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Off-balance: What happens when you give your horse too little or not enough

Your horse needs the right balance of food and water to avoid colic and ulcers.

Your horse needs the right balance of food and water to avoid colic and ulcers.

 

Horses are strong and sturdy on the outside, but their stomachs are delicate ecosystems that need just the right care and attention. Understanding an equine’s digestive system is key for preventing ulcers and colic, which cause pain in the foregut and hindgut, respectively. Both issues affect a horse’s performance and emotional state. In severe cases, not treating them leads to death.

To keep these conditions at bay, your horse needs the right balance of food and water, best determined by your veterinarian. Here’s what happens if you ignore these guidelines:

Too little pasture turnout

A horse’s digestive system is designed to hold a certain amount of food at all times – not too much, and never too little. As with all animals, the quality of the food matters, and horses do best with lengthy access to fresh green pasture. If you can’t give your horse a long turnout time or don’t have access to fresh grass, dry hay is a suitable alternative.

Without enough food, gastric acids irritate the lining in an equine’s foregut, creating ulcers. Owners worried about their animal’s soundness will often restrict its diet to prevent overeating and encourage weight loss, but doing so can be detrimental to gut health. Always consult a veterinarian before altering your horse’s feed rations.

Horses need a consistent flow of forage in their stomachs.Horses need a consistent flow of forage in their stomachs.

Too much grain

Grain is often used as a way to add more calories to an equine’s diet. Foals, broodmares, performance horses and seniors need more energy than others, and their needs can’t be sustained by forage alone. Unfortunately, grains are high in starches and sugars that can upset a horse’s sensitive digestive system.

Because horses evolved eating grass and other fibrous plants, their bodies have to ferment the food to extract nutrients. Most herbivores have multiple stomachs, one of which is used solely for fermentation. Horses, on the other hand, only have one stomach, followed by a large cecum and hindgut. The latter is where the food is fermented.

“A horse can’t digest excess sugar and starch before they reach the cecum and colon.”

In a conversation with Equus Magazine, veterinarian Anthony Blikslager of North Carolina State University discussed how an equine’s digestive system transfers chewed food to the hindgut quickly so the animal can extract the nutrients within. However, the hindgut is designed to digest grass, and the system doesn’t allow a horse’s body enough time to properly digest excess sugar and starch before they reach the cecum and colon.

“It changes the pH and type of bacteria,” Blikslager explained. “The bacteria that can digest sugar quickly multiply and form a lot of gas in the process.”

Too little water

Even as little as an hour without water increases your horse’s risk of impaction colic, according to the University of Minnesota. This type of pain stems from issues in the horse’s colon, which extracts water and electrolytes. Drinking water helps the colon digest food more efficiently, but dehydration slows the process. Fecal matter sits longer in the colon, where even more water is extracted. The result is an impaction that blocks narrow spots in the colon, causing colic.

Your horse is most at risk of impaction colic during winter when cold temperatures make its water too uncomfortable to drink. Either use a heated water bucket or add hot water to a normal or free-flowing trough multiple times a day to encourage healthy hydration.

Too much water

Excessive amounts of cold water cause the connection between the stomach and the small intestine, known as the pylorus, to spasm temporarily. This causes swelling and slight pain, but according to Horse Journals, the condition usually clears up on its own. Still, you can prevent these stomach aches by making sure your horse has consistent access to fresh, temperature-appropriate water, especially when traveling, rather than restricting access. Horses usually consume the right amount of water on their own but will drink too much if they’ve been deprived for a while.

Horse health care products like Finish Line’s U-7 Gastric Aid address colic and stomach ulcers by supporting a healthy, functional digestive system. U-7 is designed to promote a healthy appetite and supports both the foregut and the hindgut. If you’re more concerned about your equine’s overall health, Total Control contains five of Finish Line’s best-selling products, including U-7.