Healthy Digestion

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at the London 2012 Olympic Dressage - Photo: Wikimedia Commons - Equestrian

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at the London 2012 Olympic Dressage – Photo: Wikimedia Commons – Equestrian

Verity Beaton BSc (Hons) – Product Manager, T.E.N. Supplements

The saying ‘you are what eat’ is just as true for horses as it is for us. When you see top competition horses they have bright eyes and coats so shiny you can almost see your face in them! While we’d all love our horses to look like Valegro though, providing the best nutrition money can buy is only beneficial if your horse digests his feed efficiently.

The digestive system of the horse has evolved to process a regular trickle of high fibre food gathered through almost continuous grazing. When horses are kept in a natural habitat, grazing grass or hay most of the time, the majority of the calories are supplied via fibre digestion in the hind gut. Horses have an amazing relationship with beneficial microbes in the hind gut which break down the fibre to provide energy. The stomach and the small intestine digests starch, proteins, fats, vitamins and some minerals using enzymes.

Tummy Troubles

The stomach contains gastric juice, which is made up of acid and enzymes. The lining of the lower portion of the stomach is protected by a covering of mucus and the acid levels are regularly neutralised by food entering the stomach. If the horse’s ability to protect itself from this acid is reduced then gastric ulcers are more likely to form. Risk factors for ulcers in horses are:

  • Feeding routine: horses that go for long periods of time without eating may get acid build up.
  • Intensive exercise: may be due to the fact that during hard exercise blood flow is diverted away from the stomach and acid is more likely to come into contact with the upper part of the stomach which is not as well protected as the lower portion where the gastric juices normally sit.
  • Stress: stress can come in many different areas of a horse’s life and it has been linked to an increased chance of ulcers.
  • Medication: Some medications can increase the risk of ulcers.

Horses who have gastric ulcers may have any of the following signs; poor appetite, colic, weight loss, poor condition, behavioural issues (irritability, biting when being groomed/tacked up, refusing to go forwards when ridden).

If you suspect your horse has an ulcer then it’s important that you consult your vet, who can advise you on medication and management changes.  It’s also a good idea to check your horse’s diet with an equine nutritionist and consider a supplement to help maintain a healthy stomach. There are ingredients that may help to reduce acidity in the stomach such as fructo-oligosaccharides, sodium bicarbonate and calcium carbonate. You can also use herbs that are known for their digestive properties such as liquorice root, peppermint and fenugreek. Then there are ingredients that can help support the cells which line the stomach and help to produce the protective mucus such as threonine and apple pectin.

Hind gut challenges 

(loose droppings, colic, worm damage)

The horse’s hind gut is a great example of symbiosis – that is where two or more biological species live in harmony with each other. The horse provides a great home and food for bacteria to live and in return they convert fibre into volatile fatty acids for the horse to use as energy. This is all great until something upsets the colony of bacteria which can be quite sensitive; (they like a steady environment) if anything does disrupt the hind gut, this can sometimes lead to issues such as colic, loose droppings, weight loss, poor condition (dull coat etc.) and laminitis. To keep your horse’s digestive system healthy follow these rules of feeding:

  • Allow access to fresh clean water at all times.
  • Feed concentrates on a ‘little and often’ basis. Hard feed should be no more than 2kg per feed for horses and less for ponies.
  • Feed by weight not volume. Weigh your scoop for chaff, nuts and mix as they will all weigh different amounts.
  • Use high quality feeds. Do not feed dusty, mouldy or old feed.
  • Feed according to body weight of the horse.
  • Make any changes to the diet gradually to reduce the risk of digestive upset. This applies to hard feed and forage.
  • Delay exercising after feeding – allow at least 1-3 hours after feeding before working the horse. Horses can have ad lib forage until they are worked even if this work is hard work.
  • Keep to a routine. Feed at the same time each day. Horses are creatures of habit and like a settled routine.
  • Increase the level of work gradually. Do not feed in anticipation of the work the horse is about to do.
  • Feed plenty of fibre (at least 50% of the total diet).
  • Ensure teeth are regularly checked by an equine dentist or vet.

You may follow these guidelines and still have a horse that has digestive challenges in which case you should consult your vet. You might also find that a supplement to support good digestive health will help. Probiotics, which are live bacteria or yeasts, can be fed to horses to help colonise the hind gut. Prebiotics, such as fructo-oligosaccharide, can help promote a healthy population of gut bacteria and amino acids such as threonine help support the gut lining cells. B vitamins are produced by the bacteria in the hind gut and therefore if there is a disturbance your horse may benefit from some extra dietary B vitamins.

Even if your horse is not showing obvious symptoms of digestive upsets or gastric ulcers, feeding digestive supplements can be great for general health much like we are encouraged to eat probiotic yoghurts and drinks.

For more information on the T.E.N. digestive supplements check out our website – www.tensupplements.co.uk or contact us on advice@tensupplements.co.uk or call 01908 311010 (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, excluding bank holidays).

Author: Features Editor

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