Seven Feeding Myths Shattered

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Despite the ability of many horse people to diagnose a strained suspensory at 30 paces, fix a faulty flying change with just a smidge more outside leg, or understand the intricacies involved in getting that recalcitrant tractor to start, a surprising number of us are baffled by the basic principles of equine nutrition. We’re content to believe the myths and misconceptions that flourished in our grandfather’s day, to feed whatever our neighbors are feeding … or to just plain get overwhelmed by the whole subject! The result is that a great many horses are fed more according to tradition than to sound scientific fact, and their overall health may suffer because of it.

But feeding horses really isn’t rocket science. It’s pretty simple to understand, if you try. It’s time to debunk some of those pervasive nutrition myths, and replace them with solid facts on which you can base your feeding program.

 

Horse eating grain

MYTH #1: Horses need grain in their diets.

FACT: Horses evolved as grazing animals, and forage (pasture and/or hay) is still the basis of their dietary needs. The equine digestive system is designed to break down tough, stemmy plants and extract all the nutrition and energy they need from those materials. A great many horses get along very well on a forage-only diet; if your horse has finished growing and is only in light work, is an easy keeper, or is basically a happy pasture potato, he has no need for grain.

So what’s the advantage of grain? It supplies concentrated energy, in the form of carbohydrates, which some horses need if they’re being asked to do more work than what they would normally do in the wild. Show horses, racehorses and nursing broodmares can all use the extra nutritional support of grain to help fuel their higher energy expenditure. But because the equine digestive system is poorly designed to digest large quantities of carbohydrates, there’s a limit to how much grain you can feed without risking dangerous conditions like colic and laminitis. As a rule of thumb, remember that every horse should consume between 1.5 and 3 percent of his body weight in feed every day, and at least half of that should be forage, by weight.

MYTH #2: A horse in hard work needs higher levels of protein in his diet.

FACT: In a pinch, protein can be used by the horse’s body as an energy source, but it’s a very poor way to fuel performance because molecule for molecule, protein doesn’t produce much energy, and the horse’s body has to go to great effort (chemically speaking) to extract it. Carbohydrates and fats are infinitely better energy sources—far more energy-packed than protein, and easier to break down and absorb.

Protein does play a role in the diet, however: It provides amino acids, the “building blocks” for the construction and repair of muscles, bones, ligaments and all the other structures of the body. Young, growing horses, and those being used for breeding have higher protein demands because they are building new tissues. However, mature horses not being used for breeding only need about 8 to 11 percent crude protein in their overall diets to provide enough amino acids for the occasional tissue repair. The need for protein doesn’t really increase as a horse’s energy demands do, either, so there’s no need to switch to a higher protein feed if your horse is in high-intensity work.

MYTH #3: Corn/oats/barley/sweet feed will make my horse “hot,” or high-spirited

FACT: Various feeds have gotten a reputation for altering a horse’s temperament and turning him into an instant wingnut, much like sugar gets blamed for causing hyperactivity in children. To set the record straight, it’s true that horses naturally want to burn off their excess energy, so if the diet is supplying more than their current level of exercise demands, they’ll start bouncing off the walls. It’s also true that a very fit horse tends to feel really good, so his level of exuberance may increase. But no one type of feed is likely to be responsible; instead, it’s the amount of feed that’s at fault.

Certain grains may have gained a reputation for being “hot” feeds because they’ve been substituted indiscriminately for a similar volume of a lower-energy feed. Corn and barley, which have no fibrous hull, are more concentrated energy sources than oats, which do have a hull. So if you substitute a coffee-can of corn for a coffee-can of oats, then you’ll have a problem! This is why it’s so important to feed your horses by weight, not by volume. If you want to make a feed substitution, weigh your coffee-can full of oats … and then measure out the same weight in corn, or barley, or sweet feed, or whatever. Chances are, your coffee-can won’t be full! But you’ll be providing your horse with a similar amount of energy, so you won’t end up with an equine who thinks he’s one of the Flying Walendas.

Molasses, by the way, has gotten a bad rap. The amount of molasses in an average sweet feed only comes to about 1 to 2 percent of its total content—hardly enough to give your horse a “sugar buzz.” If your horse acts high when he’s fed sweet feed, it’s likely because he’s not used to the increased amount of concentrated carbohydrates.

Grain Scoop

MYTH #4: When you feed a complete feed, you don’t have to feed hay.

