Digestive Design and the Modern Equine Diet
Although the horse’s athletic physique easily lends itself to the demands of sport, the horse’s digestive system remains largely in protest. When you look at the evolutionary design of the equine digestive tract it becomes clear why studies show up to 80% of sport horses have at least moderate stomach ulcers.
As you know, horses evolved as a grazing animal. This means from mouth to stomach, to intestines, a horse’s entire digestive tract is supposed to be full 16-20 hours per day. Not only is their mouth meant to be full and constantly chewing but they are meant to be walking around as they do it.
In order to cope with a constant supply of very high fiber, low-calorie food, a horse’s digestive system is equipped with a very specialized stomach. Approximately two gallons in size, a horse’s stomach ranges from acid strong enough to dissolve metal at the bottom to nearly neutral at the top! This is because the proton pumps in the bottom of the horse's stomach produce roughage-dissolving hydrochloric acid almost constantly.
Why doesn’t the acid eat right through the bottom of the stomach, you ask?
That’s a good question! Horses have evolved several methods of coping with the acid required to digest their food of choice. The first began before the roughage was even swallowed. A horse’s saliva is very alkaline and produced in copious amounts. Would you believe horses produce up to three gallons of saliva a DAY?! In addition to the saliva, horses are designed to consume large amounts of highly alkaline grasses, not the acid-producing concentrates that have become the necessary evils of competition.
The lower two-thirds of the horse’s stomach is the “glandular region” and those glands produce an acid-resistant mucous that, along with the saliva and the food itself, coats and protects the lower stomach lining.
The upper third of the stomach is nowhere near so well equipped. With no mucus-producing glands to its rescue, the upper third of the stomach has only a thin membrane (think: inside your nose) to protect the underlying flesh from acid erosion. Without its only natural defense, which is a stomach full of roughage, any acid that so much as splashes up onto the upper portion of the stomach puts the horse at risk for acid splash ulcers. Even more so if the splashing is continuous, a common occurrence in any horse traveling faster than a walk.
Horses in the wild spend much of their time meandering about grazing on highly alkaline grasses and herbs. The omnipresent contents of their stomachs serve to dampen the splashing and neutralize the strong stomach acid required to digest their high fiber, low-calorie diets.
In contrast, the modern sport horse is typically fed two to three meals per day consisting of high starch grain-based concentrates and a portion of relatively high protein hay. Unlike the diet of his evolutionary roots, the modern sport horse eats the equine equivalent of steak and potatoes...for every, single meal. While we all can appreciate the satisfaction and nourishment such a rich and savory meal provides (that wonderful sound of your horse devouring his grain is life, right?) one only has to imagine eating nothing but steak and potatoes for every meal for the rest of forever to also imagine the price your digestive system would pay to do so.
Now also consider that a horse’s digestive system is designed to run a very large animal on a very low-calorie food source. It must be very specialized to extract the nutrition of heavily muscled horse requires. The contents of a horse’s stomach spend a relatively short time in his very acidic stomach getting broken down only to spend a very long time in over 70 feet of intestines having every last morsel of nutrition absorbed. This is a very efficient system for a high fiber, low-calorie food like grasses and herbs (a horse is the consummate herbivore) but when a high starch meal of grain is eaten, it is only partially digested when the peristalsis of the stomach moves it on to the intestines.
As grains are digested, they break down into several highly acidic compounds.
This causes trouble in both the already acidic environment of the stomach and in the hindgut, which is designed to extract the last droplets of energy from the most fibrous, alkaline parts of the roughage-based diet on which horses evolved
(hindgut ulcers, anyone?).
So what to do when the demands of training and competition necessitate more caloric input than an entirely forage-based diet can provide? How can the highly acidic diet of the modern sport horse be reconciled with his need for energy to perform?
Sporthorse Apothecary’s Gut Tonic is the missing link. This highly palatable blend of potent herbs and botanicals is entirely digested in the horse’s stomach creating a “flash alkalization” of its contents. In addition, highly emollient botanicals create an almost mucus-like, alkaline soup that coats the upper portion of the stomach, mimicking the acid protection afforded the lower, glandular portion of the stomach. Unlike pharmaceutical stomach buffers, it does so without impeding the absorption of nutrients from food. In fact, the formula itself is a nutritious SOURCE of vitamins!
When given before a ride, this revolutionary product combats acid with a nutritive and delicious blend of all-natural ingredients with no harmful side effects. Nothing could be finer!
"Gut Tonic was exactly the missing link I needed to complete my program. I can fix the mental game, stamina, stride, bones, and muscles, but if I'm not addressing the gut then it's all for nothing. (Gut Tonic) is helping add stamina, increase energy in the lethargic horses, and calming the hot ones, while bringing my horses back to baseline health and I couldn't be happier!"
-Ashley M. Beyond the Rail TB Racing and Rehab Center