While the horse’s digestive system gave the species strategic evolutionary advantage over its predecessors and many other animals, this very same digestive system can prove tricky for the domesticated horse. The overload of starch in the cecum and colon can lead to the loss of microorganisms responsible for the fermentation process of fiber. This in turn causes a level of acidity and the toxins created by this process can result in colic and founder.
Just the slightest hint of a colic strikes fear in every horse guardian’s heart. Any form of colic can be fatal. In any colic situation, call your veterinarian and follow his/her recommendation and request a visit.
The best approach is to avoid colic by supporting your horse’s digestive system on a consistent basis. Feed management suggestions include:
- feeding grass hay three to four times a day from a feeder on the ground
- avoiding processed feed
- being sure your horse has enough water
- making any feed changes gradually
Horses need to move to enhance the motility of the feed through their systems. Exercise and turnout are extremely important for gut function; after all, horses in the wild travel anywhere from 20 to 40 miles in a day.
Adding an acupressure session to your grooming routine every few days can further enhance your horse’s capacity to receive full nutritive benefit from his feed. Acupressure has been used to enhance the health and wellbeing of horses for thousands of years. Specific acupressure points, also called “acupoints,” are known to enhance the motility of the digestive system and the absorption of nutrients.
ANATOMY OF DIGESTION
The modern horse’s digestive process begins with the ability to select the appropriate materials to consume. The horse’s lips are amazingly sensitive and the wisdom of the ages of eating directs them to approaching digestible food.
The horse’s stomach is relatively small for the size of the animal. It holds only 8 to 17 quarts of fluid and masticated plant matter. The food substances are bathed in enzymes to further break it down into absorbable nutrients in the stomach. From there the food substances pass through to the small intestine which is about 70 feet long. Most of the feed nutrients, such as the proteins and soluble carbohydrates, are digested and absorbed in the small intestine. The less digestible roughage from forage passes through to the large intestine.
Here’s where the evolution of the horse created a blessing and a curse. The cecum is located at the entrance into the large intestine and is approximately 4 feet long. The cecum is the fermentation basin where food substances enter, bacteria ferments the feed into absorbable nutrients and then the remaining roughage leaves. To keep the digestive system moving properly, horses need to drink quite a lot of water. The fluid and material pass into the 10- to 12-foot-long large colon where microbial digestion continues for anywhere from 48 to 65 hours. And finally, the indigestible waste passes into the small colon (also 10 to 12 feet long). Fluids are extracted from the waste; fecal balls are formed and passed from the rectum.
If it were not for the adaptability of the equine digestive system, horses would not be around today. The capacity to digest high cellulose, low nutritive grasses was an important factor in the horse’s survival to modern day. This adaptation, plus other evolutionary anatomical features (development of the single hoof, change in dental formation, standing “stay apparatus,” increase in size, and intelligence) allowed the horse to defy extinction.
As the climate changed from lush green forests to sparse grass lands more than 18 million years ago during the Miocene epoch, equids had to shift from browsing on high nutrient tree leaves, and shoots of plants to grazing on tough, low nutrient forage.
The formation of teeth and jaws capable of grinding the tough grasses down is a key aspect of the horse’s ability to derive nutrients from grass. The transverse shearing action of their powerful jaws creates a mashed bolus infused with saliva that can pass up through the esophagus and down into the stomach.
Grass is composed of cellulose. The nutrients in cellulose are contained in the walls of the plant cell. Being able to extract and digest the nutrients from grasses was the evolutionary challenge equids had to meet to survive.
YOUR ACUPRESSURE SESSION
Apply gentle pressure using the soft tip of your thumb or pointer finger on the acupoint shown in the Enhancing Digestion chart. Rest your other hand comfortably on your horse. Count to 30 very slowly before moving to the next acupoint and try to follow your horse’s breathing pattern. Work with the acupoints on one side of your horse and then work the other side.
Your horse may show signs he is enjoying your stimulation of the acupoints by stretching, licking, shaking, passing gas, or even falling asleep. If he gives any indication that an acupoint is particularly uncomfortable, move on to the next. An acupressure session is for the horse’s benefit and not to have him be uncomfortable.
An acupressure session every three or four days may be just the thing that helps your horse avoid colic and derive the most nutritive value from his feed.
Nancy Zidonis and Amy Snow are the authors of Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual, Acu-Dog: A Guide to Canine Acupressure , and Acu-Cat: A Guide to Feline Acupressure . They founded Tallgrass offering books, manuals, DVDs, Apps for mobile devices, and meridian charts. Tallgrass also provides hands-on and online training courses worldwide including a 330-hour Practitioner Certification Program. Tallgrass is an approved school for the Dept. of Higher Education through the State of Colorado, an approved provider of NCBTMB CE’s, and accepted by NCCAOM. 888-841-7211; www.animalacupressure.com ; Tallgrass@animalacupressure.com