Understanding how the equine digestive system works is key to understanding a horse’s dietary needs, and it is valid to question why horse owners insist on feeding grains to herbivores. There are so many supplements, specialist feeds and different approaches to feeding your horse that it can be difficult to know if you are making the right choice.
Keeping things simple, as simple as you can, is the right approach for the everyday horse owner.
- The horse is a grazing animal designed to graze for 16-18 hours per day, consuming low-grade forage,
- It has an in-built urge to eat and will not stop until it feels satisfied. Its natural position for eating is with its head down.
- Food passes from the horse’s mouth into the oesophagus aided by saliva for lubrication. The saliva is produced in response to chewing and is high in bicarbonate. (A natural antacid)
- A horse produces 32-46 litres of saliva per day. The less chewing a horse does, the less saliva it will produce. Eating forage slowly encourages it to produce more saliva.
- A horses stomach is small because the horse is a defenceless animal whose natural instinct is to flee from danger andthe stomach impacts on the chest and diaphragm, so if it was too large and too full of food it would inhibit the speed at which the horse could flee.
- A horse produces 35-40 litres of gastric juices independently of it eating, so stomach needs to stay at about a third full of fibre and forageto act as a mat in the base of the stomach and hold the acid.
- Ceareal based diets mean that the stomach can be emptied too fast and as the horse moves, acid splashes up onto the top of the stomach wall. This, combined with the associated imbalance of alkaline saliva and acid gastric juices, further reduces the pH in the stomach and causes ulcers.
- Around 95 per cent of racehorses and 35 per cent of leisure horses have ulcers, but because, as a prey animal, they are not designed to exhibit signs of pain, owners may not be aware of them. However, they can be detected by scoping and they are likely to manifest themselves as behavioural problems.
- A horse’s pancreas only produces a finite amount of insulin and if this is used up early in a horse’s life, by having to process an excessive amount of sugar and starch, it will create health issues such as metabolic syndrome. It is so easy to upset the natural balance of your horses digestion tract.
- A horse will function best, what ever its job, when fed as closely to its natural diet as is possible, given the restrictions of stabling and restricted grazing.
If you are keeping your horse with a professional trainer on schooling livery or for your own pleasure at a livery yard you will be able to work closely with the professionals in charge of your horses welfare. However, if you are looking after your own horse there are so many products and supplements on the market that it can become tempting to complicate the whole thing and end up causing your horses digestive system to become overloaded or stressed.
Horse Scout Blogger was watching the racing this weekend (along with a few other people I suspect!) One particular trainer recounted that despite a victorious last race of the season before but that something had been nagging at him (the trainer) He knew there was something “not quite right” and tests did show that the horse was suffering from acute ulceration of the stomach. With a change in regime and fodder types the horse had bounced back and was in the best form ever, and indeed was lengths ahead of the rest of the field.