How to Protect Your Horse's Gut During Show Season
You do a lot to protect your horse, especially during show season.
You keep his shots up to date to protect him from viruses, buy boots and wraps to protect his legs from bumps, and use fly spray to protect him from biting insects – but what about protecting your horses’ gut during show season, too?
The life of a show horse might seem glamorous – ribbons, photo ops, and innumerable bathing and braiding sessions – but it’s also pretty stressful.
Inconsistent class schedules, constant trailering, heavy work with high-concentrate grain diets, stressful new environments with strange horses, and missing turnout – are all regular parts of being a show horse that can wreak havoc on his gut, causing everything from ulcers later to life-threatening bouts of colic.
We’ll look at why you should be concerned about protecting your horse’s gut this show season, and a few simple management tips you can use to ensure a healthy season.
Why Does Gut Health Matter?
Most cases of colic and ulcers are due to how the horse is managed, meaning that the decisions you make as a horse owner, rider, or caretaker have a dramatic impact on your horse’s health, both on the show grounds and off.
Colic is the leading non-age-related cause of death in horses, and about 9 in 10 cases of colic are caused by management factors, such as feeding, trailering, or medication use. Essentially a stomach ache, colic is often caused by gas, sometimes an impaction or blockage, and in rare but serious cases, a twisted intestine.
Signs of colic include biting, kicking, or looking at the flanks, stretching as if to urinate but not urinating, laying down and rolling without shaking after, and signs of pain or discomfort such as sweating, restlessness, and standing with his ears back. Colicky horses may not eat or drink and may not pass manure, or may pass only small, dry balls when they do. Gut sounds (which you can hear by placing an ear against the horse’s right hind flank, where the cecum is located), will be absent in a colicky horse.
Ulcers are a very common problem among performance horses, impacting an estimated 60-90% of equine athletes. Ulcers are caused when stomach acid eats away at the protective mucus lining of the stomach, eventually causing painful sores.
Signs of ulcers are similar to those of colic, with the added complication that recurrent colic bouts can also be a symptom of ulcers, too. Signs of abdominal pain like stretching to urinate but not urinating, sensitivity in the girth area (where the stomach is), excessive laying down, and going off his food can all be signs of ulcers.
Other symptoms include poor condition and difficulty keeping weight on, chronic diarrhea, a rough or dull-looking coat, teeth grinding or cribbing (grabbing onto a solid object like stall panels or fence boards while arching his neck and aggressively sucking in air) can all indicate ulcers.
There are many factors that cause ulcers and fortunately, they’re all within your control.
These 6 tips will help reduce the likelihood of colic this show season and reduce the chances of ulcers later in life by keeping his gut healthy.
Never Let the Stomach Be Empty
Never, under any circumstances, allow the horse’s stomach to be empty.
When the stomach is empty, the acids in the stomach begin to wear away at the protective stomach lining, causing ulcers and upsetting the bacteria balance in the hindgut where forage is digested, which can cause colic.
Horses are designed to eat small amounts of food throughout the day and to have food moving constantly through the gut. Horses kept at grass will spend about 18 hours a day eating, ensuring a consistent flow of forage. The stall-kept competition horse doesn’t typically have the same access to unlimited forage.
If you’re concerned about when to feed your horse, follow the 4-hour rule– a horse should never go more than 4 hours without food.
After about 4 hours without food, the stomach enters a pre-ulcerous state, meaning that stomach acid, not being kept busy digesting forage, begins to irritate the lining of the stomach.
Left unfed, the damage slowly worsens until full-blown ulcers are almost inevitable after about 8 hours without food. Going so long without roughage increases the likelihood of colic when the horse is finally fed, as the stomach struggles to digest the long-awaited onslaught of food.
Hay, Hay, Hay
Making hay the focus of your horse’s diet is the best way to keep food moving through his digestive system and preventing an empty stomach.
Hay is high in fiber and low in calories and protein (depending on the variety; grass hays are less nutritionally dense than alfalfa mixes and are typically a better choice for keeping the stomach full without adding too many calories), so can be safely fed free-choice 24/7 in most cases.
