By guest blogger Emma Hardy from www.succeedfbt.com/uk
Whether you find your horse refusing or rolling poles, experience changes in the quality of work under saddle, or begin noticing changes in temperament, poor performance is something every rider experiences at one point or another. While the underlying cause is often unclear, such lapses in performance are usually short-lived. We may put it down to an off day whilst we mutter “well, that’s horses for you.” Still, even with all our best efforts, that occasional “off day” sometimes turns into an “off week,” an “off month” or more. It’s easy to think in terms of the horse’s behaviour as purely a training issue, and only in cases where the issue seems to go on endlessly do we consider physical health issues at stake. But it’s wise to consider how the horse’s digestive health may be the true culprit. How do you know? And, what do you do about it?
This is the first of two blog articles to look at how problems with the horse’s digestive system, especially the hindgut, may be creating seemingly unrelated issues. In this first post, we’ll focus on how we can more easily recognise the signs of digestive tract health conditions, and how we can begin to establish a definitive diagnosis.
How the outside affects the inside of the horse
Over the course of millions of years, horses evolved to survive on an ad lib, fibre-rich diet accompanied by a low stress lifestyle. In short, horses are designed to support a pastoral life of grazing. Unfortunately, even with our very best intentions, this is a far cry from how many horses exist today. Competition horses especially are faced with a plethora of stresses, including travel, stabling, training and competition, all of which can negatively affect the health of the gut.
In order to do all of these activities, appropriate nutrition must be provided to fuel the energy required. So, we supplement the natural diet with concentrate feeds, and stable the horse, which may limit access to forage. From the point of view of the hindgut, these factors prove a risky combination.
The horse’s hind gut is home to millions of protozoa, fungi and bacteria which make up the gut microbiota. With this, the horse is living with a delicate balance between beneficial microbes that live in symbiotic harmony with the horse, and harmful pathogens that can cause no end of damage.
As a hindgut fermenter, the horse relies on these microbes to produce upwards of 80% of its energy through the fermentation of fibrous feedstuff. Further, the health of the microbiota is considered essential for the overall maintenance of many biological systems in the horse. At the same time, microbial imbalances resulting from stress responses, dietary changes, starchy feed reaching the hindgut, infection and even the antibiotics prescribed to treat disease can reduce the numbers of beneficial fibre-fermenting bacteria. Such imbalances can decrease the ability of the GI tract to optimally utilise forage and maintain good health. When this occurs, damaging endotoxins are released which can also have deleterious effects on the gut, such as inflammation, as well as systemic effects as they enter the blood stream, potentially leading to colic, laminitis and more.
Sadly for the horse, this cascade of events encourages the bad bacteria to proliferate, causing an increase in acidity and ultimately leading to a condition called Hindgut Acidosis. Since the bad bacteria much prefer this type of acidic environment, they thrive creating a vicious circle which can be difficult to break.
Spotting the signs of poor GI health
How can we best recognise the signs and symptoms which tell us that our horse’s digestive tract is not in the best shape? The most obvious sign might be a change in weight or condition. But what if the signs aren’t typical or obvious? In fact, sometimes issues that seem completely unrelated to a digestive problem may actually be early signs.
With any digestive tract imbalance that creates inflammation and ulceration, the horse may feel discomfort or pain. This can manifest in many ways but generally results from a degree of discomfort emanating from the abdomen and flanks.
Signs to consider may include:
- reluctance to extend and collect
- resistance to the leg aids or frequent tail swishes
- finding it difficult to work over the back, engage the hindquarters or flex through the body (particularly to the right)
- intermittent hindlimb lameness
- demonstrate a general drop in performance, attitude and willingness to work
From the ground, as with any digestive tract issue, we might see:
- negative changes in temperament
- sensitivity to rugging, girthing up or brushing
- loss of condition and weight
- diarrhoea and undigested feed in the droppings
Sadly, many of these performance-related “red flags” can be misinterpreted as bad behaviour, particularly when clinical signs are vague. However, as those who work most closely with our horses on a daily basis, we must always first assume that the horse is conveying a “can’t” rather than a “won’t” message.
Reaching an accurate diagnosis
The next step may be to consult the professionals. This includes chiropractors, physiotherapists, massage therapists, and other paraprofessionals.
From the perspective of the novice, the role of the paraprofessionals is often limited to the treatment of skeletal and musculoskeletal conditions only. But in reality, the scope of the paraprofessional’s work can reach far beyond. Paraprofessionals may consider the effects of internal anatomy and physiology on other body systems, and on the horse’s overall health and performance. As such, these systems all play an important role in the paraprofessional’s accurate and complete assessment.
The vet is also likely to be involved when GI tract issues are at stake. If the vet suspects a gastric problem, a gastroscopy may be recommended to visualise the stomach. But when it comes to diagnosing a hindgut condition, diagnostic options are limited. Endoscopy cannot be used for the hindgut and other techniques, such as biopsy and ultrasound, can prove less than reliable.
The SUCCEED FBT may be the answer
Given the significance of hind gut health issues, and the limitations of current modalities to provide for a definitive diagnosis, an effective diagnostic tool would be extremely valuable. Such a tool does exist in the SUCCEED Equine Fecal Blood Test, or “FBT.” This simple test is non-invasive, affordable and reliable, and returns results quickly. Best of all, it helps differentiate foregut from hind gut conditions.
The SUCCEED FBT is a stable-side test kit that uses exclusive antibodies to detect occult albumin and haemoglobin in a sample of manure. These blood proteins serve as markers of inflammation and bleeding which help to indicate whether something is afoot, and to also indicate where the problem originates from – from the stomach or from a point thereafter (effectively hindgut).
Understanding that a digestive tract problem exists and at which location within the gut provides clear, objective data to guide effective strategies for treatment and full recovery. This is ultimately the responsibility of the vet, which is why the SUCCEED FBT is only available to vets. Although the test is simple to use, haemoglobin and albumin loss can occur as a result of several different conditions. Combining FBT results with a full work up and perhaps additional investigations, the vet is best positioned to establish a complete differential diagnosis.
If you feel that something isn’t right with your horse and some of the signs outlined within this blog post seem familiar, consider that a digestive tract problem may be responsible. Having the vet test the horse with the FBT kit is a quick and easy first step to take in finding out the cause and hopefully getting your formerly co-operative and content horse back to feeling like his old self.
For more information visit www.succeedfbt.com/uk or contact Emma Hardy [email protected]
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