By Heather Zorn, PAS

Many of us feed our horses grain for different reasons; some need the extra calories and fat provided by a high density feed, others simply due to the fact that they have always fed grain. If you do feed grain, do you have a good reason why or is it simply out of habit?

Horses are naturally foragers, meaning their natural diets are comprised of forage (grasses, plants, etc). Because they are foragers, their digestive system is different than ours. Horses ferment the bulk of their food. It passes through the stomach, part of which is colonized by bacteria that begins the fermentation process. Food passes to the intestines fairly rapidly and into the cecum and colon, where the majority of absorption takes place through fermentation.

Contrary to what you may believe, a regular horse may not need grain at all. Grain requires far more time in the stomach to break down the structures into absorb-able nutrients than do forages. Since horse saliva does not contain significant amounts of amylase (the enzyme that breaks down starch), the body has to work harder to break it down for absorption.

If you feed grain based on the belief and marketing of large feed companies because you think grain provides vitamins and minerals lacking from their diet, you are probably feeding it for the wrong reasons. Very rarely have I ever seen a commercial bagged/pelleted feed come close to making up the nutritional deficiencies found in hay or pasture. Typically the amounts of trace minerals are way too low to even make a dent in the overt deficiencies, but the major minerals added often skew the already excess minerals found in forages. Marketing and feeding directions make you believe that giving ample amounts of grain will solve any deficiency your horse has, but in reality, who is actually feeding the recommended amounts of the product found on the instructions, which is often 5-10lbs per day!

A highly active performance horse, who is working hard on a very regular basis will often do very well on a grain product, simply because these bagged feeds are very high in calories and have additional fat added. This performance horse who is working hard can easily use the benefit of a calorie-dense feed to replenish his reserves to avoid weight loss and conditioning. In addition, a very active horse can use the excess fat as fuel for the muscles.

Take your backyard or trail horse and ask yourself where the excess calories and fat from the grain is going? Right to fat storage, since he doesn't need excess calories and fat for standing around or taking a weekend ride.

Many hays found in the U.S. have a high calorie content. Combine that with protein levels, and a normal horse has everything he needs for fuel and weight maintenance. Sometimes hay can even provide excess calories and protein, causing weight gain, especially when exercise is limited due to our own time constraints. Adding grain without ample exercise is a recipe for an obese horse.

Most people feed about a pound or two of grain each day in hopes of providing minerals and vitamins the manufacturers lead you to believe are absolutely necessary. At that small amount, they would be getting the equivalent of you licking a multi-vitamin pill in terms of nutrition. Seems like a waste, doesn't it? What your horse is getting however, are excess calories and fat he most likely doesn't need.

That being said, performance/working horses and hard-keepers like thoroughbreds who have a fast metabolism, as well as older/senior horses who have dental issues all may benefit from the inclusion of grain to their diets. What you need to keep in mind is that you are unlikely providing them with sufficient vitamins and minerals from a grain product, and instead are adding calories to their diets.

Having your forage analyzed is a cheap insurance plan to show you exactly what is deficient or excessive in your horse’s diet. Then you can supplement accordingly, as well as within his activity levels. Maintenance levels (for the average horse) versus performance horse requirements are very different. Instead of supplementing blindly, hoping you may be getting it right, having an analysis and a qualified nutritionist can help you get it right!

There is no benefit to over-supplementing vitamins and minerals. On the contrary, it can be dangerous and potentially toxic to your horse.

Animal Nutrition Solutions is dedicated to the health and well being of your animals. We are a privately owned company with your dog/horse interests in mind. Improving the education and understanding of our clients in regards to your animal’s diet and nutrition is our top priority.

Consider an Equine or Canine Consulting package to learn more about how you can make the best decisions for your animals! Read through our references to see what our satisfied and well educated clients are saying about us.