Do you know what you are feeding your horse and why?
We love our horses and we only want the best for them. We spend our hard-earned cash giving them a lifestyle that’s often better than our own. We spend a fortune making sure our saddles fit (which is really important), we buy them the best rugs available, they have regular massages and pedicures, we spend money on lessons, we make sure our helmet is of the highest safety standard.
Our competition outfits are up to date with the latest trends, and yet the one area that greatly determines the performance and health of a horse, we largely don’t understand. I’m talking about nutrition. I often ask people to describe their horse’s diet and the reasons why they are feeding what they are feeding. Interestingly, many horse owners do not know why they are feeding the way they
are or even what ingredients they are putting into their horse’s mouth and ultimately digestive system.
Before you choose a feed or feed supplement it helps if you understand the digestive process of the horse. The more you understand the digestive process, the better you can provide your horse with a feeding program targeted to their needs and the more empowered you will be to make choices that ultimately effects your horse.
Horses are hindgut fermenters which means they rely on bacterial fermentation of food for energy, amino acid and vitamin B
production in the hindgut. Obviously, the health of the equine gut microbiome is incredibly important. As a result, horses thrive
best on a high forage diet with limited access to grains and starches which potentially upset the pH of the hindgut.
So back to digestion
Simply explained, digestion starts when a horse chews and creates saliva coating the food and passing it through the oesophagus into the stomach. Stomach acid and enzymes then start to break down the food in the stomach followed by digestive enzymes breaking down fats, starches and protein in the small intestine. Undigested fibre then passes into the hindgut where it is bacterially fermented and converted into energy, B vitamins, vitamin K and amino acids. The hindgut also has an ability to convert lactic acid (a by-product of fermented starch) into volatile fatty acids, but only within reason. Too much starch leads to too much lactic acid and overloads the hindgut leading to hindgut acidosis.
The equine digestive process is dependent upon a healthy population of beneficial microbiome or helpful bacteria. They help regulate the pH level of the intestine, which supports a useful fermentation process and also prevents damaging pathogens from thriving. Stress and a high grain diet can negatively impact on its ability to work effectively. The hindgut in particular does not function effectively with an acidic pH.
Problems can arise when the horse eats too fast and doesn’t chew his feed properly (usually due to insufficient forage), is fed too much at one time or fed too much grain and starches including sugar and molasses. Stress also rushes the food through the digestive tract and reduces the amount of time it can be digested in the stomach and small intestine and results in starch overload in the hindgut, changing the pH and increasing lactic acid production possibly leading hindgut acidosis and many performance and health problems such as laminitis, hindgut inflammation, ulceration and even colic. It can also reduce the ability of the horse’s muscles to remove
exercise induced lactic acid, leading to a slower recovery from exercise or even tying up.
Microbiome in the horse’s hindgut works on a competitive survival of the fittest. The bacteria that are fed the most will out compete other bacteria. This is why starch needs to be minimal in the hindgut so that lactic acid producing bacteria that eat starches do not outcompete fibre ingesting and lactate utilising bacteria.
So, what does this all mean?
The life of a horse today is far different from that of a wild horse that has access to constant forage through various different grasses, trees and shrubs and far less stress. Whilst it is difficult to recreate such a natural state of living for our domesticated horses, we can try and provide a diet that will be complimentary to the digestive system. Horses need access to constant forage with minimal grain
and starches. As an owner, be diligent in checking and understanding all the ingredients on feed labels. If you don’t know what is in it, then find out. Consider how much grain is included or starches such as molasses. If you do decide to feed grain, make sure it is
extruded or micronized which allows the enzymes a greater opportunity to digest starches.
Seek professional independent advice regarding dietary needs for your horse. I use Feed XL to help balance my horse diets as well as using an independent equine nutritionist.
Most importantly, keep it simple! The more balanced your horses hindgut is, the better feed conversion, performance and health of your horse.
The money you save on feed and less vet bills, you can actually spend on your own pedicure or massage for a change!