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Many equestrians believe that if their horses don’t struggle with weight, appetite, loose stools, or poor body condition, their digestive tracts must be healthy. People often assume that the lack of these clinical signs means their horses don’t suffer from common GI conditions like ulcers and colic and, therefore, their horse’s have healthy digestive systems. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
In reality, digestive issues like gastric ulceration and low-grade hindgut imbalance, inflammation, and ulceration may be so widespread that we simply don’t recognize what a healthy horse looks like any more.
The way we feed and care for horses today has moved so far from how they function in nature that most domesticated horses may be at risk for less than optimal digestive health – and studies show that even those kept at pasture may struggle. And when the ability of the equine GI tract to function correctly is compromised, health and performance problems abound.
Nature vs. Nurture and the Equine Digestive Tract
The equine gastrointestinal tract is designed to support a natural, pastoral lifestyle:
grazing up to 18 hours a day, moving & eating continually but slowly
foraging on a diet of primarily grasses, seeds, and bark
living in herds in a mostly low-stress environment
Do all of those apply to your horses? Most likely the answer is no.
Normal GI function is compromised in horses by how and what we feed: a couple of large meals a day with hours of nothing in between and a significant portion of grain-based feeds in the diet. Yet, if just one of these common management practices applies, a horse’s digestive health may be at risk:
living stalled more than 6 hours per day, with restricted movement away from a herd
limiting access to forage – grass or hay – for hours at a time
feeding meals of concentrated or grain feeds
riding and/or traveling and competing regularly
Healthy Equine Digestion
In order to really get just how important good digestive health is to a horse’s overall wellness and performance, you need to understand the basics of how the horse’s digestive system works. Here’s a quick guide through the equine digestion process and some notes on where it often fails as a result of modern horse management.
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