August 31, 2022

Strategies for Supporting GI Health in the Surgical Horse

Maintaining a healthy GI tract via nutritive support is key to effective surgery preparation and rapid post-op recovery in horses. Impaired GI health is directly associated with impaired immune health (Schley and Field, 2002; Artis, 2008; Jarchum and Pamer, 2011). Compromised GI health and immune health in the immediate post-surgical period may be unavoidable, but based on what we currently know, it is almost certainly possible to minimize impairments. 

Presenting the GI tract in the best possible condition before surgery and providing the best nutritive support as soon as possible after surgery are two things that will help to support a rapid and complete recovery in your equine patients.

An Overview of Surgical Stresses and How They Affect GI Health

Knowing what stressors are ahead for horses requiring surgery can help you better prepare them for surgery and post-op recovery. 

The effects of these surgical stresses are at the least somewhat additive, and the detrimental effects on the microbiota have been partially characterized (Salem, 2016; Salem et al., 2019; Stewart et al., 2019).

Some of the most common surgical stressors are:

  • Pain
  • Analgesics used to relieve pain
  • Transport to surgical facilities, especially greater than one hour
  • Level of care and quality of the environment at the clinic
  • Dietary alterations

If you want to learn more about surgical stressors and how they affect equine GI health, download our extensive white paper

Strategies for Supporting GI Health in the Surgical Horse

Practitioners can support GI health in the surgical horse in a few specific ways: 

  • Prevention
  • Preparation
  • Post-surgery

Caring for a horse who needs to undergo surgery is a delicate matter. Their systems, especially their GI tracts, are fragile. Utilizing these strategies into a surgical action plan is the best way for us to monitor and maintain a healthy GI tract. 


The best strategy for ensuring GI tract health is prevention. Prevention is not only the best way to optimize surgical outcomes, but it also reduces the likelihood of colic. Prevention begins and ends with good nutrition.

  • Provide constant access to quality water and dietary fiber. Horses are grazers by nature. You can support their grazing habits by ensuring forage or hay is readily available 24/7. 
  • Ensure healthy gut microbiota. Examining the horse’s fresh manure for color, texture, and smell can help to indicate to the horse’s internal state, as all of these are affected by the microbial populations of the large intestine.
  • Provide additional, nutritional GI support. Studies have reported benefits of daily supplementation with probiotics and especially prebiotics, which support a stable, balanced, functioning gut. SUCCEED Digestive Conditioning Program (DCP) is one option for supporting GI health pre and post-surgery. SUCCEED DCP uses a combination of oat polar lipids, beta-glucan, amino acids, and yeast products that sustain a healthy GI environment. 

Test pre-surgery for any medical conditions that may have arisen from the use of medications. Horses on antibiotics or sedatives before a surgical treatment have an increased likelihood of developing ulcers. Performing a fecal occult blood test using the SUCCEED Equine Fecal Blood Test can help detect the presence of injury to the gastrointestinal tract lining. The longer the horse is on most commonly-used medications, especially for pain, the more likely the presence of GI ulceration and bleeding—so weekly or monthly tests for bleeding would be warranted.


Preparing a horse for surgery is critical, and you should take every opportunity to support its GI health and immune system. Access to high-quality forage and water (according to the surgical schedule) is non-negotiable. Effectively utilizing SUCCEED DCP to support GI and immune health is highly recommended. 

A distressed horse requires a natural anxiolytic to reduce stress and encourage normal eating and drinking practices. Additionally, keeping horses in a calm, quiet, and comfortable area will help them stay relaxed and keep cortisol levels down before surgery.


Post-surgical nutrition is a key component in maintaining GI health. Be sure to advocate for the horse and the horse’s owner when communicating with other clinic veterinarians and care providers. As the horse’s primary veterinarian, you have the most experience with the horse’s specific health status, nutritional needs, and history. You can help ensure standard of care is consistent and appropriate throughout the entire process and, if needed, share evidence-based research to advocate for proper post-surgical nutrition. 

Ensuring nutritional support for healthy microbiota is the primary goal post-surgery. The quicker the GI tract is restored and the microbiota is balanced, the better GI health will be for the horse. In addition, restoring barrier function is crucial for keeping intestinal and luminal contents from entering the body.

The best way to support horses post-surgery is to provide optimal nutritional support in the form of: 

  • Good quality water and hay
  • Probiotic and prebiotic supplements

Reinforcing a healthy gut microbiota is the foundation for a healthy immune system which will help deal with any infections that may arise from surgical procedures. 

Dive Deeper into the Topic of GI Health in the Surgical Horse

Minimizing stressors is the key focus of surgery prep, but there is more to it. Proper nutrition and health plans, with support from SUCCEED DCP, are essential to pre- and post-op care. 

For a more in-depth, research-based look at the topic of managing GI health in the surgical horse, download the complete white paper today. 


Artis, D., 2008. Epithelial-cell recognition of commensal bacteria and maintenance of immune homeostasis in the gut. Nat. Rev. Immunol. 8 (6), 411–420. doi:10.1038/nri2316.

Jarchum, I. & E. G. Pamer. 2011. Regulation of innate and adaptive immunity by the commensal microbiota. Curr. Opin. Immunol. 23 (3), 353–360. doi:10.1016/j.coi.2011.03.001. Available from:

Salem, S. 2016. Epidemiological and microbiome studies of equine colic. PhD Thesis. University of Liverpool. Available from:

Salem, S. E., Maddox, T. W., Antczak, P., Ketley, J. M., Williams, N. J., & Archer, D. C., 2019. Acute changes in the colonic microbiota are associated with large intestinal forms of surgical colic. BMC Vet. Res. 15 (1). doi:10.1186/s12917-019-2205-1. Available from:

Schley, P. D. & Field, C. J., 2002. The immune-enhancing effects of dietary fibres and prebiotics. Brit. J. Nutr. 87 (S2), S221–S230. doi:10.1079/bjn/2002541.

Stewart, H. L., Southwood, L. L., Indugu, N., Vecchiarelli, B., Engiles, J. B., & Pitta, D., 2018. Differences in the equine faecal microbiota between horses presenting to a tertiary referral hospital for colic compared with an elective surgical procedure. Equine Vet. J. 51 (3), 336–342. doi:10.1111/evj.13010 Available from:



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