Keep track of myths, fads in equine nutrition (Animal Science Update)
As I came to the end of the Rutgers University spring semester, one of the last units in my Equine Nutrition class is about myths and fads.
I always find it amazing what comes up in terms of what people have believed to be true but after taking the class they now realize is wrong.
I will expand on some of these here.
I don’t know how many times I have gotten questions related to “no carb” or “no starch” diets for horses.
At least lately these questions have turned into ‘low carb’ but still we need to clarify a few things.
First, there is no such thing as a “no-starch” feed for horses.
Carbohydrates make up the majority of all animal feeds including forages, which is largely fiber, which is a carbohydrate — and if any grains are fed the major soluble carbohydrate there is starch.
Starch is an easily digestible chain of glucose molecules.
Some grain-based products are formulated to have lower starch and/or sugar by not using molasses and replacing grains like corn, with forage such as legume or grass hays or other ingredients like beet pulp. ‘
“Controlled” sugar or starch diets are definitely appropriate for certain horses or classes of horses.
For example, the metabolically challenged horse or the horse with Equine Metabolic Syndrome.
Here dietary starch and sugar should be restricted by feeding forage predominantly at the rate of 2-2.5 percent of the horse’s body weight with an attempt to keep the soluble carbohydrates (also called Non-Structural Carbohydrates or NSC) to below 12 percentof the diet.
If concentrates are fed they should be formulated to provide restricted starch (low grain content) and contain no molasses.
High-fat concentrate formulations can be used if necessary, to give energy to an exercising horse or maintain body weight/condition if the fat is kept below 20 percent of the ration.
Intakes that are high in fat will not significantly affect insulin sensitivity and could actually help the soluble carbohydrate sensitive horse.
Eating non-processed food is quite popular among health-conscious humans.
While there may be some benefits to doing this for horses (like easier to remove ingredients for an allergic horse or more economical if feeding in bulk), there are many complex considerations that go into creating a nutritionally balanced ration.
Additionally, most ingredients are processed to increase digestibility and for very specific reasons, some of which are mentioned here. Oats, for instance, are the most common cereal grain fed to horses.
They are higher in fiber than most grains (corn and barley particularly) and not too high in sugars and starches (unlike corn).
Oats actually don’t need to be processed to increase their digestibility (unlike barley).
Barley is another good grain, however it is higher in starch and lower in fiber than oats and does require some processing to help break the extremely hard outer shell so the horse can properly digest it.
If the forage being fed is low in protein, and using alfalfa is not an option, another good protein source is soybean meal.
Soybeans must be processed because they contain a trypsin inhibitor that negates their high protein value.
They must be roasted or boiled to inactivate the trypsin inhibitor.
They should also be soaked in water overnight before cooking them.
Whole soybeans also contain a fairly high amount of fat, which is an excellent source of calories.
Most other high fat ingredients must be processed to extract the oil or remove the bran from the grain. Rice bran is a great fat supplement that is palatable and high in fiber.
Natural rice bran, like wheat bran, is low in calcium while being very high in phosphorus.
This is why “stabilized” rice bran is marketed because it is now fortified with a higher level of calcium.
Essential vitamins and minerals are also found in different proportions depending on which ingredients are used and this touches on only a handful of the numerous feed ingredients available.
Balancing rations is very complicated and requires the guidance of an equine nutritionist to be done correctly.
This is why most people pay for the well-researched formulations in commercial horse feeds.
Finally, I want to end with one quick myth that I might expand on in a future column, is that no horse should be fed alfalfa.
To the contrary, alfalfa is a great source of nutrients for horses with a higher nutrient need, like a mare in late pregnancy or one that is lactating or a young growing horse.
These horses require high levels of protein, calcium and phosphorus, all of which are found in high levels in alfalfa.
Exercising horses that require very high levels of energy (or calories) benefit from least a small addition of an alfalfa based product (hay or cubes are my preference) to provide them a very palatable, high energy forage source.
Also, believe it or not legumes like alfalfa are also much lower in the NSC content than the cool season grasses like Timothy or Orchardgrass, especially sugars.
So if needing to feed a EMS horse that is not obese alfalfa is usually my go to forage for at least part of the ration.
So, when fed properly to the appropriate horse alfalfa can be a great feedstuff.
There are many more fads that I will save for future articles! F
or now, hope you have a great spring and happy riding!