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What Do I Feed My Horse?

This is the question of the century for many horse owners.  Determining what to feed your horse may seem like a complicated topic, but really it isn’t.  Modern processed horse feeds, heavy marketing, and the internet have made matters more complex than they really are.  We’ve lost our way because we have lost focus.  Creating the ideal feeding program can vary from one horse to the next, but the choices you make for your equine companion can make all of the difference.  These choices will also impact, positively or negatively, the overall health, performance, and injury recovery of your horse. This is a lengthy article and for this I apologize, but I do feel it is an important one that needs to be truly evaluated and understood on many levels. 

Whole food Horse grains with organic vegetables
Whole Food Horse Grains with Organic Vegetables

Feeding a horse, let alone ourselves, is not a complicated topic, but we tend to make it one.  In today’s world, human and equine, there are many ‘foods’ on the market, but are they really foods?  A high percentage of what we, as people, consume daily is processed food, and with that, nutritive value is often lost, not to mention increased negative ramifications due to empty calories, high fat content, added sugars, artificial ingredients, and preservatives.  This is not much different in the horse world, as most feeds that owners are using are highly processed.  Again, here we have a reduced natural nutritive base, which needs to be ‘fortified’ with spray-dried synthetic nutrients.  In many cases, there are added sweeteners, preservatives, additives, and even coloring agents that are used to make the end product palatable to the average horse.

It is no secret, that I as a researcher and veterinarian am not in favor of commercial, processed feeds used in horses.  In other articles, I have talked about ‘Cleaning up the Diet and also ‘Is My Horse’s Grain Creating Health Problems?” Some ask what my basis is for these statements and opinions, of which there are many.  Let’s dive into into it with the full understanding that the purpose is to gain insight as to what the body needs to not just survive, but thrive.  Also taking into consideration the high prevalence of equine health ailments and injuries, including their long term recovery rates and high cost of veterinary care to their owner.  These are my areas of focus and why diet, to me, is vital.  

The Origins of Processed Feeds

Commercial processed feeds were initially created and implemented into the equine diet around the mid to late 1970’s. Prior to this, most horses were fed whole foods, which included a reliance on adequate hay, forage and mixed grains, which included whole oats, barley, and corn. Competition and working horses, prior to the mid 1970’s were fed these whole foods and a high majority of those horses were far more active with higher physical demands that our current equine population.

Food processing is the act of transforming cooked ingredients, by physical or chemical means, into ‘food’.  The precise definition of ‘food’ has yet to be determined.  Processed foods in general have been around for centuries, in the human world, with varying degrees or levels of food processing.  In many instances, food processing was performed to increased food taste, shelf life, or to extend food product availability to those in need such as in times of famine or in poverty stricken areas.

The proposed upsides to processed foods are that it may aid in removal of toxins and contaminants, extend shelf life, ease marketing and distribution, and increase food consistency.  In terms of the first upside, removal of toxins and contaminants, this is not always true as can be seen with various recalls of many human processed foods due to bacterial contamination.  These recalls can also be seen with whole foods, such as produce, but there is always a human factor involved with that contamination and thus not always reflective of the food itself.

The main downsides of processed foods are loss of nutritive value.  This is well known and for each added level of processing involved, nutritive value can be lost.  Heat application, which is common in food processing, is detrimental to food nutritive value.  Thus, many processed foods have added vitamins and minerals to offset what has been lost in the process.  This is not a complete solution, though, as many foods don’t just contain macro- and micro-nutrients, but also other phytochemicals and cofactors that play a major role in health.  Those cofactors are not added back into the end processed food, so their value is lost.  In addition, most processed foods contain added sugars, fats (some very harmful), and other additives from coloring agents to stabilizers.  All of which can be very harmful to health.

The bottom line is that processed foods, though they may serve a purpose in some situations, are not meant to be consumed as part of a daily routine.  This includes horses, no matter how the marketing on the food or grain product may convince you otherwise.  A high majority of horse feeds are processed and no matter what health or lameness condition that you may be dealing with, these foods are often not the answer.  How do we know this?  I have yet to encounter any metabolic or performance horse that has been dramatically changed or even improved through the use of one of these diets.  In most, problems still persist, but yet at a high cost to the owner.  There is always a better approach or even a simpler approach through the use of whole foods, going back to our roots pre-mid 1970’s.

