Ground Plants

Horses are one of 3 groups of animals with similar digestive tracts worldwide. Besides all equids (horses, asses and zebras), the other two are the tapir and the rhinoceros. They all feed on ground plants and use the bacteria located in the colon to digest this cellulose into short-chain fatty acids.  

Ground plants have little lignin, a type of cellulose that is stronger structurally. This “woody” cellulose makes bark, branches, and tall grasses such as bamboo. Ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, deer, elk and many more) can digest lignin, and I consider their digestive tracts “best in class” because of their ubiquitous presence around the globe. Horses, however, are limited to the plants on the ground unless they are starving.

Another significant fact about these digestive tracts is that they have no gallbladder for storing bile. Fat digestion uses this substance, but the food eaten has no fat until created by the bacteria further along in the gut. Because ground plants are a relatively poor source of protein (as opposed to meat), horses need to consume many ground plants daily to meet their protein needs. Therefore, an abundance of a variety of ground plants is necessary for horses’ health – and hay, with only 1 or 2 grasses, does NOT replace a good pasture because of the lack of a variety of proteins.

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