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A Horse's Digestive System

Posted on September 6, 2012 by Dodson & Horrell There have been 0 comments

Digestive System

A horse tends to graze, and will eat a little at a time. This is because they have small stomachs relative to their size, and can develop indigestion and discomfort if they overeat. Their physical structure - long necks, large teeth, and a wide area inside the mouth, at the top of the throat - is suited to their eating habits and digestive needs.

Despite their strength and size, a horse's digest system is fragile and easily upset. You have heard the phrase "He eats like a horse," but the truth is that because of their small stomach, overeating can be dangerous. Their jaw and tooth structures are ideally suited for the their diet, which consists mainly of grasses and hay. They have long, sharp front teeth for grazing, and strong, flat molars for grinding tough stalks and grains. Though they lack the compartmentalized stomachs of the cow, their digestive system is specially designed to help them to digest, absorb, and eliminate their plant-based diet.

How a Horse Digests Food

Digestion begins the same as for all of us. Food is broken down into manageable particles by chewing, then further broken down and coated by saliva to help it contract down the long, muscular esophagus.

Though stomach acids continue to process the feed, the main work of digestion is done in the intestines. In the small intestine it mixes with enzymes from other organs to extract and distribute the nutrients. In the large intestine, most of the fluid is squeezed out and the fibre broken down. Then of course, the waste is eliminated.

The digestive system, broken down into percentages, is as follows: The stomach is about 14%, the small intestine comprises about 30%, and the large intestine, which is almost evenly split between the cecum and the colon, is 60%. The whole digestive process takes about two days from ingestion to elimination.

A healthy, adult horse should eat about 25-30 pounds of feed a day, and drink about 1 pound of water for every 4 pounds of food. About 1/3 of the feed should be from grazing, the rest should be divided between good quality hay and feed.

Digestive Health Issues

The reason for a horse's continuous grazing is that, although it cannot hold much food at once, an empty stomach can rupture due to gas build up. They are also prone to very serious intestinal problems which can lead to having to euthanize your animal. One of these issues is due, in part, to the nature of its grazing habits.

A horse will graze very close to the dirt, and so can swallow a lot of grit and sand along with its food. This is impossible for a horse to digest, so it can get lodged in the large intestine, causing pain and constipation. If it is severe enough, the intestine can become twisted around. This is a life-threatening condition which can't always be reversed.

Their adult teeth, which they get at about the age of two, will continue to grow - the length is an indication of the horses age - so it is important to maintain them properly. The amount of dirt they consume can also cause problems with their teeth. An equine dentist should examine your horse about once every 12 months for maintenance, immediately of there is a problem.

A horse has its own internal furnace to keep it warm in the cold months, and for this furnace to work properly, it needs fuel. Hay is processed in the digestive tract to provide heat for the animal, so it needs plenty of hay available for warmth.


You always see people in film and on TV feeding horses apples, carrots, sugar cubes, and other snacks. But, are these types of food good for a horse?

Horses do have a bit of a sweet tooth, and it is okay to give them an occasional treat. Snacks that horses can eat are sugar cubes, peppermints, apples, carrots, and sunflower seeds. Make sure to cut the apples or carrots into bite-sized pieces so the horse can digest them easily and avoid choking.

Foods that are off-limits to horses are cabbage, broccoli, potatoes, chocolate, and other foods that can exacerbate the horses tendency to colic, as this can be painful and dangerous to your horse.

If you encounter a horse that is not yours, or that you do not know well, make sure to ask the horse's owner if it is okay to give it a treat. Many horses are on strictly regimented diets and feeding schedules, or they may have health problems that you don't know about.

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This post was posted in Horses and was tagged with horse feed, Horse Digestion


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