Horse digestion

5 of the Most Common Horse Digestion Disorders and their Treatments

Equine nutrition and digestion are some of the primary concerns of horse owners. Proper nutrition is key to a horse’s health and performance. In a natural environment, horses rely mostly on grass for their dietary needs. They nibble on the grass and eat only small quantities at a time. In the wild, you might find horses grazing for the majority of the day. However, in domestic settings, it is usually not possible to allow them such liberty. Stabling, paddocks, and training needs often prevent free choice grazing. A good understanding of horse digestion is necessary to prevent disorders, and cure them if they arise. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most common horse digestion disorders, and how to treat them.

Digestion Process In Horses

Before we look at the different digestion disorders, it’s essential to have a proper understanding of horse digestion. This can help prevent most digestive disorders. The digestive tract of a horse is an incredible 100 feet in length. However, horses have a small stomach, so food remains in their stomach for a small amount of time, even though digestion begins there. It then moves into the small intestines, where most of the nutrients get absorbed. Food then enters the cecum and large intestines, also known as the hindgut. This is the part of the GI tract responsible for microbial fermentation. Food remains there for quite some time. Beneficial bacteria produced in the hindgut ferment fiber and break it down. This is where the maximum possible nutrients are extracted. Any obstruction or disruption to the normal digestion process can cause problems such as indigestion, bloating, gas, ulcers, or colic.

#1. Gas

When horses are unable to properly chew their food, gas can hinder horse digestion. This can happen if they eat too quickly or they are fed a lot at one time. When too much food moves to the hindgut, the microbes try to work on extracting as many nutrients as possible. This results in excessive fermentation and produces gas. Gas can cause bloating and abdominal pain in horses. To prevent such issues, it is necessary to feed your horses small amounts at a time and make sure their teeth are properly cared for. This allows the food to be digested easily.

#2. Gastric Ulcers

A horse’s stomach produces the acids required for digestion. However, excess acid formation over a period of time can break down the stomach lining gradually. This can cause gastric ulcers. If a horse has an empty stomach for a long period of time, it can be susceptible to gastric ulcers. This is because the stomach acids attack the stomach lining in the absence of food. Stress can also cause large amounts of stomach acids to be secreted. This can makes horses more susceptible to gastric ulcers as well. To prevent gastric ulcers, it is necessary that your horses do not have an empty stomach for prolonged periods.

#3. Colic

Any kind of abdominal pain in horses is usually referred to as “colic.” Digestion disorders can cause different types of colic attacks. Let’s take a closer look at the most common horse digestion disorders that cause these attacks.
  1. Feeding Excessive Grains - Ideally, grains should account for no more than 50% of your horse’s diet. This is due to the fact that a horse’s small intestine is incapable of ingesting too much starch. When excessive amounts of grains are fed to your horse, it can cause colic.
  2. Sudden Change In Diet - A drastic or sudden change in your horse’s diet can cause major digestive disorders. Such changes actually cause good bacteria living in the horse’s hindgut to die. When good bacteria die, they release toxins which allow harmful bacteria to thrive. This disrupts horse digestion and makes them prone to colic.
  3. Not Enough Fiber - Fiber should account for at least 50% of your horse’s diet. If the amount of fiber in its diet drops below this amount, it is likely to develop digestive disorders.
To prevent such colic attacks, make changes to your horse’s diet gradually, if required. This gradual process allows the good bacteria to adapt themselves to the change. Digestive supplements can be beneficial for your horse’s digestion during these times. If your horse is under stress due to competitions or travel, digestive supplements can also be helpful for them. They can aid in microbial fermentation by increasing probiotics, prebiotics, and enzymes.

#4. Twisted Intestines

Twisted intestines are a severe disorder in horses, and can even be fatal in some cases. The condition arises when a part of the horse’s intestines (small or large) gets twisted. If there is a large amount of gas accumulation in the GI tract, or the horse rolls vigorously to relieve discomfort, it can cause twisting of the intestines. Twisted intestines can cause acute abdominal pain in horses. When this happens, immediate treatment is required. If proper treatment is not received to remove the distention, the horse can die within 12 hours. Even with surgery, damaged intestines can be fatal.

#5. Laminitis

Laminitis is an equine condition that occurs as a result of digestive disorders. This can happen when a large amount of grain is suddenly ingested by horses. In such cases, the pedal bone inside the hoof walls sinks downwards due to damage to its tissues. If the condition becomes too acute, it can end up in founder (acute laminitis) and result in permanent injury or fatality.

Final Thoughts

Horse digestion disorders can be minimized by keeping their feeding patterns as close as possible to their natural feeding routine. This means that their diet should consist of large amounts of good quality forage. When that alone isn’t sufficient, combine it with digestive supplements to aid digestion. Also, make sure that your horse is fed consistent amounts on a regular schedule, and make changes to feeding regimens (especially when opening and closing pastures in Spring and Fall) slowly. Mimicking the natural feeding habits of horses are the best way to prevent and treat equine digestive disorders. Do you have any other tips to share regarding treating horse digestion disorders? Let us know in the comments below.
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