Digestive Health: Food for Thought

Comparing equine digestive function with small animal function leads to misconceptions and mismanagement.
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A favorite pastime of humans and horses alike is to eat. Our world view of eating revolves around fundamental expectations of the types of food we eat, how these foods make us feel, and how different foods are processed through our bodies. Unlike our human intestinal constitution, the horse has a unique intestinal structure and function for processing feed. Comparing equine digestive function with human or small animal function leads to misconceptions, and, hence, mismanagement.

To understand how to best accommodate equine digestive health, it helps to briefly examine the structural function of a horse’s bowel. As strict herbivores, horses have evolved a complex intestinal arrangement that focuses most of digestion in the enormous hindgut. It is there, in the large intestine, that the bulk of nutrients and fluids are absorbed. Because horses thrive on eating plant fiber materials, the entire intestinal tract has developed mechanisms to process cellulose: Huge and numerous grinding teeth crush plant fibers, which undergo limited digestion in the small intestine and pass to the large intestine, where resident bacteria (microflora) digest fiber (cellulose) to release nutrients.

It is said that to keep a horse healthy, one must direct attention to keeping hindgut bacterial microflora healthy

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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