The Problem in the Horse Industry

There are several problems present in today’s horse industry when it comes to diet.  First, horses today are not utilized like they were decades ago.  In years past, horses were actively used in the world of agriculture not just in the fields but also in helping to herd cattle and move about large areas of land.  They were fitter than they are today and worked daily. They were fed large amounts of whole grains in addition to high quality forage, and were allowed to graze pastures often to their content.  Health problems were present in the horse, back in those times, but conditions were more sporadic and even unnamed, as the scientific community had no idea on the origin of the problem. Colic was a factor as was laminitis, but I’d wager a guess that the prevalence then as compared to now, was markedly different.

In today’s equine veterinary world, it is not uncommon to have 5 or more colics or cases of laminitis per week.  In day’s past, the occurrence rate was likely much lower and in many cases, the origin was tied directly back to the diet, being grain overload or consumption of some other noxious food source.  At least then, most would make the dietary connection.  Look at the condition of tying-up or rhabdomyolysis, which was originally termed Monday Morning Disease.  The cause was directly linked with over-utilization of grain in the working horse, over the weekend period, which was a period of rest for the animal.  They did not require the added carbohydrate intake during this period of rest, as compared to the work week.  Thus, on Monday morning, they were often stiff and reluctant to come out of the stall and work.

For many horses owners, processed or commercial grains are all that they know.  For others, they have been in the industry long enough to remember the days when feeding was simpler.  Those owners may also, in reflection, think back on past years and truly recognize that clinical health problems are more evident in today’s horse society.  As a veterinarian, I have been around long enough to truly compare the two worlds in equine practice.  My ‘pre-processed food’ days resulted in far fewer cases of laminitis, metabolic, colic, and tendon ailments than in the ‘post processed foods’ days.  As processed horse feeds were implemented by my clients, the health and lameness condition rate escalated.  The irony here was that the feeds they were using were labeled to reduce those clinical problems, from low NSC feeds to balanced yearling feeds.

In today’s horse world, horses are not commonly seen grazing 20+ acres of nice pasture, roaming at will and in herds.  More so, the average horse is confined to small paddocks, often dry lot in nature with little to no forage available.  They are also kept in box stalls 23+ hours of the day, trained hard, and put back stressed.  They are often isolated, only seeing fellow equine companions at a distance or from their stall door.  These are herd animals, meant to run in groups, free roaming, and consuming forage constantly. In regards to grain intake, in the wild, grains are likely a very small percentage of their overall diet being limited to what is available as seed heads.

Given today’s horse society, most horses are fed hay of highly variable quality and nutritive value.  This is done mainly because of financial reasons, but also because some owners are limited in their choices by geographic location.  Lower quality hays are fed, but then the average owner seeks to make up for the shortcomings by using top dressed vitamin/mineral supplements or fortified processed grains.  I certainly mean this of no offense to any owner, but attribute this state of being to heavy marketing and also habits instilled to one horse owner by another.

What is the Impact on Horse Health and Soundness?

Orchard Alfalfa Mix Horse Hay
Orchard Alfalfa Mix Horse Hay

As a veterinarian and consultant to many owners, I get emails constantly seeking advice on certain situations.  In most, the diet is one of the main contributors and it needs to be corrected.  Despite my efforts to make recommendations, most either don’t make the connection or believe they can supplement their way out of the problem.  One cannot supplement their way out of a bad diet!  There are a few reasons for this.

  1. The lost nutritive value from poor quality hay or processed foods cannot be replaced with a synthetic based vitamin/mineral supplement.  The main reason is that other lost phytochemicals, cofactors and antioxidants cannot be fortified with a synthetic chemical.  They are only found in food, whole-foods, which includes herbs.
  2. The use of processed feeds and other synthetic based products may potentially be creating harm in your horse, contributing to the problem at hand.  Thus, the feed regimen may be creating the condition of concern, or adding to them, may make matters worse, not better.

