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Grain: To Feed or Not To Feed

Most people might think that horses and grain go hand in hand. Walk into any feed room and you are almost guaranteed to find a variety of concentrated feeds that have a grain base or have grain listed in the ingredients. A scoop of feed and some flakes of hay are what consist of many horse’s diets. But, are feeds containing grains really needed? Are they beneficial to the horse? Let’s take a deeper look….

Horses are designed to pull nutrients from a mixture of fibrous, stemmy plants and grasses. The nutrient absorption happens in the hindgut where food is fermented. In fact, horses are able to get as much as 70% of their daily energy requirements from the fermentation of a good quality forage mix in the hind gut. When feeding a quality forage mix, horses are also able to receive all of the proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and amino acids needed as well. If your horse is fed a good quality forage diet, it is unlikely they need any additional support from a concentrated feed, especially one that contains grains. If you want to make sure your horses are receiving all the recommended nutrients, consider adding a ration balancer to your feeding routine. This suggestion is especially applicable to horses who are “easy keepers” and are fed less forage and therefore are unable to pull all of the nutrients needed from the small amount of forage they are receiving alone.


For horses who are older, underweight, in hard work or are nursing, a concentrated feed containing grain may be an addition to a feeding regime that some may think is worth considering. While it is true that grain is easily digestible in the foregut and is turned into extra energy, it is also important to recognize the fact that grains that make up concentrated feed are primarily simple carbohydrates, sugar and starch. For horses with metabolic disorders, the addition of grain-based feed is not optimal and can cause a bevvy of health issues. For horses without metabolic disorders, the feeding of grain based feeds can still come with health risks.


In order for grain based feeds to be absorbed correctly by the horse, they must be broken down by the stomach and absorbed in the small intestine. If the horse eats too quickly, or the meal is too large, it passes through the foregut without the nutrients being fully digested and thus the nutrients aren’t completely absorbed. When this partially digested food reaches the hindgut, it can interrupt the natural fermentation process which in turn leaves the horse susceptible to digestive imbalances, inflammation, colonic ulcers, hindgut acidosis, colic and even laminitis.


If you currently feed your horse a concentrated feed that contains grain, it may be time for a rethink. If your horse is showing signs of disinterest, moodiness, loose stools or discomfort while being girthed, brushed or ridden grain may actually be to blame. A simple change in the feed you give could make all the difference for your horse’s comfort as well as save in potential costly vet bills down the line. If your horse is one who does need extra calories there are many other ways to go about adding those much needed calories into the diet.


When extra calories are needed:


  • Consider providing free access to forage through pasture grazing or adding more hay to their diet.

  • Search for concentrated grain-free feeds. Ideally, find a food that is low sugar and low starch.

  • Beet pulp can be used to add calories and it is safer for the digestive health of your horse.

  • Work with a nutritionist to help identify the specific needs of your horse.


In summary, if your horse needs extra calories there are several other ways to assure that your horse gets the added calories without feeding grain and if you currently feed grain, consider making a change especially if your horse is displaying any other the above mentioned unwanted behaviors. The risks offset the benefits...a grain free diet is the ideal option for all horses.


Twenty Four Carrots products are always grain free, nutrient-dense and complete.


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Santa Barbara, California, USA

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