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Mimic nature when feeding horses

Because horses are grazers, their digestive tract is designed to utilize forage. The horse’s GI tract functions best when it is at pasture, grazing periodically through the day and night, consuming small amounts often.

Mimic nature when feeding horses


Because horses are grazers, their digestive tract is designed to utilize forage. The horse’s GI tract functions best when it is at pasture, grazing periodically through the day and night, consuming small amounts often.

Why, then, do some domestic horses experience colic?

“Domestic horses are prone to colic because of the unnatural conditions we keep them in — confinement and feeding hay and grain in scheduled meals,” says Stephen Duren, equine nutritionist based in Weiser, Idaho.

Humans, pigs, cats, canines and bears have a simple stomach where digestive acids break down food. They can’t digest forages. Ruminants have a large stomach compartment where forage is broken down by fermentation via helpful microbes.

“Equines are unique in that they digest most of their feed in the hindgut — the cecum and colon — rather than in the stomach,” explains Duren. The hindgut contains the microbes that ferment and break down roughage.

“The horse’s simple stomach and small intestine are designed to get food on through to the hindgut as quickly as possible,” Duren says. “Simple sugars and starches from grain are absorbed in the small intestine, but feed can travel through to the hindgut in three hours or less.”

This creates problems if the horse is fed a large amount of grain or sweet feed. “He can’t absorb all the sugar before it gets to the hindgut, which is designed to digest grass. If it suddenly gets a lot of sugar and starch, this negatively affects the microbe population, changing the pH and type of bacteria,” he says.

Feed healthy hay

“The bacteria that digest sugar quickly multiply and form a lot of gas, which may lead to colic. Extreme change may produce toxins that lead to more serious problems.”

If a horse needs more calories than good hay or pasture provide (such as an old horse, hardworking horse or lactating mare), Duren suggests using concentrate feeds containing some fat and high-calorie fiber, to reduce the amount of carbohydrates supplied by sugar and starch. “Then you don’t have to feed as much volume; it’s much healthier for the hindgut,” he says.

“To avoid colic, any grain fed should be given in small amounts. If the horse needs a lot of calories, feed small amounts often, rather than one or two large meals.

“The healthiest diet is good-quality forage, adding grain and concentrate feeds only if the horse needs more nutrients and calories for his job,” Duren says.

“Ranch horses that live at pasture, never eating grain, are almost never colic. If horses must be confined and fed hay, make sure hay is good quality — not coarse, dusty or moldy.”

“Money spent on good horse hay will decrease the amount of grain you have to buy, and the number of veterinary calls for colic or digestive problems. As the quality or amount of forage in the diet decreases, the more you have to rely on grains and supplements, which are not as healthy for the horse,” he explains.

Check the hay you feed to make sure there are no patches of mold, weeds, small dead animals or other foreign material. “If you don’t take time to leaf through it to make sure there is nothing harmful, a bored horse may eat paper and plastic that was inadvertently baled with it. Sort out any weeds or mold,” Duren says.

Small bales give an opportunity to check the hay as you feed it. Big bales in feeders are cheaper and an easy way to feed and provide continual access to forage, which is a good thing, but it’s harder to monitor for mold, dust, weeds and other foreign material in the hay, he says.

Smith Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.

Don’t forget to serve water

Horses need plenty of fresh, clean water. “They need adequate fluid for proper digestion and movement of feed through the GI tract,” says Stephen Duren, equine nutritionist at Weiser, Idaho.

“It takes a lot of water to ferment forage in the hindgut and to keep the feed moving on through. Make sure the water supply is functional and doesn’t freeze up in winter. If the horse doesn’t drink enough, he may become impacted.”


ADDED NUTRITION: This 27-year-old gelding has trouble keeping weight in spite of good pasture and needs the added nutrition provided by grain.


FORAGE FOREMOST: Stephen Duren, Performance Horse Nutrition, Weiser, Idaho, says horse owners should never forget that horses are grazing animals and the best way to avoid colic is to provide adequate good-quality forage.


FEED TIPS: If a horse is fed large amounts of grain or sweet feed, the potential for colic could become greater.


COLIC: Horses are more prone to colic than cattle because of the way their digestive tract functions.

This article published in the December, 2014 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Hay/Forage Management

Animal Health

Animal Nutrition

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