Section Key Points
  • Mouth: Chews food, mixes with saliva containing enzymes.
  • Esophagus: Transports food to stomach.
  • Stomach: Small size, holds 3-5 gallons, mixes food with gastric acids.
  • Small Intestine: 70 feet long, main site for nutrient absorption.
  • Cecum: Fermentation vat, breaks down fiber.
  • Large Colon: Continues fermentation, absorbs water.
  • Small Colon: Absorbs water, forms fecal balls.
  • Rectum: Stores fecal matter before expulsion.
Common Digestive Issues
  • Colic: Caused by impactions, gas buildup, or twisted intestines.
  • Ulcers: Common in non-glandular region of stomach, caused by stress and diet.
  • Laminitis: Painful condition affecting hooves, linked to diet changes.
Proper Feeding
  • Gradual Dietary Changes: Prevents gut flora disruption.
  • Small, Frequent Meals: Prevents overloading stomach and hindgut.
  • High-Quality Forage: Supports healthy fermentation and provides nutrients.
Additional Tips
  • Consistent Feeding Schedule: Regulates digestive system.
  • Hydration: Ensures constant access to fresh water.
  • Regular Exercise: Stimulates gut motility.
Recognizing Digestive Issues
  • Changes in Appetite: Sudden loss of appetite.
  • Abnormal Manure: Changes in consistency, colour, or frequency.
  • Behavioural Changes: Irritability, lethargy, or signs of discomfort.
  • Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss.

Horse Digestion Process

Understanding the horse digestion process is crucial for horse owners and enthusiasts. The equine digestive system is unique and complex, requiring careful management to ensure optimal health and performance. This blog will delve into the anatomy and function of the horse's digestive system, highlighting key processes and potential issues.

Anatomy of the Equine Digestive System

The horse's digestive system can be divided into two main sections: the foregut and the hindgut.



Digestion begins in the mouth, where food is chewed and mixed with saliva. Saliva contains enzymes like amylase, which start breaking down carbohydrates.

Horse chewing food

Saliva production can reach up to 10 gallons a day, an impressive feat that shows how important the initial stage of digestion is for horses. Check out some excellent supplements to support your horse's digestion.


The esophagus is a muscular tube that transports food from the mouth to the stomach. It is about 4 to 5 feet long and works via a series of muscular contractions known as peristalsis.


The horse's stomach is relatively small, holding only 3-5 gallons. It serves as a mixing and holding tank, where gastric acid and enzymes like pepsinogen begin the digestion of proteins. Food can remain in the stomach for as little as 15-30 minutes or as long as 12 hours, depending on the meal size and type.

Horse stomach illustration

This small size is why horses need to eat small, frequent meals. Larger meals can lead to issues such as gastric ulcers. For more on how to support your horse’s stomach health, consider NAF digestion support.

Small Intestine

Approximately 70 feet long, the small intestine is where most nutrient absorption occurs. It is divided into three parts: the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. Here, enzymes continue the breakdown of proteins, simple carbohydrates, and fats, allowing amino acids, glucose, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids to be absorbed into the bloodstream.



The cecum is a fermentation vat where complex carbohydrates (fibre) are broken down by microorganisms. This process produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which supply energy, as well as B-vitamins, Vitamin K, and some amino acids.

Horse cecum illustration

The cecum is a critical part of the horse's digestive system. Microbial fermentation here is crucial for breaking down fibrous plant material. Want to help your horse maintain a healthy cecum? Explore Dodson & Horrell supplements.

Large Colon

The large colon continues the fermentation process and absorbs water. Its multiple directional changes and narrowing diameter slow the passage of food, facilitating further microbial digestion.

Small Colon

The small colon primarily absorbs water and forms faecal balls, which are then stored in the rectum before being expelled.


The final part of the digestive tract, the rectum, is where faecal matter is stored before being expelled.

Horse rectum illustration

Ensuring the entire digestive tract functions smoothly is vital for your horse's health. Explore more about horse digestion on the Horse First Digestion Supplements page.

