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Why what we feed has to be right

Real food heals. "The only way to fix your horse is to help him return to his natural state. Feeding your horse in a manner that is contrary to his innate physiological needs is making his body scream for help." Juliet Getty, Getty Nutrition

"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 the 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. You'll hear me say 'species-appropriate' a lot, and I'm sure there'll be a raised-eyebrow or two; after all, those shiny bags in our feed merchants are 'appropriate' for our horses, aren't they? Well, no.

Let's look at a human dietary example, specifically the Paleo, or Paleolithic diet, which attempts to replicate the dietary environment of our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors, while deliberately avoiding the foods that entered the human diet once we adopted agriculture. The Paleo method of eating argues that our genes haven’t had enough time, or undergone enough selective pressure, to adapt to agriculture. Okay, for sure us humans have continued to evolve over the last 10,000 years, and there will no doubt be many scientific examples showing genetic adaptation to foods that weren’t available to our pre-agricultural ancestors.

However, from a horse's genetic issue, our modern-day equine feeds, as in the last 50-years when every-thing changed, are the furthest feedstuff removed from what the domestic horse ate 50-years or so ago (and I can vouch for this as I was around then). And 50-years isn't anywhere near enough time for the remotest blink of genetic adaptation in our equids to safely benefit from these bagged, processed feeds.

Put simply, the horses' fragile biology is not evolved to eat human-engineered, processed, refined feed 'stuff'. You just have to look at all the myriad of metabolic diseases our horses have experienced in the last 50-years to see the evidence staring us in the eye. Yet feed a horse like a horse, as in multiple diverse forage species, and supplement only with the deficient nutrients in that forage, and you'll have a calm, healthy, balanced horse all over again.

So, let's pull this together. First up, what we feed our horses should be as appropriate to what horses are meant to eat - forage, and as uncontaminated as possible - chemical-free, to support the biological 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, as in the chemistry, specifically certain vitamins, minerals, protein and fat, in order to balance the known chemical deficiencies in our horses' forage.

The best way to get this supplementation into your horse? Simple - a simple feed carrier, as in a small amount of something clean, natural, palatable, and appropriate to get those yukky minerals and vitamins into them.

Personally? Until 2017, my horses grazed on the usual livery-standard grass, i.e. ex-dairy farm grazing, rarely any natural herbage, thankfully never sprayed but sadly rarely 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 ancient former sheep moorland, untouched and unfertilised for centuries – 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 a daily feedbowl with an 'appropriate' carrier in, in order to mix in the supplementation of their deficient minerals etc. So here's my take on how what we feed has to be right.

How to 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:

  • Taking care of our horse's gut bacteria is so important - for starters it improves nutrient absorption. However, around 80% of our horse's immunity is created by the beneficial gut microbes in the intestinal tract. With this microbiota being the major regulator of the immune system, our horse’s overall health relies completely upon optimal performance of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. So, we need to keep the beneficial intestinal microbes populated by way of a probiotic. With the right nutrients being digested and supporting the health of the whole body, the immune system is then strong enough to kill off – and eliminate - toxins.
  • Let’s not forget that antibiotics also wreak havoc by destroying bacteria in the body indiscriminately – the word ‘antibiotic’ literally means ‘kill all’. The gut microbes are temporarily eliminated until they are re-introduced and given the chance to repopulate again. Unfortunately, the microbial balance can be upset far quicker than it can be restored, and once damaged, it also alters the pH of the gut environment, further negatively affecting digestion and the horse's overall health and well-being. Pulling this together, it’s important to support gut health during a course of antibiotics.
  • Finally, we need to feed the right nutrition to nourish – and balance - the system, by way of micronutrients, aka chemicals, aka minerals. A mammalian body is made of chemicals, whether horse or human, and all body activities are chemical in nature – a body needs the right chemicals, in the right measures, to keep itself alive and thriving.

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 - they're information that the body's cells need to function, information that the metabolism can use to either run efficiently or sluggishly trudge along - the source and nutrient-density of our 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.

  • Minerals - the important four (https://equinatural.co.uk/i/mineral-solutions):
    • Magnesium - at least 10g/day deficient
    • Phosphorous - at least 5g/day deficient
    • Copper - at least 400mg/day deficient – in SE England, considerably more
    • Zinc - at least 1200mg/day deficient – again in the SE, considerably more
  • Vitamins, specifically the B’s, C & E; grass provides most others in reasonably balanced quantities.
  • Omega 3 EFA (Essential fatty acids). There are two fatty acids that are considered to be essential, meaning that the horse's body cannot produce them, so we need to add them to the diet. While healthy growing grass is high in essential fatty acids, hay is almost completely devoid of them. Most commercially fortified feeds add vegetable oil or soybean oil (same thing), which is very high in the essential omega-6 fatty acid (pro-inflammatory Linoleic Acid (LA), and extremely low in the essential omega-3 fatty acid (non-inflammatory Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA). If an additional source of omega-3 is not added, the diet will be unbalanced with too much LA, leading to inflammation throughout the body. The horse’s natural diet, grass, typically offers these two in a 4:1 ratio of ALA:LA, similar to other browse foods like leaves and buds. When grass is cut, dried and baled as hay, the fragile omega-3 fatty acids are lost, so horses not on fresh grass will have a dietary deficiency of omega-3. The immune system uses these two EFAs to synthesise signalling molecules, with omega-6 fatty acids predominately made into inflammatory signals and the omega-3s anti-inflammatory, with both required for robust immune reactions. Linseed is the superstar here as it provides enough ALA in the balanced proportion to LA. This makes feeding linseed especially useful because it's balanced omega 3:6/ALA:LA fatty acids reduce inflammation. Even better for the metabolic horse they can also reduce circulating insulin. Feed 200g daily in winter, and 100g daily in summer - https://equinatural.co.uk/p/linseed-micronised
  • Amino acids, the building blocks for protein, i.e. lysine and methionine, with lysine at least 10g/day deficient.
  • Sodium/Chloride, aka Salt - an absolute essential for so many reasons, i.e. the body requires a specific sodium-to-potassium ratio to normalise blood pressure. It also keeps body fluids in balance, and it provides essential natural electrolytes which play a key role in normal nerve/muscle function and blood sodium levels. But - sodium is also needed to balance potassium levels in the grass, with rye grass and clover particularly high in potassium. Feed at least a tablespoon daily, and double this if your horse is in hard work or sweating. https://equinatural.co.uk/c/online-shop/individual-items-herbs-minerals-protein-powders-sa/salts

The drying/curing process of grass to hay further depletes the mineral/vitamin values as well as the omegas, with winter bringing even further denaturing of the vitamins C & E. We know our UK grasslands are deficient in the essential vits/mins, and hay is basically dead grass with further depletions, so we need to supplement what's missing in the forage our horses eat.

Pulling all this together, we need to add in the missing nuts and bolts to the required levels needed 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. It can seem like a minefield, but once you get your head round it, it's simply about keeping everything in balance (my favourite word). There’s a ton more info on this in our Mineral Solutions page.

EquiVita Mineral Solutions https://equinatural.co.uk/i/mineral-solutions

Our EquiVita range of mineral solutions, balanced appropriately to compensate for the known mineral deficiencies in our UK grasslands, specifically copper, zinc, magnesium and phosphorous, and Vits. C & E, and all according to the NRC guidelines.

For horses living out permanently, and on summer grass with no hay added into the diet, our standard EquiVita balances the deficient nutrients in the grass during the summer; if you want to include a probiotic to their diet (which I recommend), then opt for our EquiVita’ProB’ range, the ProB meaning ‘probiotic’.

Come winter, or if hay features in the diet at any time, i.e. restricted grazing or a track system, opt for the EquiVita-’Plus’ range - the ‘Plus’ means we add in the Vits C and E which denature in winter grass and hay. These two important vitamins are renowned antioxidants which help keep the body’s cellular matrix healthy and functioning, and supports the white blood cells to keep free radicals at bay. Again, to include a probiotic to their diet (recommended), opt for our EquiVita-ProBPlus. Now to general concerns over mycotoxins, and we have our EquiVita-'Ultra' range which includes a daily 10g measure of Alltech’s Mycosorb A+ mycotoxin binder as well as the ProB and Plus options.

