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Horses and other members of the equine family — including ponies, mules, donkeys and zebras — constitute a unique species in the animal kingdom. Horses are designed to graze continuously, and keeping some type of forage in their stomachs at all times is a crucial element to maintaining a healthy and active equine digestive system.
The most common equine health problems are similar overall, despite vast differences between horse breeds and different care requirements for mares, stallions and geldings — along with special needs of horses including foals, yearlings and seniors. Understanding the factors and stressors that cause health issues in horses can give you an advantage when it comes to disease prevention.
Although there are numerous breeds within the horse family, ranging in size from miniature horses and ponies to draft horses like Clydesdales and Shires, most horses can be grouped according to their main purpose and current occupation:
The digestive system of a horse is designed to work continuously, which means a horse needs to keep some type of roughage in its stomach at all times.
The feed requirements increase considerably if the horse is a performance horse, such as a racehorse or a jumper, or if it becomes part of a breeding program. Horses that experience an increase in physical activity or are kept as breeding stallions and broodmares should be given higher-calorie feeds, such as grain and oats, along with probiotic supplements to aid with digestion. Feed quantity requirements for all sizes of horses at all activity levels and in every stage of life can be calculated with a feed table chart.
A horse’s stomach can be divided into two parts — the first portion of which is simple, like a human’s, and a more complex second portion called a cecum (or caecum). The cecum acts like a vat that employs a microbial fermentation process, similar to that of the bovine rumen, to break down fibrous material.
A horse’s efficient digestion system extracts every bit of nutrition and moisture content before expelling the waste byproducts as manure. Maintaining the balance of “good” beneficial bacteria in a horse’s gut helps the animal to derive the maximum nutrition from their feed.
If the horse’s digestion system doesn’t stay in balance, several health problems can result, such as the following.
If a horse does not keep enough forage material in its digestive system, the stomach will shrink and push caustic stomach acid upward — creating the equine version of acid reflux. The excess acid burns the delicate stomach lining and causes painful gastric ulcers, leading to a marked decrease in appetite — which only exacerbates the problem by further reducing the amount of forage in the stomach.
Although stomach ulcers can appear in nearly every horse kept in a variety of environments and trained in numerous disciplines, this issue is especially prevalent among showhorses, sporthorses and performance horses due to hours of trailer travel, housing in stable environments and the feeding of fewer meals that are often higher in calories.
Preventing a horse from engaging in grazing behavior can have unhealthy consequences that go beyond stomach ulcers. Some reasons for these problems include:
One of the deadliest and most common horse ailments is colic — abdominal pain caused by an impaction in the bowels that brings the digestive system to an ominous halt. These impactions can consist of excess sand in the gut, improperly or undigested grains, parasites or a gas lock. Symptoms of colic in horses vary, but colic is always accompanied by a lack of fresh manure in the surrounding area and sure signs that your horse is uncomfortable — including pawing, biting at the side, and attempting to lie down and roll.
Horses are not designed to throw up or regurgitate, so blockages of the intestines can lead to a fluid buildup in the gut. In severe cases, the stomach may rupture. Deadly complications can occur within mere hours of the initial impaction.
If you suspect that your horse has colic, it is advisable to contact your vet immediately. Keep your horse from lying down or rolling by gently walking the animal for up to an hour, which can help to stimulate the gut and massage the impaction loose. If your horse passes manure, it’s a very good sign that the blockage has been dislodged and the digestive system is functioning again.
A horse may have “gone off its feed” due to equine ulcers, pain, illness, or a dislike for the taste of a certain kind of feed. One common reason why your horse isn’t eating enough is abscesses in the mouth, which are caused by the sharp hooks of a horse’s own teeth.
Horse teeth grow continuously. Pastured horses with unlimited access to grass will wear down their teeth naturally.
