The Bucket to Barrow Feed Talk
Some months ago I attended the Bucket to Barrow feed talk delivered by Jane van Lennep from Simple System Horse Feed. A completely forage based horse feeding system registered with the Vegan Society. I had attended one of these talks before probably around 10 years ago. Although I don’t myself feed the Simple System feeds it is food for thought, it made me think about what I was feeding an how I was feeding it.
The talk is called Bucket to Barrow as it follows the process of of the horse’s digestive system. Literally from the food going in from the bucket to you poo picking into the barrow. It shows how the way in which we feed can alter the horse.
Growing up when I bought feed for my horse it was generally some kind of cereal mix most likely coated in molasses and a chop, also coated in molasses. In fact the first pony I had was fed soaked hay and I soaked it in water with molasses added. If you think about it on a very basic level though, if a horse was in its natural habitat is it likely to have a cereal based diet with added sugar?
So let’s start at the beginning of the benefits of forage based horse feeding. I’m not sure I can make this as entertaining as the actual talk but here goes!
As I am sure most of you are aware the horse is in fact a herd animal and in their natural habitat they would be grazing around 18hr/day. I don’t think there are many of us can provide enough grazing for our horses to be our 24hr/day 365 days/year. We either don’t the space or quality of grass and we worry about them over eating or not eating enough. Or getting cold and wet when it rains or too hot when the sun is out etc, etc.
Due to a horses vision they can’t see the grass they are eating so they use their whiskers to assist. How many of us trim our horse’s whiskers?
The horse uses its incisors at the front to bite and then their molars at the back to chew. A bit like a mincer (see below)! The process of eating grass and hay the jaw uses long sweeps whereas cereals and grains are shorter quicker jaw sweeps. This has an impact on the dental health of our horses and ponies too with pasture/hay feed horses tending to wear their teeth more evenly. So here is our first benefit of forage based horse feeding, a happier mouth.
Once the horse has a mouthful of grass and begins to chew the 3 pairs of saliva glands start to produce saliva. The saliva production is only activated at the point of chewing, this is quite an important point that we will come back to later.
On average the horse produces 40l of saliva per day. The saliva is very slimy which helps to soften the food to aid with swallowing and movement along the digestive track. It is about 99.5% water and 0.5% salts and enzymes including bicarbonate and amalyse. The saliva’s main purpose is to aid the neutralisation of the acid in the stomach. There is very little of the digestion process completed in the mouth.
The Oesophagus and Stomach
The oesophagus is the tube the food travels along to the stomach and is demonstrated here with a bicycle wheel inner tube.
The horses stomach is continually producing acid, around 40l in a 24hr period. The acid production occurs whether the horse is eating or not, unlike the saliva that is only produced when the horse is chewing.
The stomach is only around 5l in size (our 5l container), this is small in relation to the size of their body. The base of the stomach is protected against the acid, the top however is not. The small size of the stomach is because horses are a prey animal and when put in danger their fight or flight sense almost always opts for flight. So eating little and often is best for them.
If we think back to when our horses were wild and out grazing on the planes, eating 18hr of the day and travelling 25 miles a day. If they came across a predator such as the friendly Sabor Toothed Tiger do you think they said “Hold on a minute Mr Tiger I need to wait for my food to digest before I run away from you?”
What reasons do we use for withdrawing food from our horses?
- They may be overweight so we restrict their grazing or bring them in to stand in an empty stable.
- We think they need to digest their food before we ride.
- We’re going to a competition and we don’t want to feed until we have finished.
- Our way of life prevents us from providing lots of small feeds to mimic the grazing style.
What was my food restriction excuse?
I used to leave my horse to rest with no forage before riding, pretty much until I listened to the talk the first time. I would bring my horse in from the field and then wait 30 minutes or more before I would ride. Then I wouldn’t feed for a while after I rode. So all in all this could have been 2 or more hours that my horse didn’t eat. During this time he wasn’t producing any saliva but the acid production has continued so now he has a nice belly full of acid. I then get on and ride and the acid starts to slosh around in the stomach splashing up around the top of the stomach that isn’t protected, ouch!
Under normal conditions the stomach is never allowed to be completely full or empty. The ingested food is held in layers and mixed with the digestive juices in a kneading and squeezing action carried out by the muscles of the stomach wall. Only simple sugars and starches are converted to glucose in the stomach. Due to low amounts of amalyse there isn’t the capacity to breakdown large amounts. The rising levels of acid trigger the valve to open allowing the food to trickle through into the small intestine. But just imagine if there isn’t enough food but just a build up of acid. The unprotected areas of the stomach can become ulcerated.
The Small Intestine
The small intestines is around 20m in length and is where soluble nutrients are absorbed, this is our yellow garden hose. Little digestion is completed in the stomach, around 30-60% of carbohydrate absorption occurs in the small intestine. Around 20l of bile produced by the liver assists with digestion and absorption as the food travels along the small intestine to the caecum.
The Hind Gut
The hind gut is made up of the caecum (a feed bag), large colon (a hoover hose) and small colon (flexible plumbing pipe), rectum and anus. This is where the only microbial part of the horse’s digestion occurs. The caecum is around 25-35l in size, contains lots of micro-organisms and turns the fibre into nutrients, a bit like an internal compost heap. Food remains in the caecum for around 7hrs to allow time for the fermentation process. The food moves from here into the large colon where lots of the nutrients from the microbial digestion in the caecum are absorbed.
Finally the food moves into the small colon which is much narrower, any water left is reabsorbed and the faecal balls are formed which then appear as manure for us to scoop up into the barrow.
So there we have it, the horse’s digestive system shown in everyday objects.
What did I learn from the the Bucket to Barrow talk?
There were some people at the talk that had horses or ponies that had had terrible allergies and they had run out of options. The forage based horse feeding system had literally saved their animals. I stopped feeding cereal based feeds and feeds with added sugars and I don’t feed anything containing molasses. It does make a difference. I noticed my horse was more calm and amenable to ride, more settled when out hacking and just less up tight in general.
Following the talk I had a think about what I was feeding my horse and how I was feeding it. In reality our horse’s digestive systems were never designed to digest lots of cereals and added sugars. It was time to try the forage based horse feeding system. I don’t leave my horse for significant periods of time without some form of food even when I am going to ride. If I am going to a show I make sure I enough hay to last the journey there and back with extra for in between classes.
Have you ever thought about what your feed contains and how it might be impacting on your horses behaviour? The forage based horse feeding system is definitely worth a thought.
NB This is completely my own interpretation of the talk and my own opinions. I do not work for Simple System Feeds or any other feed company.