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Almost no other topic commÜberschrift 1ands our attention like the feeding of our horses – which is good. No matter if your horse is a Shetland pony or a Shire, athletic partner or leisure companion, chestnut or black: the right feed will help them to enjoy a long and healthy life. To understand what “the right feed” means, we must first take a closer look at the equine digestive process.
Our tour of the equine digestive tract begins at the mouth. The mouth is where food is taken in, chewed, and salivated. This process alerts the gastric juices, gastric acid, and pancreatic enzymes to the imminent arrival of chyme. The number of chews determines the quantity of saliva produced as well as effects the horse’s satiety: more chewing results in reduced hunger feelings. The horse’s teeth are evolved to chew grass with hard stalks and are adapted for constant abrasion. That is why it’s important that the feed ration contain enough structured crude fibre.
After being chewed, the food passes through the oesophagus into the stomach. There are a few places along the way where problems can arise if the horse swallows large feed elements that are not sufficiently broken down and salivated, increasing the risk of oesophageal obstruction.
With a capacity of 15 L in an average-sized horse, the stomach is rather small and is not able to expand significantly, which is why a slow and continual passage of small amounts of feed to the stomach is ideal. The stomach is where protein, fat and starch digestion begin. The stomach is not a storage organ; rather, it passes the pre-digested feed on into the small intestine. Fibrous feed that is heavily insalivated passes through the stomach more quickly. Large quantities of concentrate feed, especially cereals, take longer to pass through, so that their starches begin to ferment, producing lactic acid which has a negative effect on gastric health. Concentrate feeds should therefore be given in small quantities.
Let’s take an even closer look at the structure of the stomach: it is basically divided into two areas. In the glandless upper part, the bacteria living there break down easily digestible carbohydrates into short chain fatty acids. The glandular area is where the chyme mixes with gastric juices. The hydrochloric acid in the gastric juices kills off germs before they enter the gut. The enzyme pepsin starts digesting protein here as well.
In the 20–25 metre-long small intestine, the chyme is now joined by pancreatic secretions and bile. Because horses don’t have gall bladders, their bile streams continually into the small intestine from the liver. Here, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are digested by enzymes in the body. Amylase, the enzyme responsible for the digestion of starch, is not produced in large quantities in horses and does not easily adapt to different types and quantities of starch. Starchy feeds that have not been hydrothermally or mechanically processed are especially difficult for the equine gut to break down. The horse digests proteins in the small intestine with help from the enzymes trypsin and chymotrypsin. Lipases digest fats. The wall of the small intestine is equipped with projections, called villi, that help absorb nutrients effectively. Only the fibrous parts of forage and the nutrients which are bound to it pass largely undigested to the large intestine.
The digestion of crude fibre is carried out by microbes in the more expansive large intestine, which consists of the caecum, colon, and rectum. This includes cellulose, hemicellulose, and other undigested carbohydrates. The gut flora breaks down crude fibre into glucose and volatile fatty acids. Overall, the small intestine is responsible for the mixing of the chyme, the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, and for the further transport and removal of the feed mixture. It synthesises water-soluble vitamins and is involved to a large extent in the body’s water and electrolyte balance. The feed’s passage in the large intestine can take up to 45 hours, becoming increasingly thicker until the horse eliminates it in the form of horse droppings.