Myths and Misconceptions:
Sorting through science and fact versus
tradition is often a difficult task
by Amy M. Gill, Ph.D.
(This article appeared in
the March 15th, 2008, Issue of Thoroughbred Times. To subscribe, call 1-888-499-9090)
The misconceptions about feeding horses is a topic that is written
about frequently but is worth repeating from time to time, because it appears to be a difficult one for some
to grasp. When it comes to feeding horses, myths and old wives’ tales abound.
Many of the
traditional methods have been passed from generation to generation of horsemen, and while some are still useful,
many are out-dated and even detrimental to the daily management of the modern
horse. Most of the myths that are still in existence are commonly based on a lack of understanding of
nutrition and the phsyiology of a horse's digestive tract.
Fortunately, modern science and research over the past 20 or so years have helped debunk many of
the myths associated with feeding horses. Regardless of being proven wrong or
ineffective, many of these feeding myths are perpetuated. There are many more myths and misconcep¬tions about
feeding horses than those that follow, but these are some of the most difficult ones to convince own¬ers,
managers, and trainers to aban¬don. Many of the old wives’ tales continue to circulate because, as the adage
“it has always been done that way” implies, change is difficult.
Here is a sampling of some
Bran mashes have a laxative effect on the digestive
Despite being fed with good intentions, a weekly bran mash is a
dramatic alteration to the daily ration and causes a disturbance in the normal population of microorganisms
that reside in the hindgut. Dumping bran (a substrate or food source that the bacteria are not used to) into
the system causes a sudden kill-off of some bacteria and forces overgrowth of others. This shifting bacterial
population in the gut usually results in a good case of diarrhea, leading one to believe wheat bran acted as
a laxative. Remember, routine feeding of the same feeds every day is the best way to avoid digestive upset in
Research shows that bran does not have a laxative effect or cause
a softening of the manure. A study conducted at Cornell University in which 50% wheat bran was added to a
diet of hay and grain found that fecal moisture was no different between horses receiving wheat bran and
those on the control diet that received no wheat bran. Bran does give the manure a bulkier appearance because
the fiber in wheat bran is not very digestible. The horse is dumping a bigger pile because a lot of the wheat
bran was not digested, not because it contains more water.
While wheat bran does have more fiber than corn and about the same
amount of fiber as oats, it has less fiber than hay, so providing plenty of hay to the horse is the best way
to keep the digestive tract full of fiber and subsequently well hydrated. The amount of dry hay the horse
eats will directly influence the amount of water it drinks, which will in turn help to keep the horse
Recent concerns exist over the level of starches and sugars, or
soluble carbohydrates, in horse rations. We now realize it is best to minimize starch and sugar in equine
diets because these two ingredients have been linked to numerous exercise, growth, and metabolic disorders.
Wheat bran contains a considerable amount of soluble carbohydrate (about 30%), which is another reason it
should never be suddenly added to the diet in large amounts.
With that said, there remains a place for wheat bran in a horse’s
diet because it is very palatable to horses and provides energy and protein at levels similar to oats. Small
amounts can be fed on a daily basis in the regular ration, but it should not be fed at a rate of more than
10% of the total diet (hay and concentrate).
The reason for this guideline is that all brans, including wheat
and rice bran, contain a high percentage of phosphorus but are low in calcium. Compounding the problem is
that approximately 90% of the phosphorus in bran is in a form called phytate.
Phytate interferes with calcium absorption and reduces the
absorption of copper, zinc, and manganese. Feeding high levels of bran can cause severe mineral imbalances
that can negatively affect bone health. Bran should be used only as an ingredient in a well-balanced and
fully fortified (vitamins and minerals) ration, not as a feed.
Pellets cause choke
Pellets do not cause choke; horses that eat too fast cause choke.
When horses become overly hungry due to long periods with nothing to eat, are fed in close proximity to their
herd mates, or feel threatened eating in a field, they tend to become very aggressive when
Choke is a behavioral problem, not a “form of feed” problem. I
have seen many horses choke on fresh grass, hay, sweet feeds, large cubes, pellets, apples, carrots, straw,
shavings, and handfuls of mints. A horse that eats too aggressively and bolts its feed is most likely to
choke on any food source. The key to preventing aggressive eating is to change the management of the horse.
This can be done by increasing turnout or grazing time, increasing feeding frequency and giving smaller
portions of feed, separating an aggressive horse from the herd when being fed, and making sure horses do not
become overly hungry from spending long periods of time with nothing to eat. Feeding in a shallow trough or
pan with large, smooth stones that prevent the horse from getting a large mouthful of feed also can be
Beet pulp must be soaked
Beet pulp does not need to be soaked before it is fed. Most
commercial textured feed mixes on the market today contain beet pulp as an ingredient, and these feeds are
not soaked before feeding. Feeding beet pulp unsoaked to a horse does not cause it to expand in the stomach
to the point of rupture due to absorption of water and does not cause choke in a horse with normal eating
behavior. Beet pulp has about the same amount of dry matter as alfalfa hay and therefore soaks up a similar
amount of fluid when ingested.
