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Digestive Problems in Horses

Performance horses are subject to modern husbandry practices and lifestyle stresses that increase the risk of digestive problems. Many of these gut issues occur in the hindgut specifically and can significantly affect overall health and performance.

Common Digestive Problems in Performance Horses

Feeding grain, limiting forage, restricting turnout, training, hauling, going to new environments, and competition challenge equine digestive health. Unfortunately, many horses are in a constant state of poor gut health as a result that affects not only their physical wellness, but behavior and performance, too. Sometimes these conditions are obvious, and sometimes they simmer beneath the surface.

Common digestive problems related to poor gut health in horses include:

  • Gastric Ulcers: Damage to the horse’s stomach lining caused by exposure to excess stomach acid.
  • Colic: Most colics are idiopathic, meaning they have no identified cause. Poor gut health creates an environment for serious problems like colic to occur.
  • Colitis: Inflammation of the lining of the large intestine associated with multiple infectious and non-infectious causes.
  • Colonic Ulcers: Thinning of or damage to the intestinal lining in the hindgut that can occur due to stress, parasites, NSAIDs, hindgut acidosis and other gut disturbances.
  • Hindgut Acidosis: Excessive acidity in the hindgut that can arise from high-grain and low-forage diets.
  • Dysbiosis: Significant imbalance in the microbiota of the digestive tract that can lead to colic, colitis and laminitis.
  • Right Dorsal Colitis: Hindgut ulceration in the upper right portion of the colon linked to NSAID use.
  • Enteritis: Inflammation of the small intestine that can become life-threatening.
While treatment and management programs tend to focus on protecting gastric health, as you can see a wide range of problems also affect the hindgut.

How Management Affects Digestive Problems

Energy Demands

Many performance horses need extra energy to support intense training. This energy often comes from high-starch grains, which can overwhelm the digestive tract and increase acidity in the hindgut.

Limited Forage

These horses often spend increased time confined in stalls without constant access to forage, which microbes ferment in the hindgut. Inadequate forage intake can disrupt the hindgut’s good balance, impairing digestive function and immunity.


Performance demands can also subject horses to increased stress, leading to prolonged elevated cortisol levels. This stress hormone increases inflammation throughout the body, including the digestive tract.


NSAIDs and other medications used in performance horses can also disrupt digestive processes.

Consequences of Poor Gut Health

Gut health impacts nearly every aspect of your horse’s health and well-being. The digestive problems described above can cause significant discomfort for your horse, leading to behavioral issues, poor performance and a lower quality of life.

Decreased Immune Function

When the digestive tract doesn’t function optimally, horses can’t absorb the nutrients needed to support every other body system. Unbalanced gut microbiota also impairs immune function and increases the risk of harmful pathogens causing infections.

Disruptions in the Brain

Recent studies also show a link between gut microbiota and the brain. The microbiota can influence mood, and disruptions may contribute to anxiety and depression in horses. In severe cases of gut dysbiosis, horses can also develop life-threatening problems like laminitis.

Providing comprehensive gut support for performance horses promotes healthy digestive function and minimizes the risks of digestive problems.

Break the Cycle of Digestive Issues

For many horses that have experienced a serious digestive issue, it’s not just a one-time thing. It’s this vicious diagnose-treat-repeat cycle that is often very expensive and potentially life-threatening for your horse.

The problem is that by simply treating a horse’s digestive problem, you aren’t getting to the root of what caused it in the first place.

There are several simple steps you can take in how you feed and manage your horses that will promote digestive wellness and help break this cycle.

  1. Feed in frequent, small meals throughout the day
  2. Provide free access to quality forage
  3. Increase turnout
  4. Create routines and mitigate stressful environments
  5. Supplement daily to support total gut health

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