Is your feeding program really doing what you think it is? You need to know what certain time-honored feeding practices might be out of date.
What to feed? What not to feed? That is indeed the question in the horse world – and in the human world as well. Many of us remember when nutritionists and doctors were recommending we avoid butter and use margarine instead. But those days are long past – the evils of margarine and the negative health effects of various others foods reveal themselves over time. With advancements in science and technology, we’re also seeing old-time equine feeding program fall by the wayside as we strive to maximize the health of our horses.
More is Not Better
Optimal health in humans is solidly grounded in a natural lifestyle, and the same applies to horses. While feeding methods vary somewhat, based on what’s available in different parts of the world, there are basic foods horses should consume – and feed products and ingredients they should avoid. When I ask my clients what they feed their horses, they often give me a very long list of supplements and ingredients. And sadly, they often don’t understand why they’re feeding their horses what they are – and what the impacts are, either positive or negative.
“What problem are you trying to solve by feeding that to your horse?” I’ll ask. People sometimes tell me their veterinarian recommended certain feeds or supplements. Often they’ve just read an article about a new feed or ingredient and decided to add it to their horse’s diet because it sounded like a good thing to do. Some tell me they don’t know, “but my friend Sally feeds it to her horse and said I should do the same thing.”
We can do better. Let’s start by discussing some of the more controversial feeding practices.
Top Seven Controversial Feeding Practices
Many people feed alfalfa to their horses – either as all or part of their forage rations. Alfalfa is also in many processed feeds. We have to be careful how much alfalfa we feed – and I recommend not feeding much, if any. Here’s why:
• Alfalfa is very high in protein – 18% to 20%. Horses require only 12% at most. Too much can stress the liver and kidneys as the body attempts to process and rid itself of the excess. It also causes higher body temperatures and can lead to dehydration, excess sweating and electrolyte imbalances.
• Alfalfa has more calcium than a horse requires – and this throws off the calcium/phosphorus balance.
• Alfalfa is low in fiber, and if it’s the primary form of forage fed to a horse, can result in colic and other digestive system problems.
Many people feed alfalfa because they want to help their horses gain weight, but this is a myth. The excess protein simply causes the horse to retain water, which looks like weight gain to the owner. Water retention is not a healthy weight gain at all.
People often think they can help their horses gain weight or improve coat quality by adding oils to the feed – corn oil, other vegetable oils, and even mineral oil. We must remember that horses don’t have a gallbladder – their bodies can’t process fats like we can. The oil is absorbed into the body through the lacteal ducts in the small intestine, and this can clog the ducts and inhibit the absorption of various nutrients.
Oils in a herbivore’s system can tax the immune system, which means the horse is more susceptible to disease and infections. Oils can also cause joint inflammation, exacerbating pain and negatively impacting performance and overall health.
One of the most common forms of sugar added to horse feeds is cane molasses. Because modern soils are de-mineralized, the grains grown in them have little or no natural sugars. So some feed companies add cane molasses to make their feed more palatable. It also disguises molds and discoloration in the grain, and can dampen dust in feeds. But cane molasses, particularly in sweet feeds, adds moisture to the ratio, increasing the likelihood of mold in the food. So manufacturers also have to add mold inhibitors. This means there are now unhealthy chemicals in the feed – not a good thing for optimal health.
Cane molasses is also very high in fluoride, which inhibits iodine absorption and results in hypothyroidism. And if your horse has any insulin resistant tendencies, the additional sugars are actually dangerous. Sugar stresses the pancreas, causing sore lumbar areas and loins. Finally, sugar encourages water retention, adding kidney stress as well as other health issues.
4. Beet pulp
Many riders add beet pulp to try to help their horses gain weight. But beet pulp is similar to alfalfa in that it causes water retention that only appears to be a gain in mass. In reality, beet pulp is toxic to the system – it’s actually packed with chemicals.
Beet crops are grown for sugar (sugar beets). And how do producers ensure the beet plants grow bigger and stronger and aren’t challenged by weeds in the crop? They spray them with herbicides that kill the weeds, and with fertilizers high in nitrogen and other elements that make the beets grow bigger. Where do you suppose those chemicals stay in the beet plant? In the fiber – the pulp. The beets are then processed to extract the sugars, and more chemicals are used to accomplish this. Again, those chemicals stay in the pulp. So the by-product of sugar beet production is the remaining beet pulp, which has been repackaged and added to animal feeds.
When these toxins enter the body, they stress the liver and kidneys that function as the body’s filters. If there are more toxins in the system than the liver and kidneys can filter out, the body retains fluid to dilute the effects of those toxins – this is a principle called “Dilute or Die”. Once again, the water retention looks like weight gain, but isn’t at all healthy.
In reality, beet pulp really only provides additional fiber for the body. There are much healthier ways to add fiber to improve digestion. Good quality forage in the form of hay or fresh grass provides healthy fiber.
I am often amazed by the volume of grain products recommended by feed manufacturers. Most horses simply don’t need much grain, depending on their workload and access to forage.
Remember that horses have very small stomachs compared to the size of their bodies. Large grain meals can result in the following:
• Horses can get a sugar high when a big meal of grains and carbohydrates is digested. They then suffer a crash, and the resulting insulin rush can lead to developmental bone disease in young horses.
• Impactions can occur as the food moves quickly through the stomach into the small intestine.
• A by-product of grain digestion is propionic acid, which results in tying up, loss of topline, and an unthrifty animal. Many horses that eat large quantities of grain actually look like greyhounds.
6. Flax seed
Many people now feed flax because it’s a source of fatty acids that is believed to be healthy. However, flax seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide, a goitrogenic that over time inhibits thyroid function with long term feeding. Chia seed is a much healthier source of fatty acids.
7. Rice bran
Rice bran is another “weight gain” solution in feeds, and people often add it directly to their horses’ daily rations. As with beet pulp production, pesticides and herbicides are involved in the growing and processing of rice that remain in the hull, which is the bran. Rice bran is also very high in phytates and phosphorus, which limit calcium absorption.
So What’s an Effective Feeding Program?
What should you feed your horse? A good basic feeding program includes hay, water and adequate minerals. I offer free choices minerals to my horses so they can balance themselves effectively. You can also add a good quality balanced vitamin and mineral supplement if your hay is lacking in nutrients.
Good quality probiotics to ensure proper digestive function are critical to a healthy and natural feeding program. If the body is working optimally, we shouldn’t need to offer an abundance of other products like hoof or coat supplements or “weight gain” additives. If a horse does need additional help due to workload, age or environment, then I work with the client to find the healthiest alternative, and we dowse or muscle test to ensure the horse’s body can appropriately utilize the added food product without negative consequences.
It’s not difficult to devise an effective feeding program for your horse. The most important thing to remember is that less is more. Get your horse’s body to work properly, then get out of the way. You will be amazed at what you see and feel!
Sandy Siegrist is a lifelong horsewoman who practices natural horsemanship, healing and horse care techniques. She works with clients throughout the U.S. to evaluate their housekeeping and feeding programs based on their horses’ specific needs. She also does energy work and overall health analyses, often taking in horses for more extensive rehabilitation. Sandy’s approach to horse care is based on natural and alternative therapy techniques and incorporates bio-energy testing, cranio-sacral therapy, acupressure, kinetics, herbs and flower essences, among others. Her lectures and articles address nutrition, hoof care, bodywork, worming, vaccinations, and emotional wellbeing, grounded in maintaining a more natural environment and healthcare practices. perfectanimalhealth.com