"To use the term 'clean', that's kind of a provocative term, but I think an appropriate one because there's a lot of 'exhaust' associated with burning the wrong food for fuel ... toxicity, free radicals ... that contribute to the metabolic problems we're seeing." Dr. Mercola, Jan 2016
"We're running into a lot of metabolic problems because we're constantly inhibiting the body's ability to burn fuel that it was evolved to burn." Dr. Jeff Volek, Ph.D., Registered Dietitian and Professor, Ohio State University
What we choose to feed our horses is always going to be about personal choice, and of course what works for some won't necessarily work for all. However, if you’re questioning your horse's feed regime, then this page might help sort the wheat from the chaff, as it were.
First off, what we feed our horses should be as appropriate to what horses are meant to eat, and as uncontaminated as possible, to support the natural digestive function, immunity, and behavioural response of horses.
Secondly, and contrary to what the advertising says, horses don't need additional hard (bagged) feed over and above a forage diet. What they do need is their forage diet balanced with what's deficient, specifically certain vitamins, minerals, protein and fat, in order to balance the known deficiencies in our horses' forage.
The best way to get this supplementation into your horse is via a feed carrier, as in a small amount of something clean, natural, and palatable, to get those yukky minerals and vitamins into them.
Personally? Until 2017, my horses grazed on the usual livery-standard grass, i.e. diversified ex-dairy farm grazing, rarely any herbage, thankfully never sprayed but sadly never harrowed/rolled, so it was pretty poor grazing (which we all know is no bad thing) and they had hay pretty much all year round.
Then in early 2017 we moved house so had to move the horses, and I finally found the grazing of my dreams - rolling acres of untouched, unfertilised, ancient former sheep-grazed moorland pasture – yes I know I'm lucky, but it did take me years to find it ;o) However, it still comes with the usual micronutrient deficiencies so I need to give my small herd of four a daily feedbowl with an appropriate carrier in, in order to mix in their minerals etc.
So here's my take on how what we feed has to be right.
So how do we keep our horses healthy?
What do we need to do, as a horse carer, to ensure our horses have their basic nutrition needs covered? To make sure they live their lives comfortably, healthily, stress-free, fit and sound?
For true overall health, and especially if we’re nurturing robust hooves, we need a healthy gut because life-force completely depends on it. Food nutrients are the body’s building blocks, and the gut is there to digest, assimilate and absorb the nutrients in the fuel (feed) that we give it.
If perfect all-round health isn’t happening, it’s usually because there’s something going wrong in the gut, so we need to clean up the gut function and sustain a healthy microbiome environment. Here’s how:
Which means ...
What we feed has to be right
A healthy, quality life starts from the foundation of a healthy diet - it matters more than we can imagine. The overall health of our horses is entirely under our control; we are totally responsible for what we choose to feed them, because their food sends one almighty Do-or-Die message to the body. Create health or create dis-ease.
Quality feed is absolutely key. It’s not just about calories, but the chemical information from the micronutrients in feed that radically influences genes, hormones, immune system, central nervous system, brain chemistry, skeletal and soft tissue structure; you name it – everything from mood, energy and physical health of the whole organism (body), at cellular level, with every single bite.
All calories are not created equal - the source and nutrient-density of your horse’s food plays a much larger role in their health. In a lab, all calories are the same when you burn them, but they aren't when they’re eaten. When we feed our horses the right information, the body will function at its highest level of balanced homeostasis and performance.
When we feed foodstuffs with poor-quality information, i.e. refined/synthetic ingredients, high starch, fillers, by-products or inflammatory fats, the body doesn’t know how to utilise that data, and dysfunction is the result. Blood sugar imbalances, mood swings, weight gain and rest/sleep disturbances are just some of the many side effects that can happen when our feed choices for our horses are lacking nutrient density.
You can’t out-exercise, out-school or out-rest a bad diet. Becoming a conscious consumer about the diet you feed your horse is the first step towards upgrading their nutritional status.
Thirty years ago a horse grazing in a typical paddock would have had the choice of approximately 30-40 different plants and grasses, each bringing its own specific nutrients essential for a balanced diet, and at the same time containing natural sources of digestive enzymes and naturally occurring beneficial bacteria.
These days, in that same paddock, because of selective seeding, intensive farming, chemical fertiliser spraying, etc etc., the grazing is limited to sometimes as few as four varieties of grasses, and very often over-grazed as well.
Nutrients are the body’s fuel, and they literally affect everything. From how our horses feel, how they rest and sleep, how strong their immune system is, how healthy the body is; food shapes our destiny, whether horse or human – this is a cast-iron mammalian trait.
Bottom line, the key to good health is a nutrient-rich diet. Vitamins, minerals, trace elements, amino acids and other active components – all essential to incorporate in the diet.
Just a quick anatomy heads-up and back to those vits/mins etc., us mammals, both horse and human, are one big engine of chemistry, so we’re talking trillions of chemicals and minerals like iron, calcium and magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and copper. We’re also talking vitamins, amino acids, fats and proteins, and so on and so on.
