Why Horses Should Not Be Fed Grain

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.

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  1. I have 3 QH air ferns and 1 hypp horse with poor dentition that I have to watch potassium level. I have the 3 on triple crown ration balancer plus Timothy hay pellets (also 24/7 pasture) and I supplement with equinety amino acid profile. I’ve read your blog on ration balancer so I will remove that. How do you feel about the equinety? I have one prone to laminitis so I add animed’s Remission to his. I will check for grain in that and remove that. As for the hypp horse, it is difficult because potassium levels are not listed on hay pellets. I know he can’t have alfalfa. I feed triple crown senior to him and beet pulp for fiber in the winter because he can’t eat long stem hay. What are your suggestions for him to keep something in his gut all the time? Thanks.

    1. Let me give you some resources:
      TheEquinePractice.com/feed – this is my FAQ page for feeding.
      “The Horse’s Advocate” which is the private Facebook group where these and other questions have been answered. It is searchable. Ask to be let in – it’s free.

      Equinity and all artificial amino acid sources do not guarantee amount, consistency, manufacturing or sources. Soybean meal is a plant that will guarantee the contents and freshness because it is grown and not manufactured.

      Laminitis is complicated but in essence, the horse probably is insulin resistant and this is directly related to glucose in the diet. In addition they are protein deficient which weakens the hoof. Change these two things to combat laminitis effectively.

      HYPP is a genetic mutation so you will need to monitor him closely with any diet change.

      Coolstance is shredded coconut meal which is an excellent source of fiber that is NON-INFLAMMATORY. Use this for horses needing to add fat on their bones whether they have good or bad teeth. It is easily chewed.

  2. I’m in the middle of the 2 week challenge. I have 2 Arabian gelding which i compete on in endurance riding. They are struggling to keep their weight even when fed additional grain (Started with Ultium most recently Total Equine. Tried numerous supplements like rice bran). I’m wondering what should I feed them during endurance rides? They get finicky at these events and I need to get salt, electrolytes and something (usually soaked for hydration)to sustain them during the event. Hay is sometimes not their favorite choice. Can you recommend a protocol to try to meet their needs and yet stay away from grains? Grass is usually in short supply.

    1. I have seen several hard keepers Carol who seem to remain thin when fed grain but who gain weight AFTER removing the grain. I believe that grain is inflammatory and the result is body fat. I am suspicious that what they are finding in humans and lab animals is also happening in horses – that glucose is being converted into fructose (fruit sugar).

      The purpose of fructose is to add body fat for the coming winter. It also depletes the ATP in the mitochondria to below sustainable levels triggering gluconeogenesis (protein loss on the top line etc). This enzyme develops in tested animals and humans after being fed glucose laden foods daily year round. this results in obesity, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver, diabetes, hypertension and more. Blocking this enzyme reverts tested animals and humans to normal conditions – reverses these diseases.

      Opposite to this are hard keepers and people who eat everything and remain thin. But are they healthy? I can only guess why this is happening. One guess would include a lack of the enzyme that converts AMP into uric acid which is the end point of fructose metabolism. Another guess is the inability to make the enzyme that converts glucose to fructose therefore eliminating the horse’s ability to create fat. In this case there are two thoughts that come to mind. The first is that the addition of inflammatory food (grain and byproducts such as rice bran) still causes inflammation. This would cause weight loss in the midst of plenty. The other thought is that this inflammation would cause exercise intolerance and / or poor recovery and also “finicky” behavior and a poor work ethic.

      While these are only guesses, we can all look at the fact that what you have tried isn’t working. In fact, the commonality of all hard keeping horses is that no matter what you try, they don’t gain (and they have other issues). We all are surprised when you start to feed a horse as they were created to be fed (ground plants when available), they start to gain weight. In fact some have become obese as the owner offers hay throughout winter as well as during summer pasture.

      3 Day Eventing riders have reported that the recovery times after the cross country event are very quick with horses asking if they can “do it again!” We all look forward to your observations as this ER season starts: weight gain, conditioning, recovery time, soundness, hoof health and anything else you want to add. Remember to add soybean meal to provide the amino acids they are not getting in the pasture and hay. An endurance horse is constantly rebuilding connective tissue and will require the branched chain amino acids. Now that you have stopped the loss of these AA’s (by not feeding excessive sugar every day and eliminating gut inflammation), adding them back is essential to remaining sound and healthy.

  3. Thank you for the really interesting article!
    I started no-grain challenge to my 10 years old OTTB about a month ago.
    He is eating hay better ,calmer , doens’t pin his ears at the feeding time ( he is eating Alfalfa pellet and SMB) but he lost his weight and still very skinny( score 4)
    He is at the boading stable and the owner is very worry about his condition.
    So I am thinking to feed CoolStance as well.
    What is your advice?
    Is it OK? or not?
    If yes, how much should I add CoolStance?
    Right now , he is eating 1 pound each / day.


