I know this is getting very detailed. Read this anyway. Print it and then mark it up with a highlighter. Ask your barn friends to test you on it. Become a student. Become your Horse’s Advocate.
But for those who feel overwhelmed, don’t weave in your stall. I am going to summarize everything into a simple plan of how to feed your horse in the coming weeks. I am also turning this into a course for those wanting to dig in deeper or go at a slower pace with some guidance. Stay tuned!
The Safe Fats and Oils
There are two rules of thumb about fats and oils. The first is that the more saturated the fat is, the less inflammatory it is. The second is that the shorter the fatty acid chain is (as in short-chain, medium-chain and long-chain fatty acids), the better it is. Unfortunately, these rules of fats are made for humans. We can only assume and extrapolate for horses. There are some important reasons why there is a lack of good information on feeding horses. One is that there is little independent research on this subject. By independent, I mean that there isn’t an agenda or a company behind the research. The second is a little more subtle. Let me explain.
Can we really compare the horse of today with one from 1000 or 10,000 years ago? More importantly, if we could find ancient horses untouched by humans and test them for nutrition, how would this compare with your horse living today? If your horse is kept in a stall, competes somewhere every weekend, lives in FL for the winter and 1500 miles away for the summer, is fed grain and carrots or is not fed them – how can all of these variables be considered when determining what to feed a horse that only grazed naturally thousands of years ago?
The answer to the fat question is simple. Horses make the fats they need to live on if they are fed the foods their bodies can convert into these fats. There is no need to add fats and oils to their diet. The only reason fats and oils are added is that the horses of today are not fed the correct food. They are fed incorrect foods (grains) inappropriately (year-round) plus supplements (more than are needed) to compensate for this bad food plus many of them are also on medication. All of this kills the normal good gut flora that converts cellulose into short chain fatty acids replacing it with bacteria that have difficulty doing this. The microbe switch is made worse by feeding the wrong food made on poor soils and manufactured using practices good for yield but harmful to horses (genetic modification, pesticides and possibly poor storage).
A Facebook post the other day said that if the horse isn’t fed added oils in the feed then he won’t get any oil at all. This person is missing the fact that fat and sugar are both made of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen, just put together differently. When there are good gut bacteria, little starch and abundant cellulose, the horse is actually on a high-fat diet.
What is a fat diet and why is it important to your horses?
As it turns out, according to an investigation by National Public Radio, the sugar industry mounted a marketing campaign in 1965 to discredit fat as a source of nutrition for humans. From this came the low-fat and no-fat diet craze. The sugary treats that replaced fat required changes in how foods were made, packaged and stored. This led to the use of trans-fats which were soon discovered to be highly inflammatory and bad for humans. This enforced the idea that fats were bad to eat allowing sugars to continue to dominate our nutrition until they too were looked at as the cause of all things bad including heart attacks, diabetes and obesity. This led to the high protein, high fat, prehistoric diets all demonized by the experts. An abundance of fad diets and the proliferation of exercise gyms followed. In the confusion, the level-headed mantra of “all things in moderation” was an attempt to quell the insanity and confusion. In essence, humans no longer knew how to feed themselves due to misinformation and the development of fast food establishments, efficient food distribution and delivery systems (grocery stores) and the over-abundance of restaurants in every nook and cranny of America.
Humans started to micromanage their nutrition. In the area of fats there became a call for the supplementation of the essential fatty acids in human diets. With this, the popularity of taking fish oil supplements occurred. This oil contained Omega 3 and Omega 6 oils along with very long-named fatty acids simply called ALA, LA, EPA, DHA and GLA. Where did the midwest farmer 50 years ago get his fish oil?
Would any of you relate the word fat with the word acid – as in fatty acid? This is one reason organic chemistry is used to weed out medical and veterinary students and it almost caused me to quit. We are owners and caregivers for horses, not organic chemists. Is it any wonder that when we look at the back of a bag of horse food or supplement we scratch our heads? We base our selection on maybe one word seen on the bag that stimulates a memory of something we heard or read such as “Omega 3.” We remember that it is good for humans so it must be good for our horses.
Maybe we see a bag with the words “High-fat formula for a winning shine” and your horse’s haircoat looks like crap. “It probably won’t hurt,” you say. “And besides they wouldn’t sell it if it was bad for horses, right?” But is it a fat deficiency that needs supplementation? Could it be a fatty acid deficiency due to the food we are feeding our horses where they can no longer make it themselves? In other words, the cause of fat and energy deficiency in our horses is caused by the food we feed them and adding more fat is not the solution.
In my quest to simplify things and present nutrition in an understandable way for YOUR horses, I just ask two questions. The first is, “Is what you are feeding now working for your horses?” To answer this question we need to look at the behavior as well as the physical data. General findings such as happiness and good riding behavior are valid observations. Top line, skin and hoof condition and fecal consistency are good indicators of gut health. Seemingly unrelated things such as high cortisol, fat pads, colic, ability to sweat and all lamenesses need to be looked at in determining the overall question of “Is what I am feeding now working for my horses?”
The second question can be problematic because we may not at first know the answer. The question is this. “Is what you are feeding your horses found naturally occurring in their environment, in the amounts you are feeding and at the time of year you are feeding it?” What is difficult is determining where your horse should be living in terms of what they should be eating. In other words, do your horses originate in the African deserts, the mountains of South America or the Asian plains? What foods did their ancestors eat? In essence, what is “normal food” for your horse?
I saw on YouTube recently a man feeding whole fish to his horse and the horse eagerly swallowed them without chewing. First, as a photographer and a videographer, I can absolutely tell you that you can NOT believe anything you see today thanks to computer manipulation. Second, there were no videos or stories about the subsequent colic or death of this horse. Seeing a video of a moment in time and making decisions from it is insane. But 1000 years is also a moment in time when compared to the 55 million years horses have been in existence. Just because horses can eat a bucket of fish or a bucket of grain, is it OK for them to do so?
With good clarity, I can safely see that horses in the past grazed plants with little to no lignin content and converted the starch and cellulose into the things they needed to survive. If they were lucky to find some fruit such as apples it was only in the fall. If exploring they found carrots or sugar beets under the ground, it was only for a month. The grass was the main source of food (starch, cellulose, vitamins, minerals) during the months when it grew and in the other months when it wasn’t, the dormant grasses provided cellulose.
Remember cellulose? No animal on the planet can digest it but the good bacteria of the hindgut (and the reason the horse has such a large hindgut) can digest the cellulose to make short-chain fatty acids. The efficiency of these to create energy is legendary (see the previous blogs). But when carbohydrates are fed constantly throughout the year, the horse’s ability to create these short-chain fatty acids, absorb protein, absorb vitamins and minerals, prevent leaky gut, prevent disruption of hormone communication, prevent lameness and prevent disease is lost.
The organic chemistry and the biochemistry of food conversion into nutrients have been looked at in minute detail. Many people with degrees in this will read my blogs and may argue against what I write. However, I find it significant that in the vast majority of studies I read and in the current world of human and horse nutrition, there seems to be an industry created that adds to the diet in the form of supplementation or medication. Very few actually suggest that deficits in nutrition are really caused by simple changes we have made in the way we feed our horses and ourselves over a very short period of time (100 to 1000 years).
One last thought. As I travel around the country I see a lot of wild animals both in life and on TV. These mammals, fish, birds insects and reptiles all show one thing in common. They take eating very seriously. Their life depends on it. There is no take-out, no microwave, no pantry of preserved food, no freezer or refrigerator, no flavored drinks, no social beverages, no flame-broiled – nothing but what nature has given them. If there is nothing to eat they die. Humans and by extension, our pets and our production animals (livestock, flocks and even farmed fish) never need to worry about survival because all kinds of food are available year-round and in abundance. The thought of starvation repulses us. We relate feeding to love or nurturing. We think we are smarter than millions of years of bioscience in the form of every animal, plant, microbe, fungus and virus living on this planet. So we try to improve on what nature has perfected. How is that working for you in the health of your horse?
- Feed horses like horses and not like humans.
- Feed horses food that is normally found in their environment from where they come from and only when it is normally available.
- To help horses survive (and even thrive) in times when living is difficult such as winter, feed the least amount of carbohydrates needed to maintain their health.
- Avoid supplementing them with fats and oils. If anything, add protein until the hair coat starts to shine, the top line returns and the hooves become normal.