The Equine Digestive System


I know, I know, there are many places that already have really great descriptions and information on the equine Digestive system. But the ABCs of Equine Nutrition will be a book when we are done and a book on equine nutrition would not be complete without a review of the Digestive system and how it works. Plus it begins with the letter “D”. So if you are well versed in equine Digestion and how it works then you can wait for our next topic for the letter “D” and that’s Dengie. If not, let’s go!

To keep it simple (and I’m all about that) Digestion is basically the process of making food absorbable by the body to use as energy. It does this by dissolving it and breaking it down into simpler chemical compounds. In the horse this is done through the action of enzymes in the foregut (stomach and small intestine) and fermentation in the hind gut (cecum and large intestine).

When Digestion works properly the nutrients from the broken down feed can be absorbed and provide the fats, carbohydrates, amino acids (protein), vitamin and minerals for the horse to use to live, grow, work, etc. These nutrients can be used right away or stored for future demands.

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How Much Does The Grain in Your Scoop Weigh?

You should feed according to the Body Weight of your horse.  Usually 1.5-2% of BW.  If you have a horse that requires grain for extra energy you need to know how much you are really feeding.  Here’s a video to help

Peace and Good Feed,



Meet Simon, another addition to the Nerd Herd


Say hello to Simon the latest member of the Equine Nutrition Nerd Herd.

Equine Nutrition Nerd Herd_Simon

He is an off-the-track (OTTB) thoroughbred and has trouble keeping weight on. The owner called me because she has two other horses that are both “easy keepers” and then there’s Simon.

Her current stabling (one run-in) and turn out situation didn’t really allow for Simon to be out on the grass while the others weren’t, or even to feed them individually for that matter. So she kept them all in a dry lot most of the time with 2-3 hours of turn out on grass per day.

She was feeding Simon a sweet feed with 4% fat, 12% fiber and 10% protein. I listed the fat and fiber first because that is what you should look at with a weight issue. It’s pretty simple; high fat, high fiber for a high metabolism and weight gain.

OTTBs generally are pumped up and full of “extra” stuff from track life and can drop weight with the change in routine and lifestyle. Especially since most race horses get high calorie feeds and high quality hay at the track, getting “let down” from all that can take its toll on their health.

Simon had been off the track for a few months when I met him so had started to adjust to his new life. He had dropped some weight from walking the fence trying to figure out “freedom” and transitioning into the new herd.

When we weighed him he taped at 950 pounds. Not too bad for a 16.1 hand TB. His Body Condition score was a 4 which is pretty typical for a fit TB but too low for one headed to the show ring.

I was happy to see that Simon’s owner did weigh his feed and knew she had him at 4 pounds of feed twice a day and free access to a round bale of grass mix hay when they were in the dry lot. That sounds like a lot to some of you but in Calories it really wasn’t.

Remember the Calorie is also called a kilocalorie. This is the rate of measurement used in human nutrition. Many times it is not spelled with a capital ‘C” which is incorrect. A megacalorie (Mcal) is 1,000 kilocalories. Megacalorie is the rate of measurement used to measure energy in a large animal’s diet, such as the horse. I like to use Calories because that is a term most people understand.

The average 1,000 pound horse in light work (like Simon) needs about 20,000 Calories (or 20 Mcals) per day.  Simon’s grain was low in fat at 4% and fiber plus it only had 1,000 Calories per pound. So Simon was getting 8,000/day in grain.  The round bale was decent quality but without knowing how much Simon was getting it was hard to know Caloric intake. Typical grass hay has about 700 Calories per pound which means he would need at least 17 pounds of hay per day just to break even.

Even isn’t what we want because you must factor in all the things that can affect nutrition when determining nutritional needs; living situation, herd dynamics, stress, health issues, age, and so forth. So after we determined Simon’s weight, Body Condition Score (BCS) and calculated Calories I looked at some of those factors.

Simon was off the track so I usually assume ulcers as 95% of race horses have them. Ulcers can cause a belly ache after eating so horses tend to eat less. An ulcer also compromises nutrient absorption. Simon was in a new situation and herd so we can add stress as a factor. Stress burns more calories.  Another factor we considered was the pecking order and being fed off the fence which can mean he wasn’t  getting all his groceries.

During my visit we fed the horses and watched their behavior. Sure enough, Simon was getting chased from his bucket and in the process dropping a lot of the feed he was trying to eat. If it was happening with the grain I’m sure the other horses were doing the same thing to him with the round bale.

