In Monday Myths we debunk common misconceptions about a range of topics regarding equine digestive health and care. These are real statements made by real horse people. Have a question or topic you would like to see covered? Submit your idea here.
Statement: My horse’s digestive tract is healthy. He’s never had any problems like ulcers or colic, he cleans up his food, and his weight is great.
Many equestrians believe that if their horses don’t struggle with weight, appetite, loose stools, or poor body condition, their digestive tract 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, colic, and laminitis and, therefore, these horses have healthy digestive systems.
In reality, low-grade hindgut issues may be so widespread that we don’t really know 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 when the ability of the equine GI tract to function correctly is compromised, 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 and 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? Modern, domesticated horse care looks very different than for our horses’ wild counterparts. If even 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
Read What’s Really Wrong With My Horse to learn more about how these management practices may impact the health of a horse’s hindgut.
Recognizing Digestive Issues in a Seemingly Healthy Horse
Most equestrians know that weight loss, lack of appetite, loose or watery stools, and even girthiness, signal digestive issues. These are common symptoms of hindgut acidosis, ulcers, and other more serious conditions. What many don’t always recognize are the signs that a horse is in the early stages of digestive distress, such as digestive imbalance and low-grade hindgut inflammation. These may include:
- Poor coat health. Natural shine and dapples are one signal of optimal digestive health and cannot be replicated with any amount of grooming or spray sheens.
- Sensitive Flanks. Horses make flinch or react adversely when being brushed along their flanks or to leg pressure when ridden.
- Irritability. One of the possible reasons a horse is irritable on the ground and under saddle may arise from digestive discomfort.
- Resistance. Horses may resist on the ground or under saddle, be reluctant to move forward or respond to leg aids, or be difficult in training when they are uncomfortable.
- Cribbing. While for some this is learned behavior, some horses may crib or windsuck to relieve pain in their stomachs.
- Difficulty performing. Discomfort in the hindgut especially may impact a horse’s stride length, suppleness, collection, and jumping ability.
- Lamenesses. Discomfort in the colon can lead to a horse favoring one side. This, in turn, could give rise to fatigue and even injury in the legs and joints.
While there are many potential causes for a horse behaving or performing less than its best (poor riding, poor training, ill-fitting tack, or lameness to name a few), do not rule out digestive health as a possible reason for discomfort.
Additionally, some horses are more stoic, so may not display any signs of possible digestive discomfort. If they are kept with any of the management practices listed above, they may still be at risk and suffering.
My horse’s digestive tract is healthy = maybe, but maybe not. Horses whose care diverges in any way from how they live in the wild puts them at risk for less than optimal digestive health.