A horse's digestive proccess is much like ours. It begins with the horse taking bites of food, grinding it into small, digestible pieces and swallowing it. From there, it travels to the stomach, which is quite compared to the rest of their body size, holding only two to four gallons. This is because horses are meant to eat many small meals all day long. Once in the stomach, acid and enzymes further break the food down, and it moves on to the next step: the small intestine(70-feet long). There, sugar, starch, protien, fats, vitamins, and minerals are absorbed before the remaining food travels to the hindgut(cecum and large colon). The cecum(three to four feet long) and large colon(ten to twelve feet long) store fluid to be used during prolonged exercise, while at the same time fermenting the food and providing 30 to 70% of a horse's energy. Finally, whatever is leftover enters the narrow, small colon, where 90% of the fluid is absorbed, and exits through the rectum.
|Digestive system credit|
Now that you know how everything works, you can better understand some of the problems that occur in the digestive tract.
Stomach ulcers are becoming increasingly more common among domesticated horses. This is due to the fact that domesticated horses are fed only several times a day, rather than being allowed to eat all day long as they do in the wild. Since a horse's stomach continuously produces stomach acid, whether he is eating or not, long periods of not eating can cause the acid to burn the stomach, creating an ulcer. Too much grain, intenste exercise, stress, and illness can also cause stomach ulcers. Symptoms can be a rough coat, poor performance, grinding of the teeth, and possibly colic-like symptoms. The only way to know how severe an ulcer is, or if your horse even has one, is by your veterinarian performing an endoscopy.
Prevention is the best cure, and can be done by feeding your horse several small, more frequent meals rather than two or three bigs ones, or allowing him to graze all day if possible. Reducing grain may also help. Essential oils, too, can assist with the prevention of stomach ulcers, according to Lisa Carter from Heavenly Gaits Equine Massage. She recommends three to five drops of copaiba oil between the lip and gum, taken two to three times a day.
There are several types of colic: impaction, gas, and intestinal twists. The first is caused by solid food becoming lodged inside of the digestive tract, and can be prevented by providing plenty of fresh, clean water for your horse to drink. Gas colic, as the name suggests, is when a horse becomes bloated and gassy. It can be caused by too much starchy grains or by a sudden change of diet and is not as serious as other kinds of colic. Torsion colic, or an intestional twist, is the worst, but also the most rare, kind. Only surgery can fix it. Since it usually isn't readily apparent what type of colic has occured, call you veternarian as soon as you notice any symptons.
Laminitis can also be very serious. It is an inflammation in the hooves and can be caused by a horse eating food high in non-structural carbohydrates(sugar, starch, etc.). Limiting concentrate feed(grain) to 1/2% of your horses body weight or less per meal can help prevent laminitis.
Understanding your horse's digestive system is a huge step in creating a healthy, happy horse.