Over the past 10+ years, when I look back on the many horses we have had in rehabilitation programs, the solution is quite clear.  Most of these horses have had injuries, joint conditions, or even behavioral problems that were directly tied back to the prior diet.  This prior diet may have been fueling the problem, but it certainly wasn’t contributing to recovery.  Let’s take tendon injuries as a main example, which are very common.  Most of the horses that we have rehabilitated are 90% recovered, with proper diet and targeted herbal supplementation, in about 1/3 of the time of other cases.  This is also taking into considering proper foot trimming, balancing, and other factors.  In most of the patients, they were destined for 6 months or more of stall confinement with specialized regenerative therapies from injections to stem cells or PRP therapy.  I can only imagine the outlay in cost, especially considering that most fail to respond fully even to those therapy efforts.  Do we succeed in our program all of the time? The answer is ‘no’, but 100% of the time, the horse is dramatically improved in a short period.  I do believe that if the condition were caught sooner, prior to degenerative changes taking place, the recovery rate would be even higher.

If we look at most health and lameness conditions, the diet can contribute positively or negatively.  In most horses, on heavy processed foods and synthetic based supplementation programs, negative changes are occuring in that animal, leaning towards encouragement of inflammation.  This is a negative process and one that we have discussed at length and also one that we target in supplementation efforts. So, when we have a metabolic pattern or even a tendon injury, the prior diet is working against us, which may result in the less than ideal recovery rate.  Tissues and cells need nutrition, proper nutrition, and when this is applied, the regenerative and recovery rate is incredible.

Highly paid and trained human athletes watch their nutrition level very carefully in most cases, especially if they are isolated athletes, competing on their own without a team.  If they have a tendon or muscle injury, you will not usually find them consuming processed foods or even protein bars.  They are using whole-food nutrition to fuel their body and aid in recovery.  The same is true for highly dedicated, natural cancer survivors.  The recovery rate for cancer is markedly improved if a patient consumes whole foods as compared to processed foods.  In many research studies, the consumption of processed foods as part of a daily diet was linked to a higher prevalence of cancer and all death causes due to negative impact on health. We do not fuel the body and cellular function by consuming processed foods and then supplementing with a daily vitamin.

The End Result of Increased Health and Soundness Concerns in the Horse

The process of inflammation is deeply intertwined with every health and lameness condition that impacts the horse.  This is a process that I have contended with as a veterinarian in my patients and also one that I have heavily researched for several decades.  Considering how deeply embedded inflammation is and how it is involved with every condition, it just makes sense to make all attempts to curb that process.

The diet and appropriate changes are first and foremost.  Many processed grain diets with poor quality hay provisions are pro-inflammatory in nature, so they must be changed if we desire results. In many cases, through implementation of a whole food grain regimen, at proper feed volumes, along with provision of high quality and nutritious hay sources, a high percentage of horse conditions can be self resolving.  This is due to the contribution of a poor prior diet to the conditions evolution.  Eliminate the contributor, provide for proper nutrition base, and remarkably most cellular functions can be restored.  However, this is not always the case.  Positive health and lameness scores can be gained by dietary alterations, but some are still left ‘wanting’ and need a push to the next level.  The reason for this is mainly due to the negative inflammatory changes that have occurred over time or due to the fact that there is still a contributor at play, whether if that be stall confinement, stress, or even improper foot care and imbalance.

After dietary changes are made and all other factors are addressed, including stress and proper foot care, then targeted supplementation is put into the regimen to assist with further recovery.  This is where our Cur-OST Equine formulas come into play. What’s incredible is that even with most owners not addressing diet and other factors, the Cur-OST formulas can still make a huge difference just by modifying the inflammatory pathways.  However, if we want to go further and obtain even better results, the other factors are modified to the best of our abilities.

Weighing Out the Economics

As a veterinarian, I understand and sympathize with the horse health and lameness issues that you are contending with on a daily basis.  I am also sensitive to the financial aspects of both owning a horse and also providing medical care for one.  I’ve been and am on both sides of that debate.  From my perspective, it is far cheaper to invest $12-14 / bale of alfalfa or alfalfa mix hay, along with whole grains and proper supplementation, than it is to keep chasing a health or lameness concern with diagnostics and medications.  The average owner, based on my records, spends upwards of $80-100 per month on supplements, $75-100 per month in processed grains, in addition to medications and veterinary care.  The veterinary care can vary per horse, depending on the problem and level of pursuit of that condition.  Many horses are doing just fine, but everything is relative.  You can have one horse on that regimen, but yet the owner is spending $2500 or more per year in veterinary care and more in farrier work just to keep the horse under saddle on a low level.  Many more are dealing with higher level issues, health and lameness, where the horse is constantly stall bound in recovery or can’t be ridden at all.

