Digestive health in the horse is extremely important and is tightly connected with almost every medical and lameness condition that you can imagine. The importance of proper digestion goes way beyond the typical association with gastric ulcers, colic, diarrhea, or irritable bowel conditions in the horse. In many cases, if digestion is addressed properly, not only do the horses improve but their long-term health and soundness is greatly enhanced. In the first article, I discussed the concept of dampness and digestion in the horse, determining if this problem was present, and steps to intervene for best results. In this second part, I’d like to take a look at specific herbs and foods which can create benefit or potentially more harm, depending upon how they are applied in the horse.
A happy and well performing horse is the one with a healthy digestive system. When they are healthy and balanced in the digestive tract, they feel good, perform well, and in the end, reduce your overall cost in medical care. Digestion goes way beyond the simple concept of processing food stuff and the extraction of nutrients in the horse. There are many facets to the process of digestion and the main players involved in this ‘digestive’ process become actively involved with overall health and soundness. These players of which I speak are the millions if not billions of bacterial microbes which are present within your horse’s stomach and intestinal tract, even in their mouth. These are the microbes that call these locations their home and greatly influence not only how well food is digested, but also the production of harmful inflammatory byproducts. This is the digestive microbiome. When in balance, things are well with your horse, but if out of balance, problems quickly develop and often linger for months if not years.
In the first part of this article series, I discussed the concepts of dampness or ama formation, which are terms used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to reflect the buildup of toxic byproducts related to poor digestion and other fac. For many horses, this dampness equates to things like mucous, phlegm, oily skin and mucous coating to the feces or even diarrhea. It is also connected with an overweight body condition in the horse, viewing fat as being ‘dampness’ or an accumulation of sorts. This overall concept is very important, as not only does it impact a large percentage of horses, but this accumulation of toxic debris within the body of the horse equates to poor overall health, joint, tendon, and hoof issues. A more extensive discussion of dampness and digestion, along with clinical signs, can be found in the first part of this article.
Rebalancing and supporting digestive function in the horse can equate to marked improvements in:
- Overall Health
- Immune Function
- Improved Soundness and Reduced Tendency to Injury
- Overall Improved Performance and Stamina
Restoring Digestion and Reducing Dampness in the Horse
In the first part of this article series, I outlined 4 key steps that need to be addressed in every horse that may have underlying digestive problems. In those steps, the diet is first and foremost addressed. The reason for this is that if the diet is improper or something in the diet or even the supplement regimen is creating more harm or contributing to the imbalance, it must be removed and discontinued. One can supplement around it, if need be, but this can prove to be difficult and it is much easier to make progress if negative contributors are removed. This may mean that you go against the tendencies of society and stop feeding a specific feed, hay, or even a supplement, even though others tell you it is healthy or proper. Remember, every horse is an individual and what may work for one does not always mean it will work for all.
In order to restore balance to the digestive tract, and thus support the microbiome, the diet you are feeding and dietary supplements must be reviewed and scrutinized. Again, this is the first step that must be taken and for some horses, just changing the diet and supplement regimen are enough to demonstrate positive clinical gains in just a few days. However, for many, due to various reasons, this is not enough and this is where herbal support comes into play. Those horses under continuous stress, due to training, competition, shipping, herd dynamics, or many other reasons benefit tremendously from herbal support. However, in order to do this properly, again, you must realize that every horse is unique and different in the approach that may be required.
Herbs can be very powerful allies in supporting proper digestion and microbiome balance in the horse. There are likely hundreds of herbs that have marked potential in this area of health, but just like every horse, every herb is a little different. They may all benefit digestion, but each herb also has an energy to it, which may or may not be suitable for that horse. When I refer to ‘energy’ of the herb, for the most part I am referring to the impact of the herb upon the horse’s body, whether if it is cold in nature, cooling, neutral, warming, or overtly heating. For the most part, herbs that impact digestion positively are generally either neutral to warming in their energy for the main reason that the digestive tract likes to be warm, as discussed in the first article.
Here is a list of my key herbs, often used in combination, for digestive support in the horse:
- Triphala – a blend of three herbs for digestion including T. bellerica, T. chebula, and P. emblica. Improves and supports overall digestion, microbiome balance, and demonstrates anti-inflammatory properties to the digestive tract and entire body. Know to remove dampness in the body through natural mild laxative properties and can help to rekindle the digestive fire. Neutral to warming in properties, use caution in a very hot-natured horse unless supported with moisturizing and cooling herbs. Found in the formula, Cur-OST EQ Tri-GUT
- Guggul – (Commiphora mukul) Improves and supports overall digestion and microbiome balance, but specifically used for it’s ability to remove dampness and toxic buildup in the body, while also supporting liver function. May also benefit weight reduction and fat loss. Warming in nature, slightly drying, and can rekindle the digestive fire. Use caution in the very hot-natured horse unless supported with moisturizing and cooling herbs. Most commonly used in combination with the Triphala blend above as noted in Cur-OST EQ Tri-Guggul.
- Poria cocos – herbal mushroom heavily utilized in herbal formulas to support and aid overall digestion and encourage removal of dampness. Demonstrates anti-inflammatory and immune supporting qualities additionally. Neutral to warming in nature, may be drying to some horses. Utilized as a part of a mushroom blend in Cur-OST EQ Immune, Cur-OST EQ Plus and EQ Total Support.
- Hops (Humulus lupulus) – herb traditionally utilized for nervous or anxiety disorders, but also demonstrates marked ability to benefit digestion and impact the digestive microbiome by reducing levels of harmful bacteria. Slightly warming in nature and has a natural diuretic property and can be drying for some horses. Found in the Cur-OST EQ Tri-GUT and EQ Rejuvenate formulas.
