The wellness in a horse’s gastrointestinal tract can make or break his ability to perform, have a happy disposition, and even function on a daily basis. There are so many facets contributing to a healthy belly and gut, but I think that we can make a big impact for our horses’ health by implementing these three practices. I am so excited to share some concepts I’ve been learning about concerning feeding management aspects and the horses’ consequential reactions!
Keep Your Horse Hydrated
Rule number one: Water. Water, water, and more water! Hydration is SO important for every physiological aspect of a horse, and particularly so for digestive function and gastrointestinal health. Put simply, sufficient hydration gives the gastrointestinal tract lubrication, which keeps feedstuff moving smoothly through the tract. A hydrated gut is also comfortably filled, so it has less tendency to twist.
My favorite reason to hydrate-
Since water is a universal solvent, it is the platform on which biological enzymes and microbial flora breakdown nutrients. IE- without hydration, your horse cannot break down nutrients effectively.
Feed Forage First
We often feed horses on a per meal basis. They get breakfast grain with some hay, dinner grain with some hay, and if they’re lucky, some lunch hay. For some horses who pick and prod through the hay slowly, this is just fine, but others are left for hours on end without something to eat. Horses’ body systems are meant for foraging bits of feedstuff all day long. With this in mind, feeding a forage-based diet benefits the horse in three ways.
Forage in the Stomach=Ulcer Prevention
Where humans only produce acid in our stomachs when we eat, horses produce a steady secretion throughout the day. It’s a logical biological concept, as horses are built to eat throughout the day. However, without forage present, this constant acid secretion becomes problematic.
On a chemical level, forage with sufficient to high levels of calcium help buffer gastric pH levels, creating a less acidic environment. This is where we hear about alfalfa, beet pulp, and ulcer preventative supplements helping make the horse more comfortable.
On a mechanical level, forage enters the stomach and floats on top of the acid, creating a sort of mat. When the horse moves about and swings acid around the stomach, his mat weighs it down and minimizes splashing on the stomach lining!
Nutrients & Environment for Hind Gut
Cool fact about horses- they can eat hay. Humans cannot eat hay. Ever wonder why?
The hind gut of the horse features a unique system where bacteria, protozoa, and fungi actually break fiber nutrients down so that horses can absorb some energy from them. It’s a symbiotic relationship!
With this we must keep in mind that the relationship is most beneficial when microbes have plenty of fiber, IE forage, to digest. The microbes will break down starch, but at a cost. When excessive starch in the horse’s system reaches the microbes, they break it down and produce lactic acid as a byproduct. This lowers the environmental pH in the cecum, killing the microbes.
On the other hand, if there is nothing going through the cecum & large colon for hours on end, the microbes can starve. When there is insufficient microbial population in the horse’s gut, digestion is limited; the intestines can become inflamed, and the horse’s immune system is compromised.
Sufficient forage consumption may be the most important feature to an emotionally stable horse. Think about it. A horse’s survival priority list goes as follows,
Be Safe from Predators->Eat->Procreate.
Horses live and think in present time. If they are eating, they’ve already met the safety category so that’s not a concern, and they know they are not starving, so all is well with the world. However, think about when horses go hours on end without anything to chew on. They don’t feel satiation, and they don’t think to the future of dinner grain. They understand only that there is a high survival priority not being met. All that is left for these horses is to fester in a state of discontent.
Ergo, horses need a constant stream of forage running in the front and out the back!
Concentrate: Small Meals for Big Success
Staggering concentrate so that a meal doesn’t reach over 5 lbs is principle understanding for managing horses. But why is this? First and foremost, the stomach can only hold so much before it ruptures, so we don’t want to come close to that amount of grain.
Concerning gastric maintenance, the smaller the meal, the better! Think about this! The lower half of the stomach lining where acid rests is glandular, so it is protected. The top half is naked. As I mentioned before, forage that enters the stomach floats on top of the acid, creating a protective mat, but grain and concentrate are denser than the acid, and they sink and collect at the bottom of the glandular region and take up valuable protected space. This causes acid to rise to the naked portion of the stomach. The more concentrate, the higher the rise. This is why it is so important to feed small amounts at a time, every time the acid rises, it wears at the naked part of the stomach, and ulcerates it.
Moral of the story- if you have to feed a horse 9 lbs of high energy concentrate to keep weight on it, feed it in small increments throughout the day, the more the better!