Digestion From Start To Finish

Although it is not necessary for you to become bogged down in the intricacies of equine digestive physiology, a basic understanding of how the horse digests feed is necessary for the selection of appropriate diets and feeding practices.
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This month we deal with an important nutrition fundamental–how the horse digests feed and makes use of the nutrients he eats. Although it is not necessary for you to become bogged down in the intricacies of equine digestive physiology, a basic understanding of how the horse digests feed is necessary for the selection of appropriate diets and feeding practices.

At the outset, it is useful to remind ourselves that horses evolved as forage eaters, grazing for upwards of 16-17 hours each day and traveling considerable distances as they grazed. The horse’s digestive system is well suited to this feeding behavior–the stomach and small intestine are designed to cope with the almost continual entry of small amounts of food, while the large intestine is geared toward the extraction of maximum nutritional value from fibrous feeds.

Now consider how the pressures of domestication have dictated changes in a horse’s diet and feeding behavior: Continual access to pasture is but a dream for most horses, and many spend a considerable part of the day in a stall. As well, our own work schedules dictate feeding programs. Rather than continual grazing, horses are often fed large meals in the morning and at night. The high energy requirements of the performance horse have necessitated inclusion of more energy-dense ingredients such as cereal grains and fats in horse diets. All of these factors can contribute to digestive upsets, some of which can be avoided by returning the horse to a more "natural" feeding situation

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Written by:

Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, is the pro vice-chancellor of the Massey University College of Sciences, in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

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