- Dandelion root or leaf – herb used to support digestion through phytochemicals present within which impact the digestive microbiome. Possesses a natural diuretic effect which helps to remove dampness and accumulations within the body. Well know for it’s ability to de-toxify the body by supporting liver function. Neutral in energy, may be a little drying. Utilized in the Cur-OST EQ Total Support formula.
- Parsley – traditionally used herb to support digestive health and function, high level of nutrients including vitamin C, but contains natural phytochemicals and fiber to support and promote microbiome balance. Traditionally believed to help keep the bowels moving and resist cramping. Neutral in energy. Utilized in the Cur-OST EQ Total Support.
- Marsmallow Root – traditionally used to support digestion and lung function, providing a moisturizing and slightly cooling effect to the body. Very high level of natural fibers and lignans which support normal digestive health and microbiome balance. Soothes inflammation within the digestive tract and also benefits the lungs and dry cough situations in the horse. Cooling to neutral in energy, moisturizing effect. Often used in combination with Aloe Gel powder for acute inflammatory conditions including stomach or colonic ulcers. Utilized in the Cur-OST EQ Total Support and EQ Stomach formulas.
- Aloe Gel Powder – traditionally used for it’s cathartic or laxative effect, due to natural fibers and other phytochemicals present. Know for it’s cooling and soothing effect, anti-inflammatory benefits, immune stimulating properties, and ability to impact overall healing of wounds. Can cause diarrhea in some horses with improper usage or too high of a dose. Generally cooling in nature and combined with other herbs like Marshmallow root for acute inflammatory digestive ailments including ulcers. Found in the Cur-OST EQ Stomach formula.
- Amalaki (Phylannthus emblica) – a part of the Triphal formula, usually combined with the other two herbs, but can be used alone in the more ‘hot’ natured horse with stomach complaints that is in need of cooling and anti-inflammatory properties. Cooling and moisturizing in energy and effect.
- Ginger Root – traditional herb used to support overall digestion, impact the digestive microbiome with some anti-inflammatory properties. Most notably used to rekindle or ignite the digestive fire, by warming the digestive tract. Warming to hot in nature, use caution in the overly hot-natured horse, especially with active ulcers or intestinal bleeding. Utilized in the Cur-OST EQ P450 Metabolic formula and also as a bulk ingredient.
- Astragalus root – traditional Chinese herb used to rekindle the digestive fire and build energy or ‘Qi’ in the body. Very beneficial to overall digestion and the microbiome balance, but can dramatically impact immune function positively. Excellent for improving and helping to restore performance and stamina, especially in the compromised horse that may have been ill or recovering for a long period of time. Neutral to slightly warming in energy. Utilized in the Cur-OST EQ Revive or as a bulk ingredient.
- Nigella sativa – (Black Cumin) traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to support overall digestion, aid in removing dampness or toxic buildup, while supporting overall health and liver function. Supports the digestive fire and is slightly warming in nature. Found as a bulk ingredients
- Curcumin (Turmeric) – traditionally used as a digestive and liver support herb, marked anti-inflammatory properties, helps to restore tight cell junctions within the digestive tract aiding to reduce leaky gut conditions. Benefits digestion and reduction of dampness or toxic buildup in the body. Usually combined with other herbs to enhance overall efficacy. Found in several Cur-OST herbal formulas and as a bulk ingredient.
- Bupleurum – traditional Chinese herb used to primary support liver function and reduce inflammation in the body, helps to support digestion secondarily through liver function improvement and aids to create a ‘smooth’ flow of energy in the body, which makes it beneficial for recurrent colics or spasm situation, including excess gas accumulation. Often used for digestive ailments which are heavily connected with emotions. Generally used in combination as a part of a larger digestive support formula. Neutral in energy. Found as a bulk ingredient.
- Tangerine Peel – traditional Chinese herb used to support overall digestion, the microbiome balance and reduce inflammation. Known to benefit a ‘smooth’ energy flow in the digestive tract, which makes it beneficial for recurrent colics or spasm situation, including excess gas accumulation. Warming in energy. Found as a bulk ingredient.
This list is not comprehensive, but contains the main herbs that I personally utilize to support digestive health and function in the horse. Their order of importance is ranked by their number, with the Triphal or Cur-OST EQ Tri-GUT being the first on my list for most heavier breeds with dampness issues and concerns. It is important to realize that in most of these heavier horses, being overweight or genetically heavy in stature, that dampness is a key problem and with that digestive health. Most benefit from the warming aspects to these herbs, as those breeds can be more low key and often low in overall energy. These warming herbs are not appropriate in most cases where there is a leaner horse with acute stomach problems, unless they are coupled with more cooling herbs like the Cur-OST EQ Stomach formula.
It is also important to note that in many horses, there is a need to rekindle that digestive fire for various reasons. That digestive fire is essentially the internal heat which supports digestion and this heat can be depleted due to a chronic illness or health problem, ongoing stress, or constant training and exhaustion. In those horses, the dampness and digestive problems often stem from a lack of digestive fire, thus again, many of the above mentioned herbs can help to rekindle that energy.
While this information may seem complicated or confusing, it doesn’t need to be. There is no exact science when using herbs and in most cases, it is hard to go wrong and when an improper choice is made, it is quickly reversed with discontinuation of the herb or formula. The key to helping these horses is first in recognizing that the problem exists and second, to modify the diet to best accommodate the horse. Then, herbs are applied in various formulas, usually starting with one or two in combination, and assessing for improvement in the following 14 days or so.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN