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Lactic Acid and Tying Up in Horses

Horse owners frequently report reduced tying-up or muscle stiffness with Fastrack supplemented horses after strenuous exercise. Several scientific reasons and research studies support these observations. First, a review of lactic acid metabolism in the digestive tract is in order, and then a discussion of lactic acid production in the body itself.

Microorganisms produce two forms of lactic acid, depending upon how the lactic acid molecule is arranged. A horse can metabolize L-lactate and to a lesser degree the Dform. Fortunately, the beneficial bacteria in the Fastrack products, Enterococcus faecium, Lactobacillus acidophilus and lactis produce L-lactate, which the horse can easily metabolize. Harmful bacteria, such as Streptococcus bovis, secrete D-lactate. High levels of D-lactate often follow excessive grain consumption with the consequential population explosion of the undesirable bacteria.

Continuous production of low levels of L-lactate in the digestive tract should encourage the growth of lactate-utilizing bacteria. Supplementing a horse with Fastrack would provide the beneficial bacteria to supply low amounts of L-lactate to maintain a base population of lactate utilizers. The lactate-utilizing population would then be ready to expand when lactate levels elevate, such as excessive grain consumption. In addition, the Fastrack products seem to enhance the proper numbers of starch-digesting bacteria for controlled lactate production. Briefly, the Fastrack cultures produce a "safer" form of lactate and seem to encourage lactate- utilizing bacteria that increase in number during lactate challenges.

Let's move on to lactate production in the horse's body. Muscles secrete D-lactate as a by- product of energy production during anaerobic exercise or times of nutrient depletion. Supplying proper levels of nutrients in the blood system will reduce intramuscular lactate production during exercise. The microbial cultures in the Fastrack products enhance nutrient absorption in the small intestine and improve large intestine fermentation to extract energy from the diet. Consequently, blood nutrient levels are higher in animals fed probiotic cultures.

A study by Glade and Campbell-Taylor, indicated horses fed yeast culture had lower blood lactate levels before and during exercise, and faster clearance from the blood after exercise. Fastrack's combination of yeast culture and beneficial bacteria would enhance nutrient supply to the muscles above simple yeast culture supplementation. Performance and race trainers are observing less muscle stiffness or tying up of exercised horses and quicker recoveries.

The Fastrack products provide beneficial bacteria and yeast culture to establish the correct balance of fermentative bacteria and lactate-utilizing organisms in the digestive tract. In addition, the Fastrack bacteria yield a lactate form that the horse can metabolize. Improved nutrient absorption supplies proper nutrition to the muscles, resulting in lower lactate production during exercise. Owners and trainers recognize that Fastrack supplementation improves their horses' performance and recovery times.

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Use of Microbials in the Horse Industry

A healthy and beautiful horse is the pride of every horse owner. Feeding selected cultures of lactic acid-producing bacteria and yeast boosts horse health and performance, according to many owners. Understanding the benefits of direct-fed microbial cultures can help you decide when to use these products during your horse’s life cycle.

In 1908, the Russian biologist Eli Metchnikoff credited the long lives of certain Bulgarian and Russian citizens to the consumption of large amounts of fermented milk products (4). The key organism in these foods was later identified as Lactobacillus acidophilus, a lactic acid-producing bacteria (10). The lactic acid-producing bacteria are so named for their ability to produce lactate. However, lactate production is only one of many benefits derived from this collection of bacteria. The lactic acid-producing bacteria most frequently featured in direct-fed microbial products include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Enterococcus (or Streptococcus) faecium and Lactobacillus lactis.

For many centuries, people have observed that their animals were healthier when fed feedstuffs resulting from yeast fermentation. Yeast are fungi, or one-cell organisms that reproduce by budding, or producing daughter cells. The yeast species most utilized by the direct-fed microbial industry are Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Aspergillus oryzae.

Based on the work of Metchnikoff and others, the idea was developed to directly feed live, lactic acid-producing bacteria and yeast to animals for improving their health and performance. The observed benefits may result from: 1) competition for attachment sites in the digestive tract, 2) competition for essential nutrients, 3) production of antimicrobial substances, 4) increasing the growth of beneficial bacteria and 5) stimulating the immune system (8).

Competition For Attachment Sites In The Digestive Tract

Some disease-causing bacteria reduce an animal’s ability to absorb nutrients by disrupting the small intestine (8). Lactic acid-producing bacteria attach to the lining of the small intestine and produce a substance to prevent disease-causing organisms from binding to the intestinal wall (7). The attachment of the beneficial bacteria may increase the absorptive surface area of the small intestine and enhance enzyme activity for greater nutrient absorption by the animal (8, 11).

Competition for Essential Nutrients

Lactic acid-producing and disease-causing bacteria require certain nutrients for growth. The beneficial bacteria could utilize vitamins, amino acids or other nutrients that might otherwise support the growth of harmful bacteria (5).

Production Of Antimicrobial Substances

The ability of direct-fed microbial cultures to inhibit disease-causing organisms is of considerable interest. Lactic acid lowers the intestinal pH to create an environment unsuitable for harmful organisms (8). Lactic acid-producing bacteria secrete hydrogen peroxide, resulting in conditions unfavorable for oxygen-requiring microorganisms (2). Bacteria produce bacteriocins that restrict the growth of other microorganisms, often genetically related species (8). The lactic acid-producing bacteria have demonstrated the ability to inhibit E. coli, Salmonella typhirium, Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens (5). The reduction of scour-causing organisms is especially important in new-born and young animals.

Increasing The Growth Of Beneficial Bacteria

Enhancing the growth of beneficial bacteria boosts the performance of healthy animals. The B-vitamins, enzymes and other factors secreted by lactic acid-producing bacteria and yeast stimulate starch- and fiber-digesting bacteria (3, 5). The ability of yeast to enhance fiber digestion could allow dietary changes (12). The ability of yeast to increase feed intake has been recognized for centuries.

Stimulating The Immune System

Recent advances in animal health indicate the importance of proper immune function. Research indicates that lactic acid-producing bacteria heighten immune function at the digestive tract and whole-system levels (6). Experiments with bacteria-free extracts from lactic acid-producing cultures demonstrate improved macrophage activity against E. coli (9) and Salmonella typhirium (1). The role of direct-fed microbial cultures in stimulating the immune system warrants further research.

The Use Of Direct-fed Microbial Products With Foals

Although foals are born with bacteria-free digestive tracts, the tract is quickly populated by disease-causing and health-promoting bacteria. The question becomes, “Which type of bacteria will dominate?” Providing direct-fed microbial cultures shortly after birth can favor the beneficial bacteria. Studies suggest that lactic acid-producing bacteria inhibit scour-causing microorganisms, and can aid in the absorption of nutrients. Microbial gels and pastes are available for oral delivery to foals, or dry cultures can be mixed with milk replacers.

The Use Of Direct-fed Microbial Products With Growing And Mature Horses

Diet changes and other challenges at weaning can alter a foal’s nutrient intake and health status. Controlling harmful bacteria in the digestive tract during variable feed intake is very important. The microbial gel and paste products can be placed directly in the foal’s mouth, and the owner can confidently know that an animal with low or no feed consumption received the intended microbial dose. Dry products can be mixed with the feed for daily maintenance. Yeast cultures aid in stabilizing the microbial balance in the digestive tract, which may reduce the problems resulting from grain over-consumption and colic. In addition, yeast stimulates fiber-digesting bacteria to increase the energy a horse derives from forages. Consequently, the ration composition could shift in favor of forages over grains, increasing the safety of the horse’s diet. Always consult your veterinarian or nutritionist before making dietary changes.

Breeding, foaling, showing and heavy training can alter feed intake and increase a horse’s susceptibility to disease-causing organisms. Restoring nutrient intake, stabilizing the balance of digestive tract bacteria and proper immune function become critical during these challenging periods. Many horse owners suggest that direct-fed microbial cultures can play a major role during these critical periods. In addition, improving the nutritional status of the horse enhances the hair coat and durability of the hooves. The oral and feed products used for younger horses work equally well with mature horses, although the amount of lactic acid-producing bacteria and yeast should be increased.

Direct-fed Microbial Products And Storage

Direct-fed microbial products are available that feature only lactic acid-bacteria or yeast, and others include bacteria and yeast combinations. Microbial gels and pastes are placed between the lower teeth and cheek of the horse. Certain dry powders are dispersible in milk replacers and liquid feeds. Other dry products are readily mixed in the feed. However, always be sure to purchase reputable products handled properly by the manufacturer and seller. The direct-fed microbial products should be stored in cool, dry locations to maintain their microbial viability.

Feedstuffs resulting from microbial fermentation have benefited animals and their owners for many centuries. Continuing research projects document the need to include direct-fed microbial products in horse management programs. Many horse owners have experienced the benefits of directly feeding live bacteria and yeast to their animals.

References Cited

(1) Hatcher, G.E. and R.S. Lambrecht. 1993. Augmentation of macrophage phagocytic activity by cell-free extracts of selected lactic acid-producing bacteria. J. Dairy Sci. 76:2485.
(2) Klaenhammer, T.R. 1982. Microbiological considerations in selection and preparation of Lactobacillus strains for use as dietary adjuncts. J. Dairy Sci. 65:1339.
(3) Martin, S.A. and D.J. Nisbet. 1992. Effect of direct-fed microbials on rumen microbial fermentation. J. Dairy Sci. 75:1736.
(4) Metchnikoff, E. 1908. Prolongation of Life. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York.
(5) Montes, A.J. and D.G. Pugh. 1993. The use of probiotics in food-animal practice. Vet. Med. March 1993:282.
(6) Perdigon, G. et al. 1988. Systemic augmentation of the immune response in mice by feeding fermented milks with Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus acidophilus. Immunology 63:17.
(7) Savage, D.C. 1985. Effects on Host Animals of Bacteria Adhering to Epithelial Surfaces. In: Bacterial Adhesion, D.C. Savage and M. Fletcher (eds.); Plenum, NY; pp. 437-463.
(8) Savage, D.C. 1991. Gastrointestinal Microbial Ecology; Possible Modes of Action of Direct-fed Microbials in Animal Production. In: Direct-fed Microbials in Animal Production; National Feed Ingredients Assoc.; Des Moines, IA; pp. 11-81.
(9) Schiffrin, E.J. et al. 1995. Immunomodulation of human blood cells following the ingestion of lactic acid bacteria. J. Dairy Sci. 78:491.
(10) Shahani, K.M. and A.D. Ayebo. 1980. Role of dietary lactobacilli in gastrointestinal microecology. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 33: 2448.
(11) Whitt, D.D. and D.C. Savage. 1981. Influence of indigenous microbiota on amount of protein and activities of alkaline phosphatase and disaccharidases in extracts of intestinal mucosa in mice. Appl. Environ. Micro. 42:513.
(12) Williams, P.E.V. et al. 1991. Effects of the inclusion of yeast culture (Saccharomyces cerevisiae plus growth medium) in the diets of dairy cows on milk yield and forage degradation and fermentation patterns in the rumen of sheep and steers. J. Anim. Sci. 69:3016.

Horses and Ulcers

Gastric ulcers are an increasing problem in equine athletes which results in performance and economic losses. Research studies suggest that 50 to 90% of horses within various disciplines may suffer from ulcers. Stomach anatomy, feed ingredients, management practices and horse temperament are some of the factors cited as causes for the high incidence of stomach ulcers. Understanding equine stomach anatomy and ulcer risk factors will help identify potential management responses to resolve gastric ulcers in horses.

Equine Stomach Anatomy

Approximately 80% of equine gastric ulcers occur in the promixal (front part) stomach, which is less resistant to digestive acids than the distal, or latter, part of the horse’s stomach. The distal stomach has a bicarbonate-rich mucus layer for protection, an extensive capillary network and a rapid ability for healing.

Causes of Gastric Ulcers in Horses

The equine stomach constantly secretes digestive acids, and the continuous exposure to the acids is the primary cause of gastric ulcers in horses. Bacteria residing in the stomach ferment readily hydrolysable carbohydrates (starch), and in turn secrete volatile fatty acids (VFA). The VFA are absorbed by cells lining the stomach, which then swell, die and finally ulcerate. The combination of hydrochloric acid (HCl), a low stomach pH, organic acids from fermentation, and the protein-digesting enzyme pepsin act together to cause gastric ulcers.

Risk Factors

Exercise intensity

A research study indicated that horses running on a treadmill had increased abdominal pressure and decreased stomach volume. Stomach contractions may push gastric acid from the distal part to the less-protected, promixal region of the stomach. Consequently, frequent exercise would regularly bathe the proximal stomach in acids for destruction of the stomach lining. Ulcer incidence and severity rises as exercise intensity increases.

Intermittent Feeding

The horse’s digestive tract is designed for grazing and the continual feeding and flow of saliva and ingesta to buffer the stomach. Intermittent or irregular feeding reduces saliva flow and allows the stomach to “sit empty” for various periods of time, resulting in a drop in gastric pH and exposure of the stomach lining to a more acidic environment.


High-starch diets are partially fermented in the stomach by bacteria, resulting in VFA, which combined with low-pH conditions in the stomach can damage the gastric lining. A research study compared a high-protein, high-calcium diet of alfalfa and grain to a lowprotein, low-calcium brome grass and grain diet for ulcer incidence. Horses fed the alfalfa and grain diet had a higher stomach pH, resulting in fewer and less severe gastric ulcers compared to the horses receiving the brome grass and grain diet.

Transport Stress

Transportation increases the incidence of gastric ulcers in horses. Horses risk dehydration, immune suppression, respiratory or digestive illnesses and other challenges while being transported. Water and feed deprivation lower stomach pH. Transport stress interacts strongly with the other risk factors, including heat stress.


Stall confinement changes a horse’s sociological behavior and feeding pattern. Exposure to other horses can have a calming effect with most horses. The risks from intermittent feeding have been previously discussed.

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAID)

The NSAID decrease mucosal blood flow, decrease mucous production and increase HCl secretion. This combination of factors leads to a stomach lining less able to protect itself in a lower pH environment.

Heliobacter Species

The role of Heliobacter species in gastric ulcers is well-documented in humans, yet less certain in horses. The use of antibiotics to control these bacteria may result in undesired complications due to shifting of the bacteria population in favor of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Management Responses

Feeding frequency and diet type Grazing increases saliva production and allows ingesta to be present in the stomach to absorb gastric acids. When grazing is impractical, more frequent feeding throughout the day may produce similar results. A shift to a high-forage diet will reduce starch fermentation and acid production in the stomach, as well as have a more fibrous ingesta residing in the stomach. High-protein, high-calcium diets based on alfalfa hay have reduced ulcer incidence in some studies. Forage quality should be considered to help meet the horse’s energy needs and yet provide enough fiber for proper digestive function. Chewing long-stem hay increases saliva flow to aid in buffering the stomach contents and lining. Research studies suggest that supplementing vegetable oil may provide a protective lining to the stomach, while also reducing the amount of starch fed to the horse.

Transport and Housing

Frequently transported horses need periodic rest stops to encourage water and feed consumption along with reducing transportation stress. The diet fed prior to transporting may reduce the incidence of ulcers. Social behavior has implication for transport and housing decisions to manage ulcers.

Probiotics (Direct-fed microbials)

Veterinarians, trainers and horse owners indicate that probiotics, or known as direct-fed microbials, have reduced the incidence of ulcers in various situations. Probiotics encourage forage utilization to enable the feeding of a higher-forage, lower-starch diet. Reducing the amount of starch fed can lower VFA production in the horse’s stomach. Starch digestion in the horse’s small intestine results in glucose absorption and potentially has a negative effect on its behavior. A horse’s behavior or calmness has been correlated to ulcer incidence. The higher-forage diet would result in fibrous ingesta remaining in the stomach for a greater proportion of the day, which could moderate stomach pH.


Gastric ulcers occur in a high proportion of horses in various disciplines. Managing the risk factors for gastric ulcers can improve a horse’s performance and well-being and reduce economic losses. Probiotics can be a management tool to moderate diet and behavior factors leading to ulcers.

Larry Roth, Ph.D., PAS is a research scientist with Conklin Co. Inc in Shakopee, MN. He researches the nutritional and microbial needs of newborn and high-performance animals.

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