Understanding The Digestive System In Horses And Its Impact On Behaviour

Your horse’s digestive system plays a crucial role in its general well-being, both physically in terms of supplying essential nutrients but also mentally. The key to understanding how your horse extracts energy from fibre lies with the microbiome – a diverse range of microorganisms within the gut that help your horse to break down food and extract essential nutrients. But did you know this complex system can have a direct impact on how your horse behaves day to day? We’ll take a closer look at the microbiome below, and how high-fibre horse food, and high-starch diets can have an impact on the way your horse acts.

The Microbiome

Understanding your horse’s digestive system means learning more about one of the most important and interesting components of the horse’s digestive system – the microbiome. This term refers to the microscopic organisms such as bacteria and fungi that live within the gut. These microbes are able to digest fibre releasing energy and nutrients from the food that the horse can then utilise.

Feeding your horse so that it can maintain a healthy microbiome is essential. Changes in diet and routine can all cause changes to the way the microbiome is composed, which can lead to digestive upsets. More recently, our understanding of how this impacts on the behaviour of your horse is increasingly understood. To keep your horse’s microbiome healthy and in the best condition, it’s said that feeding a balanced diet with plenty of fibre is essential. We’ll take a closer look at how various types of diets can affect the microbiome below.

High-starch diets

Some studies have shown that horses that eat high-starch diets display behaviours that are commonly associated with stress. Studies have shown that horses fed cereal mixes were more reactive to new experiences than those fed fibre and oil and were less consistent in their behaviour. Interestingly they also had higher heart rates than those fed the fibre feed, the implication being that they were in a more reactive condition and so perhaps more likely to shy or spook at the novel stimuli. The study has since been replicated in naïve ponies ie those that had not been handled, to try to control for any possible human influence and the same results were found. The suggestion is now that it is the increased levels of acidity in the gut generated by feeding cereals that alters the microbial population and this can impact behaviour in the horse.

High-Fibre diets

Fibre, found in hay and other forage, is a critical component of a horse’s diet. It not only acts as an energy source for horses, but it also helps to maintain that vital balance in the microbiome by maintaining levels of acidity within optimum ranges. A high-fibre diet aids digestion and can help improve nutrient absorption, keeping the digestive system functioning normally. In contrast to high starch diets, fibre regulates blood sugar, so can be helpful when it comes to avoiding those spikes that can affect how your horse behaves. A diet that contains fibre and is balanced with other essential nutrients that your horse may need means your horse is more likely to be calm and is less likely to bring about changes in the microbiome which could affect your horse’s behaviour and mental well-being.

Managing an unpredictable horse

Not every horse is well-behaved, and trying to manage an unpredictable horse can be difficult, but it’s worth taking into account that the horse feed that makes up your horse’s diet may be contributing to these behaviours. As mentioned above, any disruption to the microbiome can have an impact on the gut-brain axis, causing changes to mental well-being and behaviours. To manage unpredictable behaviour, you should feed your horse a balanced diet full of fibre and consider pre-biotics to help maintain your horse’s gut microbiome to ensure it’s balanced. If you need to make dietary changes, make sure you do this slowly and over time so as not to upset your horse’s gut, which could lead to further health and behavioural issues.