Now we need to mention the B-Vitamins, as our EquiVita range also includes as standard a daily maintenance measure of 10g Brewers Yeast which provides the B-range, plus 30mg Biotin (RDA).

Since all of the B vitamins are involved with protein, fat and carb metabolism and interactions, they play a very important role in hoof health. The B-vits are super important – healthy metabolism wouldn’t exist without them because their primary role is catalyzing energy production in the body, as in they activate the important enzymes that break down fats, carbs and protein, and ... the hoof wall has a high protein concentration.

A horse on a quality forage-based diet is unlikely to be deficient in B vitamins. However, our UK grasslands and hay are notoriously low in nutritional value, so it isn’t too off the mark to suspect our forage is low in the B’s, considering the general nationwide poor-hoof quality reputation. Hence, because of the high concentration of protein in the hoof wall, we include Brewers Yeast in our EquiVita range to support protein metabolism. As an extra bonus, Brewers Yeast, as well as providing the full B-Vit complex, is also an excellent prebiotic, so there’s two birds with one stone.

NB - if your horse has Mallenders/Sallenders, our EquiVita-M range excludes the B-Vits and Biotin.

So there’s minerals, and our EquiVita Mineral Balancer, done.

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 so 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. Prepared to be shocked - here's are the all-too-common yet typical ingredients in (many of our) feedbags today :

  • Nutritionally Improved Straw (NIS) - straw soaked in caustic soda to soften it for eating. Seriously. Who would knowingly feed caustic soda to their horse?
  • Wheatfeed / Oatfeed – both by-products, simply fillers that serve no nutritional purpose at all, basically the dusty remains after the nutritional part of the grain has been extracted. Why the feed companies call it a ‘feed’ is beyond me, as there’s no resemblance to any ‘food’ in these two. Edited 3.11.18 - new data on the health perils of wheat - see our So Began The World As We Now Know It page in this section and scroll down to the heading What went wrong with our wheat? The beginning of today's disease-culture. Basically, if the word 'wheat' in any shape forms part of your feedbag composition, dump it.
  • Cane molasses – a byproduct of sugar beet, an ingredient known to avoid, renowned for raising blood glucose levels.
  • Sugar beet - beet is well recognised as a highly sprayed (hemical pesticides and herbicides) product during the growth period. For the record, and despite claims of 'molasses-free), non-molassed sugar beet can also contain up to 7% residual sugar in the pulp, with molassed up to 25% or more.
  • Soya –here’s a product I could write a book on about the perils of its effects, not only on horses health but humans as well. It’s such a bad ingredient that I’ve written a separate chapter on it a couple of pages back. But as a brief intro, the soya bean is rich in long-chain fatty acids containing predominantly polyunsaturated fatty acids which are inflammatory fats, so before you even get to the continuing horror list, feeding soya creates an inflammatory state in the body just for starters.
  • Pellets – many feeds come in pellet form, or include pellets, which means that unless it’s stated that they’re ‘mechanically pressed’, means they’ll be stuck together with cane molasses to form the pellet.
  • Anything ‘Expelled’ – the waste product from the actual ingredient. ‘Expelled linseed’ is a common one. Why not just add micronized linseed?
  • Vitamin & Mineral Premix - many compound feeds also tend to have a very low, almost token measure of vitamins and minerals which don’t come anywhere close to balancing the deficiencies in our UK grazing. Thing is, these nutrients aren’t the real thing - they’re manufactured forms that mimic natural vitamins and minerals, so unless you see the words ‘naturally occurring’, they’re going to be made-in-a-lab synthetic, and they’re definitely synthetic if you see the word ‘premix’. So fake, not real. Just like a spray-on tan.
  • Iron & Manganese - many feed companies also add in iron and manganese, neither of which should ever be added to equine feedstuffs as they’re both already way too high in our UK grasslands to near-toxic levels, acting as antagonists which prevent the uptake of the important micronutrients the equine body needs.
  • Calcium carbonate/dicalcium-phosphate - our UK forage is also overly high in calcium, yet you’ll probably see these two appear on the ingredients list; too much calcium seriously offsets the magnesium ratio, causing our horses to become fizzy like Tigger, but not in a good way.

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, I'm happy to share what I 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.

What I Like To Feed