Feeding horses is a real important subject for many riders. Mistakes are quickly done when feeding horses. This, due to horses having a digestive system and a diet very different from ours. Through those three things to avoid when feeding your horse, we will also enlighten you on good food practices!
To avoid # 1: Feeding large meals at any time of the day 🍟🍔🍕
Horses are monogastric (it has only one stomach, like us) herbivore with a very specific digestive anatomy. they have a small stomach and a large and highly developed intestine. Digestion is slow in this stomach. It intensifies in the small intestine through digestive enzymes, then in the large intestine through the bacterial flora.
Digestion begins in the stomach. Gastric juice will act on feed in order to reduce their volume. However, the horse’s stomach is very small (15 to 18L for a capacity of 10 to 12L only) and the mass swallowed (food + saliva) represents 50 to 70L daily! The stomach must empty itself 6 to 8 times a day.
During a meal, it will often drain twice so to keep only the last portion to swallow. It alone will have a long stay in the stomach, which will allow a good action of gastric juices. To give you an idea, the stomach lets two thirds of each meal pass in one hour. Then it keeps in the last third for about 5 to 8 hours! Therefore, gastric digestion has significant effects only on the last 10 liters. It represents approximately the equivalent of 2 kg of hay or 4 kg of concentrates.
This is why it is advisable to divide the daily ration into multiple small meals (about 2 kg of hay or 3 kg of concentrates) so concentrates can stay longer in the stomach. It will promote gastric digestion and subsequently providing optimal material for the large intestine bacteria to complete digestion.
In addition, the horse has an internal biological clock that influences his hunger. It allows him to anticipate digestive secretions and regulate his metabolism before a meal. This is why feeding him with regularity represents a biological and psychological comfort to him. Obviously, this schedule must take into account his daily activities and the distribution of his work. => see “To avoid # 3”
📚Read more: overweight horses
To avoid #2: Feeding hay after concentrates 🌾
The reason why it is recommended to give hay before concentrates is because of an efficiency concern and a digestive hygiene concern. We have seen that the horse’s stomach empties two thirds of each meal in 1 hour and retains the last third up to 5 to 8 hours for a more optimal digestion (see “To avoid # 1”). So if you feed the concentrates before the hay, hay will then push the concentrates into the intestine. The hay will last in the stomach for 5 to 8 hours. The gastric juices won’t have enough time to play their role on the concentrates.
In addition, the horse not only benefits from excellent oral preparation (which allows him to finely grind food and salivate in quantity) but also rapid gastric transit. However, these do not completely prevent fermentations and indigestion problems.
Therefore, it is necessary to promote retention of concentrates in the stomach. However, we must avoid indigestion and dilation predispositions. Indeed, these become quickly complicated for horses to manage (colic!). As you know, they can not belch (yes, it’s prettier than “burp”) nor vomit. Thus, feeding hay before concentrates gives them extra chewing time, which makes them salivate.
Salivation helps emptying the stomach and activates the peristalsis (movements of the intestine that advance the food bolus). The goal is to ensure a good digestive transit speed in order to avoid indigestion and fermentation due to stagnant food. The digestive system is thus prepared to digest the concentrates!
In practice, several possible situations:
- My horse has access to hay all day long: in this case, he will eat whenever he wants throughout the day. It is then frequent that after having eaten his concentrates, he goes to eat a little hay. Do not worry, it’s not serious. The meal of concentrates will be less well digested but the benefit for the horse to have access to hay permanently is often much more important than this small inconvenient.
- My horse stands on straw and does not have access to hay all day long: if your horse eats his straw, it is more or less similar to that to the case of the horse having access to hay all day long. Except that straw is richer in cellulose than the hay, which will make the whole ration less digestible. On the other hand, it will allow your horse to fight against boredom, which is appreciable (Attention to constipation for greedy horses!).
- My horse stands on shavings and does not have access to hay all day long: the best solution would be to feed hay before concentrate. Otherwise, feed hay and concentrates individually from each other.
Avoid # 3: Feeding concentrates just before work 🍔 🏇
When horses are working, it is more comfortable for them to have a slightly filled stomach and a small intestine (try to go running just after lunch, you’ll see …).
Conversely, fasting before intense exercise can not be too long because it forces the body to draw on its reserves (that’s why people who wish to lose weight will run before breakfast) but this predisposes to gastric ulcers. That’s why it’s better to distribute concentrate at least 2h before work, or a little more (3h) during a major competition. This takes into account the time required for ingestion and emptying process of the stomach. (See To avoid # 1)
In addition, digestion requires a big amount of blood flow on the digestive tract. Which goes against muscles. It also compromises the heart function and thermoregulation, both very important for the effort. More seriously, if exercises are too intense the body will allocate a larger volume of blood to the muscles. The digestive tract will then be exposed to a relative lack of oxygenation, which could promote the appearance of colic.
📚 Read more: Good reflexes to avoid colics
Marine Slove, veterinarian and product manager at Equisense
C. Kaefer, “Dans quel ordre distribuer les aliments aux chevaux ? Le foin avant les concentrés !”, Technique d’élevage. [En ligne]. Disponible sur : http://www.techniquesdelevage.fr/2014/12/dans-quel-ordre-distribuer-les-aliments-aux-chevaux-le-foin-avant-les-concentres.html [Consulté le: 08-fév-2018].
R.M. Wolter, C. Barré, P. Benoît, 2014. L’alimentation du cheval. Edition France agricole, 3ème édition.
E.g.: Icons made by Freepik, Vignesh Oviyan, Kirill Kazachek, Smashicons from www.flaticon.com
“Horse” icon made by Iconic, from The Noun Project