Category Archives: Horses

To Feed Grain or Not to Feed Grain to Horses

by L J. Creapeau CNH, Circkles Staff Writer.

Horse owners have been feeding their horses grain for years because they believed that they were doing their horses a big favor and improving their health. Well, this may be an eye-opener to some of those old-school individuals. Recent findings are starting to reveal several adverse, long-term health conditions associated with feeding grain to horses, specifically corn and oats. Oats are known to cause high levels of lactic acid in the body, a main cause of laminitis. Corn, known for years as being the cause of many animal allergies, is popping up all over as the leading cause of skin irritations such as seborrhea, loss of hair, itching etc., in not just dogs and cats but horses as well. And now with the GMO corn issue…?

The heavy use of oats came about with the professional horse industry as a way to bulk-up a horse for competition and as an unfounded concern arose regarding whether the confined horse was getting enough protein – instigated mainly by the commercial feed manufacturers as a way to increase sales. Wild horses only eat grain that is left on the heads of the grass and only in very small quantities. Some domestic horses have a tendency to eat too much of the seed heads and end up with colic because of it. Wild horses also rarely find oats in their natural habitat and never come across wild corn. They are far more athletic than most of their domesticated relatives, leading any half-way observant person to conclude that feeding our horses grain is not only unnecessary, but could be harmful and counterproductive to their health.

When you weigh the adverse effects of feeding grain to horses compared to any nutritional gain, the drawback to feeding grain doesn’t seem worth it. Horses are their healthiest when their diets are kept as close to what they would eat in their natural surroundings as possible. The wild mustangs do not eat sweet feed, corn or oats – in any sizeable quantity – and suffer fewer ailments, hoof problems, disease and illness. They rarely, if ever, suffer from colic or laminitis, two illnesses that plaque their domestic counterparts. Whether performance horses in vigorous competition need the extra protein is still controversial in research terms, but I would have to say no. I see everyday people feeding their everyday horses way too much grain because they were led to believe horses need it. Not true. Feeding an animal anything which is not in their nature is going to result in some kind of side-affect eventually, as we are now finding out. More and more I am coming across ranchers and horse owners who are no longer feeding grain to their horses but a higher quality hay and good pasture instead. The wild mustangs that roam the southwest survive on some of the most barren land the United States has to offer and they are healthier for it. I say, feed your horse a good quality, fresh grass hay and you are doing him more of a favor than by feeding him grain.

A few years ago, I discovered this knowledge first hand with a yearling that had developed a severe case of seborrhea – a skin condition in which dry, scaly yellowish patches appear anywhere on the body and can often be accompanied by the horse scratching more than usual. Also, hair will fall out in these areas. I had asked several qualified people about the skin condition and none of them could give me any real advice, including my vet who simply said, “it could be caused by many things.” (That was a big help).
My knowledge as a nutritionist and herbologist told me that the type of skin condition I was witnessing was probably a type of allergic reaction to something, so I immediately took the yearling off of all the supplements I was giving him and re-introduced them one at a time until the seborrhea returned. I found the yearling was extremely allergic to corn. Just one feeding of corn and he would break out in just 24 hours. He has never had corn since I made this discovery, and his seborrhea has never returned. As far as oats are concerned, I also know from my nutritional & herbology training that oats are high in lactic acid, and since lactic acid causes laminitis, that was a good enough reason for me to take all of my horses off of oats. Consequently, none of my horses have ever had laminitis or colic.

I strongly believe that the best insurance against illness in any animal is to keep them as close to their natural diet as possible. It is in altering their existence from what they would experience in nature that health problems will surely arise. To be honest, I do not see any reason to feed a horse grain. Sure, it has been done for years, but that does not make it right, as we are now finding out. If you have a performance horse and are concerned about him getting enough nutrients to sustain him in his strenuous activity, grain is not the answer, and horses not only do not require high protein diets, but we are also finding out that high protein diets may not be good for horses. Once again, wild horses lead by example and they are far more active then most performance horses. Give your highly active horse a high quality hay in the winter and good quality grazing in the summer and you will more than likely see an improvement in your horse’s health, abilities and attitude above and beyond when he was on grain. But if you just cannot get over the habit of feeding grain, or simply cannot get good hay or pasture, at least go with rolled barley instead of rolled oats as it is lower in lactic acid, and definitely avoid corn since it offers nothing in nutritional value and causes allergies in most animals. Four cups of any grain per day is plenty for an average size horse. Any grain supplementation should be just that, treated like a supplement and not a meal.

Alfalfa is very nutritious, and I would recommend giving it to your horse, but in very small quantities; not more than a flake of alfalfa every 3-4 days. I have also witnessed the overuse of alfalfa, which, in large quantities can cause a breakdown of white blood cells. If your horse is cranky, irritable, high-strung, and a little mean or ill tempered, check his alfalfa consumption. Most people I have come across feed their horses alfalfa every day, which is far too much. It is best not to buy the alfalfa and grass mix hays, since you have no way of regulating just how much alfalfa your horse is eating. I prefer to buy the majority of my hay- 80-90% of it- in a high quality, straight grass hay, then I buy 10-20% straight alfalfa or alfalfa mix hay which I ration with the grass as needed, about a flake every 3-4 days for the average size horse.
If you are ever in doubt as to what to feed your equine friend, just refer to Mother Nature, she has been right far more than man has and for a far longer period of time.

Peas are not commonly used in horse feed in North America, but they are used extensively in Europe.  Peas are an excellent protein source, have two to three times more protein than other cereals with a considerably higher Lysine content (an essential amino acid).  Peas have a biological value equivalent to soy protein, and are a very useful source of protein. I grow peas in my garden every year. I eat the peas and when the plants are done producing for the season, I clip them down to within a couple inches of the ground and feed the pea plant to the horses. They love it and often I can get a second crop of peas when the plants shoot off new growth in the fall from the vines I clipped. Then….I can feed the horses another helping of pea plants in the fall when the vines are done for good.