How many stomachs does a horse have? And other horse digestive questions, answered.


How many stomachs does a horse have?  Just one! A horse’s stomach plays a part in digestion, but other parts of the digestive system turn his forage into manure. It’s a long ride from teeth to tail, each section having a unique role in how your horse gets nutrients and water.


jump to shopping


Digestion begins with chewing


A horse’s mouth, teeth, tongue, and saliva break down your horse’s food. Chewing pulverizes food into smaller pieces while the salivary glands get those pieces wet. Horse saliva has a protein, salivary amylase, that starts to break down the food further. 


bars and tongue of a horse's mouth

Digestion starts at the “rooter” end of things


HOW many stomachs does the horse have? ONE.


After chewing, a horse will swallow. Food travels via the esophagus towards the stomach. A one-way valve, the cardiac sphincter, is a gate before the stomach. Horses can’t vomit, as this sphincter is one way! It only lets food into the stomach.


For such large creatures, a horse’s stomach is relatively small. With room for only two to four gallons, this smaller stomach size is perfect for grazing. When a horse eats naturally, he spends about 17 hours a day perusing around for his food. Large meals of hay and grain are convenient for people and inconvenient for horses. 


Within the single stomach, there are two areas. The lower section has glands that secrete all sorts of digestive fluids. The glands create digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, the protein pepsin, and mucous to buffer the stomach’s tissues from those acids.  


The upper portion doesn’t contain any glands. The lack of mucous protection in the upper stomach creates a risk of gastric ulcers, as digestive acids can “splash” onto that area. When a horse is constantly slow feeding, food is in the stomach to physically occupy the digestive acids. When a horse’s stomach is empty, the acids corrode the stomach’s lining.  

So much more about ulcers here!


horse eating grass

Forage is the basis for a balanced equine diet


Horse digestion – the small intestine


From the stomach, your horse’s food passes through the pyloric sphincter and lands in the small intestine. The small intestine has two parts – the jejunum and the ileum, with the jejunum being “first.” Here, some pancreatic secretions introduce more digestive agents and some buffering components. The buffers serve to reduce the acidity of the digesting food. 


In the small intestine, enzymes, lipases, and bile from the liver begin breaking down carbohydrates and proteins. There is also carb digestion later on, in the hindgut. Fun fact about horses – they don’t have a gall bladder, which is the storage locker for bile. Instead, a horse’s liver keeps secreting bile, another reason to use slow feeding methods for your horse.  


Proteins reduce to their amino acid components in the small intestine; the intestinal lining allows the smaller building blocks of new proteins to pass into the bloodstream.


two x marks indicating where to check gut sounds on horses

Do you know how to listen to your horse’s gut sounds?


Next stop in horse digestion – the hindgut


Now, your horse’s meal is starting to resemble a hot mess instead of forage. While enzymes work in the small intestine to digest food, microbes living in the hindgut do the work to digest fiber and carbohydrates. 


The horse’s hindgut, or large intestine, is a collection of structures – the cecum, the large colon, the small colon, and the rectum.  


The millions of microbes living in the hindgut turn fiber and undigested starches into volatile fatty acids, which absorb through the intestinal lining.  


The cecum


This structure is a blind sac – meaning it’s like a bag inside your horse, with one entrance that’s also the exit. Microbes do a lot of digestion here and need to remain balanced. Disruptions to the diet should take about two weeks to prevent the microbes from staging a revolution. A diet change could be a new cut or type of hay, a new bagged feed, or a different or fresh pasture.


Water is essential in the cecum, too. Keeping tabs on your horse’s hydration and adding water to feeds can help in this department.


horse drinking fresh water from a blue bucket

Fresh water is necessary for proper digestion.  Unusual fecal balls may indicate a digestive issue related to hydration.


The large colon


The large colon is the roller coaster of your horse’s digestive system – it has three U-turns. The colon’s shape resembles many pouches linked together, which can be palpated during a rectal exam. Unfortunately, gas and food can get trapped there, leading to colics and twists. To be clear – twists and other types of emergencies can happen everywhere in the horse’s digestive system – but your vet can feel some parts via a rectal exam.


The small colon


The large and small colons are about the same length, but the diameter of the small colon is much smaller. Here, your horse removes water from the remains of forage and feeds and makes fecal balls. 


