Healthy horses have happy hindguts
Horses exude beauty and strength, and yet, large and robust as they appear to be, we equestrians know that horses are also some of the world’s most fragile and finicky creatures. Along with their penchant for finding bizarre ways to inflict bodily harm upon themselves, they are often prone to internal ailments, especially involving their digestive systems. Why is this?
Different by design
Horses are non-ruminant, monogastric (single-stomached) herbivores. The digestion of the horse is notable for several reasons. They are perhaps most well-known for their inability to vomit. But, have you ever thought much about how their digestive tract works?
When a horse eats, portions of the feed are first digested enzymatically in the foregut. Afterward, microbial fermentation of other nutrients, like cellulose, occurs in the hindgut. The equine digestive system is truly unique because the first section resembles that of other monogastrics, like humans, but the second section is more akin to that of a ruminant species, such as cows.
If it sounds complicated, it is, which is why we have explored some key questions:
What is the hindgut, and what happens there?
The equine hindgut consists of the cecum, large colon, small colon and rectum. It contains billions of symbiotic bacteria, protozoa and fungi, which all help to break down and absorb fiber. Like all species, horses do not possess enzymes capable of digesting fiber, so they rely on these microbes to process fiber for useful nutrient absorption.
What if the hindgut malfunctions?
When you consider that the majority of your horse’s diet (at least 50–60 percent) should be made up of forage, it makes one realize just how much work the hindgut has cut out for it. So, if something is awry, it can spell big trouble in the form of hindgut acidosis (when lower pH levels lead to increased acidity), which often leads to colonic ulcers, poor body condition, colic or laminitis.
So, what’s a horse person to do?
Keeping the hindgut healthy starts with keeping your horse’s overall nutrition in order. Below are some easy rules of thumb to keep in mind when feeding your equine partner(s).
Feed good-quality (preferably grass) hay.
Feed hay first, before grain.
Don’t let your horse go on an empty stomach. Feed smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day or consider offering free-choice hay.
Less is more when it comes to grain. Grain is often high in sugar, which the hindgut is not designed to digest. This can have an adverse effect on pH and bacteria levels (see acidosis mentioned above).
Add healthy fats in the form of vegetable, corn, flax or another type of palatable, equine-friendly oil.
Remember also that movement is hugely beneficial for gut motility, so be sure to give horses ample turnout time and exercise. And, last but certainly not least, don’t undervalue the importance of fresh, clean, temperate water — hydration also plays a key role in keeping the horse’s guts (not just the hindgut) happy.