Digestive Process

Horses are hindgut fermenters, meaning the bulk of digestion occurs in the large intestine. This is different from ruminants like cows, which primarily digest food in the foregut (rumen). The horse's digestive strategy allows for rapid passage of ingested forage from the stomach to the small intestine and into the cecum and large colon.

Foregut Digestion

In the foregut, food is broken down by gastric acids and enzymes. The stomach's primary functions are to mix food with digestive juices and regulate its passage into the small intestine. The small intestine is the main site for nutrient absorption, where enzymes break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into absorbable units.

Horse foregut illustration

Efficient foregut digestion is crucial for nutrient absorption. Check out Equimins digestion supplements to support this process.

Hindgut Digestion

In the hindgut, the cecum and colon play a crucial role in fermenting complex carbohydrates. Microorganisms in the cecum break down fibre into VFAs, which are absorbed and used as energy. The large colon continues this fermentation process and absorbs water, while the small colon forms faecal balls.

Want to keep your horse’s hindgut healthy? Consider supplements from Global Herbs.

Horse hindgut illustration

Common Digestive Issues

The complexity of the horse's digestive system makes it susceptible to various issues. Here are some of the most common digestive problems and how to manage them.


Colic is a common and potentially life-threatening condition that can result from impactions, gas build-up, or twisted intestines. Impactions often occur at the pelvic flexure, where the large colon narrows. Colic symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe pain and distress.

Horse colic illustration

Proper feeding practices, such as providing plenty of forage and ensuring consistent access to water, can help prevent colic. For more information on managing colic, visit the horse care supplements section.


Gastric ulcers are common in the non-glandular region of the stomach, where there is less protection from stomach acids. Symptoms of ulcers include poor appetite, weight loss, and changes in behaviour. They are often caused by stress, infrequent feeding, and high-grain diets.

To help prevent ulcers, feed horses small, frequent meals and ensure they have constant access to forage. Adding supplements designed to support gastric health can also be beneficial. Explore our digestive supplements for options.


Laminitis is a painful condition affecting the hooves, often linked to changes in diet that disrupt the hindgut's microbial balance. This can lead to inflammation and damage to the sensitive laminae within the hoof.

Horse laminitis illustration

Maintaining a consistent diet and avoiding sudden changes can help prevent laminitis. Supplements that support hindgut health can also be useful. Check out our hindgut health supplements for more information.

Importance of Proper Feeding

Proper feeding management is essential to maintain a healthy digestive system in horses. Here are some key recommendations to follow:

Gradual Dietary Changes

Sudden changes in diet can disrupt the delicate balance of gut flora, leading to digestive issues such as colic and laminitis. Gradual changes allow the microbial population in the hindgut to adjust, reducing the risk of digestive upset. Aim to make dietary changes over a period of 7-10 days.

Horse feeding illustration

For a smoother transition, consider using supplements that support digestive health during dietary changes. Learn more about our Hilton Herbs supplements.

Small, Frequent Meals

Feeding horses small, frequent meals helps prevent overloading the stomach and hindgut, reducing the risk of colic and other digestive problems. Horses are natural grazers and are designed to eat little and often throughout the day.

Providing access to high-quality forage at all times can help maintain a healthy digestive system. Supplementing with products designed to support digestive health can also be beneficial. Check out our range of Lincoln digestion supplements.

High-Quality Forage

A diet high in quality forage supports healthy fermentation in the hindgut and provides essential nutrients. Forage should make up the bulk of a horse's diet, with grains and concentrates fed only as necessary to meet additional energy requirements.

Horse eating forage

High-quality hay and pasture provide the fibre necessary for proper digestive function. If you're looking for supplements to complement your horse's forage intake, visit our Equimins supplements page.


Understanding the horse digestion process is vital for ensuring the health and well-being of these magnificent animals. By recognizing the unique aspects of their digestive system and implementing proper feeding practices, horse owners can help prevent common digestive issues and promote overall health.

