3 Steps to Gastrointestinal Health

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.

Protects Stomach

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.

Controlling Anxiety


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!


Published by

Madison Maavere

Hello, I am a young professional in the equine industry with a passion for improving horses' physical health and emotional wellness. I grew up riding horses in north Georgia and by the time I was 10, I decided I wanted to ride professionally. This dream grew into the mountain that I climbed every day, striving to reach the top. Until I was 16, I did not have my own horses, so I began diving whole-heartedly into any barn that would allow me to work off rides, training, and showing. While this path may not have gotten me the most blues in the show ring, it opened my eyes and my heart to the vastness of the horse world and how perception based it can be. When I was 16, my family moved out on 6 acres so I could have my horses at home (IE, so my family could see me on a daily basis), and for this, I am truly grateful. Running my own farm, albeit small, was liberating and humbling, and it revealed to me that my passion was not so much for riding sport, but for the love of the horse. Fast forward 6 years, and I am well into my final year as an undergraduate Equine Science/Management major at the University of Kentucky. I have been so fortunate in the opportunities I've received here and the relationships I've been able to build. The cutting edge research, quality horsemanship, and innovative businesses located around Lexington, KY have given me a strong sense of reality, and inspired me to really look at where I can make an impact in today's horse world. What I've realized is that while I like equestrian sports, I love the horse. Moreover, I love to help the horse. I want it to be happy and relaxed, to be sound and comfortable, to eat well and be healthy. I want the horse to have every defense against pathalogical disease, and I want it to have skill sets that people value so it can live a long, loved life. In this love, I feel called to advocate for the horse. I want to learn everything I can about how to improve horses' sustainable wellness, and I want to share what I learn so that horsemen of all experience, backgrounds, and goals can feel inspired and enabled to improve their horses' lives. It is my true desire to initiate and spread a dynamic in which horses are not for the industry, but the industry is for the horses.

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