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Winter and the gut

enzymes metabolism nature winter Nov 25, 2022

As we turn our attention to the change in season once more, we begin to reflect on the changes occurring in our horses.

Did you know?

At the onset of winter, there is a gradual decline in the activity of enzymes in the gut - enzymes are temperature sensitive so with the increase in cold, we see a decrease in enzymatic action.

This leads to a gradual slowing of metabolism as the gut slows down production and needs a less sugar-based but higher fibrous diet. This is exactly what the equine gut is supposed to do in winter, slow transition. It is the decrease in glucose in the plants, and the increase in protein and fibre in the plants that these horses have evolved to ingest. It's a symbiotic relationship perfectly adapted to suit. 

A decrease in glucose in the plant leads to a slower transition through the gut, gently warming the animal and providing longer-term energy. It's a longer exchange of energy from the plant to the faeces.

Higher sugar-based forage and feeds exert short-term, high sugar dumping effects - a wave of energy and then depletion, energy then depletion - How exhausting! This is a prime catalyst for metabolic dis-regulation, across all breed types.

So feed your horse well with a forage based on fibre, not sugar because the seasonal fluctuation in equine gut activity (enzymatic action) is designed perfectly for it.


But say that's not possible, your hay only contains high sugar, your livery yard only offers haylage, and your horse doesn't do well on forage alone. What do you do then?

You get in line with the season and you provide herbs that slow the transition of food through the gut. You can forage directly or buy in.

If you buying in, buy herbs like Marshmallow root and leaf, Calendula flowers, Plantain and or chia seeds, they all contain a mucilaginous and demulcent quality that will slow the transition of the high glucose products in your horse's diet. If you are out foraging, local herbs will be higher in fibre and naturally lower in sugar, and of course, they are free. 

Herbs with qualities that support the gut can be helpful too, meadowsweet, chamomile, mint, yarrow, and comfrey will all reduce spasms where the gut has been over-activated.

It goes without saying that you should be avoiding overstimulating the gut, and avoid the bitter herbs that increase gut enzymes beyond the scope that your horse's physiology can cope with.

Unless..... you have a horse that is aged or infirmed, a horse where the sluggishness is too slow perhaps, like an animal with deep degenerative arthritis or one that already has metabolic conditions. In these cases, a little bit of excessive stimulation can and is a good thing because it helps to wick away inflammation. For these horses activating gut enzymes can be especially helpful, at least until they are able to get into a natural seasonal rhythm. In these cases go for liver herbs like dandelion, burdock, chamomile, berberis or mahonia. 


The overriding message is to provide our horses with the opportunity to rest the gut, go with the season and slow transition - Let them go into winter with the ability to nourish and support the gut. Because when the season changes to Spring there bodies and physiology will be ready for full-on elimination and detoxification. This elimination phase is applicable to all horses, regardless of what health or physiological conditions they have. Spring is the time to get in tune with the seasons permanently. 

For winter let's renew and hold on to our reserves of slow, beautiful energy.