Understanding the Horse’s Digestive System

Horse Digestion

Whether it is an animal, plant or other living organism, all living things must have a genetic code and chemical process to maintain life. All living organisms have nutrient requirements that are basically the same at the metabolic level. The difference is how these requirements are absorbed to provide nutrients and energy to live. For example, plants can manufacture the nutrients and energy they need by staying in one place. They can do this by using the energy from sunlight, along with water, oxygen and nutrients from the soil. In essence, they are self-sufficient.  Unlike animal life, plants do not depend on other living things to survive except for the soil microbiome at their roots.

Although horses belong to the same animal class as humans and other mammals, they are metabolically smarter than most other mammals. The nutrient requirements between horses and other mammals are the same at the metabolic level; however the horse’s ability to manufacture nutrients is far more advanced. Humans, for example, must obtain most nutrients they need directly from what they consume. The food and nutrients are delivered to the digestive tract, broken down, and provided to the rest of the body. A horse’s digestion process is much more complex than this. This is in large part due to the hindgut (including cecum and large intestine) of the horse.

The cecum is a large organ within the digestive tract that houses microorganisms. These microorganisms break down the fiber and cellulose the horse consumes and converts the cellulose into additional nutrients and energy that the horse needs to survive. So unlike humans and other monogastric mammals which eat and drink to consume nutrients that are ultimately absorbed, horses not only eat and drink to absorb nutrients but also to feed the microorganism factory within their cecum.

To simplify this process, we can think of the cecum as a “garden” for the horse. This garden enables horses to be mobile in order to consume the nutrients they need. Horses fertilize the garden with the energy and nutrients needed to thrive by providing it with the cellulose of the plants consumed. The garden then produces the “fruits”, or additional nutrients, the horse requires.

Before the domestication of horses they were naturally roamers. They would roam, graze, and find the proper nutrition they needed to fully provide for the hindgut microorganisms. Today, we have restricted the horse’s ability to do this by enclosing them in pastures, paddocks, and barns. We have also increased their natural calorie needs by demanding more of them through riding, training, athletics, and work. Modern feeding practices have altered the natural diet of the horse.  Many complete feeds contain excess fats and sugars (molasses), and are also fortified with additional nutrients. This “all-in-one” concept tethers calories and nutrients together; therefore hard keepers and working horses must consume large amounts of the fortified feed to maintain body weight. This often results in over-supplementation of nutrients, and a diet too rich in fats and carbohydrates. On the other hand, easy keepers are often under-supplemented using this method of feeding. Also note that horses do not have gallbladders. Without a gallbladder the horse is unable to break down and digest the excess fat in many of the modern complete feeds, leading to diarrhea, gas and digestive upset.

Chewing is instrumental to the horse’s digestion because the grinding serves two purposes, to grind the feed down to small particles and to generate salivation. In a horse, salivation is not initiated from smell or taste, but by the physical action of grinding the teeth. For proper digestion and utilization by the hindgut microbes the feedstuffs must be properly chewed and ground down into fine particles. For the horse to achieve suitable grinding dental health must be maintained with proper floating. “Over floating” the teeth will inhibit the horse’s ability to grind. The teeth must have rough opposing surfaces for the horse to be capable of proper grinding – if the teeth are too smooth it would be like trying to grind feedstuffs between two pieces of glass.

The horse’s salivation is also important because it coats and moisturizes the food particles in digestive enzymes to kick start the digestive process and help deliver the particles to the GI tract. Most compound and textured feeds that we are using to replace the natural diet of the horse are “pre-chewed”, meaning that the feed has been ground already. The reduced chewing time restricts the amount of salivation, thus interfering with and bypassing an important part of the horse’s digestion.

Horse Eating

If you do not properly care and provide for your garden at home it will not produce healthy fruit, but only weeds and grass. The same goes for your horse. If you do not feed your horse naturally, the garden within your horse will not provide the proper nutrition your horse needs. This can create health issues for your horse. But, like your garden at home, these weeds can be picked. It is never too late to provide your horse with a natural diet. Remove the fatty foods, the complete feeds, and provide your horse with the diet nature intended it to have. Natural grazing and feeding hay will provide the horse with most of the calories and nutrients the horse needs. Any additional calories needed to maintain body condition should be separated from any additional nutrient intake.  If additional calories are needed, oats, beet pulp, or copra can be fed to meet these increased demands. Proper supplementation with a hay and pasture balancer is also important to replace the nutrients the horse may not be finding in the modern restrained lifestyle. If you have any questions regarding your horse’s diet contact your veterinarian or feel free to contact us at 1-800-624-1873.

Frank Gravlee, DVM, MS, CNS

Scott Gravlee, DVM, CNS

Life Data Labs, Inc.