    1. Yes adding Coolstance will help plus adding spring and summer pasture. Often OTTB horses need a year to recover. Watch the hooves for evidence of this. Also please write a diary to monitor your progress.

  4. I’ve been doing some reading about lectin online re humans, and many of the lectin-free diets say that flax seeds are OK to eat. Given the other benefits of freshly-ground flax seeds i wonder why you recommend against them in this context? I don’t want to jettison something that could be beneficial, especially from an anti-inflammatory standpoint. I understand that many horses wouldn’t be exposed to flax in the wild (though some must be…), but neither are they exposed to soybean meal. Granted, SBM is supposed to be temporary and reparative, but flax seems to be a good, supportive supplement. It’s a hassle to give, but again I don’t want to throw out things that can actually help my horse. For now I’ve stopped it along with magnesium to let your recommended course do its thing. My horse has more energy and focus for his work so there is benefit, and were only at 1 month with this change. I just wanted to resolve the flax question…TIA.

    1. I believe that all soft seeds are not meant to be eaten in an evolutionary standpoint. Occasional ingestion will occur but daily intake seems contraindicated. And why do horses need the Omega 3 oils? Why is there inflammation?

      One of the key principles of this program is to stop adding things to the diet for an effect. Removing inflammatory ingredients is the foundation and the proof of this is a calmer horse that loses body fat. You are correct in that adding SBM is needed because of the chronic protein deficiency from mitochondrial exhaustion plus the lack of variety of forage in the pasture and hay. Chronic protein deficiency is obvious in many indices. But removing inflammatory ingredients should negate the need for adding anti-inflammatory ingredients or medicines.

      The results posted on my blogs and on the Facebook group from around the world are all positive in their results of following the principles. What is missing is the hard core science but that will never come because 1) no money and 2) the sellers of inflammatory ingredients and supplements mount clever and persuasive marketing campaigns.

  5. Right after I read this article ,I started no-grain challenge to my 10years old OTTB!

    He is out in the pasture 5-6 hours everyday, lots of hay (some alfalfa), water and salt block in the stall.
    1lb Alfalfa pellets and 1lb SBM /a day .
    He lost his weight and stay that way after 3 weeks now.
    Do I need to be patient ? or better to feed CoolStance?

    He is calmer and nothing bad, just skinny.
    He is a cribber so hopefully no-grain will stop his cribbing or less.

    1. I have not found anything that stops cribbing.

      Weight loss means that your horse no longer has inflammation and insulin resistance. He is now allowed to remove his body fat which means he is healthier. This is great news.

      As horse owners we all need to stop interpreting “weight loss” as bad. It is the opposite. You can see this in his improved behavior.

  6. Hello!
    First and foremost I would like to thank you for the time and dedication you have put into this article. It is very enlightening and gives horse owners a lot to think about! This article makes so much sense and it’s hard to disagree with things that make sense!

    Secondly, I would like to ask some questions about the two week no grain challenge. I own a 28 year old mustang who has chronic diarrhea in the winter(this is the second winter this has happened) when the grass runs out and he has to eat hay. Last winter I observed that if I took him out in a open hay field and let him graze for a minimum of 30 minutes the diarrhea would firm up and if he got enough grass, would even stop. This winter his diarrhea started around November and I began feeding him Nutrena’s Safechoice Original horse feed and some alfalfa pellets. He was underweight when I started him on the horse feed and had a topline score of D. I eventually weaned him off of the alfalfa pellets and he currently gets about 10 pounds of the horse feed. Now it’s mid January and he has a body condition score of between 4 and 5 and still has a topline score of D. I no longer call him a “skinny horse” but he sure looks old! I honestly think that the only reason he gained weight on Safechoice was because it contains high quality protein and the three limiting amino acids – lysine, methionine, and threonine. Aside from his initial weight gain I haven’t seen any other improvements from the feed and his diarrhea seems to have gotten worse(after reading your article, it’s probably because I took away the alfalfa pellets) and is irritating his skin. The feed just goes in and goes out. I recently started him on Opti-zyme by MannaPro( same company that sells Calfmanna) and he’s looking a bit better because he’s getting more out if what I’m feeding him.

    I guess what I’m wondering is: is my horse is too old to bother changing his diet to simply forage? Would changing his diet now still benefit him? If I do change it, should I do it slowly? You said there was no need to wean them off grain just to stop all grains, and supplements and feed only forages, legumes, salt and water but my horse is old am I’m pretty sure that his digestive system is inflamed especially since I’m feeding so much grain and he does seem to be a bit sensitive when I touch his barrel. I hope I don’t sound like I’m questioning what you’ve said I just want to make sure I’m doing the best for my horse. Also, if I switch him to forage only I guess I should take him off Opti-zyme too? Would you recommend I give him Coolstance or Renew Gold for added protein?

    Thank you so much for your time!

    1. The top line is made of muscle which uses the branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. The limiting AA’s that you mention are important too but the hay does not provide all the essential AA’s. The best source of all EAA’s is soybean meal. Please read ALL the articles on protein (the most current has the most up to date info). It will take 6 to 12 months to improve the top line but the hay belly goes away in about 1 month. Most horses start to look “less old” within 3 to 4 months after starting soybean meal.

