Exercise and Gut Health in the Heat 


From trail riding to endurance, and from lessons to racing, exercise in the heat can have negative effects on the digestive tract.

Intensity of work is related to how much heat is generated during exercise, but intensity is relative. Activity easily handled by a fit horse may require an extreme effort by a horse that is not fit. Also, fluid and electrolyte losses in sweat are greater for intense efforts, but horses working for prolonged periods at lower levels may accumulate equivalent sweat losses.  An additional factor for horses working for prolonged periods is less opportunity to eat and drink, and possible changes in diet.  Horses shipping in hot weather also have less opportunity to drink and their sweat losses in hot trailers can be considerable.

The body and intestinal tract coexist closely, but there is normally little exposure of the body tissues/blood to intestinal contents because of proteins located between cells of the intestinal wall called tight junction proteins. It has been shown that increases in body temperature commonly seen with exercise can alter these tight junctions, resulting in cramping and diarrhea. Alterations in tight junctions are also believed to be related to the generally “sick” feeling that athletes can perceive after exertion and contribute to immune dysfunction.

High core body heat can also reduce the number and diversity of organisms in the digestive tract.  Reduced efficiency of fermentation and lowered generation of volatile fatty acid fermentation products means less efficient use of fibrous feeds and less efficient absorption of nutrients and water.

We can’t completely avoid the influence of heat on the GI tract, but we can take some sensible measures. Make sure your horse has been properly conditioned for the work you do. This is no time of year for “weekend warriors”. Also guarantee adequate intake of salt/electrolytes and a constant supply of water to avoid the disrupted intestinal function that comes with dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities.

Supplements containing ingredients like L-glutamine, Marshmallow root, Licorice root, Slippery Elm, sodium copper chlorophyllin and Aloe Vera can help soothe irritated linings while mannanoligosaccharides and beta-glucans provide gentle stimulation for the local gut immune system.

Probiotic supplementation after the horse has been cooled out from exercise could also be helpful in restoring beneficial populations.  This supports good fermentation, absorption and immune function.  A blend of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast and bacterial species is best.

Diet can also be very helpful in supporting fermentation and levels of fatty acids as well as promoting good hydration both in the intestinal tract and throughout the body.  Easily fermented and high soluble fiber supplements such as fructooligosaccharides, psyllium husk fiber (always wet before feeding) and beet pulp accomplish this.  Regular use of a supplement with good digestive enzyme (amylase, lactase, cellulase, phytase, lipase, protease) activity can assist with small intestine functions so that the hind gut does not get overloaded.

Exercise and heat have effects on gastrointestinal integrity and activity, and should not be ignored. Solid conditioning, reasonable work expectations and targeted support can make this manageable.


About Dr. Kellon
Dr. Eleanor Kellon, staff veterinary specialist for Uckele Health & Nutrition, is an established authority in the field of equine nutrition for over 30 years, and a founding member and leader of the Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance (ECIR) group, whose mission is to improve the welfare of horses with metabolic disorders via integration of research and real-life clinical experience.  Prevention of laminitis is the ultimate goal.  www.ecirhorse.org