Ask twenty equine enthusiasts what you should feed your horse, and you are likely to hear twenty different answers. Advice will probably include a number of things that you absolutely must do, as well as an equal number of practices to avoid at all costs. What makes this question so complicated? Possibly the confusion results from the fact that virtually every type of grain has positive and negative qualities. When this fact is combined with the vast body of “old-timer” wisdom, advertising hype, and well-meaning advice encountered by the average horse owner, it is not difficult to see why simple answers seem so elusive. An examination of the pros and cons of various feed ingredients may be the best place to start.
OATS ARE GOOD. This traditional horse feed is palatable and easy to chew. Oats are less susceptible to mold than corn or wheat. Unprocessed oats retain their quality when properly stored. They are considered a “safe” grain because starch from processed or unprocessed oats is readily digested in the small intestine.
OATS ARE BAD. Because they do not offer all the nutrients necessary for growth and maintenance of body tissues, oats cannot be considered a complete feed. When an extra can of oats is mixed with a scoop of a fortified feed, nutrient balance is compromised. Oats contain a high proportion of indigestible fiber (up to 35% by weight). Processed oats have a very short shelf life.
CORN IS GOOD. Corn is also a traditional feed for equines, and most horses like the taste. Corn is high in starch (70%).
CORN IS BAD. Corn is low in protein, with a lysine level of only about 0.25%. Fed at high levels, corn may not be completely digested in the small intestine, and undigested starch passing to the large intestine can trigger colic or laminitis. Corn that is harvested or stored at high moisture levels may harbor mold, especially on broken or damaged kernels.
BARLEY IS GOOD. Barley provides high energy, moderate protein, and low fiber. In regions where barley is grown it is sometimes substituted for corn in horse rations. Crude protein from barley is digested more easily than corn protein. Net energy available from barley is higher than oats.
BARLEY IS BAD. Barley starch has somewhat low digestibility in the small intestine. Rolling improves this factor, and feeding micronized barley results in the least undigested starch reaching the large intestine. This grain is somewhat low in lysine and methionine. Improper storage can lower the quality of barley due to growth of to fungus or mold.
MOLASSES IS GOOD. Molasses holds top-dressed supplements and fine particles, and its excellent palatability encourages picky eaters.
MOLASSES IS BAD. Its high sugar content may trigger a high glycemic response followed by a slump in energy.
SWEET FEED IS GOOD. Sweet feed is palatable to most horses. The molasses in sweet feed discourages “sorting” of ingredients and top-dressed supplements. It may be somewhat easier to detect moldy or rancid sweet feed because of changes in appearance, smell, and texture, whereas these changes are not as evident in pelleted feeds.
SWEET FEED IS BAD. Its sticky texture can cause bridging or clumping in feed mill containers or storage bins. Mold can grow in sweet feed that sticks to the side of the container, contaminating fresh feed. Bulk feed bins and storage units should be emptied and cleaned regularly, especially in hot weather.
PELLETS ARE GOOD. Because every pellet contains all ingredients in the mix, pelleting is a way to guarantee that the horse cannot pick through the feed and eat only the most appetizing morsels. Heat during processing slightly increases digestibility of ingredients. Pelleted feeds are usually not subject to clumping in production lines or storage units. Containers and feed tubs stay cleaner and are less attractive to flies and rodents. While the comment “You can’t ever tell what’s in pellets” is still heard on occasion, the tag provides an ingredient list and a guaranteed analysis, giving an assurance that quality ingredients have been used to make the feed.
PELLETS ARE BAD. Top-dressed supplements and additives tend to sift through pellets and be left in the bottom of the feed tub. Fine particles may aggravate allergies in susceptible horses, and an extremely high level of fines means less useable feed per bag or batch. Getting the mix too hot or keeping it at a high temperature too long during processing can compromise vitamin content and protein digestibility.
FAT IS GOOD. Measured by volume, fat contributes more energy than grains. There is less chance of founder or colic than with feeds providing energy from starch. Fat delivers “cool” energy and is a good fuel for endurance exercise.
FAT IS BAD. It is not a complete feed and should make up no more than about 20% of the horse’s diet. In large quantities, fat can cause diarrhea. Some types of animal fat decrease feed palatability.
It’s clear that there are good and bad features of almost anything that can be fed to a horse, but owners don’t need to worry about sorting through all the confusion. Equine nutritionists have taken most of the guesswork out of feeding and have provided carefully formulated products to complement forage in almost any nutrition program. A simple answer to the feeding dilemma does exist:
- Base a feeding program on high-quality forage (grass or hay).
- Provide energy and necessary nutrients by using a fortified grain product chosen on the basis of the horse’s age, use, size, and body type. KER has formulated feeds to meet the needs of horses in all riding disciplines and stages of life.
- Adjust the feeding program as dictated by changes in body weight, performance demands, or reproductive status.