      If the gut is inflamed from 1 or more ingredients then removing them as quickly as possible is the best solution to stopping the inflammation. However, in older horses (especially in winter), the body fat will quickly come off. It is like taking the coat off a body of a skinny person with no muscle. The horse will look awful and the owner will say, “He’s losing weight!” Then the horse is put back on the inflammatory ingredients and the horse becomes fat. The coat is put back on.

      We all want to see an athletic body underneath the coat but it just isn’t there. This is where the soybean meal adds the needed amino acids to build that muscle. Exercise alone will never build muscle. The ingredients need to be there.

      In older horses in winter you need to remove the inflammatory ingredients causing the inflammation (loose manure, irritation in touching and behavior, added body fat) and keep a close eye on them. Add Coolstasnce as a non-inflammatory fat source. Add blankets as needed and get them indoors if too cold. Heat the water they drink. Use common sense and get them to summer where the grass is available to help restore the normal gut microbiome.

      What you can do now is 1) read ALL the nutrition blogs and their comments, 2) join the private Facebook group “The Horse’s Advocate” and 3) enroll in the nutrition course I offer (find the link in the blogs). Through these resources you can become equipped to feed horses as they were meant to be fed and more importantly, understand why on a cellular level. And it is NOT complicated!

      Thanks for trying the no grain challenge – Doc T

      1. Thanks so much for all the information!

        Just a couple more questions…

        Would it be ok for me to trade out his horse feed for a mix of timothy and alfalfa pellets? I would like to give him soybean meal too but should I wait to add that till the two weeks are over?

        Here’s what I’m thinking:

        Start transitioning from grain to only orchard grass hay and alfalfa and timothy pellets, salt and water.
        Once he’s completely off grain and Opti-Zyme start the two week no grain period. Does this sound ok?

        I’m just not sure when the soybean meal comes in. Also, you said to give a flake of alfalfa hay with the soybean meal. Would about 3 pounds of alfalfa pellets be ok instead?


        1. There is no need for a transitioning period. The sooner you remove the inflammatory ingredients the sooner your horses will start to feel better.

          Some people add the SBM right away and others wait for 2 weeks. There is no set course. If your horse is severely inflamed in the gut then the SBM may not be absorbed until the inflammation is reduced or eliminated. If this is the case then you are wasting the SBM, but there is no way to really determine this. From the horse’s point of view, adding the SBM at any point is good and there are no bad things that will happen from this.

          Giving alfalfa pellets is OK. I would guess that a flake of alfalfa is about 4 pounds though (10 flakes in a 40 pound standard bale so 4 pounds per flake).

  7. Interesting-and part and parcel of this puzzle on feed! Thanks! I have pleasure horses and dairy goats…and live at high altitude-with water quality changes throughout the year secondary to irrigation stress on the aquifers as well as run off and winter…Mineral supplementation actually seems to be a seasonal requirement for all my “species” buds. Their health truly suffers-sometimes to the point of massive symptoms with out it. This is even in the “non-stress seasons” for both species.

    In particular-we supplement with thiamine as well as cobalt and selenium, magnesium and phosphorus. Everyone has access to native grass pasture-which is a mixture of marginal native grasses and some really nutritious ones, as well as super alfalfa/brome hay supplementation-to condition. The goats get whole, unprocessed grain at milking, but I have used soaked, un-molassesed laced beet pulp for years to put the minimal supplementation’s in for the horses. This beet pulp is fleshed out with higher calorie pellets and alfalfa pellets, all soaked and topped with soybean oil-which I can get in bulk-as our horses age-because honestly-as they loose their teeth (I just put down a 34 y.o. and have two in their late 20’s), they just don’t keep condition on the hay-as you mentioned. They all get dental work as needed twice a year-or if symptomatic. I have one oldster who-like some you mentioned-eats all day and never gains weight-that was even as younger on straight pasture…hay supplementation seemed to help then-but now-I have been forced to add up the pelleted feeds to twice a day. Within a week or two-his entire demeanor changed for the better-even though he is still thin.

    I’m a firm believer in open air, and pasture 24/7 with the three sided shed for shelter, and as much trail riding as we can get in-where I also always allow them to graze on the native grasses when I tell them to eat as we adventure. I have never been a fan of the training module of not letting them eat on the trail…I just make sure it is my idea and I have no problems with constant grass snatching or disobedient stopping.

    I agree that genetics are a creeping and insidious variable in this- as longevity and soundness are not at the top of the list for priorities in genetics-but color, appearance (to our eyes) and specific performance conformation abilities. It does not surprise me that it is showing up in mustangs as well-because there has always been interbreeding of domestic and wild horses…It has happened in dogs as well-with mutts showing up with all the sad traits that pure breeds have been known for over the years.
    Thank-you for sharing. And thank-you for listening too!

