Summer is a time for travel—horse shows, trail rides, and horseback vacations. New evidence shows that travel can have an impact on the equine microbiome, the microbial population of the hindgut critical for proper digestion, immune function, and nutrient and energy production. Microbes are sensitive to the environment, and even small changes in diet, exercise, stress level, or health can affect the delicate balance in the gut.
Recent studies suggest that the stress of travel alters the population of microbes in the hindgut. A research trial conducted at the University of Illinois compared cecal fluid samples in horses that traveled and were stalled in an unfamiliar location for 48 hours to control horses that stayed home with no change in routine*.
Horses that traveled experienced changes in the diversity of species of the microbiome. Interestingly, horses that did not travel also experienced some change in bacterial diversity only after the traveling horses returned home, possibly due the disruption associated with the traveling group rejoining the herd.
Another study sampled fecal microbiota and found a notable drop in the presence of bacteria belonging to the order Clostridiales after transport**. Clostridiales appears to be more abundant in healthy horses, suggesting that transport stress may have a negative impact on a balanced microbiome.
This does not mean that horses should never be transported. But it does mean that transport is likely causing some kind of change in the microbiome. Be extra careful to minimize stress, take travel breaks, and monitor changes, however slight, in behavior or health before, during, and after a trip.
To help ensure a healthy microbiome, start with a forage-based diet. Good-quality hay or pasture is the fundamental basis for an equine diet. Fiber provides a food source for all of the beneficial bacteria in the hindgut. Make any dietary change slowly, and try not to make changes immediately before or after a trip. When it comes to travel, bring your own hay and feed in sufficient supply to last the duration of the trip in order to minimize digestive upset.
For horses that are sensitive to environmental changes, including those brought on by travel, a nutritional buffer might be beneficial. EquiShure is a time-released hindgut buffer that helps minimize pH changes caused by a shifting, on-the-road diet.
Increasing emphasis has been placed on the importance of the equine microbiome as a major factor in overall health. Scientific research has only begun to understand the microbiome. A balanced, consistent diet that includes quality forage along with an environment that minimizes unnecessary stress will provide the foundation for overall wellness.
*Venable, E.B., Liu, T.W., Bland, S.D., Holscher, H.H. and Swanson, K.S. 2017. Effects of travel on the equine cecal microbiota. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 52:55.
**Schoster, A., Mosing, M., Jalali, M., Staempfli, H.R. and Weese, J.S. 2016. Effects of transport, fasting and anaesthesia on the faecal microbiota of healthy adult horses. Equine Veterinary Journal. 48(5):595-602.
Article reprinted courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Visit equinews.com for the latest in equine nutrition and management, and subscribe to The Weekly Feed to receive these articles directly (equinews.com/newsletters).
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