Feeding to Ensure Digestive Tract Health
We have all heard that certain horses exposed to stressful contiditons are at a higher risk of developing ulcers and hindgut imbalances, but did you know that how and what you feed your horse can also increase the likelihood of damaging his or her sensitive digestive tract? One of the most important facets of equine management is learning what strategies should be used to ensure digestive tract health in the horses you care for.
Extensive research has shown us that how we feed our horses affects GI tract pH (acid levels), the inflammation level in the digestive tract, and the digestibility of the diet. It also impacts the balance of good versus bad microbial populations that are so crucial to a healthy hindgut. Researchers tell us that horses benefit from continual eating, either by grazing or by eating frequent small meals throughout a 24-hour period. When horses chew, there is a continuous supply of saliva buffering the stomach and keeping the pH above 4 for most of the day. Horses that eat consistently maintain a comfortably full stomach, which allows feedstuffs to be completely digested. When there is a constant flow of feedstuffs, it provides a continuous supply of nutrients to the horse’s digestive tract and to the microbes that populate the gut. It was the way nature intended horses to eat and when fed this way, they remain healthy and happy.
Best management practices you should be following to ensure a healthy digestive tract:
- Allow access to good quality hay or forage 24/7. Always feed some long hay.
- Feed mixed grass and alfalfa hays when possible, as alfalfa hay contains higher levels of protein and calcium that help to buffer the stomach.
- Feed a total diet that contains no more than 10% nonstructural carbohydrates (sugar and starch).
- When concentrates (in the form of sweet feed, plain grains or pellets) must be fed to provide energy for work or weight maintenance, offer them in meals of no more than 4-5 pounds per feeding. Feeding intervals should be at least 6 hours apart. Consider adding fat instead of carbohydrates to increase calories.
- Make all feed changes slowly, over 7 days for hay and 10 days for concentrates and/or supplements, to allow the microbes in the horse’s gut to adjust. Got a new load of hay in? Even if it is the same type of hay, it probably has a different nutrient makeup that can throw your horse’s microbes out of whack. Research at Texas A&M showed that when hay was changed abruptly, the horses showed an increase in colic for about two weeks following the change.
- Feed at consistent times of the day. If your feeding routine has to change, make the change slowly over several days.
- In certain circumstances a change in routine is unavoidable. During times when you know your horse’s digestive tract will be stressed, additional supplementation with products such as Neigh-Lox and Neigh-Lox Advanced will reduce acid buildup and support a healthy microbial population.
- For horses that are constantly under pressure due to rigorous training and competition schedules, or for those that are simply sensitive, routine digestive tract support is highly recommended.
There are a lot of traditions when it comes to feeding horses, but modern science has shown us that not all of them are healthy for your horse. Over time the old ways will fall to the wayside and new strategies will be employed. Our horses will benefit from what we have learned and live longer, happier lives.