Anatomy of the Equine Intestinal Tract

The equine intestinal tract can be divided into large sections based on its overall function.

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In a very broad sense the equine intestinal tract can be divided into large sections based on its overall function.

These sections are analogous to the same segments that exist in most mammals. They include the stomach, small intestine, the large intestine, and the small colon. The stomach is a large sac that liquefies the feed that is ingested by the horse. Only a small amount of digestion occurs in the stomach. No nutrients are absorbed through the stomach. Acid from the stomach helps to break down some feed particles, and an enzyme known as pepsin begins protein digestion.

True digestion only begins in the small intestine that receives this liquefied feed material from the stomach. With assistance from the enzymes secreted by the pancreas into the small intestine, the small intestine is the primary site for digestion and absorption of sugar and starch (a complex sugar in plants), protein (that has been initially digested in the stomach), and fat. The small intestine is also the site for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), calcium, and phosphorous. The next segment, the large intestine, begins with the cecum and ends with the descending colon.

The large intestine in the horse works like a large fermentation vat in which tremendous numbers of bacteria and protozoa live to facilitate further digestion of plant fiber by their production of enzymes that are capable of breaking down this component of the equine diet (the horse itself does not have these enzymes). This fiber breakdown produces substances called “volatile fatty acids” that can then be absorbed and used by the horse for energy

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Written by:

Brad Bentz, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, ABVP, ACVECC, owns Bluegrass Equine Performance and Internal Medicine in Lexington, Ky., where he specializes in advanced internal medicine and critical care focused on helping equine patients recuperate at home. He’s authored numerous books, articles, and papers about horse health and currently serves as commission veterinarian for the Kentucky State Racing Commission.

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