As the decades have passed, the range of horse-feed producers has grown to the point where you can barely move in a feed merchant warehouse.
You'll see floor-to-ceiling racks of shiny, processed feed-bags in all shapes, sizes and colours, and invariably including poor quality milling by-products; how else can a 15 or 20kg bag of feed cost less than a bale of shavings? One factor you can absolutely guarantee though, is that the composition would have been regularly sprayed with ammonium-nitrate fertilisers, together with additional herbicide, fungicide, insecticide, and post-harvesting mould-inhibiting sprays. That's a whole lot of chemical, all going into our horses.
Now add in low quality and low-nutrient fillers, binders, by-products, molasses, pelleting agents, synthetic micro-nutrients. Ingredients which are all very un-natural for a horse. Twin this with the resultant increased amounts of sugar and starch content in chemically pasture-improved grass, and it's no wonder that we're now seeing the majority of our horses and ponies prone to obesity, insulin resistance, metabolical syndrome, and, of course, laminitis, a leading cause of death in horses.
Gone are the days of natural grasslands and 'straights' in hessian sacks, and the effects are plain to see. The modern-day’s equine diet has without question had a critically adverse effect on the health and well-being of our horses. The irony is that the most appropriate food for a horse is grass, yet here we are in this modern day now having to focus on keeping many of our horses off grass, which in also completely un-natural for a horse.
And then there's the uncomfortable subject of GMO
The subject is very complex, but the dangers appear very straightforward and are being written about by the day. Genetic engineering is not about doing things a bit differently to how farmers and breeders used to do things. It is a totally new science that can give very odd, very different and highly unpredictable results.
We have to question why a plant has a pig or fish gene in its structure. We have to ask what changes the plant might self-generate as a result of finding fish proteins floating around in its sap. We have to question whether a plant is safe for consumption by the fact that it can withstand, and absorb the regular chemical spraying with Glyphosate, which is already touted as being likely to have caused more damage to human health than any other chemical. When this is consumed, what's the impact? Bottom line, we don’t know.
GM plants are probably unsafe to eat; specifically for our horses, three main ingredients in horse-feed are renowned GMO, namely corn, soy and alfalfa. However, we don't know for sure that it's unsafe, because due to intense political lobbying (profit driven), none of these plants have undergone any food safety testing. Hence why there is such strong opposition to GM food by a huge majority of regular folk, and their now loud collective voice demanding that food should at the very least be labelled as to whether it contains GM ingredients or not, which curiously some of the world's governments are currently unwilling to do.
The only alleged benefit of GM crops is for the large multinationals that are using them to take control of the world's food supply, but that's another story, and now one that's being disproved emphatically, with proven studies showing that growing organically can yield signifantly more crops. Sales of non-GMO food in the US alone has come from zero to a $10-Million industry in just the last 5-years (as at 2016/170. Farmers markets, community supported agriculture, organic food, natural food – these businesses are all exploding. At least by choosing organic, we can at least go some way to protect ourselves and our horses.
In 2016 I followed a science-based series on healthy eating for humans, and one of the programme was on GMO crops. Here's a quote from Jeffrey Smith, courtesy of his ‘The Quest for the Cures’, 2014, under the heading 'Glyphosate Causes Cancer'.
"Roundup and its active ingredient, Glyphosate, can promote cancer in many ways. First off, it’s an antibiotic (antibiotic means 'kill all'), so it kills off beneficial gut bacteria which leads to an overgrowth of negative gut bacteria. This overgrowth is linked to certain cancers, colorectal cancer specifically. The negative bacteria opens gaps in the cell walls in the intestines which causes leaky gut and inflammation of the gut lining. Leaky gut is also linked to cancer.
Glyphosate can also disable the beneficial enzymes important to the detoxification process, so environmental toxins can be even more toxic if you’re also exposed to Glyphosate. It also pulls the magnesium out of the body. When Glyphosate was patented in 1964, it was thought to be a chelator of trace minerals, magnesium especially. Every person tested had Glyphosate typically running through them, depending on how they ate. Glyphosate pulls the magnesium out of soil, and worryingly, also pulls magnesium out of the body."
As horse-carers, we all know there is renowned magnesium deficiency in our UK grasslands, which means our horses (and us humans too) are magnesium-deficient; certainly here in the UK the average pasture elemental magnesium deficiency is around 12g/day. And just a couple of the many negative effects of low magnesium levels in the body not only affects circulation, but also makes the whole system acidic, which creates the perfect bodily environment for toxins to inhabit, as they just love an acidic home.