FACT: Well, sometimes. Definitions of “complete feeds” vary from manufacturer to manufacturer—sometimes the term is used to indicate a grain ration which is fortified with vitamins and minerals to make it “complete,” but is still designed to be fed with forage (hay or pasture). Sometimes it’s used to indicate the feed contains both concentrates (grain) and forage (chopped or pelleted hay, or another fiber source such as beet pulp), and is designed to make up 100 percent of your horse’s diet. Generally, it’s best if your horse does eat long-stemmed forage (hay or pasture) along with his grain ration, for two reasons: First, it will help keep his digestive system purring along as it should, and second, it will help satisfy his natural grazing urge. But if your horse suffers from severe allergies that prevent him from eating hay, seek out a “complete feed” with a high concentration of beet pulp (more on this ingredient below). Be aware, though, that if hay doesn’t make up part of the diet, your horse may get busy as a beaver, chewing his stall fixtures, the fencelines and anything else left within reach.

MYTH #5: Sugar beet pulp is high in sugar. And if it’s not properly soaked in water, it will expand inside your horse’s gut and cause a horrible gastric rupture.

FACT: Let’s explode the myths instead of the horse. Beet pulp is the fibrous substance that’s left over after the sugar has been extracted from sugar beets. It contains almost no sugar (unless the manufacturer has added a little dry molasses to improve the taste). Beet pulp is naturally quite high in moisture and thus prone to mold, so it’s dehydrated and made into pellets or “shreds” before it’s packaged.

Beet pulp is an excellent source of digestible fiber. It’s relatively low in protein (about 8 percent) and high in calcium, which makes it an appropriate feed for almost all adult horses. If you are feeding supplements, top-dressing corn oil, or giving your horse medications, beet pulp can be an excellent place to hide the yucky ingredients. It’s a great addition to the diet if your hay is of poor quality, or if your horse has dental problems and can’t chew long-stemmed forage, or for horses recovering from an injury or illness. Plus, it’s usually quite inexpensive.

The best way to feed beet pulp is to soak it in water a few hours before meal-time; use twice as much water as beet pulp, and leave it to swell and absorb the moisture. (Because it has a tendency to ferment in warm weather, you’ll only want to make up one day’s worth at a time.) The resulting brown, fluffy stuff can be mixed in with your horse’s grain or served on its own. But don’t worry if you’ve added a little too much liquid, or too little. You can’t actually explode a horse with unsoaked beet pulp. In a study referred to in Lon Lewis’ “Feeding and Care of the Horse, 2nd ed.”, ponies were fed dehydrated beet pulp, up to a level of 45 percent of their total diet, with no ill effects whatsoever. Not only did they not explode, but they also suffered no signs of colic, nor did the water content in their manure change. However, most people prefer to soak beet pulp—it’s more palatable that way and less likely to cause choke.

MYTH #6: A weekly bran mash is good for my horse’s digestive health.

FACT: Wheat bran is actually junk food for horses. Yes, they love the taste, but it’s not really good for them. First, as a fiber source it’s not that digestible, and second, bran contains about 13 times as much phosphorus as calcium, an imbalance which can eventually affect a horse’s bone structure. Third, its famous laxative effect doesn’t really exist. Horses are quite sensitive to sudden changes in their diets, so when you feed your horse a bran mash instead of his regular meal, it causes a mild digestive upset, and the result the next day is loose manure. An occasional bran mash on a cold winter’s night does no real harm, but your horse’s digestive system would prefer beet pulp (soaked in warm water has a similar effect). If you feed bran on a daily basis, try to make it no more than 10 percent of his total diet. Avoid bran if you’re feeding a young horse—the calcium/phosphorus imbalance can interfere with his growth. On the whole, there are better feeds than bran.

Friesian Horse Eating Hay

MYTH #7: Alfalfa hay is the best-quality choice for my horse.

FACT: Though horses definitely seem to prefer alfalfa in a side-by-side taste test with grass hay, alfalfa is far too high in protein for most adult horses. Depending on when it’s harvested, it can range up to about 24 percent protein—too rich for any horse other than a young, growing one or a nursing broodmare. Though excess protein doesn’t do any major harm, the kidneys have to work overtime to excrete it—and the result is excess of urine with a strong ammonia smell, which means more mucking to do! Alfalfa is usually more costly, too, and in some parts of North America it may be infested with poisonous blister beetles.

Grass hay is a better choice for most adult horses, with timothy being the most common variety; there’s also brome, bermuda and orchardgrass, among others. Though not quite as high in some vitamins, and not quite as sweet and tasty, it’s got a more appropriate protein level than alfalfa, doesn’t harbor blister beetles and is often less dusty. Mixed hays, which contain both legumes (alfalfa and/or clover or birdsfoot trefoil) and grasses, can be a good compromise too. You can get your local feed agent to do a hay analysis for about $20 to $40, which will tell you more about the nutrient content of your hay.