    1. There is a lot here Claire and I’m not sure if I agree with everything you mention. Goats are ruminants and are fed differently than hind gut fermenting horses. What exactly are the expressions of the mineral deficiencies you see? Thiamine is Vitamin B-1 – what do the horses show as a deficiency Of B-1? I’m not a fan of feeding byproducts to horses including sugar beet pulp. What are the ingredients of the pellet you “flesh out” the sugar beet pulp with? Soybean oil is inflammatory in the human gut and I assume it is also inflammatory in the horse. Where is the protein in your feeding program?

      I plan on writing a blog on genetics but in a nutshell, the genetics aren’t the real problem but the expression of the genes via the epigenome. I know, what?? But what you eat can affect the expression of the genes and what is fed is all we can control.

  8. Thanks so much for your input, your findings and your recommendations. I’m using Triple Crown 30 as a ration balancer (as recommended by an equine nutritionist.) Every thing you’ve said and recommended makes perfect sense. One of my geldings (the more sensitive one; the herd “lookout”) has off & on “squirts” and sometimes cow plop poops. So we are definitely going grain-free–and no more treats! Usually I have alfalfa pellets in my pocket as treats, but like you said, they really don’t need it; just nice praise and a rub will do. The Selenium issue is so very interesting, plus I’m getting rid of the red salt blocks. By the way, the above mentioned gelding licks his salt block much more than all the others. Thanks again. also…I went to a hoof care clinic with Pete Ramey years ago, and we were talking about horse health, feeding, hoof care, etc. and all the stuff we throw at them, including hoof supplements. He joked and said actually, all they need is 2 sticks and a rock–to get his point across that they didn’t need a majority, if any, of all the supplements we think they do. haha

    1. Peanuts in the shell are a common treat for horses and is what I recommend if you MUST feed a treat. A kind word and a gentle touch work well too and cost nothing. I do not like sugar cubes, carrots, apples or “cookies” as all are inflammatory to some degree.

  9. Are there any acceptable non-grain non-sugary treats for horses? If peanut hay is ok, what about peanuts? Thank you for all this great information!

    1. Peanuts in the shell are a common treat for horses and is what I recommend if you MUST feed a treat. A kind word and a gentle touch work well too and cost nothing. I do not like sugar cubes, carrots, apples or “cookies” as all are inflammatory to some degree.

  10. Where are you finding soybean meal? I only se it available by the ton, or in a 3lb. bag sold as fertilizer. Would that be safe to feed to horses? thank you so much for all the great information!

    1. Never use the SBM made as fertilizer as a feed for any animal as it has other ingredients added that you do not want to feed to animals.

      SBM is a common feed for hogs and other livestock. Call feed stores up to an hour away and you will find it. Usually about $20 for a 50 pound bag (or more $ for non-GMO or organic).

  11. I give my horse a little bit of LMF gentle balance which says no grain. They get grass and a little alfalfa. I keep having issues where their poop is normal but they fart liquid. Sometimes it is a lot and sprays. I have tried prebiotic, probiotics, Purina outlast gastric support, smart digest…… it is only my two mares. The gelding seems fine and they all get the same thing. It’s only been the last couple years and what they get has been the same for the last 6 years.

    1. I call this “the squirts.” In some sensitive horses anything can cause this. I have seen the red mineral salt licks cause it as well as carrots with no grain in the diet.

      The elimination diet (only grass, water and mined salt) should be tried to see if any removed ingredient was the cause. If things clear up and you want to add back the LMF gentle balance then do only this and observe. I do not like ANY ration balancer as most have several inflammatory ingredients.

  12. I have a question. If you notice a difference in your horse after removing the grain, you said it takes 6 weeks to heal the gut. After the 6 weeks do you start re-introducing grain again? Or do they stay off the grain forever?

    1. All grains are inflammatory to the gut of horses therefore you remain off of all grain and grain byproducts to retain the success you find after going no-grain. The “6 weeks to heal” comment is for some horses that take longer to get the results. Most owners see an immediate improvement while a few take several weeks for a slower response.

  13. We currently have a 4 year old Belgian mare that stretches out and spreads hind legs and lifts her tail looking like a pee stance but is in pain. However she will still bolt/run at another mare if she’s mad at them and looks fine doing that. I have been doing some research and think it maybe EPSM or Shivers. Her weight is fine and she seems to be healthy other than these episodes. I have been doing some research and thinking about pulling her off our grain (500lb oats, 300lb corn, 100lb Kent supplement, 50lb soy oil, 50lb molasses per 1,000lb of feed). She is in foal though and changing her diet this late in pregnancy has me a little worried. We are also thinking about giving her another Selenium/Vitamin E shot. We usually only do one in the late spring but thinking maybe trying another for her. Do you think pulling her off the grain this far into pregnancy may be an issue?