A horse should get at least 2% of its body weight in hay (or grass) per day.
For a 1,000 lb. horse, that works out to 20 lbs (or about ⅓ of a bale) of hay per day.
Keeping the hay net full also has a ton of other gut benefits, like supporting a healthy pH balance and keeping a damper on stomach acid, which helps reduce the risk of ulcers.
Provide as Much Turnout as Possible
Adequate turnout is essential for a horse’s wellbeing, both mental and physical – including his gut.
Turnout facilitates grazing, which keeps the right amount of roughage cycling through the digestive tract. You may notice your horse also moves around while grazing, absent-mindedly ambling throughout the field -this constant, gentle movement helps facilitate gut movement, which aids digestion.
It can be challenging to make sure your horse is getting enough turnout while showing, especially if you travel to off-site shows that lack grazing areas.
Grazing in new places with unfamiliar horses carries its own risks, such as contracting parasites from a strange horse’s feces.
To help keep his gut in good shape, you can make grazing your “secret weapon” during show season in the following ways:
- If grazing is unavailable at showgrounds, make sure he spends as much time as possible outside while home.
- Talk to your trainer or barn manager about renting grazing space at shows. Even a portable round pen where each horse gets a few hours “in the yard” every day can work wonders. Make sure the area is free of manure before setting up the pen, to decrease the likelihood of parasites from strange horses.
- Hand-graze your horse whenever possible. This is a great way to spend low-stress time together and allows him to enjoy his natural grazing behavior, even if for a few moments.
- Feed hay off the ground, not in a net. Keeping hay low allows the horse to mimic natural grazing behavior and allows mucus membranes to drain, which is better for his respiratory health, too.
Make Water Available
You know your horse needs water to live. But you may not know that adequate water also helps his gut health, too.
Staying well-hydrated allows your horse to produce the saliva that he needs to properly masticate and digest his food. The more he chews, the more saliva is produced. The more saliva produced, the easier the food can move down the esophagus to the stomach.
A dehydrated horse will often have a dry, tacky mouth, making it harder to properly masticate and moisten his food. When this dry food does get to his stomach, it absorbs moisture from the stomach, which can result in intestinal blockages and colic.
An adult horse will consume about 15-18 gallons of water per day, although this can increase during hot weather or heavy work.
A sneaky (and delicious!) way to encourage your stall-bound horse to consume more water is to consider supplementing his feed with sprouted fodder.
Sprouted fodder is grass that’s grown hydroponically (without soil). The roots form a thick mat of pure, fresh grass, which most horses love. It’s fairly easy and very inexpensive to grow yourself, or can be purchased from farmers or nurseries. It makes a great treat for the horse who can’t graze and has the added advantage of being very moisture-rich, which will help keep his gut moving. Plus, it gives him something fun, healthy, and yummy to munch on.
It’s Not Always What You Feed; It’s How You Feed It
There’s a reason a salad is often the first course at a restaurant – the nutrient-dense roughage is readily digested, which helps the body digest the next meal. Your horse’s stomach works in a similar fashion.
Horses are not really designed to eat or digest grain. They can, of course, but their gut isn’t designed to process large quantities of carb- and protein-rich foods. Starting his show day with a hearty helping of hay helps get his gut working and better able to digest his grain ration, if he gets one.
There’s also a behavioral component to this as well – most horses love their grain and will choose to eat grain before hay if given both at the same time. Sort of like giving a kid broccoli and chocolate cake at the same time – they’re probably going to go for the thing that tastes good but leaves him with a tummy ache and a sugar high after. It’s better to feed the roughage first and save the high-carb yummy stuff for later.
When it comes to planning his meals, remember the golden rule of “little and often”—it’s better for the horse (but less convenient for you) to feed multiple small meals instead of one big one. Generally, avoid feeding more than 0.7% of a horse’s weight in grain at a time to ensure he can digest it fully.
