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If They Eat It, They Need It, Right?
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If They Eat It, They Need It, Right?

Right off the bat, the answer is no. Although it would be nice to think our horses know what they need as far as nutrition, and can manage that themselves, this is not necessarily always the case. Especially if what they need is actually unavailable to them in their current living/feeding scenario.

As a livestock animal science student at Iowa State University, I spend a lot of time studying the biochemistry, and the practicality, of feeding these large animals to the best of their potential. Immediately horses separate themselves from many other livestock species due to their hindgut fermentation digestion methods (don’t worry... allow me to explain this intimidating concept).

You know cattle? They are what we call ruminants. This means they have a four-compartment stomach that works symbiotically with thousands of microbes to turn fibrous materials (plants and such) into proteins for the animals to grow and live on.  This is an INCREDIBLE ability, and it is what makes ruminants so amazing and important to our lives. Sheep, elephants, and many other herbivores are ruminants as well. Humans cannot do this at all. We can eat fiber (plants) all day, and all we get out of it is a clean gut (and a smelly room perhaps...). We are called monogastrics for our single compartment stomach. We do not have the capability to break down the cellulose and hemicellulose in fiber to get the nutrients necessary for life out of them. We need ruminants to do that for us. Most carnivores are monogastrics, and they grow and thrive because the ruminants (that these carnivores eat) do the dirty work of turning plants into protein for them.

So now let me throw another curveball at you: which are horses?


I know. Horses always have to be special (as we all know very well).

Horses are hindgut fermenters. This means, they do not have a four-compartment stomach, however, they can also turn fibrous materials into protein, but this activity is done in the gut instead of the stomach; specifically in a large organ called the cecum. This is the reason horses are such picky eaters, and require such high quality feeds. This system is very sensitive in the horse, and if not careful, a feeder can easily kill (or damage) a horse by how/what they are fed.

The other reason horse nutrition can be so complicated is because there is such a variety of equine situations out there in the world. Activity levels differ greatly; from pasture potatoes to million dollar athletes. Also breeds and sizes differ greatly; from those Shetland ponies to the Clydesdales. Now that you know a bit more about the anatomy of your horse than you, perhaps, did before, you can begin to understand the benefits of paying attention to your animal’s nutrition program and how it may work. I will keep this post short and to the point, for all of your sake, but stay tuned for more, as I will continue to post short blurbs about different feed ingredients, nutrition advice, and credible resources to help you and your equine family get the most out of your animals through feed.

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  1. Of Horse Support
    Of Horse Support
    Wow! This is an absolutely amazing post! Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us. Cannot wait to see what you write next!
  2. writerrider
    My gelding has become a very indiscriminate eater in the past month. We are in Wisconsin and I know plants generally put as much nutrients into their roots this time of year to store the the nutrients over the winter. I was wondering if plants become more palatable to horses as the growing season winds down. Any thoughts or science to explain my horse's and his pasture mates willingness to eat the plants they avoid during the growing season in the fall?
    1. Your Horse Of Course
      Your Horse Of Course
      As it could be a collection of things (how much simpler would animal diagnostics be if it were only one factor at a time, right?), here are a few considerations that I am aware of that could be contributing to this behavior in your horse and his buddies: as the temperatures drop, your outdoor animals begin to sense winter coming. The body knows that it is going to need significantly more energy for these coming months, and this can cause a shift in your horse's appetite (and selectiveness) as he searches for higher amounts of energy to prepare. He may become less picky. Has the weather taken a cold shift in Wisconsin yet? It's been unusually warm here in Iowa for this time of year; kind of nice. Also, on the forage end, in the midwest there is a big difference between growth patterns of warm season and cool season forages (perhaps you are already familiar with this?). Warm season grasses hold their nutrient values much later in the season than cool season. Perhaps earlier in the year, the cool season grasses were more palatable to your horse because they held more nutrients at that time, now, those have begun to either stop growing, or lose nutritive value (depending on the specie), and the warm season grasses are still going strong (or even beginning to "pick it up" in some cases.) There are probably other factors as well, but these are two initial contributions to a shift in feed preferences.
      1. writerrider
        Thanks for responding to my query. The weather here in Wisconsin has started to get cooler, but temps have remained higher than average. I realize horses' metabolism does work to store fat for winter and their appetites are really good during the fall. I was just curious that my gelding seems to relish plants such as thistle and lance-leaf plantain, vegetation he would not eat other times of the year. Also wondered if those plants were providing something he needs. He does have ready access to a mineral salt block. Anyway, his expanded menu doesn't seem to be doing him any harm.

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