We love our horses and want only what’s best for them. If you own a horse, you are ultimately responsible for his well-being, which includes knowledge of the most fundamental rule of feeding him – understanding what drives this amazing animal.
THE NEED TO FEED….AND CHEW
The horse is an herbivore, biologically designed to chew and digest food all day long. Research has shown that pastured horses will spend about 70% of their time eating. The other 30% will be spent sleeping and socializing. I can attest to this after watching over our breeding and racing herds over the past 18 years.
The health of your horse starts with his need to chew. With chewing, he produces enzyme-rich saliva that neutralizes the constant acid in his stomach. When the stomach is empty, he will look for anything to chew to neutralize that building acid. You know that feeding your horse is important. But did you know that when not allowed to graze and move at his leisure, your horse’s mind and body will want to chew on whatever is available, such as fences? Though this action will be annoying to you, it is a biological need for him.
KEEPING THINGS MOVING
The horse’s digestive system uses both high levels of enzymatic action (prebiotic) in the small intestine and high rates of microbial fermentation (probiotic) in the large intestine, also known as the caecum or hindgut. He functions best by grazing, feeding on small amounts of roughage over an extended period, and moving casually along, which aids the digestive tract muscles to move the roughage through the digestive system and expel unused fiber.
If your horse is stalled and fed a flake or two of hay every five hours or more, with little to no turnout time to keep those muscles working, you may eventually start to see symptoms of a weakened or stressed digestive tract. You must understand that roughage needs to be processed through his digestive tract at all times to ensure his intestinal tract muscles continue functioning. When stomach acids are allowed to build up in an empty stomach, they can travel and damage the entire gastrointestinal tract, potentially leading to stomach disorders, muscle cramping, ulcers, insulin resistance or even colic. There is also the chance he could develop laminitis.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
What are some indicators your horse is mentally or physically stressed? Take note of loose manure, failure to finish his grain ration, and “tightness of skin” over the neck, back, loins, hips and hamstrings. If the coat has little to no pliable movement or is “hypersensitive” to the touch, you have some thinking to do. These indicators could stem from digestive problems, circulatory blockages or a buildup of muscle lactic acid from overwork and lack of physical prep time. A good massage therapist can help tremendously with circulation blockages and muscle tension – but digestion is still the main concern and needs to be dealt with by discussing feeding and turnout options with your barn manager, trainer or vet.