To maximise the performance of sports horses, it is important that their energy demands are met. To do this, their diets are commonly supplemented with cereal grains that provide an important source of calories. But this simple addition is not without its problems.
The inclusion of high starch feed ingredients can result in various clinical disorders, such as colic (gut pain) and laminitis, particularly when fed in large quantities. This is, in part, thought to be due to a sudden change in the bacterial population within the gut and associated with a marked decrease in the pH. Horses are primarily hindgut fermenters. This means they maximise the digestion of their food by microbial fermentation in their specialised hindgut (large intestine and caecum). The products of this fermentation can then be absorbed and used by the animal. Sudden changes to this microbial population and their fermentation products can impact the health of the horse. Optimal feeding management should, therefore, aim to prevent disturbances to these essential processes.
Feeding a probiotic supplement may help stabilise the gut population. The term ‘probiotic’ is commonly used to describe live micro-organisms which have health benefits to the host animal when fed in sufficient amounts. However, little is known about the benefit of feeding different types of potential probiotics to horses, so a research team from the University of Kentucky and United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, in partnership with WALTHAM, decided to investigate further.
Faeces were collected from horses with no gastrointestinal issues in order to extract gut bacteria. These were then incubated with or without one of three potential probiotic bacterial strains together with one of three different grains (ground corn, wheat or oats). The change in the bacterial population was measured after 24 hours.
When the gut bacteria were incubated with the different grains without the probiotic, a sudden drop in pH and a significant change in the microbial population occurred, especially with corn or wheat. The addition of the different probiotic bacteria (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus buchneri, Lactobacillus reuteri) showed some beneficial effects. All three bacterial strains limited the decrease in pH seen with the corn and wheat fermentation and resulted in significant changes in the ratios of some key functional groups of bacteria. Only L. acidophilus and L. reuteri had the same effect with the oats. The researchers also found no additional benefit from using an equal mix of all 3 bacterial strains compared to a single bacterial strain.