Back to our horse's feed - how do we fix this?
A horse has not evolved to live on lush, pasture-improved, super-rich green grasslands. A horse is meant to live on coarse, fibrous, stalky grasses, which they have to walk a fair few miles to find. So we need to go back to basics, and remind ourselves that ...
- A horse is not a cow.
- What we have is a mammalian hindgut fibre fermenter with an absolute requirement for forage fibre, and its body's chemistry minerally balanced. A horse is an animal designed to browse, graze and forage for apx. 20 hours a day on naturally growing fibrous grasslands, appropriate for a sensitive digestive system which is very finely tuned to react adversely to toxic matter.
- What we don't have is an animal meant to produce gallons of milk by stuffing its face full of enriched, fertilised, ex-dairy, pasture, then served with a bucketful of sugary, chemically-treated, species-inappropriate, factory-processed junk feedstuff as desert.
Earlier in 2013 I read a published study which shows that … wait for it … horses can survive very happily on a forage-only diet. Remarkable! That the horse, who has evolved to eat forage, can actually survive on the very stuff. (Well, they could if their forage hadn't been so beaten up and chemically altered over the years, but these days we can now fix this by adding in a forage-balanced mineral supplement.)
Back to the study, and according to the study results, a diet devoid of concentrates and entirely based on forage could be suitable for not just our regular pet horses, but even high-performance equine athletes. So says Anna Jansson, professor at both the Swedish University of Agricultural and Sciences and Holar University College on Iceland, who concluded that, "There is an urgent need for diets that support the natural digestive function and behaviour of horses." You only have to look at the metabolic syndromes that our horses are suffering with today, to know that we're getting something badly wrong. Without doubt, our horses are starting to tell us that we as their carers need a wake-up call sooner than later.
What's really in a bag of processed horse feed?
Apart from what's in the ingredients list, that is. It's also those percentages that we need to be aware of.
My vertical learning on All Things Feed began when I took my horses barefoot back in 2007, because one of our horses, Kelso, had hooves that were disintegrating before me. We were at radical-change-needed point, and Lo, I found 'barefoot'. I learned that to achieve strong, healthy functioning unshod hooves, the starting point was getting the diet right, so I began to check the contents of my horse feed bags.
I read the labels; more importantly, I read the analysis of the contents, usually the easy-to-miss scrappy white label stitched through the top seam of the bag. To say it was eye-opening was an understatement. Apart from the fact that most of them were jam-packed with high sugar content, most over a sky-high 10% (one well known chaff company still produces, as I type, a molassed-coated product at 17% sugar), the lists were full of ingredients that shouted synthetic and junk. Why not real, natural food?
As I became more aware, I became more disillusioned with the manufacturers' spin, promising me that the feeds were healthy for my horses, improved for competition horses, safe for laminitic horses. This last claim really bugged me - this was back in the day when I was still struggling with my connemara, Murphy, he of the metabolic gut and his IR and EMS labels, so a high laminitis risk. I learned that sugar was his enemy and he needed a feed that said 5% or less sugar on the analysis, so how could a shiny bag claiming to be 'safe' for laminitics, with the Laminitis Trust logo emblazoned on it, actually be safe for my horse when the sugar content alone was 7%, and molasses were also listed?
Light bulb moment - obvious. It was to make it yummy, so he'd eat it, so I'd buy it again, thinking that his problem couldn't be his feed because the bag had safe for laminitics written on it plus he really, really liked it (no surprise!).
My barefoot direction was the prod I needed to bin the lot and start again. The subject as a whole now had my full attention - in fact I became a teeny bit obsessive - where further research on my part showed that not only were the crops chemically treated during their growth period, but also post-harvest in the grain stores as well. And - here's the rub - the main ingredients across the board, i.e. corn, soya, alfalfa, were GMO crops. Co-incidentally, there was also this post on the H&H forum:
"You will find balancers such as *** full of soya. FWIW my break away from big feed companies was due to being called crazy in the head. How dare I suggest soya might be playing a part in IR type symptoms in my horses that went away in 2 weeks when soya was taken out of the diet. My previous easy-breeding mare became unrecognisable as soon as this miracle balancer was introduced. The money I spent on testing was ridiculous. All came back healthy. First year back after ditching soy, pregnant straight away. Can't stand balancers myself. Too much cr*p for most horses even though you feed only in small cups. Feed companies love pushing that. Feed less, save money. All the nutrition you need in one easy bag. Not."
So, while we're here, Just quickly on the subject of Soya as I think it deserves a whole chapter of its own.