Feeding Horses Prone to Digestive Upset

The term digestive upset is pretty vague and covers the many ways things can go wrong in the horse’s digestive tract. Colic, ulcers, hindgut upset, and diarrhea (verified to not be of bacterial or viral causes) would all fall under this umbrella term.

While there are some subtle specifics that are required to support some causes of digestive upset, the basics are the same for all issues.

Feeding the horse that is prone to digestive upset is a very simple undertaking if taken at face value. We just have to follow the basic tenants of a good nutrition program. However, you often find that in practical situations that some of those basic tenants aren’t quite followed to the degree necessary to keep the more sensitive horse’s digestive tract healthy.

A good nutrition program will provide:

  • Access to pasture or hay fed in an amount that the horse doesn’t spend long periods of time with an empty stomach (read more about how often to feed your horses here)
  • Hay that is free from dust, mold, weeds or trash
  • A slow transition when introducing a new feed or forage (read more about safely transitioning diets here)
  • Split feed into multiple small meals
  • Select the appropriate feed for your horse’s needs

The last bullet point suggests that you need to select the appropriate feed. How do you know what feed is appropriate for your horse? That is something we are always happy to help with during an individualized nutrition consultation and we will discuss broadly in this article.

Horses prone to ulcers can benefit from lower NSC (non-structural carbohydrates; sugar + starch) feeds because sugar, specifically, can be fermented to volatile fatty acids (VFAs) in the stomach. VFAs have been shown to exacerbate the detrimental impact of stomach acid on the non-glandular portion of the stomach. For the harder keeper that is prone to ulcers, rely on products like Senior Sport or Resolve® that bring in calories through fat and fiber. Lower NSC, combined with smaller meals and consistent access to forage will help decrease the risk of ulcer reoccurrence in ulcer prone horses. All said, it is important to remember that nutrition is only one factor contributing to ulcers in horses.

The hindgut of the horse is populated by a diverse population of microbes that turn forage into energy that can be used by the horse. Digestive upset in the hindgut can show up in a variety of ways, including some types of colic as well as chronic diarrhea. The best way to support a healthy hindgut is to provide good quality fiber. In situations where hay quality isn’t ideal or the horse can no longer eat adequate amounts of long stem hay, look for products that are high in fiber that come from highly digestible sources. Tribute has many high fiber options to choose from to meet a variety of horse’s needs, which include Seniority, Senior Sport, Resolve® and Wholesome Blends Senior.

Added prebiotics and probiotics support the health of the entire digestive tract, but provide particular benefits to the hindgut. Every Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition product contains Equi-Ferm XL®, which has shown, through research, to positively influence the microbial population of the hindgut during stress. Equi-Ferm XL® and Advance Paste® can be used as additional support for horses with digestive problems.

Horses that are particularly prone to colic benefit from a very consistent diet. Fixed formula feeds ensure that site of digestion and nutrient supply remain the same. Also, keep in mind that changes in hay should be managed carefully.

A final consideration that is rarely mentioned is the importance of movement to stimulate gut motility. Horses evolved to eat multiple small meals throughout the day and they often had to travel long distances to find food. While 24/7 turnout isn’t realistic for every horse owner, consider ways to increase your horse’s opportunity for daily movement. Dry lot turnout, stall runs, walkers and hand-walking are all possible options when true turnout isn’t accessible. This can be a particularly useful addition to the management of horses that have experienced repeat impaction or gas colic episodes.

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
Back to news