Meeting your horse's needs for optimal gut health is not the same as meeting his caloric requirements. If your horse is not underweight and basically healthy, suffice it to say his caloric (not necessarily nutrient) requirements are being met. Considering horses are grazing herbivores and their digestive tract is designed for almost continual trickle feeding (16-20 hours a day) of fibrous feeds - the question isn't are you feeding enough calories - but are you feeding in a way that promotes optimal gut health?
Read on to learn why gut health is so important, how common feeding practices affect it, and how to improve it by feeding more in line with your horse's digestive tract design.
Why is Gut Health Important?
Approximately 80% of your horse’s immune system resides in the digestive tract. The microorganisms that reside there:
Horses require a well-balanced population of microbes in their digestive tract to enhance digestion and absorb nutrients (not necessarily calories). Some of these microorganisms are essential for manufacturing necessary nutrients as well.
Factors that can disrupt healthy populations of equine microorganisms include:
Maintaining a healthy and stable gastrointestinal ecosystem is vital to the overall health of the horse.
How Rate of Consumption & Meal Size Affect Gut Health
How quickly your horse eats and how often you feed affect both his digestion and populations of beneficial microorganisms (the good bacteria).
Meals that are quickly consumed reduce the optimum time necessary for each distinct region of the digestion tract to properly digest and prepare forage as it advances from ingestion to excretion. (Mouth > Stomach > Small Intestine > Large Intestine)
Prolonged periods of fasting (between meals or overnight) can create stress and:
It is important to note that the pH environment of the digestive tract directly influences beneficial microorganism populations. Optimum pH levels are best achieved by providing a steady flow of appropriate forage/fiber.
Feeding by Natural Design vs. Domestication
The horse's digestive tract was designed to process small amounts of continual forage (high fibrous feeds) while moving about. This combination of eating and moving helps create a healthy gut and satisfies natural instincts. Trickle feeding allows for fiber to be present throughout the entire gastro-intestinal tract at all times. This maintains and feeds the crucial microorganism population as well as maintains an optimal pH environment.
And there are other benefits as well. Nibbling throughout the day and night on appropriate fibrous feeds helps to prevent large swings in blood glucose concentration and can prevent overwhelming the hindgut (cecum and large colon) with undigested starch (reducing the pH to less than optimum levels). Starch is primarily digested in the small intestine. Unnatural pH levels can adversely affect the population of beneficial microorganisms in the large intestine.
Movement is also important to gut health. Mobility stimulates gut motility, effectively keeping the hindgut weighted (to encourage continued travel of undigested material motile). Muscles responsible for movement of the gut are better toned when utilized and can atrophy.
In nature, the horse's activities consist of traveling to water sources, walking and grazing, interacting with herd mates and periods of rest. They will voluntarily take breaks to sleep and rest for periods of time, typically no longer than an hour.
Domestication, typically, does not mimic nature's design. Common domestic scenarios contributing to less than optimum gut health are:
According to Martine Hausberger, PhD, director of the Laboratory of Animal and Human Ethology, a branch of the French national research center (CNRS) and the University of Rennes, ”It is also known that horses can experience gastrointestinal discomfort if deprived of food for a mere one to two hours.”
Ways to Improve Gut Health
Not every horse lives in a natural environment; however, there are ways to help mimic a more natural digestive process. Consider these options to help improve gut health:
The horse's digestive tract is designed to suit a natural lifestyle (trickle feeding and moving). We can optimize gut health - and have happier, healthier horses - when we mimic this lifestyle within domestication.
Striving to trickle feed, encourage movement and allow your horse access to forage 24/7 may seem contrary to meals and confinement, but we can make positive changes and have options to work with.
Helpful How To Resources
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About the Author:
Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.
Warren has been an equine guardian for over forty years and slow-feed advocate for over 10 years. She contributes equine nutrition and digestive and hoof health articles to publications such as Equine Wellness, The Journal, The Naturally Healthy Horse, Natural Horse Magazine, Nicker News, Horse Back Magazine, The Horse's Hoof, and Miniature Horse World Magazine. Equine nutrition and horses feet are her passions. She resides in Southern California.
Salem, S.E., Maddox, T.W., Berg, A. (2018, May 31) Variation in faecal microbiota in a group of horses managed at pasture over a 12-month period. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-26930-3
Thomas, H. S. (2019, July 25) Ten Ways to Optimize Your Horse's Digestive System. Retrieved from https://equusmagazine.com/horse-care/ten-ways-to-optimize-the-equine-digestive-system-8425
Equine Nutrition/Digestive anatomy and physiology. Retrieved from https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Equine_Nutrition/Digestive_anatomy_and_physiology
Venable, E.B., Bland, S.D., McPherson, L., Francis, J. (2016, July 1). Role of the gut microbiota in equine health and disease. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/af/article/6/3/43/4638753
Team Hygain, (2019, April 30).The Horse’s Digestive System. Retrieved from https://www.hygain.com.au/horses-digestive-system/
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