Enzymes, What Do They Do for Your Horse?

When a horse eats, much of its feed is made up of LARGE carbohydrate, fat and protein molecules. The horse can only absorb tiny little molecules from its gut (because if big stuff was able to cross from the gut into your horse’s body all sorts of bacteria, toxins and general muck would pass into the body and cause disease havoc!).

So before absorption from the small intestine can occur, the big stuff must be chopped up into little stuff. And it is enzymes in your horse’s gut that do this chopping.

It is easiest to think of digestive enzymes as little pairs of scissors. Let’s look at starch as an example. Starch (found in cereal grains like barley and corn/maize) is made up of lots of glucose molecules, all joined together. The job of the starch digesting enzymes in your horse’s small intestine is to cut starch into single pieces of glucose. Then it is the glucose that your horse is able to absorb.

Each nutrient has its own specific set of enzymes in your horse’s small intestine. So there are specific enzymes to digest/chop up starch, protein and fats/oils.

To learn more about enzymes and your horse’s digestive system, read our article The Gastrointestinal Tract: The Key to Feeding Your Horse

 

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Meal Size: Why Should it Be Little and Often?

We have all been told ‘Little and often’ when it comes to feeding horses. But why?

Well, when you consider horses are ‘grazers’ and their gut has been designed to work best with small amounts being consumed constantly over long periods of the day and night (they eat for up to 17 hours a day, can you imagine having to do that!) it makes sense that they should be fed small meals frequently.

But let me give you a visual (in words) on why it is best to feed little and often… In the horse’s small intestine there are things called enzymes, which are like tiny pairs of scissors. An enzymes job is to cut big things like protein, starch and fats up into very small things like amino acids (the building blocks of protein), glucose the building block of starch) and fatty acids (a building block of fats).

Unless the enzymes chop protein, starch and fat up they will not get absorbed as they are far too big to cross the intestinal wall intact. So for absorption to occur, these little enzymes MUST chop the big stuff into little stuff!

Now, imagine I was to give you a pair of scissors and then held up a long piece of ribbon. If I walked past you very, very slowly holding this ribbon and said ‘chop the ribbon into small pieces’, you would have plenty of time to chop the ribbon multiple times into small pieces. This is what happens in the gut. If a piece of protein for example goes moving through the small intestine very very slowly, the little enzymes have plenty of time to chop it up into amino acids so it can be absorbed.

Now imagine if I held up another piece of ribbon, exactly the same as the first, but this time I RUN past you and tell you to chop it up… you might get one shot at it (I am not very fast!) before it is gone. And this is exactly what happens in the gut. If feed is moving too quickly through the gut the poor little enzymes simply don’t get enough time to chop anything up. Meaning it simply won’t be absorbed.

So back to meal size and the little and often concept… when you feed small meals, the feed will move nice and slowly through the gut and the enzymes will be able to do their job and fully digest it so your horse gains full benefit.

Feed large meals and all of a sudden you increase the speed with which it will travel through the gut and reduce the amount of time the enzymes have to do their cutting… meaning your horse misses out on a lot of the value from that feed. It will be digested to some extent in the hindgut but a lot of value is lost.

So while not the only reason you should feed little and often, it is a really important one to keep in mind.

If you have a horse struggling to gain weight eating huge feeds, you might find you get better results by feeding less! Something to consider 

 

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The Gastrointestinal Tract: The Key to Feeding Your Horse

Ask any zoo-based nutritionist and they will tell you that understanding a particular animal’s gastrointestinal physiology is the key to understanding what and how to feed them. The shape, size and structure of an animal’s gut reflect what their natural diet consists of, and horses are no exception. Understanding the gastrointestinal tract is the key to feeding your horse correctly.

We know that horses are herbivores and we know that they graze for long periods each day if they have pasture available. You will also be familiar with the advice to feed ‘little and often’ and to base your horse’s diet on fibre. The reason why you should do these things lies in the way their gut is structured.

Monogastric Hindgut Fermenter

The horse can be classified as a monogastric (or single stomached) hindgut fermenter whose gastrointestinal tract consists of the mouth, stomach, small intestine, caecum, large colon, small colon and rectum (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The structure of the gastrointestinal tract of the horse (Drawing L. Ferguson)

The Mouth

Horses use their mobile upper lip and incisors to select and shear forage from its base or to select and pick up hay or concentrate feeds they are fed. Horses are incredibly clever with their lips and teeth and are able to carefully select feeds and forages that they either wish or do not wish to eat (often much to the frustration of their owners).

