(post by Jason) Probiotics and prebiotics. We hear these terms bandied about fairly regularly in the equine world. Too often I hear these terms used interchangably, often in the wrong context or prescribed by folks who frankly ought to know better to treat a condition that can better be addressed in other ways. Tonight’s post will hopefully shed some light on the differences between these terms and also will shed some light on what they can and can’t do. 

In the feed industry prebiotics are feed ingredients that escape digestion in the upper GI tract long enough to (hopefully) stimulate the growth of certain beneficial microbes which will aid in the digestive process in one of several ways which will be discussed in more detail shortly. Nutritionally speaking in broad terms prebiotics are typically just complex chains of sugars; typically but not always oligosaccharides. They don’t work directly or directly proliferate within the gut; rather they act as catalysts which help stimulate positive bacterial or microbial growth somewhere in the GI tract. In turn this aids in improving the efficiency of the digestive process.

Probiotics are live microbes added to the GI tract in numbers sufficient to survive the digestive process long enough to have direct effects on modulating immune responses and/or positively enhancing metabolic activities associated with the digestive process. 

Broadly speaking, probiotics and prebiotics are added to diets to accomplish one of three things:

1. To improve fibre digestion by increasing the amount of nutrients (energy, protein, vitamins, minerals,etc) removed and utilized from hay, grass, beet pulp or other fibre sources. 

2. To improve grain digestion by increasing the amount of nutrients removed and utilized from every pound of grain fed. 

3. To bind or uptake certain substances which may otherwise have a deleterious effect on digestive efficiency. 

Whether to use a prebiotic or a probiotic or some combination of the two as the means to accomplish one’s end….there are MANY types of each…is a discussion that’s far too deep for the scope of this blog. What I will say is that whether you choose to add probiotics or prebiotics or both the reasons need to be right AND these substances need to be added at the correct dosage to get the job done or else you are wasting your money. The other thing to note is that probiotics/prebiotics almost never show results quickly. Think several weeks to several months to see beneficial results. If the condition you are trying to treat will right itself in a few weeks, adding probiotics or prebiotics to aid in fixing said condition is almost certainly a waste of your time and money. 

There are lots and lots of valid reasons to consider adding probiotics or prebiotics to your horse’s diet. Maybe you’ve got poor quality hay that you can’t replace and have to feed. Maybe you’ve got an older horse, a horse with no teeth, or a horse that’s a hard keeper or is otherwise finicky, picky or difficult when it comes to getting more feed into said horse. Maybe your grain is no longer keeping enough weight on your horse. Maybe you’re trying to bind up substances in grain or hay that may be potentially deleterious or have anti-nutritive qualities. As I said there are LOTS of valid reasons to consider probiotics and prebiotics. 

Probiotics and prebiotics won’t directly add nutrients of any type to your horse’s diet. If, for instance, your horse’s blood test shows that he’s low in magnesium it would probably make a lot more sense to add a source of magnesium directly to your horse’s diet than it would to attempt to glean more magnesium from current feedstuffs by adding prebiotics or probiotics. In the same vein, I’ve often seen probiotics blindly added to diets to address such things as diarrhea. Since diarrhea can be caused by any number of conditions, in my mind it might make sense to figure out the underlying causes of diarrhea and address that before attempting to correct it with probiotics and/or prebiotics.

There are so many probiotics and prebiotics on the market today that claim to do so many different things that I would strongly suggest that you talk to an equine nutrition professional to assess the efficacy of adding them to your equine diet. Hope this post clarifies rather than confuses! 
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