Improving your Horse’s Digestive Function
Diet and Nutrition play a crucial role in our horse’s health, more than most of us give credit to.
In today’s modern world, it is a sad but important fact that we cannot always rely on a products label to inform us of its nutritional strength. Commercial feed companies are very skilled in marketing their feed products to their consumers as the “healthiest and best available”, with “everything your horse requires”. However every horse is different in their requirements as so too are their body type, size, breeding, work demand, soil and pasture quality, personality and health status. Feeds mixed to obtain profit and set formulas rarely cater to this variance.
Mixing your own feed may well be more time consuming, but it offers you an opportunity to tailor make your horse’s feed to provide them with exactly what they require, in digestible form and with often a fraction of the cost.
Consider several factors when assessing nutritional requirements: Feed quantity, quality, variety, appropriate body-type feeding, and suitability to your horse’s workload. Also consider easy-digestive ability (explained further in this article) and individual supplementation. Exploration of these topics is a worthy time investment that will bring great rewards to your horse’s health.
When exploring how to increase your horse’s health and vitality, it is essential to look at good digestive health. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is said where the health of the stomach is good the prognosis is good and where the health of the stomach is poor, ill health and disease will always be present. In modern medicine also and in veterinary science, a healthy digestive system is the key component to long-term good health.
So lets look at some basics for improving your horse’s digestive function. The first law of thumb is always feed your horse “little and often”. This saying refers to hand feeding, or hard feed (concentrated feed). So rather than give one big meal, spread that same meal over 2-3 meals per day. Your horse’s digestive system is not well suited to high starch or high grain diets, so this method of feeding is required to counteract the intensity of the feed. When it comes to roughage or bulk feed (high fibre), ready access to this feed type is acceptable and mostly recommended, provided your horse is not over-weight, in which case some rationing may be necessary. Small regular doses of feed (such as natural grazing provides) supports the proper production of saliva (and chewing) for a healthy gastrointestinal tract.
When altering your horses diet, always 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.
Regular six to twelve monthly dental check-ups by a qualified Equine Dentist (from the age of 2 onwards) will ensure your horse’s ability to chew well and thus adequately break down food for the digestive system. A horse can experience all the same teeth problems as people, and particularly on a highly processed or sugary diet. Keep this in mind when considering your horse’s regular feed program.
Wherever possible provide your horse with a relaxed, natural environment. Just like people, a horse’s stress levels will interfere with your horse’s digestive ability. A horse is designed and is nearly always most happy in an outdoor environment, unless the conditions are absolutely extreme. Keeping your horse as stress free as possible will ensure the digestive system is given the best opportunity to function productively.
Regular exercise is recommended in supporting good digestive health. Exercise stimulates the bowel and gently massages and tones a horse’s digestive tract. In traditional Chinese Medicine there is a direct relationship between a horse’s muscle tone and spleen functioning. Exercise encourages good waste removal and is a great way to stimulate both the lymphatic and digestive system.
Ensure that your grazing areas are free from any poisonous plants and educate yourself about your local grasses. Somegrasses have a tendency to create imbalances in your horse’s mineral levels as well as toxic build up in your horse. This can lead to a weakening of the digestive system as well as stress on the Liver, Bladder and Kidneys.
Where possible, avoid excessive use of antibiotics, hormones and anti-inflammatory drugs. These are abrasive to the digestive system, and can cause ulceration and shock to your horse’s metabolism as well as interfering with the healthy gut bacteria necessary to the digestive process.
A balanced worming program will ensure a healthy digestive tract. One might like to consider the use of Homeopathic wormers and herbal use, to lessen your need for highly chemical wormers. Striking a balance between not over using chemical wormers and not allowing high worm burdens will increase your horse’s digestive health.
Ensure your horse has balanced gut flora. Damage to your horse’s interior bacteria levels will significantly impact digestive health. Your horse depends on good bacteria in the gut to break down the tough cellulose in food. Consider the use of probiotics when your horse is underweight, has chronic health or digestive disorders, has just suffered a bout of diarrhoea or has just been treated with antibiotics, hormones or anti-inflammatory drugs.
Do not over-feed too much concentrated or unnatural feed as this may lead to problems such as colic, scouring, gut ulceration, laminitis, lameness, skin disorders, poor feed conversion and possible behaviour imbalances. Too much rich food is not what a horse’s digestive system is used to.
A horse’s gut can deal with large volumes of fibre-containing roughage due to the fermentation process in the hind gut. However, although the fore gut can deal with small quantities of concentrated feed, the overall design of the horse is suited to hind gut digestion. Therefore too much concentrated feed can cause colic and digestive upset in horses due to the possibility of partially digested food, causing blockages, bloating and pain.
Wherever possible, simple feeding is the safest bet. Horses have been designed over thousands of years to live well on large amounts of water, fibre, soluble sugars and protein, from wild grasses and shrubs.
Well, that just about concludes today’s writings on improving your horse’s digestive function.
Sending warm blessings to you all,