Last Updated on August 11, 2020 by Allison Price
Horses are quite huge. And they have unique digestive systems. Because of that, you may be wondering… how many stomachs does a horse have?
To answer the question, a horse has a single, non-chambered stomach. It means that horses do not have multi-compartmented stomachs as cattle do. The horse has a simple stomach that works much like a human’s stomach.
Unlike cattle, horses have only one stomach for digestion. It has three main areas. The saccus caecus region, the fundus region and the pyloric region.
Comparing Cattle and Horse’s Digestive Tract
Horses and cattle both digest fiber. With the help of various bacteria in their respective fermentation chamber.
The fiber digestion takes place in a multi-chambered stomach of a cattle. In the case of the horse, fiber digestion takes place in a large chamber of the colon called the cecum.
The digesta from the cecum is passed back into the intestine for further processing. While in cattle, the digesta from the rumen is formed into cuds. These are regurgitated, re-chewed and passed back to the second chamber of the stomach. They will then be going through a process and sent along the digestive tract.
Horses have small stomachs. They can’t vomit. And they have digestive tract that switches back and forth. Between large and small diameters. They are prone to various types of digestive upsets. Like obstructions, impactions, excessive gas, twists and others. Some of these digestive upsets can be life threatening.
Cattle tend to get bloated. Various things that prevent burping. Various sorts of diarrhea. Some of these are because of chemical imbalances and some because of infections.
Things to know about the digestion of a horse
It’s no surprise that a horse is a unique animal. Especially when it comes to how they digest food.
They are non-ruminant herbivores. It means that they are a cross between a monogastric animal and a ruminant.
The problem is that some of us feed our horse like we would a dog or ourselves. This can work. But it often leads to problems.
We need to understand how the horse’s digestive functions. So, we will know how to feed our horse as they should be fed.
With that, here are facts that will help us better understand horse digestion. From the mouth and we’ll work our way down and out.
- Horses can only chew on one side of the mouth at a time
They do this not with an up-and-down motion like humans do. But an outside-to-inside motion on a slant. It is determined by the slant of the matching surfaces of the upper and lower cheek teeth.
- Horses can produce up to 10 gallons of saliva per day (if allowed to eat plenty of forage)
The saliva glands produce saliva to moisten the food. And ease its passage into the esophagus and stomach. Also, saliva neutralizes stomach acids. Thus, it will reduce the risk of gastric ulcers.
- The esophagus of the horse only works in one direction
The esophagus is emptied into the stomach. Food can go down. But cannot come back up. That is why horses cannot vomit.
- The stomach of the horse can only hold about two gallons
This is quite small in size compared to other parts of the digestive system.
- Food remains in the stomach for around 15 minutes
After around 15 minutes, the food moves into the small intestine.
- Acid can attack the squamous cells in the stomach lining (when the stomach is empty)
It usually results in ulcers. That is why small frequent meals, access to a slow feed hay net, free-choice hay… or access to pasture are very essential.
- Most of the digestion process happens in the horse’s small intestine
This is also true for the absorption of sugars, starches, proteins and fats.
- Horses have no gall bladder
But a segment of small intestine (the duodenum) aids in the digestion of fats.
- Food can only enter and exit the cecum from the top
If a horse does not have adequate amount of water intake, this can be a common site for impaction colic.
- The cecum and other parts of the large intestine… have active populations of bacteria and other microbes
These bacteria and microbes break food down in a process called fermentation.
- The bacterial and microbe populations become specific… in the fermentation of the type of food the horse normally eats
The bacteria/microbes are unable to ferment effectively… if the new food is introduced suddenly. This may result in colic. That is why all feed changes should be done gradually.
- Lignin cannot be broken down by fermentation
So, it is passed in the feces.
- Gut sounds are a sign that the food is moving through the digestive tract
If there are no gut sounds, there is a blockage.
- A horse needs a minimum of 1% of his body weight daily of long-stemmed roughage… like grass, hay, or hay replacers for normal digestive tract activity
For a 1000 pounds horse, it would mean 10 pounds of roughage.
- The entire digestive process for a horse takes anywhere from 36-72 hours
This is the entire time from the mouth to manure.
- The horse’s digestive tract would measure about 100 feet in length if it were to be stretched from end to end
Most of this is the intestines.
The horse has only one stomach and is small to the size of the animal. And makes up only 10% of the capacity of the digestive system or 9-15 liters in volume. The natural feeding of the horse is eating small amounts of roughages often. The passage time of the feed varies. It depends on how you feed the horse. It only takes 15 minutes for them to consume a large meal. And it takes 24 hours for its stomach to clear. In feeding your horse, provide the basic nutrient categories. The carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. And it is critical not to forget about the water. You can also feed your horse with lettuces which also contains a lot of water.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!