A horse’s GI health can make or break his ability to perform, behave, and even function on a daily basis. There are so many facets contributing to a healthy, pain-free gut, but we can make an impact for our horses’ health by starting with these three practices. Let’s talk about feeding management practices for sustainable gut health!
Rule number one: Water. Water, water, and more water! Hydration is SO important for every physiological aspect in 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.
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.
As the weather changes, horses may have a tendency to drink minimally to get by. While they can survive on a baseline, they may not thrive. To amp up our horses drinking habits, we can added salt/electrolytes to meals, add flavoring to water buckets, or add soaked forage (cubes or pellets) to the diet.
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 horses who pick and prod through the hay slowly, this may work well, but others are left for hours on end without something to eat. The horse’s GI tracts are meant to forage all day long, leaving the horse uncomfortable without something to chew on. 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 builds up and becomes problematic.
On a chemical level, forage with sufficient to high levels of calcium help to buffer gastric pH levels, preventing an overly acidic environment. This is where we hear about alfalfa, beet pulp, and ulcer preventative supplements helping keep the horse more comfortable.
On a mechanical level, forage enters the stomach and floats on top of the acid, creating a hay mat. When the horse moves about and swings acid around the stomach, his mat weighs it down and minimizes splashing on the stomach lining.
Fun fact about horses— they can eat hay. Humans cannot eat hay. Ever wonder why?
Horses are hind-gut fermenters, giving them a unique system where bacteria, protozoa, and fungi break down structural carbohydrates, better known as fiber. These microbes release volatile fatty acids that the horse uses for energy.
With this system, microbes function best when they have fiber, IE forage, to digest consistently. Fiber feeds them and keeps them functioning efficiently, and helps to balance the pH in the gut. The microbes will also 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.
If there is nothing going through the cecum & large colon for hours on end, the microbes can starve. When there is an 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 checked first and second box in the safety category. They know they are not under attack, and they are not starving— 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 discontentment.
Most of us feed our horses daily grain rations. By ‘grain’ we mean a formula derived from concentrated nutrients and energy sources. Step one in feeding for gut health is to feed these concentrate formulas at a maximum of 5 lbs per meal, and the smaller the meal, the better.
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. Moreover, the lower half of the stomach lining where acid rests is glandular, giving it protection from acid. The top half of the stomach though is naked. Where forage enters the stomach and floats on top of the acid, it does no harm and creates a protective mat. However, grain is denser than the acid, and it will sink and collect at the bottom of the glandular region of the stomach. This takes up valuable protected space and causes the acid to rise to the naked portion of the stomach. The more concentrate, the higher the rise, increasing the horse’s risk for gastric ulcers and inefficient digestion.
Moving into the small intestine, there is only so much enzymatic digestion that can occur at once due to limited enzymes and digestive surface area. If we overload the tract with nutrients, it results in insufficient digestion in the fore gut. This results in nutrient waste and pH imbalance in the hind gut. The more concentrate, the less effective the digestion.
Moral of the story- Feed more, smaller meals. If you have a hard keeper who needs 9 lbs of high energy concentrate to maintain weight, feed it in 3 or 4 meals throughout the day, the more the better!