Fibre: Essential To Horse Health
By Purina Canada
The horse is a non-ruminant herbivore. And like all herbivores, it can fill most of its daily energy requirements by eating plant fibre. In fact, at pasture, the horse spends more than 70 percent of its time grazing, as much as 18 hours a day. Fibre is a desirable energy source for the horse, as are starch (grain) and fat (vegetable fat). What’s more, fibre is indispensable to the horse’s digestive balance. Indeed, to stay healthy, the horse must have at least one percent of its body weight in long-stem fibre.
A minimum that must be met
While it is often necessary to add grains, commercial feeds or vegetable oil to the diets of horses with higher calorie needs (lactating mare, growing foal, horse in training), fibre remains the most important ingredient in any equine diet. Generally, it supplies enough energy for the horse’s basic needs, such as breathing, digesting, grazing, walking, and sleeping. Apart from the young 18-month-old horse in training, every horse should have at least 50 percent of its daily ration in fibre to maintain optimum digestive health. For most adult horses, this percentage can be increased considerably, sometimes to as much as 100 percent fibre if the horse is not working or if it maintains body condition easily. How does the horse use fibrous feedstuffs? Fermented in the cecum and colon by billions of bacteria, the fibre ends up as volatile fatty acids, which can then be absorbed by the horse and converted to energy.
Quality and digestibility
Depending on its origin, fibre can vary considerably in quality and digestibility. Fibre is comprised of three main substances: cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Lignin, which gives plants their rigidity, cannot be digested by the bacteria in the horse’s large intestine. The horse’s energy needs are therefore met by cellulose and, especially, hemicellulose. A fourth substance available in fibre, pectin, is drawing growing attention. Extremely digestible, pectin is found in large quantities in beet pulp, soybean hulls, and young forages. Much more than crude fibre (CF), a very imprecise value usually found on feed labels, the best indicators of a fibre’s digestibility are the percentage of NDF (neutral detergent fibre) and ADF (acid detergent fibre). The only way to determine the NDF, ADF and CF values in what you are feeding your horse is through sampling and laboratory analysis.
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