Hindgut Microbes and Hoof Health
A healthy digestive system and healthy, strong hooves are essential for health and performance, and we have all heard the term ‘no hoof, no horse’. These two systems are intrinsically linked through the ‘gut-hoof connection’, with healthy hoof growth supported by the absorption of nutrients from a well-functioning digestive tract.
Horses are herbivores, and their digestive systems have evolved over many years to consume an almost continuous supply of fibrous feed. This fibre is digested in the hindgut, which represents two major organs – the caecum and colon. As fibre is complex, horse’s enzymes cannot break it down so instead, it is broken by billions of microbes living in the hindgut through a process known as fermentation.
The hindgut makes up 60 per cent of a horse’s digestive system and you may be interested to know that there are more microbial cells in your horse’s hindgut than tissue cells in their whole body! These hindgut microbes have a significant impact on your horse and their hooves, as along with fibre fermentation they have valuable and beneficial roles throughout the body. However, just as much as they can help promote good hoof health, certain types of microbes can also negatively affect it and become the cause of disease. Lisa Elliot MSc –– gives us some insights into what microbes are, why they are so important, and how you can help promote the right balance of microbes through feeding, to support optimum hoof health, strength and integrity throughout your horse’s life.
What are Microbes?
Put simply, microbes are tiny, microscopic life forms with an enormous influence on all living creatures. Microbes are everywhere, you can’t avoid them and just like horses, our bodies also house billions of them.
Microbes are spread throughout a horse’s digestive tract, but the largest numbers by far are present in the hindgut. Hindgut microbes include protozoa and fungi but the largest population in the hindgut are bacteria, and it is the bacteria that are predominately involved in fermentation.
Microbial types and function
The hindgut bacteria responsible for fermentation can be divided into three main functional groups: Cellulolytic (digest fibre), Amylolytic and Glycolytic (digest starch and sugar and produce lactic acid) and lactic acid utilising bacteria.
These diverse types of bacteria live together with other gut microbes in a delicately balanced hindgut community with a mutually beneficial or ‘symbiotic’ relationship within an optimal pH of around 6.5-7. Cellulolytic bacteria are the most beneficial to your horse as these break down fibre into Volatile Fatty Acids (VFA). The VFAs produced include acetate, butyrate and propionate which provide energy. A healthy cellulolytic bacteria population means an improved breakdown of fibre for optimum condition and hoof health, and happy microbes – which means a healthy horse!
Gut microbes and hoof health
Your horse’s hindgut microbes play many vital roles in digestive health and through the gut-hoof connection are, therefore, also essential for promoting good hoof health. The VFAs released from the breakdown of fibre, but particularly butyrate, help stimulate cell growth and division in the gut membranes helping to strengthen hindgut integrity and reduce the chance of damage to the gut lining. Bacteria are also known to synthesise Vitamin K and essential B vitamins such as Biotin. This is one of the most well-known nutrients and is scientifically proven to be beneficial to hoof health. Biotin is a sulphur-rich B Vitamin, crucial for the production of Keratin for strong, healthy hoof horns and has a key role in tissue growth and maintenance. Ensuring your horse’s hindgut microbes are happy and healthy will help them produce all the essential B vitamins your horse needs. A compromised microbe population will not be able to do this making it vital they are supported through the correct nutrition.
Research has shown that gut microbes are involved in blood vessel development and help strengthen and stimulate the immune system, important for helping to prevent common hoof diseases. The gut microbes are also a line of resistance to invading pathogenic or disease-causing microorganisms within the hindgut. Known as the ‘barrier effect’, harmful bacteria are excluded by competition, preventing illness and disease.
Whilst a healthy, well-balanced microbe population has huge benefits for your horse, any disturbance to the microbial equilibrium can have the opposite effect and be potentially harmful. Situations such as excessive cereal starch or sugar reaching the hindgut can result in microbial imbalances or ‘dysbiosis’, which invariably leads to hindgut acidosis. Hindgut acidosis is a consequence of the rapid growth of certain species of lactic acid-producing bacteria. Increased lactic acid causes a drop in pH and results in a more acidic environment and can lead to inflammation of the hindgut membrane and potentially laminitis. This negatively impacts the health of your horses’ hooves, causing the breakdown of essential hoof structures, pain and lameness.
So, to optimise your horse’s digestive and ultimately hoof health you need to nurture the right microbes through the best diet and feed management.
Feeding for microbial health
To achieve the happiest and healthiest hindgut microbes, feed plenty of ad-libs and good-quality fibre to promote microbial equilibrium and encourage the growth of cellulolytic bacteria. Research has shown that horses fed a predominantly fibrous diet have a more stable microbial community. A stable microbial community means a healthier horse and a high fibre diet helps nurture this stability.
Recent studies have also linked the diversity of bacteria in the equine hindgut with the overall health and quality of the bacteria contained. A diverse diet promotes a diverse microbiome, so providing plenty of forage biodiversity through a mix of forages or mixed species hay and grazing is ideal.
Additionally, Pure Paddock Essential Mix can further help boost biodiversity in your horse’s diet. Specifically developed to be hindgut friendly, this blend contains a diverse range of natural herbs to promote biodiversity within the hindgut microbiome and support a healthier hindgut, which in turn will support healthier hooves.
Making dietary changes gradually will promote good overall microbial health as sudden change is one of the major causes of microbial dysbiosis. Dietary changes can include changing from a mix to a cube, changing to a different balancer, and fibre-based changes such as going from hay in the winter to lush summer grass or even winter to summer grazing. Gradual means changes should be introduced slowly, over at least two weeks giving the gut microbes time to adapt to the new diet, keeping them stable and healthy.
Keep dietary starch to a minimum to benefit hindgut microbe health. If cereal grains are fed for work, keep meal sizes small and ensures they are suitably cooked or processed for improved digestibility. This will help reduce the chances of starch reaching the hindgut and disturbing the microbial equilibrium.
Specific Microbial Support
Prebiotics provide feed for beneficial hindgut microbes. Multiple studies have shown that in times of digestive stress, such as starch overload or an abrupt change in diet. They can help mitigate disruptions to the hindgut microbes and restore microbial equilibrium. Pure Paddock Essential Mix contains prebiotic herbs to support and nurture beneficial bacteria alongside stimulating butyrate-producing bacteria. In combination these further support hindgut health, integrity and overall immunity. This helps beneficial microbes thrive, which should help your horse and their hooves to thrive too.
Hindgut microbes are vital for hoof health, integrity and performance. Recognising how feeding can affect these microbes and knowing how to enhance them through nutrition can only be good because the healthier the microbes, the healthier your horse and their hooves will be.
What can you do next?
Click below to order your sample of The Essential Mix and start improving your horses’ hindgut health today!