Think About Your Horse's Teeth

It seems that there is a new horse feed or supplement launched into the market every week. Complete feeds, senior feeds, junior feeds, low starch feeds, performance feeds, and the list goes on and on. What many horse owners and feed companies fail to realize is that these feeds should not be your primary consideration when it comes to nutrition for your horse. Your main focus should be on your horses roughage source.  Whether it is hay, pasture or a combination of both, this is closer to what your horse evolved to use for energy.

At The Phoenix Company we spend a lot of time every day on the phone helping horse owners navigate through the maze of confusion about horse nutrition. In doing so, a constant issue shows up time after time. Those of you who have read my articles or been to a feed seminar of mine in the past will recognize my mantra. “We feed horses into trouble, and then try to supplement them out of it”. I see this on a daily basis, and as long as horse owners insist on looking at their roughage source as just filler, or a minor consideration in their program, they will have difficulty seeing the true potential in their horses.

Performance horses often have energy needs, beyond that provided from just hay alone. This can justify additional nutritional support from a concentrate feed. Still, to function properly, the digestive system of the horse still needs to meet the majority of what is needed from its hay or pasture. Assuming that this is a true statement, I think we can all agree that maximizing the horses’ use of the roughage makes sense.

While a lot of horse owners look to supplements like pre-biotics and pro-biotics to help with this, the limiting factor in digesting roughage is often the most overlooked. Why? To find the answer we need to go back to the beginning.  It is time to look at your horses teeth.

Much of the roughage that a horse eats arrives in the hind gut basically in the form that it was in when the horse swallowed it. Very little digestion of that roughage occurred in the stomach or small intestine. Once it is in the hind gut, the bacteria that are present there go to work to break it down to make the nutrients that it contains available. But just what they have to work on makes a difference. If a horse chews the hay well, it is basically pulverized, providing much more surface area and therefore exposure for the digestive process to progress. Hay that has not been well chewed will arrive in the hind gut mostly intact and, as a result, a much smaller surface area is available. With less surface area to work on, less can be effectively broken down and digested.  In addition, hay that remains more intact has a much higher potential for impaction. In the end, when the hind gut fails to properly digest the hay, much of the nutritional value of that hay passes through to end up on the ground behind the horse. Think of this. You bought the hay, hauled the hay, fed the hay, the horse ate it, and much of the energy ended up on the ground, unused. The primary reason for this can be found at the other end of the horse, in its mouth.

Hay that is not chewed well will not be digested well. While this is a simple statement, it can be the difference between a horse thriving or not.  For some reason many horse owners never look in their horse’s mouth. Many Vets don’t either.  There are a lot of changes going on in there when they are young that can make it uncomfortable for them to chew. During their two and three year old year’s special attention needs to be paid, and most horse owners are aware of this.  For some reason, this is where close attention to the teeth stops for a lot of horse owners. As horses get older a different issue arises. Since the upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw the teeth wear differently. As time goes on, the upper molars will develop a jagged sharp edge on the outside of the grinding surface, while the lowers will get that edge on the inside.  This edge will eventually make chewing so painful that the horse will drop feed from its mouth while eating. This is usually when people notice that it is time to have the teeth checked. However, the situation does not need to go nearly this far before it affects that overall wellbeing of the horse. All that has to happen is for it to become slightly uncomfortable for the horse to chew its hay. A small ridge on the uppers can irritate the cheek. On the lowers in will irritate the tongue. Either situation means that the hay is just chewed less than completely. The result shows at the other end of the digestive system with incomplete digestion in the hind gut, and a significant loss of available digestible energy. As a result the horse owner adds more feed concentrate in an effort to maintain condition. This results in another roadblock to digestive efficiency when excess starches and sugars from more feed concentrate affect the acidity of the hind gut and alter the beneficial bacteria population. The result is another layer of inefficiency. To counteract this we then add pro-biotics in an attempt to repopulate what should already be there in the first place. Like dominos, one issue leads to another. “Feed them into trouble, and then try to supplement them out of it”. Often, this scenario can be avoided simply by putting the teeth into proper condition for the horse to comfortably and completely chew his roughage in the first place.

Another concern that can arise from reduced chewing is the corresponding reduced production of saliva that results. During the normal chewing function mature horses make an amazing amount of saliva, around 12 gallons or more per day. But only if they are comfortable chewing their roughage completely. The saliva that is produced from regular chewing acts as a buffer to the constant production of stomach acid that a horse produces.  If a roughage source is available, and the horse is comfortable chewing it, a fairly constant flow of saliva is available to buffer the constant production of stomach acid. This buffering action may function in limiting ulcers initiated by stomach acid. Limit the saliva through limited chewing, and you limit its ability to buffer the acid. One inefficient function contributes to another, so everything that fails to function properly has a negative effect on the rest of the system downstream.

It soon becomes clear that keeping your horses teeth in proper condition pays dividends in a number of ways. More efficient use of the roughage in its diet is one benefit. Limiting the need for high amounts of additional feed can be another. The biggest benefit however, is that the horse has a better overall chance of living up to its genetic potential by thriving on a feed program that is proper for its digestive system and is utilized as efficiently as possible.