Makers of Farrier’s Formula® and Barn Bag® Pasture and Hay Balancer

www.lifedatalabs.com

Does My Horse Need a Joint Supplement?

Farrier Holding JointSome of you may already be asking yourself the question, “Should I be feeding my horse a joint supplement?” Maybe you’re noticing that your once energetic horse is slowing down and seems to be stiff and not as nimble. Perhaps your award-winning steed is now taking longer to recover after a competition or a long ride. Maybe your horse is young and thriving and you want to prolong its life and career. We all want to see our horses live a long, healthy, and enjoyable life, but can a joint supplement really make a difference? Would your horse benefit from receiving a joint supplement?

Before we go on any further, we first need to establish what is a joint problem. To make the joint work, it takes the collaboration of tendons, cartilage, bone, soft tissue, and fluid. Any number of these working parts can develop problems and create discomfort in the joint. Some of you may not consider a joint problem an issue until it’s just that – an issue, but a joint problem begins at the first signs of discomfort in the joint. If you ignore the first signs of a problem, it will likely bring more discomfort and develop more issues for you and your horse. If you pay close attention, you can catch the signs of joint discomfort before it develops into something worse or creates irreversible damage.

So, how do we know a problem is there? As the horse owner, you will spend more time with your horse than anyone. You are familiar with your horse’s personality, habits, the way it walks, and so on. You are the first person in a line of checks and balances concerning the health and well being of your horse. Watch the way your horse walks and runs. Keep an eye out for any changes to it’s gate or any initial signs of discomfort. These signs of discomfort can especially be seen when you pick up the foot to clean and pick the hoof. Also discuss your horse’s health with your farrier. If you’re regularly maintaining your horse’s hooves, your farrier will be working with your horse’s feet and legs on a regular basis. Your farrier will see the signs of discomfort in the joints as they watch your horse walk or pick up the foot to work on the hoof. Your veterinarian can also assist you in determining if there is an actual problem.

Horse Jumping

It is also important to note that it is much easier to prevent a joint issue than to try and fix one. Prevention is all about protecting the joint before a problem can develop and extending the life and durability of your horse’s joints. Prevention is especially important for horse owners that are regularly using their horse for competition or for work. Competing with your horse in the form of racing, jumping, dressage, three-day eventing, reining, roping, barrel racing, or other athletic competitions and training will regularly apply stress to the joints of your horse. These horses are at the highest risk of developing joint issues or suffering from a joint injury.

Just think of a human athlete. How many NBA, MLB, or NFL stars have we seen fall early in their careers due to an injury involving a joint? Today, these stars are taking precautions to extend the life of their careers. Eating healthier, stretching, taking supplements and staying in shape. It is an investment for them to prolong the life of their careers. We can do the same thing for our athletic horse and extend the life of their athletic careers through their diets, training, and supplementation. Feeding a joint supplement like Farrier’s Formula® Double Strength Plus Joint will provide the nutrients important for the health of the joints and will make the joints more flexible and less prone to injury. These nutrients will also help your horse recover more quickly after a competition and compete at its peak performance. By feeding a joint supplement early you’re not only preventing future problems but investing in the longevity of your horse.

Supplementing will also help relieve discomfort and pain for a horse that has already developed joint issues. If you have an athletic horse that developed an injury during competition or training, the nutrients in a joint supplement will help rebuild and strengthen the connective tissue within the joint. Feeding the supplement will also provide relief to the problem areas, allowing your horse to regain movement that was once too painful to make. This is especially important for the older horse who may be arthritic or have problems due to the build up of past injuries. This will prolong the longevity of your horse, strengthen the joints, and help prevent issues from worsening.

AffectJointHealth3

You may not be jumping hurdles or taking your horse on week long rides, but it doesn’t mean problems can’t occur. Feeding a joint supplement is never a bad idea, especially if you are seeking to extend your horse’s ability to work and compete or wish to address issues developed from injury or age. If you are looking for a joint supplement, we recommend Farrier’s Formula Double Strength Plus Joint. Farrier’s Formula® Double Strength Plus Joint strengthens the connective tissues of the joints, tendons and ligaments and contains nutrients to promote lubrication of the joints. The inclusion of proline, ornithine, glucosamine and manganese provide targeted joint support. This product contains the sulfur needed for joint health in the form of the amino acids methionine and cysteine. Farrier’s Formula® Double Strength Plus Joint also provides nutrients important for hoof growth and joint health without the concern of over supplementation that could occur from feeding a separate hoof and joint supplement. If you have any questions on Farrier’s Formula® Double Strength Plus Joint, proper supplementation, or on joint health please call us at 1-800-624-1873.