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7 Tips for supporting digestive health this winter

7 Tips for supporting horses’ digestive system this winter

A healthy digestive system is a key source of health and wellbeing in the horse. With many owners facing the cold weather and waterlogged fields, supporting the horse’s digestive tract becomes a top priority…

Read more: Optimising Digestive Health

1. Feed as much forage as possible (ideally ad lib)

Whilst this may sound like old news, the importance of forage should never be under-estimated. Benefits of feeding plenty of forage include:

  • Provides fibre which is essential for maintaining hindgut health
  • Increases chewing and therefore saliva production, providing a natural buffer for stomach acid
  • Provides a valuable source of calories to maintain condition, helping to reduce the reliance on ‘hard feed’
  • If your horse is no longer able to eat hay or haylage, speak to an equine nutritionist for advice on feeding your horse a hay replacer

Read more: Spillers Alfalfa-Pro Fibre vs Ulca Fibre

2. Minimum forage intake

Although feeding ad-lib forage isn’t practical for good doers, total intake should not be restricted to less than 1.5% body weight (dry matter) per day without veterinary supervision. However, all forage (even dry hay) contains some water so you will need to feed slightly more to ensure sufficient intake.

As a guide for a 500kg horse without turnout, we recommend feeding no less than 9kg of hay (10kg if you are going to soak it) or 10-12kg of haylage. Try dividing restricted rations into as many small servings as possible and consider using double-layered, small-holed haylage nets to help prevent long periods without forage.

Read more: How To Maintain Your Horse or Pony's Weight Through Spring

Read more: How to Reduce Sugar Intake In your Horse's Diet

 3. Monitor water intake

Reduced water intake, particularly in horses stabled for long periods on dry hay can increase the risk of impaction colic so try to keep an eye on how much your horse is drinking.

Reluctant drinkers can sometimes be tempted by adding a small amount of apple juice or hot water (to take the chill off – particularly older horses with sensitive teeth). Research has also suggested that using soaked feeds can increase drinking. If your horse is turned out, remember to break the ice on water troughs daily.

4. Reduce starch intake

Diets high in cereal starch increase the risk of conditions such as gastric ulcers, colic and tying up. If your horse needs additional calories, look for fibre-based feeds that are high in oil. Oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in energy (calories) compared to cereal grains and starch free.

5. Make changes in their feed routine

We all know that frequent or sudden changes in feed increase the risk of colic but recent changes in hay have been found to increase the risk of colic by 5 times in one study and 10 times in another. As a guide, replace no more than 500g of your current feed with 500g of new feed every other day (for horses, less for ponies) and where possible, try to make changes in forage over a 3 week period.

However, simply changing your horse’s routine may also increase the risk of colic. In one study, moving from pasture turnout to stabling and feeding hay resulted in drier faeces and reduced gut motility (intestinal contractions), despite increased water intake. If you have the luxury of knowing you will lose your turnout in advance, try to increase the time he spends stabled gradually.

6. Feed smaller meals

Although underweight horses need more calories, large meals increase the risk of colic and may even contribute to weight loss. Feed no more than 2kg in total per meal for horses (dry weight), less for ponies. As a guide, 1 Stubbs scoop holds approximately 2kg of cubes, 1.5kg of mix and 300-600g of short chopped fibre or ‘chaff’.

7. Use of pre and probiotics

The large intestine or ‘hindgut’ is home to trillions of tiny microbes including bacteria, yeast and fungi which are essential for the fibre digestion process and regulating the immune system. Probiotic live yeast can help to support a healthy population of good bacteria in the hindgut and improve fibre digestibility.

Prebiotic FOS provides a source of ‘food’ for ‘good bacteria’ and MOS (also a prebiotic) can support gut health and immunity by helping to remove ‘bad bacteria’ from the gut.

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