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Eleanor Blazer

Horse Hay Belly

By Eleanor Blazer
           "When's she due?"

            Have you ever been asked that, but your horse was not bred...or maybe was a gelding?

            Your horse might have a "hay belly".

            A "hay belly" is the generic term used to describe a distended or enlarged equine gut or "stomach". 

            It may be a sign the horse is overweight -- but not always.  There are several causes of a "hay belly". 

            If the condition is caused by obesity, other areas will show fat deposits.  There will be fat deposits around the tail head and the elbow area. The ribs will not be felt when pressure is applied with your hand, and the crest of the neck will have fat along it. A general overall condition will indicate the horse is overweight. 

            Please refer to
http://www.thewayofhorses.com/body_condition_score_chart.html for a body condition score chart. 

            If the hay belly is the result of being overweight, a decrease in calories will need to be implemented, or the horse can develop laminitis (inflammation of the hoof) and other health issues.

            A second cause of a hay belly can be internal parasites.  Bot larvae damage the lining of the stomach and small intestine, strongyles compromise blood vessels that run to the intestinal tract, a heavy roundworm burden can block the intestines and tapeworms disrupt motility (natural movement) of the tract.   In addition to utilizing vital nutrients the horse is needs, the worms wreak havoc with the normal function of the digestive tract.  Consult your veterinarian for a fecal egg count (FEC) and treatment for removal of the parasites.  FEC will not detect bots, so use a botacide in your deworming program.

            See my article at:

            The third cause of a distended equine gut is poor quality hay. 

            The unique equine digestive system is designed to break down hard-to-digest fiber and extract nutrients.  This is done in the cecum, which is part of the large intestine.  Within the cecum are microbes and bacteria, and these create fermentation of the fiber - resulting in gas!  The more fibrous the forage, the longer the breakdown and the more gas produced - resulting in an expanded cecum. 

            Limiting the amount of poor hay is not an option to cure the distended gut.  The horse may also have a low body condition score, show a lack of muscle tone, have a poor hair coat, bad hooves and an overall look of ill health.  The horse is lacking vital nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, fat and carbohydrates.  Limiting the forage will create even a greater deficiency of nutrients. 

            The cure for a hay belly due to poor quality hay is to find better, softer hay that is easier to digest.  Also, the use of a probiotic may help support the microbial population in the cecum and aid in the digestion of the fiber. 

            The fourth hay belly causing culprit may be the horse has access to good quality free choice hay or grass.  The cecum is like an accordion - it expands as it becomes full.  Some horses feel the need to "clean up everything on their plates"  and will eat as long as there is forage available. 

            These eating over-achievers need to be limited on forage consumption.  Determine how many pounds of good quality forage the horse should have per day (usually two [2] percent of the body weight) and divide that amount into several meals.  The use of a grazing muzzle will also help.

            Poor conformation or lack of muscle tone could also play a part in the development of a hay belly.  After addressing all the above issues, exercise will help tone up that gut. 

            And the sixth reason: if the horse with a hay belly is a mare, the swollen belly could be the result of having numerous foals...or could she have been exposed to a stallion?  An ultrasound would aid in answering that question!