Since its first domestication, believed to be around 5000 BC, the role of the horse in society has varied according to man’s requirements. Initially, the horse was kept principally for its flesh but soon became used for transport. The first example of a man on horseback is believed to be the bone engraving of the Susa horseman dating from 2800 BC. Selective breeding meant that by the 10th century BC horses had become essential to the skilled horseman turned warrior. Horse racing developed in parallel with horse riding.
Horses are fundamentally nonruminant herbivores, which means that they are suited to eating high fibre diets due to continual microbial fermentation within the caecum and colon. The horse evolved to eat mainly grass with some other herbage and when available ‘wild’ cereals and other starch-containing feedstuffs.
Domestication, and an increasing demand for horses to perform at levels that require energy intakes above those able to be provided by their more ‘natural’ diet of fresh forage, has resulted in the common inclusion of cereal grains and their by-products as well as supplemental fat in many horse diets. This has led to many benefits but also has the potential to result in problems. This paper will very simply and briefly outline the digestive processes of a horse and highlight areas where dietary imbalances or inappropriate feeding practices may be disadvantageous.
The optimal feeding of horses is a combination of art and science. The science provides the information about the digestive and metabolic processes, the nutrient requirements and the principles behind feeding practices, etc. The art is the ability to convert this theory into practice for the individual horse, its needs, likes and dislikes. Fortunately for us, many horses are able to survive and prosper because of, or despite, the diets we feed them. Although good nutrition cannot improve the basic ability of a horse, poor nutrition may impose limitations on its performance. An understanding of the digestive processes of the horse helps us to appreciate how we should feed it, in order to maintain health and performance and minimise gastrointestinal disturbances caused by inappropriate feeding regimens.
For ease of discussion throughout this paper ‘concentrate’ meal will refer to a nonroughage meal which could consist of cereal grains with or without other feedstuffs or compound manufactured feeds such as coarse mixes or nuts/pellets.
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