Six reasons why a full gut means a healthy horse this Winter
We all know that keeping horses healthy can run into the 1000’s; from lotions, potions and specialist feed to supplements and medications. But the single most important cost and the one that can make the biggest difference to overall horse health is the quality and availability of forage.
The digestive tract of the horse is designed to have an almost constant trickle of fibrous material moving through it and the benefits go much further than just keeping hunger at bay and providing energy. So why is forage so important and how could it impact on your horse’s health this winter?
- If the gastrointestinal tract is not kept full, it can twist and move in ways to cause serious colic. Torsion of the gut, in the most extreme cases can cause strangulation with a very poor prognosis. Furthermore, the abdominal muscles involved in squeezing material through the gut are not exercised and become flabby, increasing the colic risk even more as gut mobility is increased.
- The billions of bacteria that reside in a healthy gut require plenty of fibrous material as their food source. If fibre is lacking in the diet, these bacteria are disadvantaged, causing digestive upset. These bacteria are also responsible for producing various vitamins that cannot be obtained through the diet including vitamin B1, biotin and vitamin K. A healthy gut biome also improves immunity and gut integrity.
- Lack of forage exacerbates the ulcer risk. The horse’s stomach is constantly producing gastric acid but saliva, which buffers this acid is only produced when the horse chews. Fibre also acts to stop acid from splashing up and damaging the unprotected upper portions of the stomach.
- The large amount of fibre within the gut acts as a reservoir for water and electrolytes in times of exertion or when some horses may not drink enough in very cold weather for example, so ensure forage is always available.
- Forage is central heating for your horse! Microbial digestion of fibre in the hind gut produces heat. Lack of fibre particularly during the winter means your horse will struggle to maintain his own temperature and is more likely to drop weight, develop colic and have a lowered immune system.
- Finally, the horse has an innate desire to chew on fibrous material, their ‘hunger’ is driven by the amount of chewing they can do. Being prevented from eating enough fibre puts the horse into a stressful state, affecting hormones responsible for healthy fat metabolism (cells hold onto more fat!) and raising blood cortisol levels. Behavioural changes like irritability, cribbing, box walking and weaving can be attributed to lack of chewing time. Humans may call this ‘boredom’ but for the horse, the physiological effects of lack of fibre are significant.
When horses are given suitable forage on a free choice basis, they will learn over time to self-regulate and only consume as much as they need, maintaining a healthy weight all year round. Ensure that whatever forage you choose to feed meets the nutritional standards required by your horse, for example our Timothy haylage is ideal for good doers containing very low sugar and high fibre levels whilst our palatable High Fibre Ryegrass encourages fussy eaters and contains slightly higher energy levels. Hay can vary enormously in quality, but it is particularly important to know the sugar, starch, protein, and energy levels of any forage so you can make informed choices this season. Learn to be forage connoisseur and your horse will thank you for it!