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Horses have evolved as grazing animals, compared to most other non-ruminant species, the horse has a relatively small stomach, a normal sized small intestine, and an enlarged hind gut. This arrangement makes horses better suited to grazing continuously than to eating one or two large meals a day. A horses stomach is approximately 1/4 the size of the average daily food intake (based on 15 lbs) of hay. Based on these numbers its easy to see why horses should be allowed access to forage throughout the day. Food especially forage passes relatively rapidly through the stomach and small intestine, but can be retained for many hours in the hind gut (cecum). The hind gut is populated by a diverse microbial population that digest the fibrous components of hay and pasture. The digestive tract is generally not as efficient at digesting fiber as the digestive tract of a cow or sheep. However for high quality hays such as early bloom alfalfa hay, the difference is much smaller than for lower quality hays such as late maturity grass hays. High quality hay (or pasture) can be an excellent source of nutrients for most classes of horses, and in most cases should be the predominant type of feed in a horse's diet. However, some classes of horses will require supplementation of there diet with a concentrate. A concentrate feed can be a plain grain such as oats or corn, or it can be a commercially manufactured mixture of grains and other feed ingredients. Concentrate feeds are higher in energy than hay because the cereal grains contain more nonstructural carbohydrates, especially starch.
In horses, starch can be digested in the small intestine and absorbed as glucose. Research has demonstrated that when large amounts of starch are fed, the capacity of the small intestine to digest the starch will be overloaded. The undigested starch is moved on to the large intestine where it is fermented. Fermentation of starch in the large intestine is less energetically efficient than digestion and absorption from the small intestine. More importantly, fermentation of excess starch in the large intestine can result in digestive problems such as diarrhea, colic, and, in severe cases, founder.
When an 1100 lb horse consumes a meal container more than 2.0 to 2.5 lb of starch, there is potential for some undigested starch to reach the large intestine. Cereal grains vary in starch content, so the actual amount of grain that can be fed without starch by passing to the large intestine will vary also. Corn can contain 60-70% starch whereas oats contain 45-55% starch. If a horse is fed a concentrate containing 50% starch, the amount that could be fed in a single meal with minimal starch by pass to the large intestine would be 4.4 lb. Therefore when the daily total concentrate intake exceeds 10 lb, the concentrate should be divided into three meals per day.
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