Feed Balanced Meals
Regularly feeding well-balanced meals is something you can do to protect your horse’s gut all year, but will pay off during the stresses of show season.
Opt for foodstuffs that are high in slow-digesting fiber, which will help keep his stomach full and gut moving, even if he has to go a few hours between meals.
Many horses can do well on good-quality hay without added grain or pellets. Unless your horse is in heavy training, a mare in foal, or has a real problem keeping weight on, it’s likely that he may not need grain at all.
If he does need meal supplementation, that doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of grain.
If he’s currently on grass hay but needs more protein to build muscle, adding alfalfa hay to the mix can help add some protein to his diet without using concentrates like grains or pellets.
Alfalfa for performance horses can also help regulate blood sugar levels, which can fluctuate due to the physical demands of training, as alfalfa slows sugar absorption in the blood.
Care should be taken when adding alfalfa, however. Because it is high in protein, it can cause gastric indigestion and increase acid levels in the stomach. High protein diets can also cause inflammation throughout the body, which can show up as swollen joints and even founder in extreme cases.
To combat this, feed only as much protein—from any source—as needed. The majority of the hay ration should still be grass hays (like timothy, bermudagrass, or orchardgrass), and ensure the horse is getting adequate calcium, as this is needed for digesting protein.
For show horses who are in need of fast energy or are “hard keepers” (they have a hard time gaining and maintaining a healthy weight), you might consider feeding beet pulp. Once discarded as refuse from the sugar manufacturing process, beet pulp is the dried remains of shredded sugar beets.
While most barns store it with the concentrates, it’s actually a forage, which means it’s easily digested. It’s loaded with digestible fiber and higher in calories than hay, but less than grain, making it a great option for adding calories without getting him too “hot”.
Beet pulp can be confusing to feed, and many trainers and owners opt to soak it first. While this isn’t strictly necessary, it’s a good practice because it helps improve digestibility and increases the horse’s water intake.
Supplement as Needed
After good basic management practices like plenty of turnout, a gut full of roughage, and plenty of water, the final thing you can do to protect your horse’s gut during show season is to consider adding supplements to his ration.
Always speak to your vet and get her advice on the right solution for your horse before adding supplements.
For horses who have ulcers or are at risk for developing them, adding 45 ml of corn oil to their feed can provide much-needed energy, but without resorting to high-starch feeds. Starch, being harder to digest, requires more stomach acid and can irritate the stomach more. Corn oil can help reduce stomach acidity, which reduces the likelihood of ulcers.
If you believe your horse has ulcers, supplementing with linseed oil can help form a protective layer inside the stomach. Note that it won’t reduce the acidity the way corn oil does, but linseed oil can offer some relief for the show horse with ulcers by helping coat the inside of the stomach where the lining is thin.
Some trainers swear by adding oil to their horse’s feed to prevent impaction colic. While there is nothing wrong with this, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that oil actually prevents impaction colic. During a bout of colic, your veterinarian may pass a tube down the horse’s throat and introduce mineral oil directly into the digestive system in an attempt to move the impaction. However, adding corn or linseed oil will not have the same effect as tubing oil directly into the digestive system. (Moreover, never attempt to “tube” your own horse, even in an emergency. The danger of inserting the tube down the windpipe, instead of the trachea, is too great).
A special consideration if you live or show in a particularly hot climate is making sure his salt levels stay balanced as well. Hay and oats have zero salt content, so always have free-choice salt available. A typical horse needs about 2 oz. of salt per day to replace the salt he’s lost while competing.
Show season is a ton of fun, but it does have its share of stresses. You can minimize the stress to his digestive system (and minimize your own worries about colic and gut health) by feeding balanced, hay-first meals, keeping hay and water readily available at all times, ensuring he gets plenty of grazing opportunities, and supplementing his diet where necessary.
Keep his gut healthy this show season and you’re one step closer to enjoying a long, healthy (and hopefully very successful!) show career with your horse.
What are your best tips for keeping your horse healthy during show season? Share below in the comments!