If you have more feeding questions, don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian or the horse-feed specialist at your local feed store. They’ll be able to provide you with common-sense advice and help you make the best feed choices for your particular horse.

73 COMMENTS

  1. I found this article to be very informative. Some of it I already knew but a good portion of it I didn’t. Thanks for this article.

  2. i am so glad you said what you did about alfalfa. i come from an aqha show background(since i was 8) and i have recently moved to the midwest. here the only hay they think is good is alfalfa. when i go to buy hay if they have no alfalfa they say were out,, but i see a huge stack over there oh thats just grass hay(timothy)when i said good because i only feed a little alfalfa as a treat they look at me like i am a horse abuser:)

  3. great advice on feeding i have trained 500+ race horses and most trainers dont really understand the horse feed, i love beet pulp for the horse

  4. I just put down my copy of horse illustrated and decided to try horsechannel.com, and I found this article.I thought this article was very informative! I just bought a senior horse and this very article was just what I was looking for! thank you very much.

  5. More about bran and beet pulp:
    Beet pulp can be fed dry right away as long as one knows how much it expands to.
    Bran: People often say to me “well it’s the fiber in bran that makes my horse poop” Not true. If this was true every time a horse ate hay he would have very loose stool. Hay contains a higher percent by a lot, than beet pulp of fiber. When a person eats a bran muffin it is different because our digestive systems are not meant to digest a lot of fiber like the horse who has the cecum.

  6. This is a very helpful article. I’ll admit I’ve believed some of the myths, especially when it comes to grains vs hays, but now I know better.

  7. Thank you SO MUCH! I am thrilled with this article. It was extremely helpful, and I’m especially glad for the author’s comments on alphalfa hay and beet pulp. I can’t say enough about this article! Everything in it was VERY informative and helpful. A great, great article!!!!

  8. What is the best thing to feed my horse if he lives in a pasture that has plenty of grass? If i an riding him every other day or so and giving him a good work out? does he need feed? And if he does what kind?

  9. I loved this article it was actually very surprising!! I was shocked about the beet pulp myth. Thanks for the great information, very helpful!!

  10. Great article! My sister in law and I argue all the time about how to feed. She says I must be crazy because I don’t grain my horses except in the winter when pastures need to rest. And I don’t feed pure alfalfa, I feed grass. Maybe I should send your article to her.

  11. It saddens me that people like you print information about feeding horses that newby horse owners will read and believe. Horses should be fed a balanced diet of hays and grain to live long and healthy lives. Most of the sickly and afflicked horses I have seen suffer from malnutrition caused by the overfeeding of junk like beet pulp. High fiber -yes but lacking in balanced nutrition. Junk feed in pretty bags keep feed companies profits high and veteriarians in demand. Very sad for our beloved horses.

  12. Well that was a really good article. I usually have to rely on the farmer I purchase my hay from and hope he knows what he is talking about but now I will be armed with some knowledge on the hays which are best to choose for my horses.
    Thanks a bunch!

  13. re beet pulp :
    this is form personal exprience if a horse ingests water between bites of dry beet pulp the esophogus get impacted with the now wet beet pulp. and the job of unpluging the poor horse is a slow and tedious job with a siphon hose and water

  14. Very good article! I have used beet pulp in the past and horses do like it.
    My horse does get bran mash as a treat along with the other horses at the barn on cold nights. But each horse only gets about a cup of it at a time. I would not recommend giving too much but a little is certainly ok. I think people do get a bit over the top worrying about sugar content and molasses but I also think that the individual horse needs to be considered. For some horses as for some humans even a little is too much.

  15. I really like this article – it has a lot of great points to make with horse owners. I happen to have a 22 yr old insulin resistant mare and have been watching/studying equine nutrition for nearly 5 years to help her. Beet pulp is a wonderful product – have been feeding it for over 10 years. I only feed it wet – have had a horse choke – that is scary and an expensive vet call/visit. I also test the sugar content and my PLAIN (w/o molasses) shreds run 7-8% normally – but have tested as high as 18% sugar. I recomend soaking in extra water and draining off the excess. Even adding a hot water rinse to be sure to get out extra sugar. I don’t feed any grains to her and no oils either. Fat can cause or worsen IR. We just like that our horses love our treats/grains/mashes- but often we don’t realize they might not be in the best interest of their health. As for molasses – I avoid it like the plague. Some feeds do only have 1-2% added – but some have 20-30% – you know – those feeds you can’t use in the winter as they are rock hard! When in doubt call the companies and ask for the sugar (ESC) and starch contents of their feeds. If they won’t give it to you – switch brands – your horse – your money. I have to strive for 10% of less total – an average horse can probably get away with 15% or under. Some feeds are 40% sugar/starch or more though. Buyer beware. Also – since my mare has such a restricted diet and no grazing I send in samples of my hay to be tested and then minerally balance it for her each year.

