Horses aren’t like other pets, cats or dogs who need food, love, and to go outside every once in a while. There’s a lot more to owning a horse than sticking him in your pasture, cleaning up after him occasionally, and making sure he has water. Horses weren’t designed to live in barns or to work as strenuously as we often ride, so their systems need extra care and attention to handle the lifestyle in which we keep them.
What’s good horse sense and what is done because it’s tradition, but isn’t necessarily in the best interest of my horse? What should I feed, how should I feed, and why?
These are questions we don’t always know to ask. So often, we care for horses certain ways because that’s how our parents did it, or how our trainer does it, or how our barn manager does it. And that’s not always the best thing for our horses. We owe it to them to learn as much about their systems as we can in order to provide the most appropriate care.
I recently had the great fortune of beginning work with the people of Succeed on their online marketing efforts. And in the process of starting the project, they have taken a lot of time to educate me not just on their product, but on the inner workings of the horse’s digestive system. And how the digestive system affects the whole horse, good and bad.
It is highly worthwhile to understand how your horse’s digestive system is designed to work. It can make all the difference in the world for not just his health – but also his temperament and performance.
Problems With How We Feed
Newsflash: horses aren’t designed to spend most of their lives in stalls and fed a few large meals a day.
Horses are meant to be free-roaming, grazing creatures. In the wild, they’ll spend upwards of 18 hours a day grazing and wandering for miles in the process. They have primarily forage (grass) diets, and only eat what grains happen to be in seed in with their forage. They eat small amounts of fibrous food constantly. They don’t exert a whole lot of energy.
Sounds very different from modern horse management, doesn’t it?
How Horses Are Typically Fed
For whatever reason – space restrictions, convenience, competition – we keep our horses stalled for chunks of the day. They get 2-3 meals heavy on the grains, and spend parts of the day with empty stomachs. Horses who are ridden regularly do need extra energy not found in hay or grass, so we feed them processed grains. As John Hall of Succeed likes to say, we feed “some combination of 2 scoops and 2 flakes 2 times per day.” Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Common ingredients in processed grains include:
How This Affects The Equine Digestive Tract
Here’s a very quick breakdown of the equine digestive tract, what happens in each section, and how long it stays there.
Stomach: The horse’s stomach is actually quite small (only about twice the size of ours) and food only stays there as little as 15-30 minutes when fed grain. Acid in the stomach breaks down food so that it is absorbed better later in the digestive process. This acid is produced constantly, and is mitigated by a constant intake of food and saliva.
Small Intestine: The small intestine is about 70 feet long and is where most nutrients are digested and absorbed. Vitamins, fats, proteins, and all starch/sugars should be absorbed here. Food moves through the small intestine in just 60-90 minutes.
Hindgut: The horse’s hindgut is made up of the cecum and colon, which are responsible for fermenting and absorbing fiber. Food stays in the hindgut for 2-3 days! Horses in the wild get up to 70% of their energy from the fibers digested in the hindgut.
Their are two major issues with how we feed that affect the digestive process:
- spending hours each day with no food
- feeding too much grain.
When horses get just a few meals per day and spend hours without anything to eat, the acids in the stomach aren’t buffered as well and food moves through their system too fast. High-starch grains also move through the system very quickly, and then cause a lot of problems when they reach the hindgut and haven’t been digested fully. The extra starch disrupts the balance of the natural microorganisms involved in fermentation – increasing the acidity, killing good bacteria, and releasing toxins.
These problems can make your horse uncomfortable in his gut, which can be the source of stall vices, attitude issues, and even performance and training problems like resistance to bending and collection. On the clinical side, it can cause ulcers and colic. Food isn’t digested as well, so your horse might not be getting the full nutritional value, making his coat dull, keeping him from gaining proper weight, or leaving him lethargic.
Feeding For Better Health and Performance
There are a few key things we can do as horse owners to make sure our horses’ digestive tracts are running at 100 percent.
- slow down his grain intake by feeding smaller amounts more times per day or mixing with chaff (chopped hay) to force him to chew more
- increase forage and decrease grain
- when not turned out on grass, make sure your horse has constant access to hay
Most Palatable, Digestible, Nutritional Foods for Horses
- beet pulp
Common But Less Digestible, High-Starch Foods
This education in equine anatomy has me in the process of changing how I feed Ace. While I am somewhat limited since I board, I’m finding ways to compromise. I’m working with the barn owner to make sure Ace has plenty of hay when he’s stalled during the day. I’m finding the best source of straight oats and chopped hay in my area. And I’ll prepare each meal myself and leave it at the barn in individual tubs if that’s what is needed to make it easier on the staff.
We all have the best interests of our horses at heart. Let’s make sure that includes the best interests of their digestive systems!
Still Have Questions?
I’ve really just given the most basic overview that every horse owner needs to know here. If you have specific questions about the details, feel free to leave a comment and ask. If I don’t have the answer in my notes from my time with the nutrition and digestion experts, I’ll be sure to get it from them. Happy feeding!
Big time thanks go out to the folks at Succeed for genuinely caring about not just all horses, but mine specifically, and spending so much time educating me!