Problems with the digestive tract can sideline your horse just as quickly and severely as any lameness issue.
As we gear up for the active riding and competition season, attention is understandably focused on conditioning: feet, joints, coat and all the things that go into preparing your horse for a successful athletic season. Part of that preparation should also be a concerted effort to avoid situations that would sideline your horse.
The digestive tract is secondary only to skeletal muscle as the largest organ system in the body. We don't tend to think of it much in connection with performance but that can be a mistake. For one thing, all the nutrients your horse needs to perform, adapt and heal must come from an efficiently functioning GI tract. On another level, problems with the digestive tract can sideline your horse just as quickly and severely as any lameness issue.
As your horses' physical demands increase, so do their nutritional needs. The starting point for this is sufficient calorie intake, which is the easiest to meet. Your horse also needs more protein, minerals and vitamins, but the fundamental thing is keeping the GI tract functioning well so that those needs can be met by nutrients being effectively absorbed.
Getting these nutrients into your horse is only one part of the equation. They also need to be absorbed and efficiently utilized, while the digestive tract remains healthy and ready to support the needs of exercise. At the same time, debilitating disorders of the digestive tract need to be kept under careful control.
FLOW OF FOOD
The first step in accomplishing this is to understand what the GI tract needs to function. First and foremost is a nearly constant flow of food. A grazing feral horse spends most of its time eating a high moisture, high fiber diet – grass. The more grass you can supply the horse, the better.
Hay has a similar nutrient profile to grass but without all the diluting water that allows the horse to eat virtually constantly at a much lower calorie intake per mouthful. Horses will increase their water intake when eating hay versus grass but can still potentially overindulge with hay. To help counteract this without having the horse go without food for prolonged periods, use a slow feeding set up – either small mesh hay bags or a slow feeder with a grate that limits how much hay the horse can eat. Constant availability of palatable water is also critical.
A hay diet should be complemented with protein (if needed), and minerals that balance the hay. Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E, which are lost with hay curing, may need to be supplemented.
If you can meet all your horse's needs with a hay-based diet and/or pasture, that's ideal. Because grass and hay (which is basically “hay jerky”) have much lower calorie content than grains or other concentrates, the horse can eat more over the course of the day and always have something in his stomach. This is important to hormonal stability (insulin, thyroid and cortisol), mental stability and smooth functioning of the GI tract.
If grain/concentrates are needed, spread them out over as many meals as possible during the day, to mimic the trickle feeding the horse does with his forages. This too will promote hormonal, mental and digestive stable functions.
Gastric ulcers are a particular scourge of performance horses. Because horses produce stomach acid on a continuous basis rather than just in response to food, a major factor in ulcer risk is allowing the stomach to be empty. You don't want the horse to ever go longer than about 4 hours without eating. Bring your regular, familiar food items with you when traveling – hay, concentrate and water. When shipping, always keep a hay bag of well-soaked hay within the horse's reach and stop at least every 4 hours to offer water.
This type of attention to feeding details can head off many digestive problems, but competitive pressures being what they are, it might not be enough. Stress and excitement can keep the horse from eating as calmly and continuously as you would like. Stress and exercise can also directly increase risk of gastric ulcers and interfere with normal intestinal motility.
Hydrolyzed collagen can help by providing a soothing coat to ulcers and ideal levels of amino acids to support connective tissue repair. Deglycyrrhized Licorice has been shown to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers. Marshmallow root, Slippery Elm and Aloe Vera further soothe irritated gastric linings and do double duty as prebiotics that support function of the hind gut, as do mannan oligosaccharides. Saccharomyces yeast and key bacterial probiotic strains keep all levels of the digestive tract functioning normally.
You have enough to do with working your horse to achieve the desired level of fitness. Don't get sidelined by problems you can largely prevent.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD, currently serves as Staff Veterinary Specialist for Uckele Health & Nutrition ( www.uckele.com ). An established authority in the field of equine nutrition for over 30 years, Dr. Kellon formerly served as Veterinary Editor for Horse Journal and John Lyons Perfect Horse and is owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions, a thriving private practice. Dr. Kellon is the author of many best-selling books on a variety of medical and nutritional topics and has contributed to both lay and professional publications.