Physiology of nutrition

Knowing how nutrition works in the horse down to the cellular and molecular level is important. You may not think so, or you may not feel capable of understanding the complexities. But, if you try, you will help your horse thrive and save a lot of money!

Wikipedia defines physiology as: “the scientific study of functions and mechanisms in a living system. As a sub-discipline of biology, physiology focuses on how organisms, organ systems, individual organs, cells, and biomolecules carry out the chemical and physical functions in a living system.”

Almost all of us own a car, but not all know how they work. Suppose you are reading this now on a computer screen. In that case, I will bet you don’t understand a thing about coding software, the electronics of the hardware, or how your keystrokes get to the server thousands of miles away. No need to know this because it works most of the time.

Horses and humans are living things developed from molecules billions of years ago. Cars and computers are less than 100 years old. We all understand this, or you may believe in the creation of all living things from one divine event. It doesn’t matter. Whether divine or evolved, the time horses have been around had allowed for removing any kinks in the system. 

Horses were first used by humans about 4000 years ago. Through breeding programs over the last 1000 years, we have mixed and matched them to create speed, agility, beauty, strength and size without understanding how these relatively abrupt changes in their makeup have affected their molecular and cellular workings. A clear example was the development of the mini horse. In the mid-1980s, these tiny horses became a craze to many new horse owners, but the breed soon had a problem. Their teeth developed a lot of mechanical issues with severe abnormalities. They took swift action and quickly eliminated these horses with malfunctioning teeth from all breeding programs.

This adjustment is not the case for the feeding of horses. Marketing bombards us with marketing keywords such as “essential Omega 3’s,” “complete vitamin supplement,” “gut calming,” and more. Suppose you are a new horse owner jumping into the care of horses. You assume that published information is valid and verified scientifically and, most importantly, safe and in the best interest of your horses.

It is not!

By understanding the physiology of nutrition in horses, you will soon realize that feeding a horse is different from feeding humans, dogs, cats, fish, sharks, cattle, pigs, and chickens. Instead, horses are more like tapirs and rhinoceroses. I’m not kidding!

Within the section on nutrition are articles that will explain all of this. Dig deep into the comment sections where further explanations develop. Some I organize into booklets for reading and courses for enrollment. Take the time to thoroughly understand how horses eat so that you can help them thrive and have a long health span.

Before you go, let me break down some principles:

  • All animals (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and most insects) have a tube that runs through them, starting at the mouth and ending at the anus.
  • This tube has contents that are OUTSIDE the body.
  • The goal is to safely transport materials found in this tube’s contents INTO the body while leaving out harmful materials.
  • What goes into the mouth is called “raw materials” and specific to the specie eating them.
  • All raw materials are digested into six things: air, water, mineral, sugar, fat and protein.
  • The raw materials become fuels and building materials using chemicals (enzymes) and bacteria (the gut microbiota).
  • Only fuels and building materials pass from the tube into the body. Everything else stays in the tube.
  • The fuels and building materials are transported to organs and cells for either use or stored for later use.
  • All materials no longer needed for fuel or construction are eliminated in the feces, the urine or exhaled through the lungs.

That is it – the physiology of nutrition. Simple concepts with complex executions of molecular processes developed over millions of years. What we have allowed into the mouth of the horse over the past 100 years is going against this system. We experience diseases such as metabolic syndrome, laminitis, behavioral problems, and more when it does.

This video about horses being continuous eaters is an old one. However, before you watch it, I want to add a few things here. 1st, I now call them “cattle” and not “cows.” It is a peeve of mine now because “cows” are female cattle, whales and elephants, to name a few—my apologies to all the male cattle for disrespecting them.

More seriously, horses need time away from eating to allow for hormesis. They have seasonal and daily periods where they do not consume anything, allowing for hormesis, which is the process of cellular clean-up and restoration of cellular health. I have many articles on this. The point of this video is that horses don’t have a gall bladder and therefore should not be fed “meals” or boluses of food.

(Below) Food aggression in piglets – some horses remind me of this. Understand the “Protein Leverage Hypothesis,” which states that satiety will occur once the daily amino acid needs are met. So being “hungry” may actually be a sign of protein deficiency in the diet.

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