For more detailed information on horse digestion and related topics, you can refer to the following sources:

Additional Tips for Optimal Digestive Health

Ensuring optimal digestive health for your horse involves more than just proper feeding. Here are some additional tips to keep your horse’s digestive system running smoothly:

Consistent Feeding Schedule

Horses thrive on routine, and maintaining a consistent feeding schedule helps regulate their digestive system. Feed your horse at the same times each day to avoid stress and digestive disturbances.

Horse feeding schedule

A regular feeding schedule ensures that the digestive tract functions predictably and efficiently. Check out our Dodson & Horrell digestion supplements for added support.


Water is essential for all bodily functions, including digestion. Ensure your horse has constant access to clean, fresh water. Dehydration can lead to impaction colic and other digestive issues.

In addition to fresh water, consider electrolyte supplements to maintain hydration levels, especially during hot weather or heavy exercise. Explore our range of hydration supplements.

Regular Exercise

Regular exercise is important for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Movement helps stimulate gut motility, preventing issues like colic and impaction. Aim to provide your horse with daily exercise, whether through riding, turnout, or groundwork.

Horse exercise

Exercise not only benefits digestion but also overall health and well-being. For horses that need additional digestive support, consider our Global Herbs digestion supplements.

Recognizing Digestive Issues Early

Early recognition of digestive issues can prevent more serious problems from developing. Here are some signs to watch for:

Changes in Appetite

If your horse shows a sudden loss of appetite or disinterest in food, it could indicate a digestive problem. Monitor their eating habits closely and consult a veterinarian if changes persist.

Products like NAF digestion support can help maintain a healthy appetite.

Abnormal Manure

Changes in the consistency, colour, or frequency of manure can signal digestive disturbances. Loose stools, constipation, or unusually coloured manure should be addressed promptly.

Horse manure

Keeping an eye on manure quality can help you catch issues early. Supplements from Equimins can support digestive health and regularity.

Behavioural Changes

Behavioural changes such as irritability, lethargy, or signs of discomfort can indicate digestive issues. Pay attention to your horse’s behaviour and seek veterinary advice if you notice unusual changes.

Weight Loss

Unexplained weight loss is a significant indicator of digestive problems. Ensure your horse receives adequate nutrition and consider supplements to support weight management and digestion.

Horse weight check

For horses struggling with weight maintenance, explore our range of Hilton Herbs supplements.

How long does it take a horse to digest?

On average, it takes a horse about 24 to 48 hours to completely digest its food. The process begins in the mouth and ends with the expulsion of faecal matter. The foregut (mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small intestine) handles the initial breakdown and absorption of nutrients, which takes a few hours, while the hindgut (cecum, large colon, small colon, and rectum) continues fermentation and absorbs water over a longer period.

What is unique about a horse's digestive system?

The horse's digestive system is unique because they are non-ruminant herbivores, also known as hindgut fermenters. Unlike ruminants like cows, which have multi-chambered stomachs, horses have a single-chambered stomach and rely heavily on their large intestine for fermentation of fibrous plant material. This allows them to quickly process and absorb nutrients in the foregut and efficiently ferment fibre in the hindgut.

What are the 4 parts of the horse digestive system?

The four main parts of the horse's digestive system are:

  • Foregut: Includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small intestine where initial digestion and nutrient absorption occur.
  • Cecum: A fermentation vat where microorganisms break down fibrous plant material into volatile fatty acids (VFAs).
  • Large Colon: Continues the fermentation process and absorbs water.
  • Small Colon and Rectum: Absorb water, form faecal balls, and store faecal matter until expulsion.

Why do horses have 4 stomachs?

This is actually a common misconception. Horses do not have four stomachs; they have a single-chambered stomach. The confusion might arise from the fact that horses, as hindgut fermenters, have a complex and compartmentalized digestive system involving the stomach, small intestine, cecum, large colon, and small colon, each playing a crucial role in digestion and fermentation. However, these compartments are not separate stomachs.