Digestion is an Essential Part of Nutrition
When it comes to delivering nutrition to the body, effective digestion is essential.
Whatever a horse ingests is a source of nutrition. That means what they eat, drink (and breathe).
Getting the right thing into the mouth is only a small part of the equation though. Yes, it’s absolutely essential that the right things are consumed and it’s equally important that the wrong things aren’t consumed. But there’s more to consider.
The nutrition that goes in the mouth has to be processed by the body before it can be used to build the horse (and the hooves). That’s where the digestion comes in.
The digestion breaks down the raw materials into a form that can be absorbed by the blood stream. It’s really important that the digestion works effectively.
If the digestion isn’t working properly, then you’re pretty much just fertilising your fields the slow way. If you poo pick regularly, then you’re not even getting that much out of it!
Digestion starts with the teeth.
A lot of people forget this part. They jump straight ahead to thinking about the stomach, but the teeth are really important to chew the food. For horses this includes where their head position is when they’re eating.
Horses were designed to eat with their head on the ground. Yes they can reach up to trees etc, but they don’t chew with their head in the air.
When their head is lowered their teeth are in the correct alignment for chewing food, and the saliva is being properly utilised. When the head is raised (for over door buckets, hay nets etc) the teeth aren’t lined up properly, and there are problems with saliva production.
Obviously any dental issues will also have an effect, but we’ll all be better off if I don’t try and cover dentistry – ask a dentist!
If however, you do have a dental problem corrected, this can increase your horses food intake dramatically, practically over night. If your horse is underweight that might be a good thing. If you have to monitor their food intake – it might be something you need to consider…
The liver is usually left out of digestion diagrams. Maybe because it has a hand in a number of different systems in the body. But I think it’s a great shame as it plays a number of different roles in digestion.
It produces bile, which is kinda a big deal! Humans have a gall bladder to store that bile, but horses don’t. This means bile is always going into the stomach. When we call horses trickle feeders, that’s only half the story. I find thinking of them as trickle digesters (even if I am making up words) gives more clarity on the subject.
When trying to improve a horse’s digestion, I usually start with the liver. The vast majority of the time, I can finish with the liver too. I’ve found that when you sort that, everything else falls into place.
Obviously that can’t work in 100% of cases, but it sometimes feels that way!
The liver has it’s fingers in many pies, including hormone balance, dealing with toxins, production of proteins, immune system, lymphatic system, digestion (obviously) and tons of other cool stuff.
It also has a remarkable ability to heal and regenerate. There aren’t many other organs that you can safely donate part of. No-one donates half a heart, or a bit of their kidney.
I’m not going into the fine details of gut digestion here, but I want to give you some things to consider.
The horses gut is incredibly efficient. Like all things that work to a high standard, that makes it very sensitive. Think of a formula 1 engine – there’s a reason they don’t run on diesel!
It works a little like a compost heap. Things are supposed to ferment in the hind gut. That is why gut transit time is important.
If something is going through your horse too quickly, it’s not in there long enough for the gut to draw out the nutrients. This is a problem for obvious reasons.
If things are going through too slowly it will be festering, and creating toxins. This is a major problem. You can feed the freshest, highest quality food you can find, but if it’s going off inside your horse, you’ve got a problem.
I’m not saying your horse’s poo should smell like fresh baked bread or anything. But if it smells like something died in there, that’s not a good sign. Remember that it’s inside your horse afterall!
Toxin build up is a big problem. There are toxins everywhere in our environment, no matter how much we try. We don’t want to be adding to the problem from inside the horse.
The liver is the main organ trying to get rid of these toxins and if you didn’t skip the bit above, you’ll know the liver is busy enough already!
It’s really important that we feed the right things to keep our horses healthy. It’s also really important that the body digests those nutrients well. To try to get a healthy horse without either of those things is a little like trying to drive a car with the breaks still on… and maybe the wheels missing!
Improving your horses digestion could be as simple as giving adlib hay, reducing the chemicals in the diet, or allowing more movement. Finding a solution first requires us to identify the problem, I’m mostly leaving that to you, though if you want my help, feel free to contact me.
My go to fix digestion product is L94 from Trinity Consultants though they have other options, depending on the problem.
Other parts in this series
The Healthy Horse: Feeding and Nutrition
We Are What We Eat
It's easy to see why diet is so important. The body is always regenerating, it needs good nutrition to be able to build healthy cells. Nutrition is such a confusing subject though!
There's so much advice, and so many different choices, how are you ever supposed to figure out what's right for your horse?