The complicated digestive tract of a horse is susceptible for disorders. In the following paragraphs we take a closer look at several disorders. We will also explain how you can recognize these disorders, what you can do about it, and what you can do to avoid these problems as much as possible.
Horses that suddenly loose a lot of weight, or get a dull coat all of a sudden, may have problems with their digestion. On of the main causes for a digestion problem lies in the oral cavity (bad teeth, inflammations).
Chewing problems: the molars of a horse will gradually wear off because of the grinding way of mastication. Asymmetrical wear and tear will leave sharp hooks on the molars. These sharp hooks cause sores on the tongue and/or the inside of the cheek, which will make chewing painful. Your horse will start chewing less thoroughly, hence the weight loss.
Teeth defect: some horses have irregular teeth, such as an underbite (the lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw) or an overbite (the lower jaw is shorter than the upper jaw). Some horses have crooked teeth, often caused by too many teeth or molars (milk teeth that don’t fall out). This makes it difficult for a horse to chew properly, and the food cannot be digested with the optimal effect.
What can I do?
Ask your equine dentist to do a checkup at least once a year. Horses with irregular teeth should have a checkup twice a year. Your equine dentist will determine the necessary treatment for your horse. Rasping will level the teeth so they will fit closely together again and eliminate the sharp hooks that hurt tongue or gums.
The esophagus seems to have only one important function in the body—to carry food, liquids, and saliva from the mouth to the stomach. When a horse gobbles down his food and doesn’t chew his food properly, large pieces of food (such as carrots or beet pulp) may get stuck in the esophagus, which can be very painful.
What can I do?
Sometimes a light massage of the esophagus is sufficient to stimulate the horse to swallow. However, don’t wait too long to call your veterinarian; the more often a horse chokes, the bigger the chance of fluid entering his lungs and the horse getting pneumonia.
The stomach is probably the most sensitive part of the horse’s body.
More than 60% of all sport horses and even 90% of the racehorses suffer from a stomach disorder. Unfortunately this often remains unnoticed. Stomachache is often caused by tiny ulcers on the inside of the stomach wall. These ulcers occur because of an improper balance in the roughage/grain ratio or from feeding too large portions in one feeding.
Horses only produce saliva when they are chewing. Saliva is necessary to dilute the potent gastric juices. It doesn’t take much chewing to consume concentrated feeds. Consequently a horse cannot produce sufficient saliva to weaken down those gastric juices when eating large portions of concentrated feed. The gastric juices will become too potent and in time will cause ulcers. Overeating is another cause of common stomach disorders.
Food items such as beet pulp will expand when they come into contact with fluids. The gastric juices may cut off the entrance to the stomach. The exit from the stomach to the intestines may also be blocked, and the horse can neither throw up (because of the one-way valve between esophagus and stomach), nor have a bowel movement. This can cause big problems. We can identify a stomach overload when the horse doesn’t have a bowel movement over a long period of time. A healthy horse has about 15 to 24 bowel movements per 24 hours. Constipation will cause pain, and the horse will display symptoms of colic. A lack of exercise can also lead to constipation.
Colic is a generic term for abdominal pain. Intestinal obstructions or constipations, accumulation of gas or displacements can occur at several places in the digestive tract of a horse, often resulting in colic.
Colic is often caused by improper feeding, a worm infection or badly maintained teeth. Other causes are cramps, constipation, inflammation or paralysis of the intestine.
How do we recognize colic?
A horse has colic when he exhibits more than a few of the following symptoms
- Lack of appetite
- Restlessness: Repeatedly lying down and getting up or attempting to do so
- Rolling, especially violent rolling
- Turning the head toward the flank
- Kicking or biting at the abdomen
- Swaying his tail
- Stretching out as if to urinate without doing so
- Sweating and feverish
- Elevated pulse rate and rapid respiration
What can I do?
Contact your veterinarian and provide him with an accurate specification of the symptoms.
Walk your horse on a leadline until your veterinarian arrives, but don’t force your horse to walk. It is OK if your horse wants to lie down, or roll on the ground, as long as he stays calm and not rolls violently and hurts himself.
Take food and water away, but offer your horse a small drink of water once in a while if the veterinarian can’t come right away. Make sure your horse doesn’t hurt himself, and prevent him from getting too cold when he is sweating profusely.
Prone to colic
Prevention is better than healing”
- Always feed the proper amount of food, custom-designed to meet the needs of his workload and performance schedule
- Feed a good quality hay or silage that is fresh, clean and without mold
- Don’t change his diet abruptly; always make changes gradually. This applies to concentrated feed as well as to hay or pasture grass
- When your horse has a day off work, start reducing his concentrated feed the evening before, the hay ration can stay the same
- Give your horse as much free exercise as possible, several times a day. It will keep his intestines active.
- Make sure your horse eats slowly and doesn’t devour his feed. Feed a number of small portions several times a day.
- Don’t let your horse drink too much water, or water that is too cold, after a strenuous workout.
- Worm your horse on a regular basis and check his teeth once or twice per year.