Horse Health And Digestion
How Rebalancing The Frequency Of Your Horse’s Feedings Can Dramatically Impact Equine Health And Well Being
Amy M Gill. PhD
Because the horse is an herbivore designed to graze forages on a continuous basis, feeding large amounts of grain, which is not a natural feedstuff for horses, can lead to starch overload in the hindgut. Starch in the hindgut is fermented by the microbial populations that reside there into lactic acid, which causes an immediate disruption to the stability and function of the digestive tract.
Sustained lactic acid production over months or even years may lead to ulceration of the gastric mucosa, behavioral issues associated with pain and discomfort, chronic gas colic, colitis, enteritis, laminitis, founder and poor athletic performance. Many horses that suffer from chronic lactic acid overload slowly lose body condition and muscle tone.
Nonetheless, grains are very palatable and high in digestible energy and, if managed correctly, can be incorporated in reasonable amounts in the equine diet, as glycogen repletion and storage following maximal exertion is somewhat dependent on glucose provided in the diet for the performance horse. Adding calorie-dense grain to the ration of pregnant, lactating, growing and geriatric horses can help with weight management and development as well.
Increasing body mass in horses can be difficult especially in highly stressed or geriatric horses. A pathogenic condition must be investigated as the causative agent in a horse that suddenly loses a large amount of body condition. Increasing caloric density of the ration by feeding more high-quality forage and concentrates with higher fat and soluble fiber content is the most effective way to increase gain. Perhaps even more importantly, increasing the frequency of feeding permits higher feeding rates without compromising the health of the digestive tract, and is a prudent management technique.
Concentrate feeding should be broken up into as many small feedings as possible, as research has shown the capacity to overload the hindgut with grain occurs when the horse is fed more than 0.4 % of its body weight at any on feeding. For the 1000 lb. animal, this translates to no more than 4-5 lb. of concentrate mix per feeding. According to the National Research Council, horses in heavy training may require as much as 3% of their body weight per day in dry matter (concentrate and forage) with proportions of 65% concentrate and 35% as forage. Therefore, the 1000 lb. performance horse in intensive training may require as much as 30 lb. of total feed with a possible ratio of 19.5 lb. of concentrate to 10.5 lb. of hay. If we abide by the rule of no more than 4-5 lb. of concentrate fed at one time, horses consuming this amount of concentrated feed should be fed a minimum of four times daily.
The ability of the management in stables and barns to feed horses concentrate rations 4-5 times per day is often limited due to lack of manpower and the cost of hiring a person to perform the task that many times per day. A viable option is to use an automated feeding system that can be set to feed each horse a specific amount of feed at varying intervals throughout the day and night. Livestock producers have used such systems for many years as the value became evident in the improved health and wellbeing of the animals that were fed multiple, small meals per day. This is especially true of the horse which will normally graze about 18 hours in a 24 hour period, in bouts of 10-12 sessions. Not only do small multiple meals support digestive health in the horse, feeding concentrates in this manner helps to simulate the natural grazing pattern of the grazing herbivore, making for a much more fulfilled and calm equine partner. For the health and mental wellbeing of the horse, consider an automated system for feeding grains and other concentrates.