Why Horses Should Not Be Fed Grain

The Horsemanship Nutrition CourseThe Horse's Advocate University

Everything you swallow is NOT inside your body

Think about this for a bit.

The things you and your horse swallow is placed inside a tube running through you from the mouth to the anus. There are no little people inside of you opening little port holes in this tube and shouting, “Got any mashed potatoes?”

In fact, if any of the “stuff” inside this tube escaped through a hole and entered your body, you would die – a very painful and agonizing death.

So what happens to the meals you and your horse eat? A simple process occurs that breaks down all food into microscopic molecules and it is these molecules that get transported across the intact but porous tube to inside the body. After this, the molecules are delivered to the cells for energy, construction, maintenance and repair. Very simple but very sophisticated where all needs to work correctly. When it doesn’t, lack of ease occurs and is known as disease to most people.

Disease can come in various forms. We all have heard of bacterial disease such as e coli that causes severe diarrhea, dehydration, and death. But there are also subtle diseases we all know about such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, and chronic wasting. But what does this all have to do with feeding grain to horses?

Looking back 50 years ago to 1967 there was certainly an interstate system but it wasn’t completed yet. Transport of materials such as grain was still in it’s infancy. So was sophisticated farming and distribution. The net result was that we did not have grain for our horses available from a local feed store delivered to our barn and stacked in neat, colorful 50 pound bags (easy for women to lift as determined by marketing research) in our feed rooms after just a phone call to the store. When I started with horses in 1973, we had 96 pound sacks of oats delivered 500 hundred at a time to our large farm by box car. It would take half a day with 4 people and 2 small dump trucks to unload from the rail road station and deliver them to the farm where we stacked them ourselves. It was great exercise. Young studs (me) would sometimes challenge other studs (Sam) to carry 2 bags at a time from the box car corner to the truck bed, and on occasion 3.

A few years later a new product became available called “Sweet Feed” which was an unregulated bag of mixed grains, supplements and molasses. The problems started to occur soon after with obesity and laminitis.

Here is an easy question. Why can 1 doughnut cause one person to gain weight while in another person, they remain thin? The doughnut is the same with the same ingredients and calories. Why? Maybe not so easy.

Let’s go back to the idea of food being broken down to molecules and those being transported across the solid intestinal wall. We might all agree that there are certain things allowed and some things NOT allowed to pass. For example, water is allowed through the security entry point at the airport but a person with a gun will be stopped by the security exam and forbidden access into the airport (unless he is recognized as a officer of the law). Some of these forbidden things are bacteria and toxins. In fact when they do show up for transport, the intestines accelerate their one way movement towards the end (diarrhea).

But what about the things in between that are allowed but with restriction? Like the airport security agent that asks the passenger to step aside for a personal exam of their baggage, some foods will cause IN SOME PEOPLE AND HORSES more scrutiny. Like the doughnut, some people’s intestines react with inflammation as the defense mechanisms pick up activity for certain foods. Think of people with a gluten intolerance or any other allergy. The result of this is basically one thing – consumption of energy from the battle the body puts forth to try to keep these molecules from being absorbed through the wall.

All inflammation is painful to a degree and also causes damage to the surrounding area. In horses, I have seen this exhibit as discomfort and intolerance when being brushed, girthed, clipped, or ridden (bucking, rearing, crow hopping). A general disinterest and uneasiness in the barn is common which in some horses can escalate to bad behavior including kicking the walls and attacking people with their teeth.

Other behavior associated with gut inflammation is colic, chronic diarrhea (the squirts following the normal expressing of feces), non-sweating, avoidance to loading onto a trailer for shipping, uneasiness when being trailered (kicking, weaving, pawing), and chronic poor keepers (underweight) with abundant intake of food.

In my practice, horse owners willing to try the two week no-grain challenge have seen the elimination of all of these signs of hind gut inflammation listed above in as little as 3 days. It is important to understand that it takes up to 6 weeks for the lining of the intestines to fully heal hence I like to have people trying the challenge to go at least 2 weeks before determining if their horse is inflamed by grain.

Time for some more information to help you understand the digestion process. The horse is a continuous eater. While most of you realize this, there are many that don’t realize that cows (and all ruminants including sheep, goats, deer, etc), dogs, cats, humans, and most other common animals you know are meal takers. The evidence is in the anatomy of the horse. They have no gall bladder to store the bile produced by the liver to digest the food within the intestines. This is because they have no need to store it waiting for a meal because they are true continuous eaters.

The horse is known as a hind gut fermenter meaning that their colon is large and is made for digesting fiber (grass). It is also filled with trillions of bacteria that ferments the fiber into molecules with abundant energy production and absorption of fuels to maintain life. Simply put, the horse was made to thrive on only grass, low lying plants and water.

So where did the idea of feeding grain come from? I’m not sure but like the doughnut to a human, grain taste good to the horse. As farmers using horses to plow and harvest the grain discovered, feeding the horses some of the oats seemed to help them along and give them some extra energy. One of the first diseases from this was “Monday Morning Sickness” where horses were fed their normal grain ration on Sunday but not worked. On Monday the horses would suffer severe cramps from the unused lactic acid production (energy formed by the digestion of grain). We call this today tying up or EPSSM (equine polysaccharide storage myopathy) which has a genetic component in many working draft horses.  Another disease of grain fed horses a long time ago is rickets. Adding dicalcium phosphate to all grains eliminated rickets but has another effect of lowering magnesium which causes hyper-excitability in the horse.

Today we have several diseases with names that roll off the tongue of horse owners everywhere: insulin resistance, metabolic disease, obesity, body condition score of 8 or 9, Cushing’s, and of course lameness secondary to chronic lack of protein and excessive weight. These were not diseases that existed in veterinary text books in the 70’s and even early 80’s.

Instead of asking why these diseases are occurring at epidemic levels, we look to treatments. Anyone who has had their pony suffer laminitis knows the heartache, yet I am shocked when I hear of a laminitic pony still being fed a handful of grain “for his supplements.”

As with any inflammation, it is NOT the amount of cause, it is the PRESENCE of ANY amount in some horses. Some people can be stung by dozens of bees while one sting can kill another person. Some people eat peanuts by the handful while in others, one peanut can swell their bodies grotesquely and stop them from breathing.

What about the “poor keeper” horse that won’t gain weight when being fed as much grain as possible? The answer is that he is severely inflamed. The amount of energy being consumed by the horse to keep the grain out is greater than the amount of energy being produced by the digestion of the grain. A net negative energy consumption occurs causing the horse to use fat and muscle to maintain life. In these horses, removing all grain actually causes the horse to start gaining weight.  The root problem may be type 1 diabetes.

What is the 2 week no-grain challenge?

Get a calendar and mark the start date and record all your observations about the horse including physical and behavioral. Then remove all grain from the diet of the horse (no weaning is necessary – just stop all at once). This includes corn, oats, barley, wheat, wheat middlings, sugar beet pulp, rice and wheat bran, oat hulls, etc. Feed only water, pure rock salt (no additives), pasture, and hay (grass hay and legumes such as alfalfa). That’s it.

Your horse may go through a behavior withdrawal at feeding time but this will pass in about 2 days. If you insist on offering a timed feeding (again, they are continuous eaters so the concept of breakfast or dinner makes no sense to them), then offer a “meal” of a few alfalfa cubes either dry or soaked in water.

When I say just feed grass, hay (grass with some legume), mined salt (ex Himalayan), and water, I also mean NO treats, candy, carrots, apples or sugar cubes. Remove ALL supplements too because most of them have grain of some sort. Remove the red mineral salt block (corn syrup and molasses). Just grass, hay, mined salt, and water for 2 weeks. Record your observations. Get others to help you observe without telling them what is going on. Make your own decision on weather or not to feed grain to your horse. The challenge costs you nothing and I have no agenda in you doing this other than for you to see for yourself the changes your horses go through.

Interestingly, in most cases, the horse needs no extra hay to maintain their body condition. In fact, most start to gain weight and become calmer. Read the testimonies of owners who have done the challenge (and be sure to write your own to add).

Some caveats –
1) In very old horses (25 years and older) be careful because the chronic inflammation may cause them to actually loose weight without grain. In these cases get a medium chain triglyceride source of fat to add energy that is non-inflammatory. I recommend CoolStance® (stanceequine.com) which is shredded coconut meal as a great way to add non-inflammatory energy. Avoid vegetable oils such as corn oil because they are inflammatory.

