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Carbohydrates - What are they?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Carbohydrates are a major component of plant tissue and are the main source of energy for horses, but are you aware of the different types of carbs and how they are digested in the horses body? Did you know that a horses digestive tract is designed to digest a particular type of carbohydrate and has a limited ability to digest another? Lets start by identifying the two types of carbohydrates:

1. Non Structural Carbohydrates also known as Non Fibrous Carbohydrates 

2. Structural Carbohydrates also known as Fibrous Carbohydrates 

Non Structural Carbohydrates (NSC's) are found inside of the plant cell and are referred to as STARCH & SUGAR. NSC's are broken down by enzymes present in the small intestine and are absorbed through the intestinal wall into the blood stream as glucose or are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen.

Structural Carbohydrates are found in the cell wall of plants and are referred to as FIBRE. These carbohydrates bypass enzymatic digestion and are fermented by the good bacteria living in the horses hindgut (cecum & colon). The process of fermentation produces volatile fatty acids which are used and an energy source by the horse.

Why are Structural Carbohydrates so important for the horse?

Horses have evolved on high Fibre diets (Structural Carbs) and have a limited ability to digest large amounts of starch (Non-Structural Carbs) due to limited enzymes present in the small intestine which break the starch molecules down. When a diet high in NSC's is fed, some escapes digestion in the small intestine and overflows into the hindgut where it is rapidly fermented. When NSC's are fermented, lots of acid is produced which alters the pH of the hindgut causing acidosis, killing the good bacteria present. This predisposes the horse to metabolic conditions and digestive disturbances (colic). 

You may be wondering what feedstuff is composed of starch? Cereal grain is composed of starch. When rations containing high levels of grain is fed, excess starch will escape digestion and rapidly ferment in the hindgut causing acidosis and increasing the risk of digestive upsets, metabolic conditions and poor performance 

ALWAYS remember, horses are hindgut fermenters- They need fibre to keep their digestive tract functioning! If you feed your horse grain, ensure the base of the diet is composed of adequate fibre and make sure your horse isn't consuming large quantities of grain at once. A diet too high in grain or one lacking in fibre, can cause serious health issues.  

Happy Riding!