In most cases, if beet pulp is fed alone instead of as part of a
pre-mixed feed, it is more palatable if it has been soaked.Soaked beet pulp is also a great carrier for
feeding medications and supplements to horses.
Horses must have grain in their diets
Briggs, in her August 18, 2003, article titled “7 Feeding Myths Shattered”
at www.horsechannel.com, says, “So what’s the advantage of grain? It supplies
concentrated energy, in the form of carbohydrates, which some horses need if they’re being asked to do more
work than what they would normally do in the wild. Show horses, racehorses, and nursing broodmares can all
use the extra nutritional support of grain to help fuel their higher energy
“But because the equine digestive system
is poorly designed to digest large quantities of carbohydrates, there’s a limit to how much grain you can feed
without risking dangerous conditions like colic and laminitis. As a rule of thumb, remember that every horse should
consume between 1.5% and 3% of his body weight in total feed every day, and at least half of that should be forage,
Many argue they want to feed natural, whole grains because they believe that is
best for the horse. But grain is not natural for a horse to eat, and it is difficult to digest, especially when fed
in large, infrequent meals. Where would a horse find five pounds of grain out in the wild? Grasses,
leaves, twigs, bark, and dirt are natural things for a horse to eat. The problem is many horses need more calories
than those types of natural feed stuffs can provide. Nowadays, beet pulp, soybean hulls, rice bran, and
alfalfa meal (highly digestible fibers) have replaced a lot of the grain in the diet because they provide similar
levels of energy, but as fiber, not soluble carbohydrates. Feeding good-quality, soluble fiber is a much healthier
way to provide energy to the hard-working horse.
There is hardly anything done with domestic horses anymore that can be
considered natural. For example, confinement to a stall, low forage, high grain rations, feeding only twice or
three times a day instead of grazing 18 hours daily, carrying a rider, and running at very fast speeds for
distances longer than would ever be required in the wild is not natural.
Protein makes horses behave
This myth drives nutritionist crazy. Unfortunately, feed companies have unknowingly
helped perpetuate this misconception by marketing feeds as 10%, 12%, or 14%, which seems to indicate the only
important nutrient in horse feed is protein. That is what those numbers indicate -- crude protein level -- not
energy or caloric density. It is overfeeeding calories that can contribute to hyperactivity and fractious behavior
in horses, not protein. Also, sugar content of the feed may play an even bigger role in creating a misbehaving
horse. Ingested sugars and starches cause changes in blood sugar concentrations and, much like humans, some
individual horses appear to suffer the same sensitivity to the fluctuation, while others are not bothered at
Every day, the horse has its minimum requirement for energy, protein, vitamins,
and minerals. If any are limited below the requirement, growth, milk production, and performance will also be
limited. If horses are fed above the requirement, protein, fats, and carbohydrates simply become available as
Therefore, if a horse is having a behavioral problem that can be linked directly to
feeding (all other medical conditions must be ruled out), it is best to lower the amount of concentrate intake as a
whole, not just one nutrient or another. Continue feeding as much forage as possible and add a protein, vitamin,
and mineral supplement that does not contain any extra calories from carbohydrates or fats. This way, caloric
intake (and sugar) is limited, which is the root cause of feeding-related excitability in horses. If the horse
needs to eat more to maintain weight, use concentrates low in whole grains and with more fat and fiber. These feeds
supply the same calories as high-grain feeds but keep blood sugar changes to a minimum.
High-protein diers cause developmen
problems imn foals
Protein is not the cause of developmental problems in growing horses.
Lori K. Warren, Ph.D., explains this in a paragraph taken from her paper that appears
in the Proceedings of the 2002 Alberta Horse Breeders and Owners Conference.
"Genetics, exercise, and nutrition all play a role in the development
of healthy bones, and as a result, the same factors are also linked to the occurrence of
developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) in young
"Most confusion regarding DOD is
related to nutrition. Mineral imbalances have been well
documented as a cause of DOD. Excessive protein was blamed as a cause in the 1970s, but later
studies disproved this connection. Feeding more
protein than the foal needs does not increase growth rate above that achieved when the
diet just meets protein requirements."
“Unfortunately, the diets of
many young horses are kept quite low in protein for fear of causing developmental problems.
Restricting protein will not result in improved bone
growth and can actually be harmful to the
foal by decreasing feed intake, growth rate, and skeletal
development. On the other hand, overfeeding energy will result in developmental
problems, particularly if protein and mineral intake are not increased at the same time.