Once the feed is in the mouth it is pushed by the tongue to the molars at the back of the mouth where it is chewed extensively. During chewing, the particle size of the feed is reduced to facilitate digestion further down the gastrointestinal tract and, importantly, it is mixed with saliva. The saliva lubricates the feed, making it easy to swallow (thus preventing choke), and also provides some buffering to protect the upper regions of the stomach from the acids produced in the lower regions of the stomach. Once the feed is chewed sufficiently it is swallowed and travels down the oesophagus into the stomach.

The Stomach

The stomach of the horse is a “J” shaped organ with a capacity of approximately 5 – 15 litres meaning the stomach comprises around only 10% of the total volume of the horse’s digestive tract. The stomach has two major functions. These are:

  • The storage and controlled release of feed into the small intestine; and
  • The initiation of protein digestion.

The stomach of the horse is unique in comparison to other monogastrics like dogs and humans (both meal feeders) for two reasons: the first is that acidic gastric juices are constantly secreted into the stomach (dogs and humans only secrete gastric juices when they see or start to eat food); and the second is that feed tends to pass rapidly through the stomach (unlike in carnivorous monogastrics like dogs where food spends a large amount of time in the stomach).

While both of these features are well suited to the grazing horse consuming a high fibre diet, it is likely that these same design features play a role in the incidence of gastric ulcers in horses. For more information on gastric ulcers in horses, read our FeedXL Newsletter #8 – Equine Gastric Ulcers.

Once feed is released from the stomach it enters the small intestine.

The Small Intestine

The small intestine is where a majority of protein, fats and non-structural carbohydrates (starch and simple sugars) are digested and absorbed. The small intestine of a 500 kg (1100 lb) horse is approximately 20 to 27 meters long and has a capacity of 55 to 70 litres.

When feeds enter the small intestine they are mixed with digestive enzymes. These enzymes include proteases that digest protein, lipases that digest fats and glycanases, that digest non-structural carbohydrates. These enzymes act much like scissors, cutting the large protein, fat and carbohydrate molecules into very small pieces that can be absorbed from the small intestine into the horse’s bloodstream or lymph for transportation around the body.

The passage rate of feed through the small intestine is relatively rapid, with feed passing through the entire small intestine in as little as 45 minutes. Given that the feed can move so quickly it is very important that everything entering the small intestine is easy to digest. Horses have a natural ability to extensively digest fats and proteins, however starch from raw cereal grains is very difficult for horses to digest in the small intestine. For this reason, cereal grains must be cooked to improve its digestibility in the small intestine (read FeedXL Newsletter #18 Feed Cooked Grains).

At the end of the small intestine nearly all of the fat, simple carbohydrate and a majority of the protein components should have been digested, leaving only the structural carbohydrate or fibre components to continue on and enter the hindgut.

The Hindgut

In the horse, the caecum, large colon, small colon and rectum are collectively referred to as the ‘hindgut’. The hindgut is a specialised structure the horse has developed to enable them to digest high fibre forages.

Monogastric animals do not possess the enzymes necessary to digest fibre. In order to extract the energy from fibrous feeds the horse houses billions of bacteria in its hindgut. These bacteria do possess the enzymes necessary for fibre digestion and they digest the fibre that enters the horse’s hindgut in a process known as fermentation. As bacteria ferment the fibre in the horse’s hindgut they produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs). These VFAs are absorbed and used by the horse as a source of energy. In fact, for horses consuming pasture or hay as the major component of their diet, these VFAs are their main source of energy.

The fermentation of fibre is a lengthy process. So the passage rate of feed through the horse’s hindgut is slowed dramatically, with feed taking from 50 hours to several days to travel from the end of the small intestine to the rectum where it is excreted as faeces, ensuring there is plenty of time for extensive fermentation to take place. This passage rate will vary however depending on how much feed a horse is eating, speeding up if large amounts of hay or pasture are consumed.

Any starch that is left undigested as it passes through the small intestine is also fermented in the hindgut. However, unlike the steady fermentation of fibre, the fermentation of starch is a rapid process. During this rapid fermentation, VFAs are produced in such large amounts that the ability of the horse to absorb them is overwhelmed. Lactic acid is also produced in large quantities and the accumulation of these acids in the horse’s hindgut causes a condition known as hindgut acidosis. Hindgut acidosis can cause serious diseases including laminitis and colic as well as loss of appetite, reduced production of vitamins, changes in behaviour and a reduced ability to digest fibre. Preventing starch from entering the hindgut must be a priority when feeding all horses. To read more about starch digestion in detail and about feeding grain, read our FeedXL Newsletter #18 – Feeding Cooked Grains.

The hindgut’s second most important function is to reabsorb and conserve electrolytes and water that have been secreted from the body into the gastrointestinal tract during the digestion process in order to prevent dehydration and electrolyte deficiency.

It is absolutely critical to keep the hindgut healthy. For more information on the hindgut and how to keep it healthy, read our FeedXL Newsletter #15 – Keeping the Hindgut Healthy.

