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Digestive Health For Horses

As horse owners we want our horses to be happy, healthy, and thriving. The digestive tract is fundamental to your horse’s overall health and wellbeing – not only is it where horse food is digested and absorbed but it is also an important part of the immune system.

A horse’s digestive system is incredibly complex, and any imbalances or disruptions in their gut can lead to a variety of health issues, from colic to gastric ulcers. The horse is reliant on the microbial population living in the gut to break down fibre providing a source of slow-release energy – this process is what enables herbivores to thrive on a fibre-based diet and is why looking after the good bugs is so important for good gut health for horses.

Tips to Help promote good Gut Health

The basic rules of feeding are what we should all be following to promote a healthy digestive system.

Feed little and often

The horse’s stomach is only the size of a rugby ball and so can’t accommodate large meals, so feeding little and often is important for maximising good digestion. If a horse is fed too much concentrate feed at one time, the rate at which it passes through the digestive system is increased and so the horse has less time to extract nutrients from it. As well as being a potential waste of money, the risj of digestive upsets is increased. Highly fibrous materials such as chopped fibres are digested in the hind gut so think of them in the same way as forages such as hay. There’s no need to limit meal size in contrast to cereal based feeds.

Feed plenty of fibre

Fibre has many functions throughout the digestive system, but it is in the hind gut where it is utilised by microorganisms such as bacteria to produce energy and nutrients such as B vitamins. Fibre-digesting bacteria have important functions for gut health for horses, including keeping harmful species of bacteria at bay. Heat is also produced as a by-product of fibre digestion, so high-fibre diets help to keep the horse warm.

Avoid making sudden changes to the diet

The bacteria in the horse’s digestive system thrive in a consistent environment. Sudden changes to the diet can cause bacteria to die off as their environment becomes less hospitable. This can result in the production of toxins which may result in problems such as   colic.

Regular dental checks

If a horse can’t chew their feed properly then it can compromise the rest of the digestion process. As horses are living for longer, they are more likely to suffer from dental problems, including losing teeth. Ensuring that those with poor dentition have access to fibre so they can chew easily, is vital for gut health and their overall condition

Use high-quality feed ingredients

Using poor-quality forage that is mouldy can compromise respiratory health. Cheaper feeds may also contain sources of starch that are uncooked and so are more likely to cause digestive upsets. They may also contain poorer sources of protein that contain less of the essential amino acids the horse requires. Dengie alfalfa is one of the very few ingredients grown specifically for horses in the UK – it is not a traded commodity or co-product from another industry making it the ideal horse feed .

Ensure the horse has access to water

Around two-thirds of a horse’s bodyweight is water, so it is no surprise that dehydration can compromise health and performance. Soaked feeds such as Dengie Alfa-Beet can be a useful way to increase water intake for horses that don’t drink as much in winter or when travelling and competing. The highly digestible fibre releases water readily in the digestive tract.

Implement good hygiene

Washing out feed buckets and scoops helps to avoid putting your horse off eating as well as reduces the risk of digestive upsets caused by mouldy or rancid feed. Where horses are competing under rules, it is important to ensure that no contamination has occurred with medications that are being used for other horses. Good stock rotation of your horse feed is also important to ensure that any older product is used first.

Monitor your horse’s weight and condition

One of the most common issues affecting leisure horses in the UK is obesity which causes metabolic changes and predisposes horses to laminitis. Monitoring the amount of fat your horse is carrying is really important especially if you have a horse that is prone to laminitis or that has been diagnosed with PPID. Keeping a horse at a body fat score of 2.5 on a 5 point scale is recommended for those with EMS or PPID which usually means adjusting access to pasture and forage throughout the year. If you need any help or guidance on this or other issues relating to digestive health please get in touch. If you complete our ration evaluation form we will be able to give you a comprehensive diet plan and the highest quality feeding advice for your horse.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. I feed 2kgs of Alfa-A Original with 500grams of Balancer a day. It’s hard for me to feed my horse in the morning – can I just give this in one evening feed?

A. Yes, you can! Alfa-A Original is a fibre feed so you can think of it in the same way as hay – there is no limit to meal size as there would be for a cereal-based feed. If your horse is stabled overnight, you could feed 0.5kg of Alfa-A Original with your balancer and then put the other 1.5kgs in a trug that your horse can graze on overnight.

Q. My old boy can’t chew hay very well any more as his teeth are really bad – is it right that this could be causing his diarrhoea?

A. If a horse can’t consume enough fibre then it may result in loose droppings as undigested fibre from the gut gives faeces its structure. Too little fibre in can mean too little fibre out! Low fibre intake can affect gut health for horses, because it could also have an impact on the good bacteria,  allowing harmful bugs  to take over. This can result in  digestive upsets. Make sure you are giving your horse fibre in a form they can manage either short chopped such as Hi-Fi, pelleted such as Grass Pellets or a mash such as Alfa-Beet. You could also try adding a digestive aid supplement to restore a healthy population of bugs and good gut health!

Q. What’s the best supplement I can give my horse to ensure his gut is healthy?

A. Generally speaking the best thing to promote good gut health for horses is a high fibre, low starch diet. You could also add yeast which has been shown to improve fibre digestion and/or prebiotics which are substances that aid the microbial population living in the gut. Most horses and ponies would benefit from these additions apart perhaps from good doers as we don’t want them to be any more efficient at utilising feed than they already are! There are lots of other additives promoted for different health benefits, for example, psyllium husk for sand colic but they shouldn’t be needed for a healthy, normal horse.

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