  16. It was nice to hear the advice, but who was the author.
    I have heard so many differing opinions about beet pulp, (which I use) and bran, it was nice to hear the facts.

  17. I recently found out that the ingredients listed on a bag of horse feed are not listed by quantity, as they are in human and dog/cat food. The feed manufacturer can list any ingredient in the feed first, making the purchaser think it is the main ingredient. I was unhappy to find this out.

  18. I would like to read up more about beet pulp. My horses do not seem to like it soaked, and have never fed it dry. Good article to read for starters.

  19. the “analysis” of protein in the horse diet is simply not presented properly. increased protein IS required for horses of a greater work load, because it is needed to rebuild muscle broken down during use. the greater the work load, the higher the protein. otherwise, subsequent rides do not offer the same or greater strength requirements. just as human athletes take in higher quantities of protein when worked, horses need the same. the argument of the author is not the normal myth or protein. most people believe incorrectly that protein makes hot horses. this is not the case.

  20. to the person who said that increased protien is needed for working horses….. you need to do more research, high protien over the long term can be very hard on a horse.. a bit more now and then is alright, but most experts will tell you that too much for too long will shorten the life of the horse due to kidney and other problems.

  21. well i have to disagree with grain not making horses hot.i started feeding my horses sweet feed which i realized that was a mistake.i have a very calm and otherwise gentle mare which turnned kinda psycho on my wife had to work her some after that she was fine 2 weeks ago prior to the change of feed.maybe im feeding to much,i do feed them about 5lbs of feed a day plus three flakes of coastal hay twice a day.hopefully that will work for me,if anyone have any advice im listenning,thak you

  22. I guess, I just want to know why people are feeding high fat low carb now…where do horses in the wild get fat? and why the fat?

  23. Protein IS required for young working horses who are still developing muscle. Warmbloods do not mature until 5-7 years of age. Be careful to not generalize since some breeds mature much earlier than others.

  24. It’s great to see this type of information readily available, but anyone with education would prefer to see some sources. I don’t necessarily doubt anything that you say, but seeing some additional proof in there is always comforting.

  25. Great article. I own a feed store and plan on referring my clients to this information. Regarding the “fat question” (@Pat), from my research it appears fat has come into favor for energy. In previous years, a popular way to add energy was to top dress corn oil on the feed. Prior to that, it was to feed corn or higher carb loads. Oil/fat is the highest concentration of energy available (I think the ratio is something like 9 cal/g in fat versus 4 cal/g in protein). It’s even higher than sugar. The research is fairly recent (this article was from 2003!) showing the better way to add energy is higher fat and lower protein (like the article suggests) integrated into the feed (less mess; evenly distributed). The problem has been how to stabilize it in a pelleted feed. We have pellets that have up to 8% fat and sweet feeds that have up to 10% (hard to store, though…spoilage). But to get much more than that, they’ve gone to steam extruded “nuggets”.
    Somewhat complimentary to what the article says, ADM (one of the brands we carry) has a “Forage First” concept where you start with good quality hay and then supplement as needed. In the Houston area, bermuda grass is mostly what we serve. Then you would supplement for mineral and vitamin balance with something like StayStrong mineral pellets or a mineral block. Finally, you would tweak the energy level demands with HealthyGLO nuggets (a fat supplement). By feeding like this, you are introducing less “grain” in the horses diet but still balancing the mineral and energy needs.
    ADM also has PrimeGLO which is a concentrated feed. Again, in line with what the article suggests, it’s better in the sense that you get all the mineral supplements you need but you can feed 1/2 as much. 1/2 as much means it’s easier on the digestive system. At $27/bag (our retail), that’s effectively like $13.50/bag based on feeding rates for a premium feed (plus less storage and fewer trips to the feed store).
    Don’t get me wrong…we still sell more “grain” than the aforementioned method. I think it’s a convenience and habit thing mostly. Likewise, I sell far more $9 bags of 10% protein/2% fat All Stock pellets than I do $27 premium balanced “better for you” feed.
    Incidentally, ADM has a matrix of what “light”, “moderate”, and “hard” work is. Many people load on fat because they think riding their horse everyday for an hour is “hard” work. Per this matrix, barrel racing is “moderate” work. Dressage is “light” work. Polo, racehorses, etc is “heavy” work. No need to overfeed. You waste money and possibly overtax your horses digestive system.
    (Disclaimer: ADM has not authorized me to speak on their behalf. This information is readily available on their website. I own a feed store and sell ADM products along with other brands.)

