This generally refers to the lowering of pH (an increase in acidity) in the cecum and/or colon.
The horse’s relatively small stomach, which secretes acids continuously, is designed to accommodate a small and continuous flow of high fiber material – the result of constant grazing on grass. Without this constant grazing pattern, a horse’s stomach is left empty for long stretches, and the acids unbuffered.
The large cecum (in the hindgut), and the corresponding bacterial environment within, is designed to accommodate this high-fiber diet as well. Because horses (like people) cannot actually digest fiber, bacteria and other microbes in the cecum do the job for them. This process in the cecum and colon – called fermentation – is a significant aspect of normal digestion in a healthy horse.
Horses are commonly fed just two or three times a day and their diets consist of large amounts of processed grain feed. Both of these are completely different from how horses function in nature and can quickly lead to digestive problems in horses.
One major consequence of typical feeding practices is a high concentration of sugars and simpler starches in the diet. These simple carbohydrates have significant potential to reach the horse’s hindgut undigested – instead of being absorbed in the small intestine where carbohydrates ought to be. When undigested starch and sugars reaches the hindgut, the microbial fermentation process in the cecum produces a higher level of lactic acid. This creates a more acidic environment in the hindgut (lowering the pH), resulting in the state known as hindgut acidosis.
Other conditions also impact the pH namely stress or the use of corticosteroids (i.e. NSAIDS) Stress for horses can be either physical (i.e. training and performance) and/or emotional stress.
The Signs of Trouble
So, if this is going on inside the horse, how can we tell from the outside? There are numerous symptoms of hindgut problems, and not all are obvious. With any digestive disturbance, digestion and absorption will be affected. This will lead to many of the physical signs we might typically associate with the digestive system: loss of weight, poor condition, appetite and performance, diarrhea, and even colic.
Some symptoms associated with poor hindgut health may be less obvious. This includes sensitivity on the flanks, reluctance for the horse to flex through the body, extend or collect, and girthyness. Girthyness has long been attributed to stomach issues. But looking at the digestive anatomy, we can see that the location of the stomach is nowhere near the girth. It is the end of the colon which is susceptible to compression on girthing.
Any discomfort in the hindgut will likely lead to a poor temperament, lack of focus, and subsequent training issues. After all, how much would you be able to concentrate and work under these conditions?
What Can We Do?
The obvious answer is to radically change how we manage, feed, and care for the animal to get closer to the way the horse’s digestive system is naturally designed.
- Supporting your horse’s digestive system by using a good Equine probiotic is important.
- Using soaked hay cubes can be gentler on the digestive system than hay, hay might be a great source of forage but for a few days resting the hindgut can help- using hay cubes every few hours and some hay at night for a period of time.
- Pasture grazing is ideal as it’s not as fibrous but that might not be feasible.
- No or little grain- grain is very acidic on the system if grain must be fed it needs to be smaller meals spread out throughout the day, sprouting your grain is a much better way of feeding grain to your horse. By adding sprouted seeds to your horse’s diet it will in alkaline conditions in the gut.
- Adding really good quality cold pressed hemp oil to your horse’s diet can help with inflammation in the gut. Adding tumeric to the diet can help with inflammation start with 1 teaspoon building up over 10 days to 1-2 tablespoons daily.
- Horses need to graze for 20 hours per day- slow feeders can offer your horse forage when stabled.
- Stress can also contribute to ulcers and hindgut issues, more turn out time with friends.
- only use medication when absolulty necessary.
if you are concerned about your horses health contact your vet.