    1. I do not think removing all grain in a pregnant mare is a problem. It seems that you already have a problem with this posturing. EPSM and shivers look different but your vet can rule these in or out. I can’t from here. The ingredients you gave here are all inflammatory. More importantly, feeding a mare in the last trimester is really feeding the foal. This is the primary cause of developmental orthopedic diseases in foals (OCD, contracted tendons, bent legs, epiphysis, etc). The WORST thing that will happen in a pregnant mare that has the grain removed is that the mare loses fat revealing the chronic protein deficiency in the form of a lost top line. Adding a protein source such as soybean meal will help the mare in all facets of delivery and nursing.

      Selenium is an interesting subject. You might measure her Se blood levels before you inject E-Se. I never found the injection which I gave 30 days prior to foaling had any improvement in retained placentas or dystopias. In fact many without an E-Se shot delivered without complications. But this is a matter between you and your vet.

  14. I have a 26 year old Arabian gelding with a heart murmur and Cushings. We are a year and a half post surgery for a pendiculated lipoma at Cornell University. 6′ of interestine was removed followed by an exploratory surgery 10 days later due to a backslide in recovery. Nothing was found to be wrong, he was healing internally very well and made a full recovery and was released after a 20 day hospitalization. The surgeon recommended staying on a senior feed and nothing less than second cut grass hay as they were skeptical if he could digest first cutting again. He is on a low NSC senior feed and second cut hay. He has had a bout of laminitis and gas colic so I have to be cautious with how much grass he eats and when. We are also very cautious changing his diet or adding anything new but if he could go grain free and still have a diet that is complete in nutrition requirements, I would prefer it. I live in upstate NY and our ground is selenium deficient. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

    1. I cannot comment on a specific case especially one that has gone through 2 surgeries and is 26 years old. Please be very cautious in any changes and work with your veterinarian to understand any risks with a diet change.

      Everyone in EVERY state (seriously every state) says their soil is low in Selenium (Se). I think this is a myth. A vet who follows me found a study of deer in NY that all had normal levels of Se. I just don’t believe that Se is a problem.

      My belief is that horses can get what they need for the ingredients horses were developed to eat: grass and a variety of ground plants. Horses confined to a mono grass pasture and fed 1 or 2 types of last summer’s grass (hay) don’t do as well. Add inflammatory grain and byproducts on top of this and bad things happen. But after 26 years and 2 colic surgeries, any change away from what his gut microbes are used to may not give you the results you are looking for.

  15. With this philosophy how do you get all the vitamins and minerals necessary into the daily diet? I have my hay tested and it is no complete with all needs. I too believe in a high forage diet however I still feed a non GMO ration balancer for vitamins and minerals.

    Also, I love coolstance and renew gold but again these products don’t balance all nutritional needs with forage so again there is the question. Also, you say no rice and no beet pulp….renew gold is a rice product and beet pulp helps hind gut troubles. Actually the only way I found to keep the gut good is adding alfalfa and beet pulp, can you comment on this as well?


    1. Please read all my blogs here: TheEquinePractice.com/feed or enroll in my nutrition course. There you will find a discussion on vitamins and minerals. Also join the private Facebook group “The Horse’s Advocate.”

      All vitamins are made by the gut bacteria (except D). It is a big misconception that vitamins come from food. The food supports the gut bacteria and if this is wrong and a dysbiosis occurs then there will be a vitamin deficiency. However it is rare to see a vitamin deficiency in horses other than in starvation cases. Mineral come from water and from a mined salt source. Again it is rare to have a mineral deficiency other than starvation or excessive sweating (thumps). Unfortunately most ration balancers have inflammatory ingredients (even non-GMO) which promotes chronic protein deficiency. Most people including your listing of ingredients never mention a broad spectrum source of amino acids (good protein source). Protein is the most essential ingredient and from protein almost all things are made including vitamins.

      Alfalfa is a legume as well as soybeans from which soybean meal is made. these have been fed to horses for a very long time with an exceptional safety and efficiency record. But sugar beet pulp is a byproduct of the sugar beet industry and is a recent addition to horse feeds. It is not a natural feed for horses in any form, GMO or not. Rice bran is a byproduct of the conversion of whole rice to white rice. Both of these byproducts were being thrown out until they found a home with horse owners looking for something to add to make their horses “go better.” Yet during this search they conveniently forgot about 1) the effects of feeding starch (sugar) daily year round and 2) chronic protein deficiency caused by the daily feeding of starch.

      Some say that beep pulp is a resistant starch that feeds the hind gut bacteria. I believe in resistant starches especially in horses and humans that need to support their hind gut. If your horse needs sugar beet pulp to aid in the health of the hind gut then fine. But I would also ask why is the hind gut needing support especially from a product that is unusual for horses. I human medicine they are discovering that a low Vitamin D (actually D is a hormone and not a vitamin) is leading to poor sleep which leads to poor body recovery and repair. adding a lot of Vet D leads to a Vet B deficiency as the gut bacteria cannot keep up with the repairs being made during the newly increased deep restorative sleep.

