Horses and ponies (equids) have evolved to live on a diet of the structural part of plants, which are rich in fibre. They naturally spend about three quarters of their time foraging and eating, and have a high throughput of feed compared to ruminant herbivores like sheep or cattle. The horse’s digestive tract anatomy and physiology reflects this:
- Constantly erupting teeth with long rows of chewing molars
- Small stomach, constantly producing acid
- Fast passage rate through small intestine
- No gall bladder
- Huge, voluminous large intestine full of fibre-degrading micro-organisms
Horses actually have a dietary requirement for fibre, without which they will not be optimally healthy. Fibre deficiency leads to weight loss, unthriftiness, acidic hindgut, diarrhoea and general poor gut function. Fibre deficiency also increases the risk of colic. If horses are fed with their digestive tract anatomy and physiology in mind, they will stay healthier and perform more optimally.
Many horses are fed restricted forage when stabled, and given hard feed when they are in work. But feeding good quality forage, and plenty of it, to stabled horses means that they can be fed less hard feed.
Horses should be fed ad lib forage, or an appropriate amount to maintain a healthy weight, and have other feeds or supplements added only to balance that forage. In this way, the fibre intake is maintained and the horse’s gut is healthier. Many horses, and most leisure horses, can have all their energy and protein requirements met by good quality forage such as Devon Haylage. Clare Macleod Msc RNtr - www.equinenutritionist.co.uk