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.

 

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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.  

 

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