Understand the gut and you will understand how to feed

Because of the structure of the horse’s gut we know:

  • Horses should be fed little and often (to make sure their stomach which is continuously secreting acid is never empty),
  • Non-structural carbohydrates must be easy to digest in the small intestine and
  • The diet should always be based on large amounts of forage to keep their hindgut full and healthy.

When putting together your horse’s diet and daily feeding routine you should always be asking yourself, what impact if any will this have on the stomach, the small intestine or the hindgut. If you find something that is not ideal, look for ways you can make it suit the horse a little better. For example, if your horse is not able to graze and you are only able to feed your horse twice a day, put its hay into a feeder like a small hole hay net so it takes much more time to eat the hay than if it was just put into an open feeder or on the ground.

Feeding to suit the structure of the gut and keeping it healthy means you will always have a horse that is healthy, on the inside and out.

 

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida Richards


Dr Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

Keeping the Hindgut Healthy

Like humans, horses are classified as monogastrics, however unlike humans, horses have a highly specialised and enlarged caecum and colon, collectively known as the ‘hindgut’.

What role does the hindgut play in maintaining overall health?  

The hindgut plays some important roles in horse health including:

  • Fibre Digestion: horses don’t have the enzymes necessary to digest fibrous feeds like pasture and hay. However, in their hindgut they house many trillions of bacteria that exist in a symbiotic relationship with the horse. The horse provides them with somewhere warm and moist to live that has a constant supply of fibrous ‘food’ which the bacteria digest via a process of fermentation. In return, the bacteria give the horse a majority of the energy contained in the fibrous feeds in the form of volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which the horse absorbs and burns as fuel for muscle and organs.
  • Hydration: the hindgut and the fibrous material within it provide a reservoir of water for the horse which may be absorbed when needed to keep the horse hydrated.
  • Electrolyte Balance: the hindgut and the fibrous feeds within it also serve as a resource of electrolytes that can be absorbed when needed.
  • Vitamin Supply: the bacteria that ferment fibrous feeds also produce vitamins that may be absorbed and used by the horse, including B-group vitamins like thiamine (vitamin B1) and biotin as well as vitamin K.
  • Immune Function, Disease, and Behaviour: while we still understand very little about the full role of the bacteria who live in a horse’s hindgut, it is becoming increasingly clear in multiple animal species, including humans that the bacteria that live in the intestines play a huge role in control of immune function, the development of disease (like type 2 diabetes in humans) and also in production of hormones that can affect behaviour.

What are the implications of an unhealthy hindgut?

If the hindgut is compromised, many health problems can arise including:

  • Colic: too little fibre, dehydration, the accumulation of dirt and sand or the fermentation of grain in the hindgut are just a few situations that may lead to serious cases of colic.
  • Weight loss: an unhealthy hindgut that does not have access to ample forage or has unbalanced bacterial populations due to the fermentation of grain can lead to a reduced feed use efficiency and weight loss.
  • Diarrhoea: a hindgut that is irritated by the accumulation of dirt and sand or parasites, rapid changing of diet ingredients, too little forage, oral antibiotics that disrupt hindgut bacterial populations or the excessive fermentation of grains can all lead to diarrhoea.
  • Vitamin deficiency: the fermentation of grains or use of oral antibiotics can disturb bacterial populations in the hindgut which in turn leads to a reduced production of vitamins like the B-group vitamins and vitamin K.
  • Loss of appetite: allowing grains to be fermented in the hindgut can lead to the production of thiaminase, an enzyme that destroys the vitamin thiamine (B1). A thiamine deficiency can then lead to a loss of appetite.
  • Altered behaviour: studies have shown that horses with acidic hindgut contents resulting from the fermentation of grain are more likely to exhibit abnormal behaviour. Altered behaviour may also arise if bacterial populations are disrupted which then changes production of hormones that affect behaviour.
  • Compromised immune function and development of disease: again this is a poorly understood area of research in equines but gathering evidence in multiple animal species suggests that if we disrupt hindgut bacterial populations we are going to put our horses at increased risk of disease and compromised immune function.

8 tips to keep your horse’s hindgut healthy

Follow these tips for keeping your horse’s hindgut functioning normally:

1. Feed plenty of forage

A healthy hindgut is almost completely dependent on feeding enough forage. Bulky forage is needed to keep the hindgut full to prevent it from physically collapsing on itself or twisting up in a severe case of colic. Healthy bacterial populations are also dependent on having lots of fibre available for fermentation.

As a rule feed a minimum of 1.5 kg per every 100 kg of bodyweight in forage per day (1.5% of bodyweight, which equates to a minimum of 7.5 kg/day for a 500 kg horse). The more forage you can feed the better, so unless you have a good reason for limiting your horse’s forage intake, feed a completely forage diet, balanced for vitamins and minerals. Only use grains or grain based feeds when absolutely necessary.

Note: If you are concerned about a weight disadvantage in racing and other performance horses due to large amounts of forage being carried in the gut, reduce the amount of forage being fed slightly in the days leading up to a race or event.

2. Feed cooked grains or grain based feeds to prevent grain starch being fermented in the hindgut

Starch fermentation in the hindgut will disrupt bacterial populations, reducing the population of beneficial fibre fermenting bacteria and favouring the undesirable starch and sugar fermenting bacteria. If enough starch is fermented, VFAs and lactic acid will build up, creating hindgut acidosis which can then lead to serious issues like laminitis, endotoxemia and damage to the hindgut wall (hindgut ulcers).

So if you feed grains or grain based feeds, always use a cooked product (ie steam flaked, micronized, extruded or boiled) as uncooked grains, with the exception of oats, are poorly digested in the horse’s small intestine and will almost certainly end up being fermented in the hindgut. Oats may be fed uncooked but feed them only in small amounts per meal.

3. Try to avoid high fructan forages

Some forages like oat, wheat or barley forage and ryegrass can contain large amounts of the carbohydrate fructan. Fructan is not digested in the small intestine, but it is readily fermented by the bacteria in the hindgut and, like grain starch, may cause a shift in bacterial populations away from the beneficial fibre fermenting bacteria.

4. Feed in small meals

When feeding grains, never exceed 0.5 kg per 100 kg of bodyweight (0.5% bodyweight) in any one meal, keeping mind this is the maximum. The smaller you can keep meal size the better. Feeding grains in larger meals will make the feed travel quickly through the small intestine and will push undigested grains into the hindgut where their starch will be rapidly fermented.

5. Make sure your horse is drinking enough water

Water intake is crucial for maintaining a healthy hindgut. Dehydration will result in the hindgut contents drying out too much and can lead to problems like impaction colic.

If you live in a cold climate offering your horses warmed water may help to increase their water intake. If you suspect your horse is not drinking enough water, try adding molasses or other flavourings your horse might like to the water. Make sure horses feel safe around their watering point and ensure that they always have access to water and a salt lick. If you are really struggling to get your horse to drink enough, consider adding some salt or an electrolyte supplement to their feed to stimulate thirst. If however your horse stops eating its feed, reduce the amount of salt or electrolyte you are giving until you find the amount your horse will eat happily each day.

6. Remove sand and dirt from the hindgut regularly

If your horse is grazing in dry/drought conditions or is housed in a dry lot or sand yard you should feed psyllium husk on a regular basis to remove sand and dirt from the hindgut to prevent it accumulating to the point where it will cause problems.

Feeding 50 grams of psyllium husk per 100 kg bodyweight for 5 days in every one month will help to remove any sand or dirt that may have accumulated in the hindgut. It is particularly important to do this if you horse is receiving restricted amounts of pasture or hay each day.

7. Make all dietary changes slowly

 

Sudden changes in feed can upset the balance of bacteria in the hindgut or can lead to diarrhoea or colic. Making dietary changes slowly over a period of 7 to 14 days (taking longer for the more dramatic changes – i.e. if you were changing from Timothy hay to a blend of timothy and alfalfa/lucerne hay you could do this over 7 days. If however you were changing to a diet that included grains you should introduce the grains slowly over 14 days or longer depending on how well the horse adapts to the new diet) will help to reduce or eliminate any negative impact of a new diet.

8. Avoid the prolonged use of oral antibiotics

Where possible try to use injectable antibiotics. If your horse does have to be on oral antibiotics, feed as much forage as possible during and following the treatment to maintain an environment in the hindgut that favours the more beneficial fibre fermenting bacteria.

Note:
Most ‘probiotics’ have limited usefulness when it comes to repopulating a horse’s hindgut following antibiotic treatment. Many probiotics contain Lactobacillus spp bacteria which are useful for outcompeting pathogenic bacteria, but are not really what you want your horse’s hindgut populated with. If you feel it is necessary, discuss the option of nasogastric tubing your horse with a warm slurry made with water and the manure from a healthy horse with your veterinarian.

When you are feeding, always think about the hindgut!

When you are making feed choices for your horse you should always be thinking about how what you are feeding will impact the hindgut. The 8 tips listed above will keep your horse’s hindgut healthy so it can continue to provide your horse with a good supply of energy and beneficial vitamins. In addition, immune function will be maintained and the risk of problems like colic, loss of appetite, diarrhoea and abnormal behaviour will be reduced.

The hindgut is so critically important to your horse’s overall health! It is so incredibly important that you look after it!

 

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida Richards


Dr Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

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