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Whole-Grain Natural Feeds For Horses

Feed manufacturers want us to believe processed is better. But is it? Photo by Maureen Gallatin.

Whole-grain breads are healthier for humans to eat, so why not go "whole grain" for your horses, too? Of course, we mean feeding plain, whole grains like oats and corn to your horse instead of pelleted feeds, commercial grain mixes or grains that have been processed (cracked, rolled, crimped, steamed, popped or flaked).

Feeding your horse plain, whole grains makes sense if you consider the facts that:

• The cost is considerably lower than commercial grain mixes.
• Feeding whole grains allows you to inspect them for quality and contaminants, something it's not possible to do when they are coated with molasses or ground into a pellet.
• Unprocessed grains have their protective coating intact and will keep for much longer without molding or spoiling.
• Keeping grains whole preserves their most valuable, and fragile, nutrients such as B vitamins, essential fatty acids and vitamin E.

Commercial grain mixes also tout their value in terms of being balanced (vitamins and minerals) and fortified (higher levels of nutrients than whole grains). That's true, but you can do this yourself, too, without the worry of contamination and fewer concerns about mold contamination.

The Merck Manual, the bible of basic medical and management advice for animals, contains recipes for equine grain mixes. We have one, too, a simple mix anyone can do with minimal fuss: This mix of 40% corn, 40% oats and 20% alfalfa pellets works well on all horses and really won't take you a lot of time to put together. This mix is 12+% protein and has a balanced major mineral profile.


For a boost in branched-chain amino acids for muscle support in high-performance horses, go with a blend of 10% split dried peas, 35% oats, 35% corn and 20% alfalfa pellets. Add two ounces of ground stabilized flaxseed per day, for omega-3 fatty acids, to round out the profile. You may also want to add a vitamin E and selenium supplement (or just vitamin E if in a selenium-adequate area), and a mineral mix that complements your hay.

Processed Grains Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be
It's often said that processing of grains improves digestibility in the small intestine. This would be beneficial in preventing undigested starch from reaching the large bowel, where fermentation there could cause intestinal problems. However, processing does not significantly improve the small-intestinal digestibility of oats at all.

Cracking and/or crimping corn makes no significant difference either. Finely grinding corn doesn't improve digestibility in the small intestine, but it does make it more available to the organisms in the large bowel-the opposite effect of what we're trying to achieve.

High-heat processing (extrusion, popping and micronizing) does slightly improve small-intestinal digestibility. Micronizing does make barley more digestible, but the degree of improvement may be as low as 10% and simply isn't worth the cost.

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