Getting to the Guts of it – Healthy Nutrition
As people feeding our horses, feeding appropriate to the equine digestive system is a vital consideration. And to do this requires we know exactly how our horses digestive systems functions.
Horses digest differently from people. In people the stomach, with its enzymes is a dominant part of digestion. Food passes into the stomach for processing and breaking down, into the small intestine for absorption and finally the large intestine for any last absorption requirements. Horses on the other hand, as herbivores, have a long gut to deal with cellulose, which is relatively hard to digest and therefore needs to be held in the digestive tract for a considerable time. They are considered to have a foregut (mouth, pharynx, oesophagus, stomach and small intestines) and a hind gut (caecum, large colon, small colon, rectum and anus).
The large intestine is the major site for the fermentation of fibre. As horses don’t need amino acids as much as people do, their intestines are considered to function completely differently from ours. The mucosal membrane lining the gut is a lot more absorbent than ours, and a large proportion of digestion takes place by fermentation, owing to the large number of bacteria in the gut. Foods can be held in the gut for periods of up to 36-48 hours.
Horses then are not designed for high starch diets. Any grain or starch orientated feeding must therefore be feed little and often, rather than in large quantities. A horse’s real energy input is best obtained through fibre (an increase in roughage, the perfect feed for the horses digestive system rather than an increase in grains).
Feeding your horse a high fibre diet will also result in less teeth wear and a decrease in dental problems, compared to a high grain diet that will inevitably lead to an increase in teeth wear.
Three Quarters of a horse’s energy requirement comes from grass alone. A horse on average needs 1 kilogram of roughage per 100 kilograms of their body weight. This means a large warmblood horse weighing 600 kg needs approximately 6 kgs of roughage a day to maintain a healthy body weight.
Sadly, 90% of colic cases in horses, are caused by incorrect feeding and the misconceptions that surround a horse’s digestive system.
When altering your horses diet, it is always important to do so very gradually. Reduce old feed types gradually and introduce new feed types slowly. Altering feed quantity is also important to do over a period of time. This allows the horses gut bacteria to adjust accordingly. Altering feed types rapidly can impact the microflora, thus causing bloating and distension and colic in some horses.
There are particular feed types that strip the microflora of the gut, such as pollard and bran, and they are best to avoid.
Horses have evolved as a browsing herbivore, spending large periods of time grazing. The horse’s digestive tract adapted to cope with large amounts of water, fibre, soluble sugars and protein. Domestication on the other hand has brought with it a different style of feeding, with greater concentration, more processing, cereal grains and starchy foods and in greater quantities over restricted feed times.
A thorough understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the horse’s digestive tract will assist you to minimise thelikelihood of digestive problems, encourage you to feed appropriately as well as sympathetically to your horse.
So, perhaps you may want to go now to the feed shed and have a good look at what your horse is being fed. You may well want to create some changes… but remember, EVERYTHING must be altered SLOWLY.
Enjoy, and I look forward to your posts