A healthy digestive system is the foundation of a healthy horse – it even provides the ‘first line of defense’ for the immune system.  Here we share some of our top tips for supporting digestive health this winter, including some specific advice for senior horses and ponies who may need a little more care and attention…

Feed ad lib forage (ideally)

This may sound like old news, but the importance should never be under-estimated. Forage:

- Provides fibre which is essential for maintaining hindgut health

- Increases time spent chewing helping to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers. Saliva provides a natural buffer to stomach acid but unlike people, horses only produce saliva when they chew. The pH in some regions of the stomach is as low as battery acid!

- Provides a valuable source of energy (calories) to maintain condition, helping to reduce the reliance on ‘hard feed’

Although ad lib forage is not always suitable for good doers, total intake should not be restricted to less than 1.5% of current bodyweight (on a dry matter basis) per day. In practice, this equates to approximately 9kg of hay (or 11kg if you intend to soak it first) for a 500kg horse without grazing. Whilst the thought of winter poo-picking and mucking out may not be an attractive one (especially when it involves pushing wheelbarrows through boggy gateways and across a yard that resembles an ice-rink), counting droppings may be a more practical way of monitoring forage intake if you don’t know how much your horse weighs or he has access to grazing.

Did you know? Forage replacers are essential for horses and ponies no longer able to manage long fibre (hay and haylage) or grazing. Check out our blog on feeding horses with dental issues or speak to a nutritionist for more advice.

Reduce starch intake

If your horse is unable to maintain weight on forage alone, look for fibre-based feeds containing low or restricted levels of cereal starch. Feeds high in oil are a great option for poor doers as weight for weight, oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in energy compared to cereals but starch (and sugar) free!

Go slow!

Frequent or sudden changes in diet can lead to a number of digestive upsets so it’s important to make changes slowly, including changes in forage. In fact, changes in forage may pose a greater risk to your horse’s health than changes in feed – the risk of colic has been seen to be 5-10 times higher following a recent change of hay! As a general guide, replace no more than 500g of old feed for 500g of new feed every other day for horses (less for ponies) and try to make changes in forage over a minimum of 3 weeks. Ideally changes in management should be made gradually too. Switching from 24/7 grass turnout to stabling 24/7 and feeding dry hay has been seen to cause drier droppings and reduced gut motility, despite increased water intake.

Did you know? Aging may lead to reduced bacterial diversity in the large intestine which may make some older horse more sensitive to changes in diet.

Chop chop

We all like to see our horse’s enjoying their feed but rapid intake of meals may lead insufficient chewing, reduced saliva production and food passing through the digestive system too quickly and in turn, conditions such as choke and colic. Where possible, try adding short chopped fibre to meals to help slow eating time. Feeding small amounts of short chopped fibre (or forage) prior to exercise also helps to prevent ‘gastric splashing’, helping to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers.

Avoid long periods without forage

If your horse is ‘battling the bulge’, look for ways to restrict his calorie intake whilst extending eating time. Possible options include:

- Dividing restricted rations into as many small servings as possible

- Splitting forage between several, double-layered, small-holed haylage nets - Using ‘slow feeders’

- Feeding soaked hay - soaking helps to reduce the water-soluble carbohydrate or ‘sugar’ content and less sugar means fewer calories

-Replacing up to 30% of his forage intake with straw to dilute the calorie content – this may even mean you don’t need to restrict his total intake so severely

Did you know? Forage replacers should be divided into a minimum of 4 meals for horses without access to grazing.

Feed small meals

Feeding large meals might be tempting if your horse is prone to weight loss but may come at a cost, including an increased risk of gastric ulcers, colic, tying up and laminitis, particularly if cereal based. They may even contribute to weight loss! Feed no more than 2kg per meal for horses (dry weight) and less for ponies.

Look after his teeth

Make sure your horse’s teeth are checked regularly by a vet or equine dental technician (senior horses may need more frequent visits) as difficulty chewing may lead to weight loss, colic or loose droppings.

You can lead a horse to water…

Reduced water intake is a risk factor for colic so remember to break the ice on buckets and troughs and try to keep an eye on how much your horse is drinking, especially if he is stabled and fed dry hay. Feeding a mash is an obvious way to increase your horse’s water intake but did you know it might also encourage him to drink more?

Did you know? Senior horses may be reluctant to drink cold water due to sensitive teeth. Try adding hot water to buckets to take the chill off and using warm water to soak cubes and mashes.

Pro and prebiotics

The large intestine or ‘hindgut’ is home to trillions of tiny microbes including bacteria, yeast and fungi which are essential for fibre digestion and regulating the immune system. Although they should never be used as a substitute for a high fibre diet or good management, pro and prebiotics may help to maintain a healthy population of microbes in your horse’s gut.

When you hear the word ‘probiotic’ you may think of the live bacteria in well-known yoghurt drinks but what does it mean for our horses? Live bacteria are not licensed for use in horses in the UK (or the EU) but live yeast may help to maintain a more stable pH in the hindgut and improve fibre digestibility. Prebotics are non-digestible ingredients (typically high in fibre) aimed at supporting the health and proliferation of ‘good bacteria’. Fructo-oligosaccharides or ‘FOS’ provide a source of ‘food’ for ‘good bacteria’ and mannan-oligosaccharides or ‘MOS’ may help to support gut health and immunity by helping to remove ‘bad bacteria’ from the gut.

For more advice on supporting your horse’s digestive health contact the SPILLERS Care-Line.