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  • Supporting Gastric Health In Our Horses

    The heath and functioning of the equine digestive system are critical to supporting their overall health and wellbeing. Where there is digestive upset or disturbance, the potential seriousness and significance of it can never be underestimated. Even transient dietary changes and consequent digestive adaptions can result in wellbeing and performance reductions. As a result, supporting the overall digestive health of our horses is hugely important.

    During seasonal changes, the digestive system of all grazing animals has to cope with alterations in dietary intake. The growth of grass and other plant species slows. The nutrient composition of grazing changes and the weather becomes cooler and often wetter. The use of forage and compound feeds might increase, and our horses’ exercise and activity levels might change. All of these factors can create significant management challenges. They might also impact on the overall functioning of our horses’ digestive systems, from the stomach to the hind gut.

    While overall digestive health is important, equine gastric health is sometimes overlooked, with more focus placed on the health of the hind gut of our horses. However, the stomach is a key digestive organ and supporting a healthy gastric environment is integral to complete digestive health.

    Let’s consider how we can best support gastric health in our horses.

    The Horse’s Stomach

    The term gastric refers to anything involving the stomach. When discussing gastric health, we are considering how the stomach functions, its structure and its overall health.

    Did you know that the horse’s stomach only comprises about 10% of their overall digestive system? In comparison to many other species, the stomach of the horse is small and significantly limited in its capacity to expand and accommodate large volumes in ingested material in a short space of time. This is why trickle feeding, grazing and provision of small concentrate feed meals is advocated for our horses.

    A muscular valve called the cardiac sphincter controls entry of material to the stomach. It is this valve that limits the capacity of the horse to vomit or regurgitate material. Even under extreme backwards pressure from the stomach, the cardiac sphincter rarely relaxes, making any reverse flow of digesta from the stomach highly unlikely. When it does rarely occur, it signifies a serious situation requiring emergency attention.

    At the other end of the stomach, digesta empties into the duodenum of the small intestine through the pyloric sphincter, another powerful, muscular valve. While the horse is eating, there is almost constant ‘trickling’ of material from the stomach into the duodenum. The pyloric sphincter opens and closes, moving material that that has been exposed to digestive hydrolysis (the breakdown of material via stomach acid and other compounds) into the rest of the digestive system.

    However, material is not held in the stomach for long, with an almost constant throughout of ingested material to the rest of the digestive system taking place. Some digesta will remain in the stomach for between two and six hours before being moved to the small intestine and the stomach is rarely empty. Indeed, we now appreciate the potential problems that occur when our horses’ stomachs remain devoid of digesta content for long periods of time. This can potentially create significant health, welfare, and behavioural issues.

    How Does The Stomach Aid Digestion?

    The horses stomach is lined by a mucosal surface of cells. Approximately half of the surface is lined by flat cells called squamous epithelial cells, while the remainder is lined by glandular epithelial cells. The glandular mucosal surface secretes hydrochloric acid, various digestive enzymes, and digestive-support hormones into the stomach to aid the digestive process. This gastric fluid continues the process of digestion that commenced in the mouth through chewing and exposure of ingesta to saliva. The stomach is a key area of dietary protein digestion, which also continues into the small intestine.

    Notably, the initiation of gastric fluid secretion into the stomach is stimulated by feeding. The secretion of gastric fluid will also continue during periods of fasting. This can be problematic for horses as hydrochloric acid might be continually secreted into the stomach, even when there is no digesta there. This can be especially problematic for gastric health, especially as the area of the stomach lined by squamous epithelial cells is particularly susceptible to damage from gastric fluids, notably hydrochloric acid and the digestive enzyme, pepsin. Should damage occur to the lining of the stomach, digestive and other health impacts can occur that need specific interventions.

    Supporting Gastric Health In Our Horses

    It is clear that maintaining a healthy gastric environment can help the overall health of our horses. A healthy stomach environment can also aid the efficiency of the horse’s digestion and also their overall wellbeing and performance output.

    Here are some key management and nutritional interventions that we can do to support gastric health:

    • Provide access to grazing, pasture, and other equine company where possible
    • Whenever possible, provide forage freely to support a continuous food intake – this includes if grazing quality or quantity is poor
    • Feed a small amount of some fibrous feed (forage or chaff) before exercise to create a ‘fibre mat’ in the stomach and minimise splashing of gastric fluid onto the stomach walls
    • Minimise the time spent without access to grazing or forage
    • Maintain a consistent management routine, minimising exposure to stressful situations
    • Avoid significant and sudden dietary changes
    • Consider the use of a gastric support supplement such as GastroKind from Science Supplements – specifically formulated with nine active ingredients to support a healthy stomach environment
    • Ensure fresh, clean drinking water is always freely available
    • If you are adding salt to your horse’s diet, consider using SafeSalt as a stomach and palatability-friendly option
    • Minimise starch levels in the diet and consider using vegetable oils as a dietary energy source for horses in hard work
    • Ensure horses with gastric issues have regular breaks from intense exercise – ideally at least two exercise free days per week

    Healthy Stomach, Happy Horses

    Ensuring the health of our horses’ digestive systems helps support their overall wellbeing. Stomach issues and concerns can result in our horses being less able to deal with potentially stressful situations such as seasonal and management changes. Performance output might be impacted, and their behavioural wellbeing can be compromised too.

    Awareness and careful management mean that we can help support a healthy and happy gastric environment in our horses. This will aid their overall digestive functioning too.

    Supporting gastric health is as much about how you feed, as it is about what you feed your horse – manage well, choose carefully.

    Science Supplements offer a premium range of high specification equine supplements that are carefully formulated by nutritionists and veterinary surgeons to support your horse’s overall health and wellbeing.

    Gastric health can be aided through using GastroKind for everyday support for a healthy gastric environment. Overall digestive health can be supported via GutBalancer for comprehensive support for the digestive system.

    You can find out more and explore our equine supplement range here, or contact us to speak to one of our experienced nutritional advisors.

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