Horses are known to feed on grass and hay. Based on what they ingest, they are classified as herbivores. But unlike other herbivores like cattle, goat and sheep, the horse is a non-ruminating herbivore. This means that the horses are similar to humans in that they have only one stomach instead of a multi-chambered one. What distinguishes them from the humans though is that the horses have a digestive part known as the cecum which performs to break down the plant fiber cellulose in their diet.
In order to digest the food, the horses must first bite and chew to break down the food in small pieces. The food is then directed to the stomach where stomach acids are released to prepare the food for digestion. The stomach acids break down the proteins and they kill microorganisms that are present in it. The horse’s stomach is small and the food only stays in there for less than an hour. Majority of the food breakdown and absorption of the food occurs in the small intestines. The small intestine is only 60-70 feet long and the food stays in it for about 3-4 hours. Now, the most important part of the horse digestion is the hindgut. It is made up of the cecum, colon and rectum. Fiber fermentation happens in this region for 2-3 days. The microbes present in the hindgut are what work to break down as much as 32 gallons of fiber material in it. All these fibers are being converted to volatile fatty acids that fuel the horse.
The horse’s digestive system is very delicate. The main reason for this is that horses don’t have the ability to regurgitate food. There are extra strong muscles present between the stomach and the esophagus which prevent vomiting in cases of digestive upset like colic. Colic is a serious concern for the horses because it can be fatal to them. To avoid overeating or missing a few meals that can lead to colic, horses feed themselves on small amounts steadily throughout the day. This is their natural grazing habit in the pasture. However, this practice isn’t followed when the horses are placed in the barns. Despite this, horse owners try to create a feeding habit that is favorable to the health and digestive nutrition of the horse.