Economics are real and they play a major role in our decisions.  But, in most, if we put the pencil to paper and outlined the costs and benefits of a proper diet and targeted supplementation, compared to the current regimen, loss of use, and ongoing veterinary care…the whole food approach would win out. One has nothing to lose by going the whole food route but so much to gain.  Many just don’t realize the true benefits because the regimen is never implemented or only partially practiced.

As a comparison, when dealing with tendons and rehabilitation, our feed regimen and supplement regimen cost is as follows per day:

  • alfalfa hay at 2% BW per day  ($6.00)
  • Whole grains (oats, alfalfa pellets, organic carrots, organic peas) ($3.86)
  • Cur-OST Tendon Research Blend formula  ($2.05)
  • Farrier care self-provided, bare-foot
  • Full turnout, stall rest at night

But wait!  Don’t they need a vitamin/mineral or hoof supplement with nutrients?  The answer is simply, no, they do not.  The nutrition they need is provided through the food they eat.  This is the way the Good Lord intended and one of the laws of nature.  Now, this can vary geographically by the nutritional profile of the hay you are able to acquire and also on soil conditions.  Even in those situations, by spending a little more on high quality hay, you get more nutritive value, in more ways than one.  Aside from this, in our cases, the synthetic vitamin/mineral supplements that are often used in the past served them no value in recovery, and likely contributed to their continued decline.

How does this compare to the average tendon rehab regimen?  One would have to add in 24 hour stall rest, continued labor for stall cleaning, hay wastage, medications, labor and cost in therapies and medications.  What’s the end result comparing the two?  Standard tendon therapy approaches result in a 60% response rate in best case scenario after 6 months of therapy and rest.  Applied nutrition, proper targeted supplementation, barefoot and balanced foot trim, with proper turnout results in over 90% recovery in our rehabilitation patients in 4-6 weeks time.

The choice is up to you, as the horse owner and what your desired end goals are for your equine companion.  The horses that we work with have in most cases been through the ‘traditional’ therapy routes, have failed to respond and likewise have been given up on.  When presented with these cases, I have no option but to apply what I know and get back to the roots, the basics in regards to proper health care.  When this is done properly, over time, the body responds and the results can be incredible when comparing to the routine approach.

If we can apply this whole-food therapy approach with targeted supplementation in the chronic injury or health ridden horse and get results, often quickly… imagine what could be done on a preventative basis.  Imagine what the impact could be on ongoing veterinary care and medications?  Could those costs be reduced and health gained?  My experience tells me yes, but this is also verified simply in research by evaluating studies comparing people that consumed whole foods and impact of chronic disease.

Diet and nutrition play a key role in health and soundness in the horse.  A diet that is fortified by synthetic nutrients and high usage of commercial feeds is directly associated with a higher incidence of health problems.  Thus, when you look at cancer research, which is the epitome of inflammation, vitamin and mineral supplements are of no value and in some cases encourage further disease.  This is compared to research on whole food nutrition and cancer recovery.

I am not claiming that moving to a whole-food diet is the “end all, be all” and that it will solve all of your horse’s health and lameness conditions.  However, a whole-food, natural nutrient rich diet will provide better for the body overall and contribute to a positive direction for those conditions.  In many cases, the current diet that is being fed to these patients is contributing to the problem, more so than helping it, so any step away from this can bring positive improvements over time.

The facts are there and the options are limitless.  The question comes as to how dedicated and onboard are you to making real changes for your horse?  We can complain about a health issue, weight gain problem, or even foot issue in a horse, but in the end, someone will have to be responsible for potentially expensive care.  The condition is ongoing and progressive for a reason, but the good news is that change is possible.  It is a choice and the choice as to how to feed is not a complicated one.  You just have to get back to the basics and with those changes, financial outlay on healthcare costs as the owner are likely going to be reduced and conditions more easily managed.

For more information on diet, health, lameness and inflammation, check out our book “Seeing the Whole Horse”.


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN



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