      See how complicated this is? So trust the system and feed it correctly. Adding vitamins and minerals and byproducts may, for many horses, actually cause more problems. We just don’t know. And then there is the epigenetics of individual horses. This is where the genes are signaled by the environment including the food to either express or to suppress gene expression. People with Lyme disease that don’t respond to antibiotics are learning all about epigenetics once they find out they really have toxic mold poisoning. Both cause the same expression of the genes that show symptoms of Lyme.

      Start with feeding only what a horse developed the gut to eat. Replace what is missing (protein). Add back, one at a time, an ingredient that you think your horse is missing – not the miss-mash of a ration balancer. The process might take a year or 2 so be patient and write it all down in a journal.

      1. I couldn’t find where to jump on with comments so I hope you see this. I had several horses with Heaves. I tried all the chemicals The vet sold me but it wasn’t helping much. I studied all I could (wish I had run across you back then). I read that grains in people cause inflammation and pondered that if does that in humans why not in horses? I took all my horses off grains, switched to pelleted grass / alfalfa served in small quantities in addition to grass hay and daily turn out ). have not had an outbreak in my barn over 5 years. I do feed vitamins but I’m starting to re-think that, too. Each horse has Redmond Rock in their stalls. Some devour it like candy, others do not. Most blocks of Redmond weights about 10 lbs.

        I’m so glad I finally found you.

  16. I have a horse who I have struggled with for years with stomach and hind gut ulcers. He is currently on a grain diet. Do you consider Coolstance a grain? Or would that be okay to feed? I am wanting to try this but would still like to keep him on his supplement and I know he will not eat it plain. What are you thoughts on alfalfa pellets? Could that be an alternative for mixing in supplements?
    I currently have him on Assurance Gi Soothe 1lb am and pm, grass round bale outside (winter months), pasture in summer. Alfalfa hay at night. He is on Kentucky Equine Research’s supplement RiteTract.

    1. Coolstance is shredded coconut meat which can be a non-inflammatory fat source for horses, especially very old horses, that need to add fat to their bodies. I recommend it to all underweight horses 25 years or older who are facing winter and need an extra bit of help. I usually recommend discontinuing it once green pasture returns.

      Almost every supplement has inflammatory ingredients. I do not recommend any vitamin or mineral supplements. All vitamins are made by the healthy gut bacteria and the minerals come from water, a mined salt source and forage.

      If your horse has any kind of gut ulcers then your horse has a dysfunctional gut microbiome and the number 1 reason for this dysbiosis is feeding inflammatory ingredients (grain and grain byproducts). Get the gut microbes right and the ulcers will resolve. The one exception is in stomach ulcers where you need to fill the stomach with pasture or hay before exercising them.

      Alfalfa pellets are OK for horses but be careful not to feed too many pellets of anything at once as some horses will choke unless they are moistened.

      Please read my blogs at TheEquinePractice.com/feed for further informations and consider enrolling in the nutrition course to dig in deeper.

      1. You mention in these comments that you’re not a fan of seeds – flax or otherwise – but you don’t say exactly why except that you consider them inflammatory. Everything I read is that they are anti-inflammatory (omega 3). Do the hulls have lectin then? After treating ulcers on both my TBs (and going grain and sugar free myself) I took them off rice bran and switched to ground flax over alfalfa pellets. They are currently on pasture from 8am-8pm but we are in California where we have grass from Dec-May and then it’s pretty dry and non-nutritious (but plentiful in their pasture). At night they get crappy orchard hay in nets with the alfalfa pellets and California Trace. My younger horse gets magnesium and an amino acid supplement for calming. He is sensitive, tense, doesn’t like to be touched and back sore. Older guy is chronically laminitic in one (club) foot and can’t grow any toe. During summer/fall they also get aloe Vera juice with herbs (licorice, marshmallow, slippery elm) since the daytime feed is not providing much. After the ulcers I worry. But I’m wondering now if I stop the flax I may not have to do anything else?? Selenium is an issue in California so the trace mins might be necessary… I’d love some more info on flax specifically, do you have blog posts about this?

        1. Please read all of the blogs here. Omega 3 oils is a misunderstood but popular subject in humans. Where would a horse get their Omega’s The answer is that the Omega’s are fatty acids and the gut bacteria break down the cellulose of the “non-nutritious” pasture into fatty acids (see my blog The High Fat Diet ).

          Every one says their state is low in selenium (Se). EVERY STATE has written this to me. Where is the proof? Where are the Se deficient horses? Why are there studies done of Se levels in the wild animals that find normal Se levels? This (my state is low in Se) is a myth as far as I am concerned.

          Finally, I do not see an adequate protein source in your horse’s diet. Please read Chronic Protein Deficiency In Horses and The Importance Of Protein.

          I am not a fan of California Trace as there are inflammatory ingredients and I do not believe that a horse on adequate protein needs a mineral supplement.

          1. Ha ha, thank you! Some people around here have done blood tests for selenium, no deficiencies, but I HAVE seen tests come back for deficiencies in Vitamin E (I’m guessing your response will be that it has something to do with lack of protein…!) If I’m really worried I guess I can test the blood yearly to reassure myself. For now I have been reading the blogs and just ordered the soybean meal, have stopped flax and CA Trace but I”m having trouble (mentally) putting down the magnesium and the other (amino acid) calming supplement…I’m also finishing out the aloe with herbs. I will report as the SBM starts making a difference.

          2. Thanks for trying this Sylvie. Just 2 weeks and you will see for yourself that you don’t need the Mg to calm your horses. Removing the dicalcium phosphate will take care of that! All the amino acids you feed in the calming mix are in the soybean meal.

            Vitamin E could be either from gut inflammation or a protein deficiency – or both. We tend to add (supplement) rather than look for the reason why they are deficient in E. By the way, are we sure the “normal” level is normal? While the test says “low,” what does the horse say?

  17. Have you looked into the feeding of CHIA seed to boost protein and omega 3’s magnesium and calcium? Feeding this to weanlings along with vitamin E supplement (Elevate WS) who are otherwise on hay (no pasture available in Vermont in winter).

    1. No I have not had a reason to look for another source of protein. SBM has a safety and efficacy record of half a century, is inexpensive and is abundant. It is a legume which is a natural feed for horses. I don’t worry about Omega 3 oil or minerals or vitamins because all of these come from either a healthy gut microbiome (not feeding inflammatory ingredients), water, mined salt and forage.

      It is a mistake to think that you have no pasture. The cellulose of dormant winter grass and of the hay become the fats and oils the horse needs to thrive in winter. See my blogs about carbohydrates, fats and cellulose at TheEquinePractice.com/feed. My premise with the no grain diet is that we add too much which disrupts the gut microbe environment. By feeding the horse only what they were developed to eat they will restore themselves back to health and your wallet will be restored back to wealth.

  18. Too many comments to read all of them. One easy question: when you say salt… not a salt block? How do I know I am giving the right kind of salt please?

    1. But the good nuggets of info are in the comments and my answers! There are not “too many comments,” just not enough time in your day!

      Use mined salt – this means salt that comes from a mine. Ex Himalayan. White salt blocks are just sodium and chloride (usually) and trace mineral red salt blocks have molasses and corn syrup – both are inflammatory.

      1. I agree with you 100% and see the proof in my own horse! After suffering a bout of laminitis 1 1/2 years ago I took my 8 year old qh mare off of all grains and started her on a good protein(about 17%), low sugar hay diet with Himalayan salt and water only. The difference is amazing! Her hooves are strong and soles are cupped like they’ve never been before, her mane and tail have grown in thicker and faster than before and she has a beautiful shine all year round…even with a thick winter coat! I haven’t been feeding a mineral/vitamin supplement as I figured she didn’t need one and after reading your comment about minerals being in the water I now feel good about that decision. Thanks for such a great article and all the excellent info!

      2. Hello, I have been working with two vets but am.looking for some more ideas. I had an old mare that’s been out on the for the last five years. Always did fine. Goes out to pasture with 200 head of beef cattle during the summer, in the fall they would throw haylage out to the cows and fresh hay for the mare. This fall the lessor noticed her starting in with diarrhea while only being out on pasture grass but after they had thrown haylage for the cattle. They then brought her into a smaller pasture for the winter. Over a matter of a month she dropped about 200 to 300 pounds. She would only eat the charger blue seal grain they were feeding her and would not touch first or second crop hay. They gave her ivermectin, this seemed to slightly help for about a week and then back to very bad diarrhea. She has been back with me for just over a month. I had her teeth done which improved her eating hay. I took her off charger and put her on purina equine senior, alfalfa pellets and a small amount of nutrena empower balance because it is 30 percent protein. I also added elevate vit e and selenium as that is something horses lack in maine according to one of my vets. She will not eat beer pulp wet but will dry but shouldnt have it dry. Same with alfalfa pellets but I am running out of options with her. I gave her probios but she hates it. Today I am starting a round of fenbendazole for 5 days as suggested. But I am looking for some new ideas. She is 27 years old and a quarter horse. I dont think i could do the no grain diet as I’m afraid she would drop weight again. We are in Maine and it is cold right now and she will only eat about 2 flakes of hay before she wastes the rest, I do always give her a little.more than she ends up eating. I have a salt lick for her as suggested by vet to absorb some.of the water she drinks as she will easily go through 10 gallons over a 12 hour period… today Frank down all 5 gallons in less than 3 hours and refilled 10 more gallons to go her over night…. any ideas or suggestions would be appraciated.

        1. I am not your vet and cannot comment on your horse specifically. You need to ask your vet to test the urine at least for specific gravity but a complete urinalysis will help. It sounds like diabetes insipidus which is a dysfunction of the pituitary. In my opinion this is caused by chronic protein deficiency which I have written about extensively in my protein blogs found here: TheEquinePractice.com/feed. I also have a 1 hour webinar on pituitary dysfunction under “HorseTalk” on my website TheHorsesAdvocate.com.