When horses are given hay and other feeds that are “pre-picked” — meaning these feeds do not require the animal to tear vegetation to eat — then the growing teeth will not wear down correctly and can cause painful abscesses. A horse with abscesses loses its appetite and subsequent weight while exhibiting irritability, a behavioral change which is particularly noticeable in horses that are generally good-natured.
Another sign that a horse is suffering from mouth ulcers or abscesses is called “quidding,” when a horse chronically drops half-chewed feed material out of its mouth due to pain.
In addition to abscesses, ulcers and dental problems, other reasons that your horse won’t eat or may experience weight loss include:
Unfamiliar flavors in water or various environmental stresses can make a horse refuse to drink water. All water troughs need routine cleaning to prevent illnesses and encourage your horses to drink plenty of water on a daily basis.
Adequate water supply is crucial to the health of your horse. On average, horses consume five to 10 gallons of water daily — a minimum requirement that rises with hot summer temperatures or broodmare lactation. Water keeps a horse properly hydrated and aids the digestive system, preventing hard bowel impactions that can result in colic and other dangerous equine ailments.
In addition to providing your horse with plenty of clean drinking water, the water temperature needs to be considered. An active horse that returns from hard work in the hot sun should not be given ice cold water, which can shock the horse’s system. Likewise, in the wintertime, a horse’s water supply should be kept warm and free of ice coverings with the use of a water trough heater.
When your horse sweats, either from hard work, hot weather or both, you can assume your horse will need to be replenished with water and vital electrolytes. Water alone is not enough to restore hydration, as horses always lose essential salt and minerals when they sweat.
There are several ways to determine whether your horse is dehydrated, such as:
The polar opposite of a hard keeper is a horse that habitually overeats, resulting in excessive weight gain and a rounded, distended abdomen that is often referred to as a “hay belly.” Even a horse with normal eating habits can become obese if it tends to be lazy, or its caloric intake surpasses its energy expenditures. Rich feeds that are high in sugar and carbohydrates can overwhelm a horse’s ability to digest and utilize nutrition, and the horse’s body will store excess calories as fat.
Overweight horses are prone to dangerous health problems, and they may colic or even founder more easily. Foundering is an inflammation of blood vessels, or laminae, in the hoof wall that can cause a painful separation of the coffin bone from the hoof wall. Once a horse founders, it becomes more susceptible to future episodes of the condition.
Severe cases of founder are called laminitis. Equine obesity is one of the leading causes of laminitis, and it can be fatal.
Loose stools or overly frequent bowel movements are signs that your horse has diarrhea, or scours, usually caused by bowel irritation. Equine scours will quickly drain a horse of vital water and electrolytes, leading to rapid dehydration that can cause weight loss, laminitis, kidney failure and toxemia. Foal diarrhea is always a concern, too, as it can quickly dehydrate and may be an indication of another disease.
The more benign causes of diarrhea include lush green grass, new types of feed that temporarily alter the gut pH balance and moldy hay. In most cases, equine diarrhea isn’t serious and may resolve itself. But if your horse has diarrhea for more than eight to 12 hours, you should contact your vet. They will need to check for more severe problems associated with equine diarrhea and administer replacement fluids.
Common causes of equine diarrhea include:
Stress or weakened immune systems put your horses at greater risk for a number of common equine diseases, many of which can be fatal. If you’re curious about how to know if your horse is sick with a virus or infection, watch for the following symptoms:
A great way to protect your horses from common equine health issues is adding a probiotic supplement to the diet. Zesterra is an all-natural probiotic supplement that neutralizes excess stomach acid, balances digestive pH levels, boosts the equine immune system, encourages proper appetite and water consumption, prevents ulcers, contributes to overall gut health and reduces horse stress. Zesterra also includes beneficial ingredients such as colloidal silver to help promote healthy immune systems by managing bad bacteria in the gut.
See our full line of Zesterra products for horses. For more information about Zesterra, submit your questions via this contact form and one of our friendly experts will help you. We also carry CattlActive, a probiotic formula designed for cattle.