Digestive System Limitations
Horses are non-ruminant herbivores (hind-gut fermentors). Their small stomach only has a capacity of 2 to 4 gallons for an average-sized 1000 lb. horse. This limits the amount of feed a horse can take in at one time. Equids have evolved as grazers that spend about 16 hours a day grazing pasture grasses. The stomach serves to secrete hydrochloric acid (HCl) and pepsin to begin the breakdown of food that enters the stomach. Horses are unable to regurgitate food, so if they overeat or eat something poisonous vomiting is not an option.
Horses are also unique in that they do not have a gall bladder. This makes high fat diets hard to digest and utilize. Horses can digest up to 20 % fat in their diet, but it takes a span of 3 to 4 weeks for them to adjust. Normal horse rations contain only 3 to 4 % fat.
The horse’s small intestine is 50 to 70 feet long and holds 10 to 23 gallons. Most of the nutrients (protein, some carbohydrates and fat) are digested in the small intestine. Most of the vitamins and minerals are also absorbed here.
Most liquids are passed to the cecum, which is 3 to 4 feet long and holds 7 to 8 gallons. Detoxification of toxic substances occurs in the cecum. It also contains bacteria and protozoa that pass the small intestine to digest fiber and any soluble carbohydrates.
The large colon, small colon, and rectum make up the large intestine. The large colon is 10 to 12 feet long, and holds 14 to 16 gallons. It consists of four parts: right ventral colon, sternal flexure to left ventral colon, pelvic flexure to left dorsal colon, and diaphragmatic flexure to the right dorsal colon. The sternal and diaphragmatic flexures are a common place for impaction. The small colon leads to the rectum. It is 10 feet long and holds only 5 gallons of material.
Horses require six main classes of nutrients to survive; they include water, fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins,and minerals.