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The digestive physiology of the horse

13 Apr, 2024 | Mixtures of plants

Digestive Physiology of the Horse

The digestive physiology of the horse is fascinating and complex, given that horses are non-ruminant herbivores. Their digestive system is adapted to a diet based on plant fibers, which influences their feeding patterns and overall health.

Anatomy of the Digestive System:

The horse's digestive system consists of several key organs, each with a specific role in the digestion process. The horse's stomach is relatively small in proportion to its body size and can hold approximately 8 to 15 liters of food. However, the majority of food digestion in horses occurs in the small intestine, which is significantly long to allow for efficient digestion of plant fibers. The horse's large intestine is particularly important as it houses a large population of symbiotic microorganisms that break down the tough-to-digest plant fibers.

Digestion Process:

When a horse ingests food, it goes through several phases of digestion. It all starts with chewing, where food is ground by the teeth and mixed with saliva, initiating the carbohydrate breakdown process. Next, the food moves into the stomach where digestive enzymes begin to work on proteins and fats. However, the actual digestion of plant fibers occurs in the small intestine, where they are broken down into smaller nutrients that can be absorbed by the body. The nutrients absorbed in this way enter the bloodstream and are transported to cells where they are used as an energy source or for growth and repair.

Role of Symbiotic Microorganisms:

A unique aspect of the horse's digestive system is its reliance on symbiotic microorganisms in the large intestine. These microorganisms, such as bacteria and protozoa, play an essential role in breaking down plant fibers. They possess special enzymes capable of breaking down the cellulose bonds of plant cell walls, releasing the essential nutrients for the horse. In return, the horse provides the microorganisms with a stable environment and food substrates for their growth and activity.


In conclusion, the digestive physiology of the horse is a complex process that reflects its adaptation to a diet of plant fibers. Understanding this process is crucial for maintaining the health and well-being of horses, ensuring they receive appropriate and balanced nutrition. As horse owners or professional horse caregivers, it is important to consider the specific needs of their digestive system to ensure their optimal health and performance.

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