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The horse's stomach and nutrition

  • Veterinary

by Emanuela Valle, veterinary, Prof. at Torino University

(video: The horse's stomach)


A horse should never fast: its stomach is small in size and is made to receive small amounts of fibrous food.

This means that, for its stomach to feel good, the horse must eat:

• Little and often

• Good forage

• Half dish *

These three aphorisms, which tradition has handed down to us, express well what should be a good management of the horse, but then who knows why we have forgotten them?

Foto di un cavallo che mangia il fieno con dida: il cavallo per sua natura ha bisogno di una dieta fibrosa


Little and often reiterates the concept that in nature the horse looks for food for many hours a day. Virtually it can be considered as a non-stop grazer: it eats, moves and looks for food for many hours a day depending on the season, its physiological state and its age.

As a rule of thumb, for most horses the time spent looking for food is around 60% of the day - say 14 to 16 hours. According to the observations of horses in the wild, they never fast for more than 4 consecutive hours. This means that the horse's stomach, to be healthy, must always have small quantities of fibrous food available or in any case distributed so that fasting does not exceed its normal physiological times. Also, during the horse’s movement, it is good that there is a little bit of fibrous food inside it. In fact, with paces higher than the walk, pressures are created in the abdomen that can "crush" the stomach. If there is not a little bit of fibrous food inside it, there is a risk of the so-called "splash effect":  simply explained as the acid content splashes on the stomach walls. The non-glandular portion of the stomach that is not protected from the effects of gastric juices can thus exert a harmful action, for example leading to the onset of problems such as gastric ulcers.


Good forage, on the other hand, reminds us that first and foremost the horse's diet must be based on forage. Grass and hay are the foods that make up the food base of our horse: this allows it to have a fibrous diet from which it can draw energy.

Having a fibrous diet allows the stomach to be protected in many ways. Chewing the fiber stimulates the horse to produce saliva: in fact, the horse, unlike humans, produces saliva only when it chews. Saliva is essential not only for lubricating food, but also for its bicarbonate content which buffers the normal acidity of the stomach. Fiber also has a physical function: once it reaches the stomach, it forms a fibrous mat that protects the stomach walls from the presence of acids. In practice, fiber forms a real physical barrier between the gastric juices and the stomach wall, which otherwise could be attacked by digestive enzymes. For this reason, the horse must not remain fasting for reasons as mentioned above. In nature it remains without looking for food only occasionally and in any case never more than 4 hours. So, to protect the stomach of our horse we have to set up a diet based on forage that is available several times a day or, better still, always within 24 hours.

Half course, to reiterate the concept that when the horse has good quality hay or a lush pasture, it generally does not need feed. Indeed, the classic cereal-based feed, when given in quantities not specifically studied, can create stomach problems and contribute to the formation and maintenance of gastric ulcers. This problem is unfortunately a very frequent problem not only in sport horses, but all horses that can suffer from it precisely due to the delicate anatomy and physiology of the stomach.


How to set up a good diet for our horse

We must always start from the concept that a fibrous diet based on forage, perhaps integrated with fibrous foods, stimulates the horse to eat more slowly and to produce saliva. The fiber effect on the stomach is essential as on the one hand it forms the fibrous little mat, while on the other, by stimulating chewing, saliva is produced which buffers the stomach acids naturally present. So, let's leave the hay available or ration it several times during the day, remembering that for the night we can give a more abundant meal (perhaps in a tight mesh net). When, for medical reasons, our horse has to limit the quantities of hay perhaps because he is overweight, we follow the advice of our trusted veterinarian.

In addition, the forage must be of excellent quality. However not all horses have large meadows with fresh grass and in the above case good hay from the first cut is certainly the right food to set the diet. Further, if our horse's needs are greater, perhaps because it has to regain some weight, we use fibrous foods. We can choose, for example, hay cubes, pellets or complementary feeds with a percentage of crude fiber around 15%. Even a certain percentage of fat in the diet allows you to replace the starch energy of cereals with another energy source, well digested by the horse. To supply the fats, we can opt for a fat and fiber feed that usually has around 6-7% fat as shown on the tag. The addition of oil, on the other hand, is generally fine up to 80 ml per day for most adult horses. However, if the horse requires higher odds, it is best to seek advice from our veterinarian.

* expression taken from an ancient stable jargon


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OTHER ARTICLES by Emanuela Valle:

The teeth and chewing

Viral Number

The Whip