          The leading cause of protein deficiency is feeding grain (explained in the blogs). Also the digestive tract of horses is completely different than cattle (and all ruminants) – see the blog “Grazers versus browsers.” Haylage is fermented hay which some horses can do well with but in others it alters the normal colon gut bacteria which will cause diarrhea.

          All ration balancers are filled with inflammatory ingredients and should be avoided in horses. While 30% protein looks good on the tag it is misleading for 3 reasons. 1) Much of the protein is from alfalfa which drops the 30 to 15 due to bioavailability. 2) Because of the inflammatory ingredients much of the protein never gets digested. 3) You don’t feed enough to make a difference. Read the blog on feeding protein to learn how much and of what to feed. Also consider enrolling in the nutrition course mentioned in each blog if you really want to dig in deep. But all the info you need will be in the blogs.

          Finally, you cannot base your feeding choices on fear. You must base them on what is right for the horse. Find out if your horse was overweight by 200 pounds and what you saw was lost fat. This can be good but is shocking because you then see the chronic loss of muscle that has been occurring for years underneath the layer of fat. Grazing in abundant fields during the summer will add fat from the high starch in the forage. The purpose of this is to add fat for the upcoming winter. Then they lose the fat but retain the muscle as their diet transitions from high starch to high cellulose (winter pasture). This is all in my blogs.

          Your description of being a picky eater, preferring sugar (grain) over forage, increased urine output and water intake, weight loss and the diarrhea all seem to point to a chronic nutritional issue. Things to consider is diabetes insipidus, medullary washout from the increased salt intake, chronic protein deficiency due to lack of protein in the pasture (usually 1 or 2 grasses and not an abundant variety of plants) and adding grain and a disrupted normal gut bacterial environment. Please take the time to understand how the equine digestive system works and then work with your vet to get your horse right. This would also include writing down clearly in your own words a list /description of all the things you are observing about her including appetite, condition and attitude. Focus on removing the gut inflammation first without the fear of her losing more weight. Weight loss is common with gut inflammation. Once she settles then start to add protein but get the kidneys and bring tested first. Come bake in a month or two with an update.

  19. I am feeding alfalfa hay and grass, American Family Feed (alfalfa based) Nutrena Senior complete and renew gold. I also supplement with Formula 1 blue label and healthy coat oil. (Writing it out sure seems like a lot) Anyway, I haven’t really seen any problems per say, but he does switch back and forth on hind legs which I think is similar to an above post. Can you tell me what you think of the feed I am giving and if I do the no grain challenge, what I should add back if anything. Thank you, this has been very interesting to me.

    1. Every horse reacts differently to ingredients and medications given. Not all horses will show overt signs and many will only give subtle signs like yours. In today’s world people are always trying to add something in fear that in the environment their horse is living in, there is something missing. Another way to view this is that every ingredient added will have some effect on the gut system and the microbes there. The premise of the no grain challenge is to remove everything then wait and observe. In almost every case, doing less returns more in behavior and health.

      Give pasture, hay, water and mined salt (no treats or supplements) and watch what your horse does. It will take about a week for them to loose their gut inflammation and another week to prove to you that the new horse is a consistent one. During this time, read all the blogs here and get to understand the importance of adding protein. This is what is missing in almost every horse diet I see. When ready, add the protein (I suggest soybean meal) and write all of your observations down in a diary. In 1 to 6 months watch the transformation of your horse into something more like what you were trying to get before.

      PS – read ALL the comments in all the blogs to get many people’s opinion and to get any questions you have answered. Also join the private Facebook group “The Horse’s Advocate.”

  20. I am so glad you write this article. We have a barn of reining horses in full time training but never used to feed grain – just free choice alfalfa and loose mineral. After a relocation and change in hay source, we began feeding some grain for that “extra bloom”. We soon had a barn full of issues. 18 months we kept feeding various professionally-prescribed grain/supp regimins – plus ulcergaurd, sucralfate, sand clear, IR meds, probiotics, succeed, calcium carbonate, and literally all variety of goodies on the market to promote health. We had stall monsters, poor doers, non-bloomers, ulcer issues, lameness issues etc. We had one youngster that had ulcers so bad it was lame (tho at the time, the vet diagnosis and treatment was joint injections and 30 days off.) It was not until we quit all grain cold turkey that things miraculously turned around. Renew Gold + free choice alfalfa + free choice loose mineral and we have a barn full of bloomy, sound, good footed quiet horses. THANK YOU for confirming what we experienced. You are right on the money. (Just wish I’d have read this 2 years ago!!)

    1. Thank you for this comment – it will help others reading this blog. By the way, I am from now on using the expression “Stall Monsters!”

      Succeed is owned by John Hall who is a friend of mine. We meet every December at the AAEP conference and I tell him how I am trying to put him out of business. He laughs and wishes me gook luck, but as long as people are feeding grain he will remain in business. He is a big fan of my blogs and reads every one of them saying I’m “Spot on” (with a few tweaks). He will be glad that you are no longer feeding grain and therefore do not need his product.