I decided that until he could quietly eat in peace Simon would never get to the weight he needed to be. The owner agreed to split the run-in in two using a pipe gate and to divide the pasture using electric tape and a solar charger. This way Simon was part of the herd but not directly influenced by them.

We upped his grain to a 10% fat, 18% fiber ration and she bought some baled timothy/alfalfa mixed hay for him so we could better estimate his intake.

We also added a mix of 1 cup aloe juice, and herbal ulcer blend mixed with 1 pound rice bran pellets twice a day to heal and treat the ulcer.

Simon loved his new environment and diet. He finished 20 pounds of hay a day, grazed the pasture at will, and with the higher fat feed and rice bran, we were able to reduce the total grain he was eating to 5 pounds per day- almost half what he was eating before! The less grain you can feed the better so this was great news.

Now, 8 weeks after the initial consult, Simon weighs 1,100 pounds and appears to be a calmer, happier horse.

If you would like your horse to become a member of the Nerd Herd, click here to schedule a consult today! Click HerePeace and Good Feed,

~The Nerd

Welcome Ralph, the lastest member of The Nerd Herd!

Hello Everyone,

I thought it might be useful to do some posts about horses we are helping through this site.  I will try to post one write up per week about a nutrition consultation, beginning with Ralph.


Ralph is a 24 year old quarter horse that came through this past winter with a significant weight loss.  It’s hard to tell from this picture but his Body Condition Score (BCS) is a 4+ but he should be a 6.  He is 15 hands tall and should weigh around 800 pounds.  We used a weight tape to calculate his current weight and he measured at 645 lbs.  That is a significant amount of loss.

Ralph is not in any work and has free range of his 3 acre pasture (as you can see from the burdocks in his forelock) 🙂  His owner was feeding him “2 coffee cans of sweet feed a day and timothy hay, not sure of the amount.”  After measuring Ralph, we measured the feed and hay.  Turns out he was only getting 2 pounds of feed that has a recommended feeding rate of 6 pounds per day for a horse his size. So he was obviously not getting enough.

The hay was on the lighter side too with the bale weighing 40 pounds, the quality was average, making the amount Ralph was receiving low in weight and digestible energy (DE). His pasture was adequate but not enough to add much in nutrient value.

It’s easy to look at this and think adding volume will fix this but we must remember that this same diet was “good enough” to keep Ralph fat in the past so we needed to figure out why it wasn’t working now.

The answer was Ralph’s teeth.  He hadn’t had them done in awhile and they were not helping him chew the long stem hay and the whole grain concentrate.  Without proper chewing the feedstuff cannot be absorbed and metabolized by the digestive system.

So Ralph’s owner scheduled a visit with his vet.  I have found that older horses do best with a diet that is dust-free, easy to chew and digest, and based on digestible fiber instead of grain. So I switched his diet (gradually of course) to a beet pulp and alfalfa cube mash  based on the weight we WANT Ralph to be rather than on his current weight.

We developed a program of .5% of his body weight (BW) in mash (so ~ 4 lbs/day) and 1 % of hay/forage (~8 lbs/day). Therefore Ralph will be getting a daily total of 4 pounds of dried beet pulp mixed with 1 pound of alfalfa cubes soaked in water with a 2:1 (water to feedstuff) ratio.  This is divided into two feedings per day.

Ralph’s program will still include about 8-10 pounds of hay a day offered but with the soaked mash he won’t be relying on the hay for fiber.

Eliminating the sweet feed also eliminated a energy dense feed source but the alfalfa cubes (~1,000 Calories/pound) and beet pulp (~1,100 Calories/pound) will make up for the Calories.

A good daily vitamin/mineral supplant was added to ensure Ralph gets what he needs.  If you would like to get some of the benefits of beet pulp but don’t need the soaking chore, try switching to one of the commercial beet pulp based feeds like Triple Crown Senior or Complete.

A few tips on feeding beet pulp: Dry beet pulp weighs about 0.6 lbs per quart so a 2 quart scoop will hold 1. 2 pounds.  Soak it for at least 30 minutes using warm water.  Longer if using cold.  A pony shouldn’t get more than 2 lbs of dry beet pulp per day, a young horse no more than 4 pounds and most mature horses should get less than 6 pounds of dried beet pulp per day.

I’m happy to say that Ralph loves his new diet and is starting to bloom again after only 3 weeks!

If you’d like your horse to become a member of the Nerd Herd, please schedule a consult today

~Peace and Good Feed,

The Nerd