Everything you swallow is NOT inside your body.
Think about this for a bit.
The things you and your horse swallow are 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?”
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 breaks down all food into microscopic molecules, and these molecules 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 a “dis-ease” to most people.
Diseases can come in various forms. We all have heard of bacterial diseases such as e-coli that cause 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?
My History With Grain
Looking back 50 years ago to 1967, I know there was an interstate system, but it wasn’t completed yet. Transport of materials such as grain was still in its 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 four people and two small dump trucks to unload from the railroad station and deliver them to the farm where we stacked them ourselves. It was a great exercise. Young studs (me) would sometimes challenge other studs (Sam) to carry two bags at a time from the box car corner to the truck bed and, on occasion, 3.
A few years later, a new product called “Sweet Feed” became available, an unregulated bag of mixed grains, supplements and molasses. But unfortunately, the problems started to occur soon after with obesity and laminitis.
Inflammation And Food
Here is an easy question. Why can one donut cause one person to gain weight while another person remains thin? The donut 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 into molecules and those being transported across the solid intestinal wall. We might all agree that certain things are allowed, and some are not allowed to pass. Water, for example, is allowed better than the pilot through the TSA entry point at the airport. In the same analogy, a person with a gun will be stopped by the TSA exam and forbidden access to the airport (unless he is recognized as an officer of the law). Some of these forbidden things are bacteria and toxins. When they arrive 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 restrictions? Like the TSA 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 donut, some people’s intestines react with inflammation as the defense mechanisms pick up activity for certain foods. Again, think of people with gluten intolerance or any other allergy. The result of this is one thing – the 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. I have seen this exhibit in horses as discomfort and intolerance when being brushed, girthed, clipped, or ridden (bucking, rearing, crow hopping). In addition, a general disinterest and uneasiness in the barn are common. In some horses, it 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 elimination of feces), non-sweating, avoidance of loading onto a trailer for shipping, uneasiness when being trailered (kicking, weaving, pawing), and chronic poor keepers (underweight) with a large intake of food.
In my practice, horse owners willing to try the two-week no-grain challenge have eliminated these signs of hindgut inflammation listed above in as little as three days. However, it is important to understand that it takes up to 6 weeks for the lining of the intestines to heal fully; hence I like to have people trying the challenge to go at least two weeks before determining if their horse is inflamed by grain.
Understanding Digestion In Horses
Time for some more information to help you understand the digestion process. The horse is a continuous eater. While most of you realize this, many don’t realize that cattle (and all ruminants including sheep, goats, deer, etc.), dogs, cats, humans, and most other 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. They do not need to keep it while waiting for a meal because they are true continuous eaters.
The horse is a hindgut fermenter meaning that its colon is large and is made for digesting fiber (grass). It is also filled with trillions of bacteria that ferment the fiber into molecules with abundant energy production and absorption of amino acids to maintain life. The horse was made to thrive on only grass and water.
So, where did the idea of feeding grain come from? I’m not sure, but like the donut to a human, grain tastes good to the horse. As farmers used 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 did not work. 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.
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. But unfortunately, these were not diseases that existed in veterinary textbooks in the 70s and even early 80s.
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; 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 who won’t gain weight when fed as much grain as possible? The answer is that he is severely inflamed. The amount of energy consumed by the horse to keep the grain out is greater than the amount produced by digestion. As a result, a net negative energy consumption occurs, causing the horse to use fat and muscle to maintain life. In some of these horses, removing all grain causes the horse to start gaining weight.
What is the 2 week no-grain challenge?
Get a calendar, mark the start date, and record all your observations about the horse, including physical and behavioral. Then remove all grain from the horse’s diet (no weaning is necessary – stop all at once). This includes corn, oats, barley, wheat, wheat middlings, sugar beet pulp, rice and wheat bran, oat hulls, etc. Next, feed only water, pure rock salt (no additives), grass, and hay (grass hay and legumes such as alfalfa). That’s it.
Your horse may undergo a behavior withdrawal at feeding time, but this will pass in about two days. However, 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 provide a “meal” of a few alfalfa cubes, either dry or soaked in water.
When I say grass, hay, salt, and water, I do not mean that treats, candy, carrots, or sugar cubes are OK. Remove all supplements too, because most of them have a grain of some sort. Remove the red mineral salt block (corn syrup and molasses): just grass, hay, pure salt, and water for two weeks. Record your observations. Get others to help you observe without telling them what is going on. Then, make your own decision on whether 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 the changes your horses go through for yourself.
Interestingly, in most cases, the horse needs no extra hay to maintain their body condition. Most start to gain weight and become calmer. Again, read the testimonies of owners who have done the challenge (and be sure to write your own to add).
Some caveats –
Be careful with very old horses (25 years and older) because chronic inflammation may cause them to lose weight without grain. In these cases, get a medium chain triglyceride source of fat to add energy that is non-inflammatory. I recommend CoolStance®, a shredded coconut meal, as a great way to add non-inflammatory fuel. Also, avoid ALL vegetable oils (seed oils)such as corn, soybean, flax and canola oils because they are inflammatory.
Another product I recommend for very old horses (30+) not gaining ANY body fat is Renew Gold, which has flax seed, rice bran, and CoolStance® combined into a pellet. Rice bran and flax seed are inflammatory, but for these horses, it sometimes does the job of adding body fat. Start with ¼ pound and slowly work up to a pound to 5 pounds for a full-size horse. Too much coconut or too rapid an increase will cause loose feces.
IMPORTANT – use your eye to evaluate every horse on the no-grain challenge. If this doesn’t work out for your horse, returning to what you did 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, read the label carefully and find a supplement with little to no grain. Add only ONE SUPPLEMENT AT A TIME, wait two weeks, and observe. If all goes well, then you can add another supplement if you must. HOWEVER, I do not believe horses need any supplements except for high-quality protein and hay (yes, hay is a supplement) as required.
There is still more to tell you, such as additional protein, which will require more articles. But if you have any questions, look at the comment section below to see if it has been asked. If not, become a member and add your question to the forum discussions.
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.” See the images below. We have a surplus of corn that the users are not buying now because it is cheaper to purchase and import corn from Venezuela. So guess where all this extra corn is going? To the new market developed by the farmers 30 years ago – horse owners.
Two weeks, no cost to you, improved horse – a no-brainer.