When you think of a horse, you almost instantly think of grain. The two are intertwined and deeply related in our thought patterns, having for decades seen horses fed grain of some sorts. It has become the status quo, a set tradition for most horse owners, and they are marketed to by all sorts of feed companies, telling you why you should feed their grain. Given this, and the peer pressure from the standards of others, you simply feed a grain to your horse, often with no thought at all. But, why do you feed that grain? Does your horse really need it? Or could it be creating problems or even resistance to true healing in health and soundness for your horse?
Walk into any barn and there is a feed room. In that feed room are often stacks of grain, usually in the commercial form, prepackaged in 50 lb. sacks with all sorts of nutrient information. Watch the owners as they care for their horses each morning and night, and into each bucket goes one large scoop of this particular grain, and maybe a small scoop of this other. The grains often smell wonderful, full of flavor, dripping in the odor of molasses, licorice or other enticing flavor to get your horse to eat every crumb.
I would have to guess that likely 90% of all horse owners feed a grain of some sort, whether if that is a whole-grain (natural form) or a commercial feed (branded product). Given this, when these owners are asked why they feed a grain, there is often a lack of a response, or the usual response is simply, ‘because’. The problem that is present revolves around the health of the horse and for many horse owners, they are contending with either a lameness or health ailment, and are desiring a resolution to that situation. When I consult with these cases, the diet is analyzed, no so much for nutrient analysis, but for ‘offenders’, as I like to refer to them, which is something that is adding to the problem rather than helping it. Often, my first recommendation is to eliminate the horse’s grain….to which I get this standard reply.
What? No grain for my horse??
Why Do YOU Feed a Grain to Your Horse?
Over 90% of all horse owners feed a grain of some sort to their horse. If you look at the performance horse industry, especially racing, the grain usage is even more rampant, often exceeding 2-4 gallons of grain per day. If an owner is asked why they feed that grain, most do not have an answer, other than everyone is doing it, or everyone says that a horse needs grain. In the racing industry, grain is used mainly as a fuel source, meaning carbohydrates, which do serve as a medium for energy production. Others will say that the grain they feed is the source for their horse’s nutrition, meaning vitamins and minerals.
What is your reasoning for feeding a grain to your horse?
The reality is that:
- Yes, for decades if not centuries, feeding grain to the horse has become a standard and is well accepted.
- Yes, everyone is doing it
- Yes, grain is a source of high levels of carbohydrates which can fuel energy
- No, those grains are not your source for vitamins/minerals for your horse
Just because everyone is doing something doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do regarding your horse’s health and soundness. Your horse is not their horse. Your horse is a unique animal, with a unique personality, set of genetics, and even a unique digestive response. Your horse may require an approach which is entirely different from another horse in your barn, so why treat him or her the same as the others? In fact, despite others telling you to feed a grain, or being marketed to by some commercial feed company, if you look at the average horse, a high percentage of them have some sort of health or lameness problem. So, does that mean what that person is telling you is indeed the right thing to do?
Nutrition does not come from a grain. Now, with that being said, most commercial feed companies will spray dry on all sorts of vitamins and minerals to their grain product, then affix a label with nutrition data, pushing their product as a vital source of nutrition. Given this, it may appear that the grain is a source of nutrition, but if that is the case, a bowl of Frosted Flakes or Cheerios is also a complete source of nutrition. The fact is that nutrition comes from real, whole food, as that is the preferred source. In the horse, you should rely almost completely upon proper hay and pasture forage for that nutrition, as that would be their source if kept in the wild. Relying upon a grain for nutrition is not a proper approach, mainly because those nutrients are synthetic or artificial, and not the real thing no matter how closely related they may be chemically. Whole food, when properly used in the horse, properly provides for vitamins, mineral, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. In addition, real food provides extremely beneficial co-factors, such as polyphenols and other chemicals which aid in overall health and protect your horse’s body. There is a far cry difference between real food and what comes in a grain bag from a feed store. In addition to the above reasoning, most owners do not feed according to the directions on the feed bag, so all nutrient value is thrown out the window essentially. You are always best served to spend more money on high quality hay and pasture maintenance, than on relying on a grain for your horse’s nutrition.
Grains equal energy, right? For some, yes, grains are a tremendous source of carbohydrates, which are broken down into usable sugar or glucose, then used by cells to produce energy. This is mainly why they are heavily fed in the racing industry with horses, while many may not make the connection. While this may be true, this ‘energy’ effect from grains being fed in the horse has a dark side to it, which can create all sorts of issues in your horse from a ‘hot’ nature to gastric ulcers. This is where problems develop and are often overlooked, especially in the racing industry. The grains are fed to increase energy and stamina, but the connection with the ‘bad’ effects is not made. There is often little correlation made between those grains fed and poor hoof health, sore feet, injured tendons, gastric ulcers, EIPH, metabolic problems, and other problems present. These problems are usually seen as isolated events, not dietary related, and are treated as such. Then, there is often recurrence, failure to heal properly, and in many cases, a donated horse that no longer competes.