Again, the horse owner must be able to differentiate
between the energy and the protein content
of the diet. For growing horses, protein and
minerals must be in proportion to the energy in the
Too much starch and sugar in
the diets of growing horses have been implicated as a factor in the development of orthopedic
problems. High-starch feeding causes a disruption to the
normal secretion of the hormones that are directly involved in cartilage maturation into
subchondral bone, which may result in abnormalities. The
best advice is to use feeds containing
higher fat and fiber, low starch, and with
the correct amount of protein, vitamins,
and minerals to help combat this problem in
First-cutting hay is not as
good as second or third cutting,
This may or may not be true
because the cutting has nothing to do with the factors that are important to making good
- Level of fertilization of the
- Amount of water
available during growing
- Type of plant being
- Region of the
- Level of maturity when
- Weed control;
Obviously, all these variables
can change dramatically throughout the growing season. Many can be controlled, and the best hay growers do just that. For example, in
this country, much of the best hay comes from the dry Western regions, where the sun is almost always shining and
Mother Nature does not interfere with long rainy periods. Irrigation is used to control water application, fields
are properly fertilized, and the right species of plants are grown for the region.
High yields are easy to realize under these conditions because the
level of control is so great. It is only when these factors are not controlled that you get a large variation
between cuttings. There are some places in California that can get ten to 14 cuttings of alfalfa hay due to
the long growing season and micromanagement of the plants in the field. Under such tight regulation,
variation between cuttings is minimized.
The best way to evaluate hay is not by the cutting but by judging
quality and maturity at cutting, how well the hay was processed, and, most importantly, how well the hay
suits the nutritional needs of the horse.
Not every horse needs the best alfalfa hay, and many do well when
fed medium-quality hay.
For example, horse owners with overweight horses should look for a
medium-quality, low-calorie hay, and then supplement protein, vitamins, and minerals. This way, the horse can
be fed more hay instead of being restricted to a very small amount of high-calorie forage, which can
ultimately lead to a crabby, hungry horse that bolts its feed. Colic is also a repercussion of inadequate
Feeding free choice minerals allows horses to seek
what is lacking
Many horses kept in a stall or small paddock will eat anything
they can find once all other food sources run out. This includes the wood holding together the stall or
paddock in which they are housed. This theory of free-choice feeding of minerals or anything else other than
forages, water, and salt may only be applicable to horses that are free ranging thousands of acres and cover
25 to 50 miles daily to forage on enough different feedstuffs to obtain their daily nutrient requirements,
but it does not hold up for domestic horses in general.
If horses are provided forage appropriate for their stage of
development or level of activity along with a well-fortified, balanced concentrate or supplement, white salt,
and water, nothing else need be offered to them to eat. If the diet is balanced correctly, the horse will not
be lacking in any nutrients unless there is a pathological condition that exists, in which case a
veterinarian and nutritionist should be consulted.
For performance horses, it is al¬ways better to completely control
intake using good-quality forages and pre-mixed, balanced concentrates formulated by a reputable feed
company, rather than leave the decision making to an animal that does not know any better. It is highly
unlikely horses —or people for that matter— wake up in the morning and say, “Wow, I am feeling low on
manganese today, so I am going to eat more of the manganese mineral mix in my stall.” It just does not work
Gill, Ph.D., is an equine nutritionist and consultant who
specializes in growth-, metabolic-, and exercise- related disorders. Her website
• Use white iodized salt instead of
red mineral salt—there is very little difference between the two, just a lot of iron oxide in the
red salt that gives it the red color. Horse diets are already
loaded with plenty of iron, so it is a waste
of money to buy any more iron. Also, iron
overload may be a factor in the onset of
insulin resistance in some horses.
• Some feed companies are adding
supplements such as glucosamine or others
to their feeds. The reason this does not work is because each
horse will eat a different amount of the
feed, and therefore will receive varying amounts of the supplement. This can
result in the horse receiving an insufficient
dose of the supplement to have a therapeutic effect. Most
supplements are fed in small enough amounts that they can be easily top dressed, and this is the
best way to feed them to ensure accurate dosing.
• Contrary to popular belief, it is safe
for horses to drink right after exercise. Recent research has shown that horses deprived of water
directly after exercise are more likely to remain in a
state of dehydration. Horses tend to have
a better desire to drink and replenish fluid lost in sweat soon after exercise when
their thirst drive is high as compared to after they have cooled
• Nothing can replace good
horsemanship and skills developed through years of experience. Feeding horses is an art and a
science, and everyone needs to be open-minded enough
to recognize what is working and when a
change is needed. Acceptance of the fact that some long-held
feeding traditions may not be the soundest methods will help horses in the long run, especially as
we gain more knowledge from scientific studies.
—Amy M. Gill, Ph.D.