This is the eighth article in the "Fix It With Feed" series.
Once upon a time, there weren’t a lot of options when it came to feeding horses. If a horse couldn’t maintain a healthy weight on grass and hay, then adding oats was one of the only choices.
Today, the variety of commercial feeds available makes choosing your horse’s diet seem quite complicated. Although you can still buy cereal grains such as oats, barley and corn, most feed companies produce various specialty-feed options, all nutritionally balanced for different types of horses in varying levels of work. But the fact of the matter is: There’s no absolute right way to feed.
“Every horse has different needs when it comes to calories and sources of energy,” said Olivia Martin of Performance Feeding in Croton Falls, N.Y. “It is most important that the owner (or person managing the feeding program) has a clear understanding of appropriate body condition for the individual horse, the calories required to maintain that body condition as it relates to the fortification level of the total ration and any medical issues that may govern the decisions made for a single feeding program.”
The Scoop On Cereal Grains
The horse’s natural diet is composed of forage and forage alone, but since we ask our modern horses to perform a variety of unnatural things, we have to provide the additional calories they need.
“The reason we started using oats is because when horses were the main source of transportation, they needed the extra calories. They’re cheap, and horses like them,” said Juliet Getty, Ph.D., of Getty Equine Nutrition LLC in Bayfield, Colo. “People often use the term ‘grain’ to talk about anything that comes in a bag. Grain is cereal grain.”
While cereal grain diets did, and still do, provide calories and energy, equine nutrition science has come a long way in deciphering exactly what horses need and how much of it. The newer commercially formulated concentrates take much of the guesswork out of trying to balance your horse’s ration.
“There seems to be a movement toward ‘natural’ horse feeding, which some people seem to think includes feeding unprocessed grains, and this could be construed as an advantage,” said Martin. “But generally, the advantages of feeding straight grains (without additional fortification) are few.”
The problem with just feeding cereal grains is that they vary in their nutrient profile. Some have adequate protein for a mature horse when paired with grass hay, but others do not. Cereal grains do not contain a balanced nutrient profile, and they must be paired with some type of additional fortification for the health and longevity of a performance horse.
Additional drawbacks of cereal grains include:
- In order to make grains digestible for the horse, they must be processed in some way such as crimping, rolling, steaming or micronizing (cooking).
- Cereal grains, depending on the rate of intake, represent a high starch meal. The horse’s digestive system doesn’t cope well with large starch meals, and digestive upset may result.
- There may not be a huge cost savings when choosing cereal grains over a commercial feed.
- Hard keeping horses may not be able to take in enough calories from a cereal grain ration; the use of fats and fibers in commercial feeds allow them to condense the number of calories per pound.
- Most horses with equine metabolic syndrome should not be fed cereal grains.
“If I had to feed whole grains, I would probably pair some oats with beet pulp, add some oil or other fat supplement, and a balancer pellet to fortify the ration with protein and minerals and vitamins my horse needs,” said Martin.
Oats – Oats are palatable and easy to chew, less susceptible to mold and are considered a safe grain since starch from oats is easily digested in the small intestine. However, they don’t offer all the nutrients needed, cannot be considered a complete feed, and processed oats have a short shelf life.
“There are times where oats can provide energy for a heavily exercised horse,” said Getty. “It’s not a bad thing for a horse that’s heavily exercised and needs the extra starch, but there are so many horses that are exercised on the weekends, occasional rides or pasture pets that don’t need to be fed oats. They don’t need those calories. Feeding oats to a horse that’s overweight will lead to laminitis.”
Corn – Most horses like the taste of corn. But it’s high in starch (70%), low in protein, may not be completely digestible in the small intestine in large amounts, and undigested starch can trigger colic or laminitis. Also, it molds easily if not stored properly.
Barley – Barley contains high energy, moderate protein and low fiber. Crude protein from barley is easier to digest than corn, and the energy is higher than oats, but barley starch has low digestibility in small intestine, it’s low in lysine and methionine, and it molds easily if not stored properly.
Why Concentrates Work
Concentrates, or commercial feeds, on the other hand, are formulated specifically for the needs of a modern horse. Sure, you could buy cracked corn at the feed store and feed it to your horse, but you’re likely better off saving it for your chickens.
If chosen and used properly, commercial feeds represent the total nutrition package beyond forage. Benefits of commercial feeds include: