It is a common misconception that horses are tough and hardy animals. This image is often encouraged by the picture postcard sight of horses grazing on the moors of the West Country.But while the native pony does indeed have quite a sturdy digestion system, larger breeds and particularly the thoroughbred horse, need far greater dietary care if they are to stay fit and healthy.
In fact one of the most common digestive problems is gastric ulcer in horses which often occur in thoroughbreds and particularly ex-racers. These are not only a racehorse problem however and any horse who has lived under some type of stress – be it through competition, enforced stabling or inadequate grazing – can have ulcers. For you, ulcers mean that you could struggle to have your horse looking in the kind of condition you crave.
The equine digestive system
It helps to have an understanding of the digestive system of the horse. All horses, from Shetland ponies to racehorses, have a gut that is designed to function on their natural energy source; fibre.
Unfortunately with pasture becoming restricted and hay quality falling as a result, the hay and haylage that we use to provide bulk does not always fully meet their nutritional needs. Modern feed stuffs are well balanced and will provide both fibre and protein as support.
A common problem is that horse owners think that by feeding increased amounts of the compound feed, they will help the horse to gain weight on that alone. Put simply, unless the horse has an adequate source of fibre you are wasting your money, as it is the chewing of the feed that produces the digestive enzymes. If there is not enough fibre for them to act on, the enzymes become acidic and damage the gut. Result – ulcers.
How to help
If you think you already have a problem then treating the gastric ulcer can be done in a number of ways. Firstly always make sure that there is enough short chop fibre in his feed to make him chew his feed properly. If you have been away at an event or have travelled long distances give hay as the first feed option when he gets home. Let him have his feed once he has started chewing and the gut has something substantial to work on.
There are also supplements that can help, mostly based on probiotics that balance the enzymes in the gut and reduce acidity. For the average horse or pony, a general purpose supplement with yeast and probiotics such as the Healthy Digestion range will help you to get the most from your feed bill and keep your horse’s insides healthy.
There is a product range for older horses whose dietary needs can be different and for those who already have problems, the Challenged Digestion range will sort problems such as loose droppings and has added fenugreek, which encourages appetite and overall condition.