The rectum and anus


These exiting structures hold and expel manure from your horse.  


horse pooping in a field

The end result – horse manure.


How long does it take for a horse to digest food?


There is no fixed amount of time for digestion, but we can smartly estimate the time for a horse to digest his food.  


The stomach is keen to keep things moving and sends food to the small intestine after about 30 minutes.  


The small intestine likes to speed things along, and food remains there from one to four hours. In the cecum, microbes do their thing for about six hours. Finally, the large colon hangs on to food for a day or longer.  


So, let’s estimate 36 to 48 hours for a horse to turn forage into fertilizer.  


slow feeder for horse feeds and hay pellets

Slow feeders for pellets and hay nets help your horse’s digestion by mimicking grazing.


How long is the horse’s digestive system? 


Food takes a 100 ft. journey from rooter to tooter! That’s more than 5 pick-up trucks, bumper to bumper. No wonder horses can make about 50 lbs. of manure a day.


Everyday care for your horse’s digestive system


With all these moving parts, the horse’s digestive system can create problems for your horse. You can do a few simple daily things to monitor your horse’s gut health.

  • Feed small meals, adding water if needed.
  • Use slow feeders for pellets, grains, feeds, and hay. Yes – you can get slow feeders for pellets!
  • Know your horse’s manure! What color, texture, volume, frequency, and location is your horse’s manure?
  • Check your horse’s hydration daily, and monitor his water intake.
  • Know what your horse’s everyday, familiar gut sounds are.
  • Help keep your horse healthy by memorizing his habits and noticing any changes.  


go shopping button for horse products


Stock up here for your horse supplies! As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, but it’s ZERO extra cents to you.  You can also visit my Amazon storefront here:  PEG storefront.

Big Hoss Equine Supplement - Outlaw Nutrition

The best Omega 3's and gut health in one package.

Halters – GG Equine

These grazing muzzle halters have adjustable throat latches and extra strapping to help prevent removal.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for a sitewide discount on muzzles, halters, accessories, and slow feeders.

Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings sitewide on muzzles, halters, slow feeders, and more.

Grazing Muzzle Accessories – GG Equine

Help your horse have the best-fitting grazing muzzle.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for a site-wide discount on halters, muzzles, slow feeders, and accessories.

05/09/2024 01:53 am GMT
Big Hoss Equine Supplement - Outlaw Nutrition

The best Omega 3's and gut health in one package.

04/10/2024 08:38 pm GMT
03/11/2024 08:48 am GMT
Prebiotic & Probiotic Equine Formula
$20.40 $17.98 ($2.12 / Ounce)
03/11/2024 11:22 am GMT
Ernst Grain & Livestock Midwest Agri Shredded Beet Pulp with Molasses, 30 lbs
$49.99 ($0.10 / Ounce)

The molasses makes it more delicious, but that's not great for all horses.

05/07/2024 05:00 pm GMT
Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

Omega 3's plus gut health support in a delicious cold milled flax formula. It's delicious and it will turn your horse's coat into a mirror.

British Horse Feeds Speedi-Beet for Horses, 44 LBs
$89.99 ($0.13 / Ounce)

The famous Speedi-Beet

05/07/2024 05:00 pm GMT
03/12/2024 01:43 am GMT
Jolly Pets Horsemen's Pride Amazing Graze Toy

Keep your horse's brain happy!

05/08/2024 12:48 am GMT

Great to use with buckets to discourage cribbing

04/10/2024 07:03 pm GMT
Equiessentials Slow Feed Hay Ball Large
$130.05 $120.20 ($120.20 / Count)
05/20/2024 02:22 pm GMT
03/11/2024 07:07 am GMT
Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings sitewide on muzzles, halters, slow feeders, and more.

HayPlay Slow Feed Bag XL – GG Equine

One side of this innovative slow feeder is solid - perfect for pastures! It will hold a small bale of hay.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for sitewide savings on slow feeders and more.

HayPlay Slow Feed Bag – GG Equine - 2 sizes available

2 sizes of this slow-feeding hay toy - snack size holds a few flakes, and the half size holds 1/2 bale.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for sitewide savings on slow feeders and more.

40 lb. Alfalfa Cubes
$35.02 ($0.05 / Fl Oz)
04/10/2024 06:48 pm GMT
04/10/2024 08:03 pm GMT

Thank you!