Grain and Your Horse’s Digestive System: Understanding the Implications

Horse Digestion

Learn the facts on your horse’s digestive system

Should I feed my horse grain? How much grain should I feed my horse? What do I feed if I don’t feed grain? What are the issues with feeding grain?

These are just a handful of the questions we hear about feeding your horse. Grain is a hot topic – and for good reason.

To put it bluntly, your horse does not need grain. Your horse needs calories, a balanced diet, and roughage – all of this can happen without feeding your horse grain. In fact, grain can have serious implications for your horse’s digestive system.

Controversial statement? Maybe – but we stand by it. Keep reading to learn the facts on the horse digestive system and how grain impacts your horse’s health.

Understanding Your Horse’s Digestion System

When it comes to your horse’s digestive system, it really is all about balance and getting the little things right.

Feeding your horse too much or not enough, making errors in nutrient ratios, changing the feed, or feeding too much grain (or any grain at all) can have large consequences for your horse’s sensitive digestion system.  

How your horse’s digestion system works:

  1. Stomach: chewed food is broken down by gastric acid so it can be released into the small intestine and pepsin is released to aid in protein digestion. In relation to their size, horses have a very small stomach, requiring frequent small meals throughout the day.  
  2. Small Intestine: starches, proteins, and fats are digested by enzymes and absorbed. It can be difficult for the amylase enzyme to digest starch in cereal grains due to the protective shell/layer on most grains.

    Undigested starch can create issues in your horse’s hindgut, leading to excess lactic acid production and accumulation, which in turn may cause conditions such as colic, laminitis, or metabolic acidosis.

    It’s important to remember that food moves through your horse’s small intestine very quickly (45 minutes after eating), making it difficult for horses to digest and absorb large volumes of food.
  3. Hindgut: microbial digestion breaks down fibrous materials including structural carbohydrates. The horse digestion process relies on this fermentation for maximum absorption of nutrients and energy conversion from feed and supplements. During fermentation, fiber and short chain fatty acids are converted into carbohydrates, providing energy for your horse.

    The hindgut is made up of the cecum, large and small colon, and the rectum. The hindgut, particularly the cecum and large colon are at risk of developing impactions and digestive upset. Impaction occurs when your horse eats large amounts of dry feed, such as grain, which can result in bowel obstructions, ultimately leading to colic.

    When fermented and digested food enters the small colon, this organ absorbs as much water as possible from this material and fecal matter is created which is ultimately released as feces.

Gastric Ulcers, Colic, Laminitis and Other Horse Digestive Disorders

Your horse is what they eat and when you feed it a diet lacking in balanced nutrients or too many hard-to-digest grains – your horse is at risk for a long list of digestive disorders.

  • Gastric ulcers: 50 – 90% of horses experience gastric (stomach) ulcers. Too much gastric acid in the stomach can cause the protective mucosa layer to break-down, causing lesions or ulcers.

    High grain diets, not enough roughage, restrictive feeding (prolonged empty stomach), stress, some medications, and intense exercise demands may all contribute to gastric ulcers. Did you know that performance horses are at higher risk of developing gastric ulcers?
  • Colic: is a general term to describe abdominal or stomach discomfort in horses. Colic is extremely common and is the leading cause of death of horses. Colic can be hard to diagnose and find the root cause.

    Experts do agree that risk factors including large amounts of grain, not enough forage, hay quality, dehydration, too much stall time, and changes in activity levels may contribute to colic.
  • Laminitis: is the inflammation of the tissue (laminae) between the hoof and coffin bone. This condition can be extremely uncomfortable and debilitating.

    There are several causes of this treatable condition including underlying endocrine diseases, a diet high in sugars, grain overload, too much work on hard surfaces, or the stresses placed on limbs due to excess weight or injury.

Excess grain, poor nutritional balance, insufficient forage, and poor gut health can lead to other digestive disorders, such as colitis, dysbiosis, enteritis, hindgut acidosis, colonic ulcers, and right dorsal colitis.

How to Feed Your Horse for Beneficial Digestive Health

Your horse has a complex and sensitive digestive system. Get the balance of nutrients, hydration, and feed sources wrong, and your horse is at risk for illness and poor performance.

Keep in mind these feeding guidelines to support your horse’s digestive health:

  1. High quality forage free from pesticides, chemicals, and irritants should be the foundation of your horse’s diet. Forage is a reliable source of calories, carbohydrates,  roughage (fiber), vitamins, protein, and minerals.
  2. Remember balanced nutrition is critical. Make sure your horse is getting enough carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals, vitamins, water, and electrolytes to meet their unique needs. Everything from immune system health, performance health, muscle development, and digestion is tied to what and how you feed your horse.
  3. Feed your horse small meals frequently throughout the day. Ideally, your horse should be able to graze all day – just as nature intended. Feed passes through your horse’s stomach and small intestine very quickly. This can cause feelings of hunger, triggering your horse to eat too much at the next opportunity and it can cause a gastric acid build-up contributing to ulcers.
  4. Hydration and electrolytes are essential to supporting digestion, energy levels, and overall horse health. Your horse needs one gallon of water for every 100 pounds of body weight daily. If your horse has a high sweat rate, does a lot of exercise or work, or you live in a warm climate – pay extra attention to electrolytes.
  5. Think twice about grain and why you’re feeding it to your horse. All too often, grains are overprocessed, hard to digest, and lack the nutrients your horse needs. Some people choose to feed grains in an effort to meet caloric demands – however, your horse can meet their energy demands from high-quality forage and a consistent feeding schedule. Remember, your horse is designed to eat forage – not oats, barley, and rye.
  6. Prioritize pasture turnout, giving your horse ample time to graze and chew their food properly and ensuring a constant intake of forage to support consistent acid production and movement through the hindgut.
  7. Learn about the horse microbiome and its critical role in horse digestive and immune system health. The health of your horse’s microbiome is integral to the breakdown, fermentation, and absorption of nutrients.

Every horse is unique – what works for your friend’s horse may not work for your horse. Always consult your veterinarian and trainer before making changes to your horse’s diet, exercise routine, and general day-to-day routine. Your horse’s digestive system is so sensitive that a small change can have large ramifications.

Keep Learning About Grain, Horse Digestion, Nutrition, and Performance

The good news is there is so much information available about horse digestion, performance, and nutrition. But it can be difficult to know who to trust or to find clear information.

Start with watching these videos, you will learn a lot and be entertained. We promise these horse videos are not boring!

And then read these Grand Meadows articles about the horse digestive system, equine microbiome, and horse health in general:

As always, the Grand Meadows team is here to answer your questions about how you can support your horse’s overall health and wellness. Contact us with your questions.