  26. I always heard that alfalfa will soften a horses hooves. IDK if that’s true or not, but I’ve always fed grass hay.

  27. A world of great information in this article.
    I have often wondered, about the protein source…like is it grains, or hays.

  28. I am all for feeding grass/hay first and only grain if they can not maintain their weight on grass/hay. But our area is very low in Selenium. So here it is a good idea to feed a vit/mineral suppliment. Either in block form or grain form. The one on the market I like best is called Minivite Light. Does not need to be mixed with grain to be feed and is low in protine and fat. YAY. FYI

  29. Just completed an equine nutrition course at edinburgh university which was great so pleased to see your fab peace on myths about feeding .very good

  30. nutrition is so important, i don’t no why every horse owner does not learn everything they can to give there exactly what they need

  31. I don’t agree with the beet pulp part. I’ve read over the year about several horses getting into dry beet pulp and dying due to choking when the stuff starts to swell in their stomach and throat. I would def advise people that they need to be very careful with it as if it is dry it is harmful.

  32. Fed beet pulp for years to my senior horses and it kept them alive (to 34yo!). The myth that drives me crazy is people’s love affair with alfalfa. Cow food is what it is! Causes all kinds of problems internally. In the many years I worked in rescue, I never fed alfalfa (other than pieces of cubes as a training treat) and my horses thrived.

  33. Having just finished a course on equine nutrition, I pretty much agree with everything you said. There’s so much you didn’t say, though.
    For instance, I’ve found a little rice bran helpful for keeping weight on my TB over the winter. Quite a bit of rice bran comes with added calcium to balance it, but I happen to know that 1) my hay is high in calcium and 2) I’m not feeding enough bran to significantly affect the ratio.
    But that’s very different from a weekly bran mash.

  34. If I’m feeding my horse Orchard Hay, hay strecher and Hay cubes should add Vitamin and minerals to it. my horse is 5yr old mare that get’s ridden 5 times a week and shown Dressage.

  35. Whilst beet pulp may not have to be soaked as it does not rupture stomachs it always should be. Horses can choke on it and aspirate it into their lungs. I know a horse that did both and ended up hospitalized for over a week- very distressing for the horse and expensive!

  36. Molasses can be problematic for older horses whose digestive system is slower. It can contribute to gas colic. A good quality feed does not need molasses and it is often used to boost the calorie content and hide lesser quality grain. None Structural Carbohydrates can also be critical in feeding ponies and insulin resistant horses. ignoring this component of feed leads to metabolic syndrome and chronic laminitis- the #2 killer of horses (colic is #1)

  37. Thank you for this article it is very informative..
    I fed my horse of yrs ago Beet Pulp when he felt a little off. Like he didn’t have any energy. Well, after a few weeks of it. You could see and feel the difference in him. He looked and acted good.
    I would soak it and mix it with the grain and he loved it. I knew someone who fed to their horse dried mixed with the grain and never had a problem and it is a good laxative.
    Again thank you..

  38. I have draft horses can they just graze on a pasture of grasses and alalfa freely without triggering laminitis? They seem to take breaks and go to the barn for a couple hours a day limiting themselves it seems.

  39. It’s perfect. I’ve always been baffled by the fact that most horse people follow and preach these myths on a daily basis. The bran mash is the most common one. Why don’t people read more?!!

  40. It’s perfect. I’ve always been baffled by the fact that most horse people follow and preach these myths on a daily basis. The bran mash is the most common one. Why don’t people read more?!!

  41. I understand that horses naturally graze on on fields but don’t most grasses also contain fairly large amounts of grain or seeds? To say they do not need grain is not completely accurate.

  42. Thank you all so much for the information. A vet once told me that horses don’t need grain. I’d been reading different things that says your horse must receive certain amounts of grain plus a certain amount of forage based on its body weight, but my horses kept gaining so much weight. During the summer time, grazing alone keeps them quite beefy. I just started feeding grain again along with hay because grass hasn’t been growing due to winter and I noticed how they’re beginning to have that round stomach again.

  43. Thank you for spelling this out. So many of my boarders insist on their horse having grain and are baffled why they just keep getting fatter. Horses definitely need hay, but not every horse needs grain. 2 of my own are on grass only diets and are healthy as a, well, horse! My performance horse is on a low starch grain and does great. Just depends on the individual needs of the horse!

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