Grains and the Horse; The Dark Side and Why Not to Feed Them
Digestive health is an area of interest and focus for myself personally, as a veterinarian. I consult with many horse cases and have looked at enough horse poop in my laboratory to be viewed as ‘just weird’ by others in my field. Why do I do it? I am fascinated by the concept of digestive health because it is so intertwined with every little problem you can imagine in your horse, but most do not look closely enough. I do it to for a further understanding on my level, so I can then pass this information onto you, hopefully to help to some degree. The problem is huge, but despite this, there is much resistance from most horse owners to break traditions and gain a certain level of understanding.
Grains by themselves are not ‘bad’, so please do not misunderstand what I am implying. Grains, to me as a researcher, are a source of carbohydrates which may or may not be needed. In addition, many commercial products contain within them not just synthetic nutrients, which I avoid heavily, but also preservatives, dyes, sweeteners, and other chemicals which shouldn’t be needed. Putting the two together, carbohydrates and added ‘junk’, it equates to problems for most horses. In fact, if a horse comes in for rehabilitation to our program, the first thing that is put into our trash dumpster is any grain that has come with them.
A few years ago, when looking at digestive health, excess carbohydrates became a real factor. It was evident that for most horses that I consulted with, there were digestive problems whether realized or not, and those carbohydrates being fed were adding to the equation. The reason for this is that for many, either the excess carbohydrates were drifting into the hindgut and fermenting, or the horse simply could not tolerate even low levels of carbohydrates. These ‘gut’ issues were evident in looking at the horse and their problems, or via a fecal culture, which helps me to detect a microbial imbalance or dysbiosis.
I rely pretty heavily upon the fecal culture to detect a dysbiosis in the horse. In most cases, I do not need the culture, as I can predict the results, but I still culture them and use those results as a guide and monitoring tool for recovery. The fact is that most horses have a problem with digestion, and that problem is manifesting elsewhere in their body whether if that is hoof issues, allergies, failure to heal a tendon, ongoing pain and stiffness, behavioral problems, metabolic problems, overt ulcers, hindgut ulcers or irritable bowel conditions.
When asked to consult on a horse, taking into consideration that most have ‘gut’ related issues, the first recommendation is to eliminate the grain. Why?? Is the grain ‘bad’? No, the grain is not ‘bad’, but the reality is that likely the horse has some digestive issues, whether if this is obvious or not. By feeding that grain, you are likely encouraging the problem, rather than resolving it. That grain could be a source of carbohydrates which are fueling more harmful bacteria to grow, while negating beneficial bacteria. The synthetic nutrients, dyes, and preservatives may also be altering the environment within your horse’s digestive tract, which is then contributing to more inflammation and microbial imbalance.
The reality is, no matter whether if you are feeding whole-oats or the latest and greatest commercial feed, if your horse has issues health-wise or soundness, it may be wise to stop the grain. Go for one month with no grain and determine the impact, that’s all I ask. Then, if no positive change, you can go back to what you were doing if you decide there is a need.
For most horses, a 30-day trial run of no grain can create significant improvements in their health and soundness. When you see this happen, it just goes to show how important digestive health is in the horse, as is evident in people. If positive gains are made, and the gut health is restored, then you can go back to a small amount of grain if desired, but do it for a reason or don’t do it at all.
Going back 3 years, digestive health was high on our radar in the horse and as such, we modified our grain regimen, taking it back to specific amounts of whole-oats and sunflower seeds. The determined amounts were based on carbohydrate levels, which were more tolerable for the the average equine digestive tract. I wrote about this in an article on ‘cleaning up the horse’s diet‘. Despite this being more acceptable on paper, it was not acceptable for the average horse. The reason being, from my point of view, was that in those horses, their digestive tract was so messed up and out of balance, ANY grain amount was enough to keep me from helping that patient. At this time, all horses admitted for rehab are only fed alfalfa pellets as their medium for supplements. After 90-days, if their fecal cultures return to normal and their health status is improved, they are allowed 1/2 cup of whole sunflower seeds mixed in with their pellets. The reasoning?? Just to give them some ‘crunch’ to their evening meals. Nothing more, nothing less. The key here is that first, the horse is fixed, and only when they are fixed, is a small amount of grain added back to their regimen. If that horse backslides at all in their recovery, grains are removed once again and kept out of their regimen indefinitely.
Just because a grain is perceived as being ‘healthy’, it does not mean it is the right choice for your horse, at least at that point in time. Get him or her healthy first, then determine what you do or do not need.
Questions? Easy keeper? Hard Keeper? Performance Horse? Check out PART TWO of this article for more information!
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN