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Can horses eat before exercise?

Read more on this equine nutrition myth.

By Dr. Juliet Getty | 29-Aug-11

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Grazing horseThe horse’s stomach should be empty while exercising to avoid digestive upset. Truth or myth?

Myth. Mostly.

We don’t feel comfortable exercising after a large meal and we therefore assume that our horses don’t either. But define a “meal.” We generally think of a meal as feeding a commercially fortified feed—something that comes out of a bag. Or we may feed a meal of oats along with supplements. And in this instance, the myth is actually truth. This type of meal—low in fiber and high in feedstuffs that provide starch, protein, and fat—should not be fed immediately before exercising your horse. But forage should! It’s just the opposite: Restrict forage before exercise and you’ll produce, rather than avoid, digestive upset. Here’s why…

The horse’s stomach, unlike our own, secretes acid all the time. That’s right—it never stops. Chewing produces saliva, a natural antacid. But left without anything to chew, the acid will accumulate in the stomach and settle along the bottom (as water would in an empty jar). The lower portion of the stomach (the glandular region) has a protective mucus layer, but the upper squamous region has no such lining. Ask your horse to move, and the acid sloshes around, reaching the unprotected area, leading to an ulcer. And, as the acid flows through the small intestine, cecum, and large colon, it can cause further damage along its wake, potentially leading to colic and ulcerative colitis.

Allow your horse to graze on hay or pasture before asking him to move; 15 minutes ought to do the trick. You’ll keep him healthy and save him from physical and mental discomfort, which will all add up to his being more relaxed and receptive.

Dr. Juliet Getty has taught and consulted on equine nutrition for more than 20 years. At www.gettyequinenutrition.com horse owners and managers will find a library of helpful articles, a forum on nutrition, and a calendar of appearances, teleconferences and interviews; she is also available for individual consultations.

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Reader Comments

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

8/29/2011 11:46:25 PM

It makes perfect sense for a horse to eat before exercising. They're prey animals. In the wild they would always be prepared to run.

Liz    West Harrison, IN

8/29/2011 1:49:05 PM

I hope more and more people start realizing this and heeding this advice. Great article!

Marion    Sussex, NJ

8/29/2011 1:04:49 PM

Thanks for the great info. I usually feed his pellets and then have him on hay for an hour before lungeing at a show. Then go to halter and showmanship an hour later. On riding days, it's way later and he's in front of a hay bag all day long. So I guess I'm on the right track! Thanks!

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