2) Horses with laminitis need to be fed a limited amount of sugar which includes the starch of hay and pasture.  Limiting turn out and soaking hay in cold water for 30 minutes will help remove starch from their diets.

3) *** Horses on medication should have your vet on board before you decide to change what is being given or eliminate the treatment.

4) Horses that no longer are inflamed by grains will start to use body fat.  This will now show the loss of top line which is a sign of chronic protein deficiency and loss.  Adding an extra protein source will benefit these horses but watch out for grains which are often included in protein supplements.

Finally – use your eye to evaluate every horse on the no-grain challenge. If this doesn’t work out for your horse, going back to what you were doing is simple and without problems. More importantly, if it does work and the bad things in your horse disappear but you want to add supplements, be sure to read the label carefully and find a supplement with little to no grain. Add only ONE SUPPLEMENT AT A TIME and wait 2 weeks and observe. If all goes well, then you can add another supplement if you must.

There is still more to tell you such as additional protein which will require more articles. But if you have any questions, go to the comment section below first to see if it has been asked. If not, add it to the comments and I will answer as soon as I can.

Before I go, I want to tell you about the front page article in the Wall Street Journal on April 9, 2016 – “Awash with corn, imports increase.” We have a surplus of corn that the users are not buying now because it is cheaper to purchase and import it from Venezuela. So guess where all this extra corn is going? To the new market developed by the farmers 30 years ago – horse owners.

2 weeks, no cost to you, improved horse – a no-brainer.

The Horsemanship Nutrition CourseThe Horse's Advocate University

Links to non-grain sources

Protein sources:
proADD – soy and whey protein (NO corn)http://www.prognutrition.com/pn/products/supplements/proadd-ultimate/index.jsp
Calf Manna – soy and whey protein (with corn)https://www.mannapro.com/products/equine/horses

Calories from fat:
CoolStance – coconut flakes http://www.stanceequine.com/product-coolstance-copra
Renew Gold = Coolstance, rice bran, flax seed – http://www.renewgold.com/renew-equine

Back to the No Grain Challenge

Comments 2

  1. Dr Tucker,
    I would love to try this no grain challenge but I’m not quite sure how to start. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough acreage to sustain my 3 horses & 1 pony on grass. I live in the south and have access to coastal Bermuda hay which I can feed free choice with slow feed hay nets. Should I feed alfalfa pellets? Or alfalfa /timothy pellets or alfalfa cubes? Also, have you heard of Thrive horse feed? Here’s the link
    Is it considered no grain? Help! I want to try this challenge.

    Guaranteed Analysis

    Dehydrated alfalfa meal. Timothy grass meal. Grain sorghum. Whole soybean meal. Rice bran. Dried kelp meal. Calcium carbonate. Salt. Schidigera extract. (Yucca) L-Lysine monohydrochloride. DL-methionine. Potassium sulphate. Magnesium sulphate. Monodicalcium phosphate. Diatomaceous earth. Zinc sulfate. Ferrous sulfate. Copper sulfate. Calcium iodate. Cobalt carbonate. Vitamin E supplement. Niacin. D-Calcium pantothenate. vitamin A supplement. Thiamine mononitrate. (source of Vitamin B2) vitamin B-12 supplement. D-Activated animal sterol. (source of vitamin D-3) Pyridoxine hydrochloride. (source of vitamin B-6) Folic acid. Menadionine sodium bisulfite complex. Manganese methionine complex. Cobalt glucoheptonate.

    1. Post

      Some people feel that sorghum is a pre-biotic which actually feeds the good gut bacteria but I am not positive of this. Rice bran may also have some bad lectin effects in horses as it probably does in humans. Kelp has become popular as an additive for humans and has been around in horses for a while. If the thyroid gland becomes enlarged, it is most likely from the kelp.

      Most horses are protein deficient so I am glad that this has soybean meal – a great protein source for horses.

      Please read all my other nutrition blogs to get a better understanding of how to feed your horses. https://theequinepractice.com/travels-with-doc-t/horse-nutrition/

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