WHEN TO FEED HORSES
Do you feed the concentrate or grain portion of your horse's meal first, followed by the hay? Or do you feed hay first?
Does it matter?
Yes, it does.
When to feed the concentrate depends on which disease you want to prevent - gastric ulcers or cecal acidosis.
Gastric ulcers occur in the stomach and are caused by acid.
There are four sections to the equine stomach: the esophageal section, the cardiac section, the fundic section, and the pyloric section.
The esophageal is basically a storage area and no digestive action takes place here. The cardiac section produces mucous used to coat the stomach and protect it from acidic secretions. The fundic section produces pepsin enzymes, gastric lipase enzymes, and hydrochloric acid. The pyloric section produces a small amount of enzymes and mucus.
The esophageal and cardiac sections of the equine stomach may have a pH level of six (6) to seven (7). The pH level of the fundic section is approximately five (5). The pH level of the pyloric section is approximately two (2), which is highly acidic.
pH is the unit of measure used to determine acidity. The lower the number the more acidic the environment: for example, battery acid is approximately one (1). A pH level of seven (7) is neutral. Levels higher than neutral are alkali or basic.
The lower sections of the stomach are protected from the acid by a mucous membrane. The upper sections of the stomach are not as well protected. If the acid reaches the poorly protected upper sections lesions or ulcers will result.
Studies have shown lesions can occur in less than 12 hours if acid reaches the upper sections.
There are three excellent natural buffering or protecting agents against ulcers available to horses - long-stem forage, saliva and water.
Plenty of long-stem forage, in the form of hay or pasture, provides a barrier between the upper and lower stomach sections. A build up of fibrous material will "float" above the acid and hold it down, while the heavier grain portion of the meal sinks and is broken down by the acid.
A constant supply of long stem fiber will maintain this natural barrier between the protected and unprotected sections of the equine stomach.
Saliva is an excellent buffering agent. It has a pH level of about seven (7). Chewing long stem fiber produces saliva. A horse will produce five to ten gallons of saliva a day. The more he chews the more buffering agent he introduces into the stomach.
In order to get the protection long stem fiber provides against ulcers, an adequate amount of forage must be fed at least an hour before the grain or concentrate portion of the meal. Tossing in a flake of hay and then feeding grain 10 minutes later is not going to protect the sensitive upper stomach.
If you don't have the time to offer long stem fiber at least an hour before the concentrate part of the meal, make sure your horse has forage available at all times. This is the best thing for your horse anyway, as they are continuous grazers and are not designed to eat two meals a day.
Water is an excellent buffering agent. Water has a pH of around seven (7).
Make sure your horse has access to plenty of fresh clean water at all times. Drinking a large quantity of water after consuming grain or concentrate will not allow the stomach time to break down the dense material. The sudden influx of water will wash the feed out of the stomach, through the small intestine and into the large intestine too soon. Insuring your horse has water available at all times will lessen the chance of this happening.
Cecal acidosis occurs when the pH level of the cecum becomes highly acidic.
The cecum is part of the large intestine. Within the cecum are microbes that aid in the digestion of cellulose, fiber and insoluble carbohydrates (non-structural carbs - NSC's). A healthy cecum has a pH level of 6.6 to 7.
If large quantities of soluble carbohydrates (the most common source is grain and grain based concentrates) reach the cecum, the delicate balance of the microbes is disrupted. The cecum's acidic level drops, which can lead to colic, laminitis and colitis.
One feeding method recommended to avoid cecal acidosis is to not feed forage for one hour before and three hours after the grain portion of the meal. In other words - you are giving grain or a grain based concentrate on an empty stomach. The theory is, if the grain is not mixed with forage it will remain in the small intestine longer, where it must be utilized and absorbed.
In my opinion this is a bad idea. 1. Ulcers are sure to occur. 2. Horses are designed to eat forage - not grain or commercial grain based mixes. 3. This feeding method is very time consuming.
Feeding concentrates along with a constant source of fiber creates a mix of digestive system contents (ingesta or chyme). Less variation of the ingesta's makeup is safer than having significant changes throughout the day.
The best way to avoid ulcers and cecal acidosis is to feed the horse as naturally as possible. This means plenty of long stem forage available most of the time. The forage should be able to meet the calorie needs of most horses. A vitamin/mineral supplement may have to be offered if the forage is deficient.
If a concentrate must be fed to meet calorie, energy, vitamin and mineral requirements then it should be offered in small frequent meals. Feeding two large grain or grain based concentrate meals a day is asking for trouble. Never feed more than one-half percent of an adult horse's body weight in concentrate or grain mix at one meal.
Try to purchase one of the low-starch feed formulas on the market. These products are nutritionally balanced and are safer than high grain mixes. Find a product designed for the age, health and activity level of your horse, then feed according to the feeding directions…this means feed by the pound - not by the scoop. Make all feed changes gradually when introducing a new feed.
Horses should also be fed on a fairly strict schedule. Research has shown when the feeding routine is disrupted, digestive problems can occur.
Horses are creatures of habit. They also have very sensitive digestive systems. It is our responsibility to insure they are fed in the healthiest manner possible.