Why we must stop treating horse digestion like our own

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Us humans are funny creatures.
We often have the urge to ‘humanise’ things. However, when we treat horse digestion systems like our own, we can be creating a world of gut health problems for our horses. To greater understand horse digestion systems – here are some interesting ways it differs from our own.

Horse digestion vs human digestion:

• Meals vs Grazing. Humans are conditioned to have set meals throughout the day. On the other hand, horses are designed to eat, chew and digest constantly through the day and night.

horse digestion

Feed small meals or access to hay constantly will assist horse digestion

• Stomach acid production: In humans, the production of stomach acid is stimulated by the presence of food in the stomach. Meanwhile, horses produce gastric acid 24/7 – regardless of whether there is food in their stomach or not. An over supply of stomach acid is one of the main causes of ulcers in horses (LINK).  It’s also the reason experts suggest that horses ALWAYS have access to forage.

• Humans have a complex system of mechanical and chemical breakdown to help digest food. Meanwhile,  horses rely primarily on bacterial breakdown to break their food into digestible molecules. When horses have an empty stomach, these bacteria die – which stuffs up the digestion of their next ‘meal’. This is why probiotics are so essential in horse care and especially the rehabilitation of starved horses.

• Relative stomach sizes. Horse’s stomachs are pretty small compared to the rest of their body. This is why it’s not ideal to feed large ‘meals’ as opposed to a constant trickle of feed. Us humans have a stomach that has the ability to expand 4 times it’s usual size. This is why our system copes so well with ‘meals’ throughout the day.

• Horses have a muscle that stops them from vomiting. This means that if food (and acid) needs to escape they reflux into their oral cavity.

• Salivary production is not constant in horses, as it is in humans. Saliva is alkaline, and it’s a great buffer against stomach acid. If a horse doesn’t receive enough roughage, they wont produce enough saliva to keep their stomach acids in check. Without that buffer, ulcers can develop.

SO what’s the bottom line here?

First and foremost, a horse must have access to fibrous forage at all times. The bulk of our horse’s feed should not be feed substantial ‘meals’ but they should instead have the option to ingest fodder slowly throughout the day and night.
If you suspect your horse is in pain – check out this article to learn about the signs to watch out for. You can also check for gastric ulcers (without a scope) here.

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About Author

Betsy OReilly, Managing Editor of Blog Abler dedicated to Equine Ulcers. Born and bred in country Victoria, Australia, is a lifelong horse owner who has dabbled in Pony Club and Horse Racing. Enjoys hearing and writing about Equine Ulcers.

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