The Basics of Digestion in Horses
Things to know before you go:
- Equine Foregut: Esophagus, Stomach, and Small Intestine
- Equine Hindgut: Cecum, Large Colon, Small Colon, and Rectum (the cecum and colon make up the large intestine)
The digestion process begins with the horse chewing its feed. Chewed feed then travels through the esophagus to the stomach with ease. Feed can take from one to eight hours to pass through the stomach into the small intestine. After traversing the foregut, the feed enters the hindgut. It’s a slow process for the remnants of the feed material to completely pass through the hindgut, typically lasting up to two days. The remaining waste material is compacted and expelled.
Common Digestive Disturbances in Horses
Horses can experience many ailments that contribute to common disturbances in digestion. The most important ones to watch for are gastric ulcers (occurring in the stomach) and colic (occurring in the hindgut). Studies have shown that at least 80% of performance horses have some form of stomach ulceration, and we all know the dangers of colic. Ulcers can drastically reduce your horse’s quality of life, and colic can be fatal. If you suspect either, it’s important to call your vet immediately.
There are a few other things that cause digestive disturbances in horses that are often overlooked.
Difficult Mastication – Mastication is the process of the horse grinding and chewing his feed. When teeth aren’t floated regularly, they can become uneven and sharp. Issues with teeth can lead to temperament changes, as well as choking hazards, and if your horse has a hard time thoroughly grinding his feed the rest of his digestive system will have to work harder.
Bolting – “Bolting” is a common term used to describe a horse that does not chew his feed correctly. Bolting can result in choking and can be a serious problem.
Feeding / Diet Changes – Feeding your horse too much processed feed at one time can throw off your horse’s digestive process. Sudden diet changes can alter the bacteria population in the hindgut, potentially leading to colic. Excessive consumption of rich, processed feeds can lead to high levels of starch entering the intestines too quickly and may cause laminitis (founder).
Empty Stomach – A horse’s stomach is not made to be empty. When it is, the stomach acids harm unprotected squamous cells. If this occurs frequently, gastric ulcers start to form.
Toxic Materials – Any toxic materials a horse ingests will enter the intestine and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Ingestion of toxins leaves horses vulnerable to colic or even death.
Solving Horse Digestive Issues
Keeping your horse’s digestive tract on track may seem like a big feat. But the good news is that there are small steps you can take provide your horse digestive support. An excellent place to start is at the top! If your horse can’t chew his food properly, you may have to be on a constant lookout for choking. It’s crucial to get your horse’s teeth floated at least one to two times a year; the consequences of a sore mouth can be severe.
There are a couple of tricks you can try to prevent bolting in horses. You can try using a larger feeder, so the grain is spread out over a larger surface area, putting large rocks or balls in their feeders to slow down the process, or you can buy different feeders that are altered to make it harder for horses to consume their feed as quickly. Side note: large rocks or objects mean LARGE – you want to create an obstacle, not an additional choking hazard.
Another helpful step is trying to make your horse’s feeding schedule as natural as possible. Split his grain into two different meals, and try to keep hay in front of him at all times. Small and frequent meals are a good rule of thumb. It may be a bit time consuming, but it is well worth it for your horse’s health. Avoid feeding moldy or spoiled food; ruminants like cows and sheep can digest lower quality feed than horses can tolerate.
Selecting The Right Horse Digestive Support
If your horse has experienced any digestive problems like ulcers, colic, or diarrhea, it would be wise to introduce a digestive support supplement into his diet. In addition to probiotics, which replace depleted bacteria, complete digestive support should include prebiotics (which help good bacteria flourish), and digestive enzymes (which help break down feed for absorption).
Probiotics don’t only improve gut health; they also can boost immunity, aid in reducing gut inflammation and diarrhea, and may even help reduce the incidence of colic and gas. Although probiotics are loaded with multiple benefits, you may have a tough time choosing the right probiotic blend for your horses. Digestive Health + Daily Essentials Combo Fresh Packs by Formula 707 is an excellent option containing complete digestive support as well as all of the vitamins and minerals a horse is known to need.
The equine digestive tract is a complex system that deserves to be respected and cared for. While there is nothing we can do to completely prevent digestive disturbances, we can educate ourselves, be aware of the conditions that can affect our horses, and take proactive steps to ensure their health. If you still have any questions, you can reach out to us.
About the Author
Sara Gannon grew up around the equine industry. Locally raised in Douglas County and currently based out of northern Colorado, Sara participated in 4-H and has competed in multiple Colorado barrel racing associations. She has run in various slot races and traveled to surrounding states for bigger races such as BBR Finals and Bonus Race Finals. She’s worked in different positions with large and small animals for more than 5 years. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.