More importantly, these chemicals have to be in the correct ratios to work in harmony with each other. It’s all well and good adding in one extra mineral such as magnesium, which seems to be the most popular independently fed mineral. However, because the whole organism is that big engine of incredibly complex chemical actions all interacting with each other, it means that if we add in extra of one chemical, this will unbalance all the others.
This is why we need balanced mineral supplementation, appropriate to the equine metabolism, in line with what their daily requirements are, as per the NRC guidelines.
A horse’s natural diet of fresh grass and/or hay provides most of what they need, but not all – these days it’s now well-known that grass, and especially hay, is significantly deficient in the equine-essential micronutrients, i.e.
We also need to allow for the fact that the drying/curing process of grass to hay further depletes the mineral/vitamin/omega values as well, with winter bringing even further denaturing of the vitamins C & E, as well as omega-3.
Pulling all this together, we need to add in the missing nuts and bolts to the forage our horses eat, and especially if there’s dried forage, i.e. hay/haylage, in the diet, which is usually the case for most horses here in the UK.
Feed and supplement recommendations
First off, Minerals. Depending on the weather/season/area/soil type/grass type, the changes in the chemistry of grass are many-fold, and these directly cause changes in the chemistry of the horse, which directly and adversely affects the horse's central nervous system (CNS) and muscles.
While each individual mineral has its own actions, there are thousands of reactions occurring at any given moment in time in the horse’s body, which involve many complex interactions with other minerals, vitamins, protein and energy sources.
Yes it’s a minefield, but that’s what I’m here for - it's all about getting everything in balance (my favourite word). There’s a ton more info on this in our Mineral Solutions page – www.equinatural.co.uk/mineralsolutions
Pulling it all together here, supplementing the deficient minerals to balance our UK forage and hay is essential, especially when hay plays a major part in the diet. If you added only one supplement into the feedbowl, it should be a balanced mineral supplement.
Now to the feedbowl
Of course, nothing’s going to balance a system and sustain health if we’re feeding all this nutrition on a feedbowl diet of donuts. There are good feeds, there are questionable feeds that really don’t nourish the horse at all, and then there are bad feeds with inappropriate – and often health damaging – fillers and by-products.
So long as you’ve got the base feed in the feedbowl right, you don’t need much - just something healthy and species-appropriate for the equine gut to add in the nutrient nuts and bolts, to aid palatability, ease of digestion and transit.
However, the feedbowl is where it so often goes very wrong, because all those shiny bags at our local agri-merchants make it very confusing, promising allsorts yet often delivering very little if anything. And as if it wasn’t confusing enough, as important as what to feed is also what NOT to feed, especially for the gut-sensitive or metabolic equine, which sadly so many of our domesticated horses are these days.
For example, no grains, no by-products or fillers, no salt blocks (they weather with weather and denature, as well as creating a haven for moulds and bacteria): obviously no molasses (although you’d be amazed at how many feeds still list some form of molasses as an ingredient), no sugary treats, and ... alfalfa, as mentioned above, which so many of our feed manufacturers use.
A quick digress on alfalfa - many metabolic horses do not tolerate alfalfa well - it can trigger gut and skin sensitivies, and can also be a source of ongoing foot pain for them. Although it generally tests below 10% sugar/starch, the starch percentage is quite high, as are the protein and calcium levels, the latter upsetting the ca:mg:p ratios.
Agreed that some horses have no issues with it, but as it’s an unknown, the very informative ECIR group (Equine Cushings Insulin Resistant) cautions against feeding it.
Back to general feeds, and sadly many of our well known brands include some or all of these ingredients, which actively feed the bad intestinal bacteria who thrive on junk and sugar, allowing them to multiply in their trillions, which in turn kill off the beneficial flora and gut lining, through which the toxins leak into the bloodstream, and so imbalance of homeostasis begins. It’s a cyclical whirlpool to illness, doing nothing to nourish our horses at all.
I’d definitely recommend you check the ingredients on your feedbags. They’re quite sneaky, our feed brand manufacturers – they don’t tend to list the ingredients on the bag itself, but on the analysis which is usually a fairly insignificant scrappy white label sewn into the top of the bag.
Typical ingredients to avoid are along the lines of :
And finally … all these ingredients, unless stated organic (which few of them are), are chemically sprayed during the growth – and post harvesting – period, with a final treatment of chemical mould inhibitor before packaging to stop the feed getting mouldy. In other words, there’s a fair cocktail of toxic chemicals included in the feedbag, as well as the majority of the ingredients grown as GMO, other than Allen&Page who at least claim to steer away from GM foodstuffs but don’t use organically grown product.
What I like to feed
On a cheerier note, the next page explains what I'm happy to feed to my own horses and am happy to recommend, based on my own personal, and very frustrating, experience of having gone through the mill and back, trying to find the right solutions over the years to get it right for my horses.
NB. Can I just add here that my recommendations don't mean these are the only feeds I'd feed that are out there; there may be many other independent growers and producers who aim for organic, clean feeds/chaffs. Tt could be that I've either tried and declined, or rather, my horses have; it could also be that I've simply not come across them - either way there's no intention on my part to specifically exclude any feeds here.
My preferences are simply my own personal feed choices and recommendations, which have proven to work well for my own horses' health.
Here's what I like to feed