Fecal Microbiomes of Feral and Domestic Horses Compared
Gluck and her advisor, Shannon Pratt-Phillips, MSc, PhD, designed a study with the objective of assessing microbial populations across feral and domesticated horses using the feral Shackleford Banks horses, research and teaching horses at NCSU’s Equine Educational Unit, and privately owned horses at a local boarding barn.
The feral horses lived on a barrier island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where their diet is typically sea oats and island grasses, and their water source is ponds found throughout the island. The Shackleford Banks is a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, and the feral horse herd is overseen by National Park Service manager Sue Stuska, EdD. The NCSU herd is used for a mixture of research and teaching and consumed cool-season mixed pasture and minimal hay and concentrates during the study, while the privately owned horses ate a variety of concentrates, hay, and minimal pasture. Both groups of domesticated horses remained in their typical work programs and daily routines.
“We used fecal void swabs to collect samples and collected them quickly from the ground so as to minimize contamination,” said Gluck. The researchers then sent the samples to Purina Animal Nutrition’s technical center to be stored at -80 C before further analysis.
Firmicutes were the most abundant type of microbe found in the feral population of horses, while Bacteroidetes were more predominantly found in the domesticated horses. “Bacteroidetes is responsible for breaking down plant cell carbohydrates like starch,” she explained to TheHorse.com, “thus, the results indicating that the domesticated horse’s microbiome reflects their typical diet containing more starch versus the feral population of horses.”
Gluck said more research into the differences between the two populations’ microbes is needed to understand their significance. Further research will help equine nutritionists and horse owners manage domesticated horses’ microbiomes more effectively—using updated feed formulations, for instance, so microbes are “fed” more efficiently through the diet—and ultimately improve these animals’ welfare, she added.
Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with