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Horses grasp food using a combination of the lips, tongue and the teeth. Horses' lips are extremely tactile when it comes to consuming feed. They can be quite selective as many of us would have seen powdered supplements or pellets in a nice little pile at the bottle of the feed bin. Feeds are mixed with saliva in the mouth to make a moist bolus that can be easily swallowed. Three pairs of glands produce saliva - the parotid, the submaxillary, and the sublingual. Horses will produce between 20-80 litres of saliva per day. Salvia contains bicarbonate which buffers and protects amino acids in the highly acidic stomach. Saliva also contains small amounts of amylase which assist with carbohydrate digestion. The mouth contains 36 teeth (females) and 40 teeth (males). Wolf teeth are not included as not all horses have them. The horses upper jaw is wider than the bottom jaw to allow for a chewing motion that is quite complex. The chewing action of the horse is a sweeping action which incorporates both lateral forward and backwards motions and vertical motions. This allows the feed to be effectively ground and mixed with saliva to initiate the digestive process. The texture of the feeds fed to horses will dramatically influence the chewing rate (jaw sweeps) and rate of ingestion. An average horse with general take 60,000 jaw sweeps per day when grazing. This amount will be dramatically reduced when confined to a stable and large amounts of grain are fed. The size of the horse also effects the time and amount of jaw sweeps it takes to sufficiently masticate the feed. The average 500kg horse generally takes 40 minutes and 3400 jaw sweeps to consume one kilogram of hay. Ponies will generally take twice as long to consume this amount of hay. Oats on the other hand only take 10 minutes and 850 jaw sweeps for the mature horse and up to five times longer for ponies. When horses chew fibrous feeds such as hay or pasture it is a long jaw sweep action. This is why horses continually out on pasture rarely develop sharp edges on their teeth. Grains are consumed in a shorter sweep which does not extend past the outer edge of the teeth. When large amount of grain are fed, horses chewing action will be changed and the teeth will not be worn evenly. Hooks or sharp edges will start to form on the outside edge of the teeth. If teeth are not properly 'floated' or rasped the rate of intake, chewing efficiency, appetite and temperament can be seriously affected. If feed are not masticated correctly the bolus (feed and salvia) may lodge in the oesophagus and cause choke.
The equine gastrointestinal tract functions well under normal constant conditions. However as all horse people know the equine GUT is extremely sensitive and easy to upset and colic is the number one cause for equine death. Any sudden change in diet can compromise and change the bacteria population in the horse's hindgut, potentially resulting in colic and at least a reduced digestive efficiency of the diet. Keeping the microflora happy can be difficult if a horse is under stress, travelling large distances, suffered illness or injury, received antibiotics, weaned foal or a high performance horse being fed large amounts of grain. It is imperative that we treat the horse hindgut with respect and monitor the diet of ours horses and there general health. Trying to feed your horses as close to their natural grazing habit as possible, (small meals frequently) will greatly reduce the risk of gastrointestinal tract disorders. This will allow you to enjoy your horse to its fullest potential.
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