse’s Digestive Health

  • Provide High Quality Forage for Fibre

Making sure your horse has access to high quality forage, such as good hay or pasture, is crucial. Forage is essential for maintaining gut health, as it provides the necessary fibre and promotes proper digestion.

If your horse is grazing it’s important to manage their grass intake according to their energy requirements, workload and any specific ailments. Management includes stock fencing, time at grass and grass height. Not all grass is equal and seasonal changes, grass flushes and rainfall can all alter the value of grass, particularly when it comes to fibre and sugar levels in late spring/early summer.

Grazing is a good source but where this isn’t possible you can supplement their intake with chaff, alfalfa, hay or haylage. Dry matter in the form of forage should make up the vast majority of their daily feed – at the very minimum 1% of their body weight and as close to 2.5% of body weight as possible.

Of course, you should always be careful of feeding too much lush grass in the spring when laminitis is a risk.

  • Allow as Much Grazing Time as Possible

This is one of the most important steps you can take to look after your horse’s gut health. Horses are naturally grazing animals and their stomachs produce acid round the clock, whether they are feeding or not. This means it’s vital that they spend as much of the day as possible chewing forage, ideally across 16 hours or more in a 24-hour period. The saliva produced during chewing helps to neutralise the potentially harmful effects of an acidic environment in the gut. The longer they are chewing, the better. Grass fibre levels are also important because this improves chewing, which slows and improves digestion.

  • Limit Sugar & Starch Intake

Some sugar and starch is needed in the diet for energy and normal physiological function – they are necessary for survival. However, high levels in your horse’s diet can result in a more acidic environment in the gut. This can lead to all sorts of health issues, including gastric ulcers, laminitis and colic.

Unfortunately, many horse feeds available today, even some equine balancers, contain wheat or maize – these grains are high in starch and can be detrimental for your horse. We only use black oats (or horse oats) in our products, including in our gut balancer Equilibra. These contain less starch than traditional feed oats and are a good source of slow-release energy.

  • Provide Plenty of Water

Ensure your horse has access to clean fresh water supplies at all times. Proper hydration is essential for good digestion as well as your horse’s overall health and wellbeing.

  • Regular Veterinary Check-Ups

It sounds obvious but sticking to your regular veterinary check-ups is really important for your horse's overall wellbeing, including their gut health. Your vet can advise on any areas of concern and give specific dietary recommendations based on your horse's individual needs.

  • Keep on Top of Worming 

Internal parasites, particularly gastrointestinal worms, can have a significant impact on a horse's wellbeing, digestion, and overall performance. Making sure you are up to date with your horse's worming programme is a crucial part of looking after their gut. This includes testing for redworm and ensuring you are targeting specific worms with the right treatments at the right time.

  • Reduce Your Horse’s Stress

Unfortunately, horses have been saddled with extremely sensitive digestive systems, and chronic stress can lead to a whole host of gastrointestinal problems, including colic and ulcers. Reducing stress in horses can have a significant impact on their digestive system. If you think your horse is stressed, reconsider his routine, diet and ask your vet to give him a thorough check-up in case illness or injury is causing him pain or discomfort. Remember that horses are sociable animals too – make sure he is getting the day-to-day exercise and social interaction that he needs.  

Feeding a Gut Balancer to Your Horse 

Using a feed or gut balancer will help to care for your horse’s digestive system and health in several ways.

Gut balancers like Equilibra provide both probiotics and prebiotics to support the balance of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Probiotics are essentially “good” bacteria which help to stabilise pH levels, while prebiotics help to feed and nourish the gut’s beneficial bacteria, allowing them to grow. Equilibra has also been formulated using our unique lipid base Oatinol™, which helps to care for the gut lining and support healthy nutrient absorption.

A good balancer should also provide a wide range of daily essential nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Because Equilibra provides these all at a small feeding rate, it allows your horse to get most of its daily feed from forage without having to add large amounts of hard feed. This again supports a healthy digestion as larger volumes of hay or chaffs will sit at the top of the stomach and provide a barrier against stomach acid from lower down.

Equilibra also provides antioxidants and toxin binders to help your horse’s natural defences deal with antagonists in feed, such as mould or fungi, as well as high levels of Omega 3’s to support general health and wellbeing.

Finally, because a horse gut balancer like Equilibra improves digestion and nutrient uptake from your horse’s diet, it helps to reduce the cost of additional hard feeds in your feeding programme.

Alternatives to Gut Balancers

If your horse is a “good doer” or in very light work, you could consider using a multivitamin and mineral supplement to provide the daily essentials, such as OneCup. This won’t provide the same digestive benefits as a gut balancer like Equilibra but is a cost effective alternative to ensure they are getting the vitamins & minerals they need.  

Can I Feed a Gut Balancer to my Horse Long Term?

Absolutely, feed balancers like Equilibra are designed for daily use throughout your horse's life. The horse's gastrointestinal system goes through changes as a result of its environment, illness and of course diet, and a balancer will provide consistent support and ensure your horse’s digestive system is well supported. It’s also a good way to ensure your favourite companion is also getting everything they need to keep thriving.

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January 11, 2024