You condition your horse to strengthen his muscles, tendons and bones and to help his heart and lungs work more efficiently. But the benefits don’t stop there, it seems. Getting fit may even improve his digestion so he gets more energy and nutrients from his ration.
That’s the word from a group of French researchers who confirmed this effect in a study published earlier this year. The study subjects were eight untrained Standardbred horses. All were idle when the project began, and they received the same meadow hay and pelleted concentrate throughout the study.
To get a baseline view of their digestive efficiency, the researchers carried out a three-day digestibility trial—basically, analyzing and comparing the nutrient content of what the horses ate with what showed up in fecal samples after digestion. Because an important part of a horse’s digestion takes place in the hindgut, where helpful bacteria break down fiber and release volatile fatty acids that the horse uses for energy, they also checked fecal samples for markers of fermentation.
Six of the horses then went through a five-week training program, and the digestibility trial was repeated. To separate the effects of increased fitness from the immediate effects of exercise, which some research suggests may hinder digestion, the horses had three days off before the testing. The results showed significant improvements in nutrient digestion and hindgut VFA production for the horses who had trained.
The scientists had similar results in a study of Arabian horses who trained for endurance competition over a two-year period. Regardless of discipline, they say, training may help horses get more energy from their feed, which should be taken into account in formulating nutritional recommendations for working horses.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.