Horse supplement types seem to be as susceptible to fashion as mini skirts. The current‘magic’ supplement is the probiotic. But what are probiotics? How do they differ from prebiotics? And does your horse really need them?
Probiotics are a group of ‘friendly’ bacteria (literally, “pro life,” indicating that they are bacteria and yeasts that help rather than harm) and are gaining popularity as daily supplements for humans. As always, horse owners have been quick on the uptake and starting to realize that horses can benefit from these bacteria as well.
Probiotics taken by mouth take up residence in your horse’s digestive tract. The digestive tract can be thought of as a rain forest ecosystem, with billions of bacteria and yeasts acting as the trees, frogs, and leopards. Some of these inhabitants are harmful, some are harmless, while others do good. By adding probotics to the horse’s diet, you are tipping the scale in favour of the bacteria that do good.
There are a number of ways in which probiotics work:
- They compete with the harmful bacteria for limited space in your horse’s digestive system, thus helping to drive out harmful pathogens (disease-causing organisms). This is particularly useful in horses with gastro-intestinal problems, such as colic, diarrhea or ulcers.
- They help to digest the food that your horse has eaten. Studies have shown that probiotics increase the quantity, availability, digestibility and assimilability of nutrients. In plain English – your horse gets more value out of the food that he eats.
- Antibiotics can disturb the balance of your “inner rain forest” by killing friendly bacteria. When this happens, harmful bacteria and yeasts can move in and flourish. This is why, whenever your vet prescribesantibiotics, he or she will usually add a probiotic as well.
As well as feeding probiotics, you can give prebiotics (such as fructo-oligosaccharides or xylitol). These supplements are ‘food’ for the probiotic. They are substances that the horse can’t digest, but the bacteria can digest. Giving a prebiotic is like putting manure in a garden; it is thought to foster a healthy environment for the probiotic.
There are various problems with some of the probiotics available. The downside of using a living organism is that probiotics may die on the shelf. In fact, a study reported in 1990 found that most acidophilus capsules on the market contained no living acidophilus. The situation has improved in subsequent evaluations, but still some products are substandard.
Another problem with some strains of bacteria is that they are destroyed by stomach acid. You need to give a probiotic that survives the stomach acid and moves into the intestine alive and able to do good work.
One of the best probiotics, in my opinion, is called Lactobacillus Sporongenes (LS) (Its actual correct name is Bacillus Coagulans). This is the one we use for Digestion andUltimate mix. This bacterium forms a hard, resistant spore, which is a good thing for two reasons:
- The hard spore makes the shelf life of the probiotic extremely good. Unlike most probiotics, you don’t have to keep LS refrigerated. And, when you purchase a probiotic containing LS, you will be obtaining a higher proportion of living bacteria.
- The hard LS spore is resistant to the acid in the stomach, but slowly opens up in the intestine, where it is needed.