The health of a horse’s digestive system (gut) begins not only with what is fed, but how and when it is fed. This is where it’s helpful to follow “best practices” that help emulate the diet and routine intended by Mother Nature:
• Sharpening turnout: A pasture horse will never develop colic because its digestive system is designed for near-constant grazing. When grazing muzzles are fitted, horses at risk of laminitis or obesity can also benefit from generous pasture time because they will still be moving, interacting with others and eating small amounts frequently – all activities beneficial to digestive health.
• Forage quality: Whether it’s orchard grass, timothy, or alfalfa, make sure the hay you offer is free of dust, mold, longer stalks, and less overcooked, which can cause digestive upset or worse. The smell of good hay is fresh when opened. If your bales have a lot of “sticks” but otherwise look good, try feeding a little extra so your horse can work around the parts he doesn’t want to.
• Keep food in the horse’s stomach: A stomach designed for semi-continuous grazing will continue to produce digestive acids whether or not there is something in it that cannot be digested. When the stomach is empty, a stomach ulcer can be the result. Saliva helps calm stomach acidity, and horses produce nearly twice as much saliva when eating hay or grass as they do when eating grain. So it makes sense to keep hay in front of the horses 24/7, and to divide the daily ration into smaller portions that are fed throughout the day and night, as necessary, to prevent waste.
• Feed only the required amount of grain: A diet rich in forage and low in concentrate is essential to maintaining your horse’s natural digestive balance. Keep in mind that grains (especially sweet feed) are rich in sugars and starches. Excessive intake of sugars and starches can lead to a microbial imbalance in the hindgut designed to digest grass in the first place. The result can be gas production, which can lead to discomfort and even colic. Even worse, too much sugar and starch can lead to laminitis–the potentially damaging inflammation of the soft tissues inside the hoof. While tradition tells us to feed older horses extra grain, “serious breeders”, broodmaids or horse athletes – many of whom need an extra boost to keep the weight off – it’s wise to seek professional advice on the safest way to add calories to your horse’s diet.
• Hay before grain: If you can’t provide constant access to hay, this feeding rule—which you probably learned at 4-H or the Pony Club—still holds true. why? Because horses’ stomachs are rather small, and food moves through them quickly. When given hay, grain and water at the same time, most horses will dive into the grain first, followed by the hay and water. The grains will then pass through the stomach and intestines too quickly to be digested well, which can cause problems in the hindgut when the sugars and starches get there without being absorbed. Hay starters help slow this process, so feed your horses hay, top up their water and wait at least half an hour before continuing with grain.
• Providing fresh and clean water: It goes without saying that your horse needs 24/7 access to fresh, clean water that is neither too hot nor too cold – and certainly not frozen (up to 12 gallons per day is the average intake). Feel free to encourage him to drink even after exercise. This keeps everything he swallows flowing smoothly through his digestive system. Too little water, and impaction is likely to form, which can cause serious colic. If you use heated buckets or tanks in the winter, don’t forget to check that these units are properly grounded; Use a voltmeter or call an electrician if necessary. Even the slightest “tingle” of electric current will stop the horse from drinking.
• Make sure your horse is exercising: A horse that stays active is likely to have healthier digestive function, as exercise helps stimulate contractions of the smooth muscles in the intestines. Fortunately, this does not require long sessions under the saddle; Just walking and grazing in the pasture for an hour a day is enough to keep things moving in a horse’s gut better than if it were stuck in a stall. If you want to prevent colic and gas buildup, make sure your horse is well-trodden.
• Look for alternatives to grains to add calories: If your horse needs to put on a few pounds (or maintain weight during competition season), make sure it does so in the healthiest way possible. Adding a little corn, flax or canola oil to his ration is a safer bet to increase calories than adding more grains. It also adds a sheen to the casing and helps protect against ulcers because the fat helps keep the substance in the stomach longer, which in turn helps control acid levels. Other healthy alternatives to consider adding to your horse’s diet are high-fiber commercial feeds which include the likes of beet pulp or soybean hulls. These fibrous feeds are lower in starches and sugars than conventional grain feeds, and because they are digested like feed, they are less likely to cause serious gassy colic or laminitis.
• Protecting the intestinal flora: The microbes—the living organisms or “flora” that inhabit a horse’s gut—are necessary in the right amounts and in the right balance to help him digest food and absorb nutrients; Some are even necessary to create essential nutrients. However, factors such as stress or the introduction of medications such as antibiotics can upset this delicate balance, leading to weight loss or chronic diarrhea and even an increased risk of developing certain types of colic. This is where probiotics and prebiotics—both widely available in supplement form—can help replenish the “good stuff” when you need it most.
Watch out for the sand: While eating a little dirt while grazing or eating off the ground is normal and usually harmless, horses that live in areas with sandy soil are at risk of developing sand colic. Grains of sand eaten while grazing settle in the intestines and over time can accumulate so much that they prevent food intake, which leads to painful colic. Preventive measures include minimizing the horse’s exposure to sand, placing hay in a feeder or net, or feeding from a rubber mat. You might also consider adding a natural laxative called psyllium (made from the seeds of the plantain plant) to your horse’s diet. Once ingested, psyllium swells and becomes gelatinous and can help push sand through the intestines. You may want to feed a psyllium supplement at home as a precaution, but for horses that already have large accumulations of sand in their colon, research shows having nasogastric tubes containing psyllium and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) for three to seven days more. effective treatment. Your vet can test your horse’s manure for sand and advise you on the best course of action.
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