Feeding Oats to Horses – The Whole Picture

For decades, oats have been a staple in the feeding program of horses. Often considered a ‘safe’ grain option, there are pros and cons to this long-loved feed option. Upon closer examination, the nutrient profile of oats may surprise you. Read on and see the whole picture of oats.

Variability  – Oats are grown in many parts of the United States, Europe and Canada.  Depending on the genetic variety, growing conditions, soil type, management and harvest conditions, the nutrient content and quality of oats can vary widely.   Take for example the starch content which can range from 32% all the way up to 43%!  Variability of nutritional content can be high in oats.

Balance – Calcium and phosphorus work together to build strong bones and muscles, but they need to be in a balanced ratio to be absorbed and to work effectively.  For a horse, a ratio of 1:1 (calcium to phosphorus) is the minimum, but can range up to 6:1 and still be effective and healthy.  Generally speaking, oats have inverse calcium: phosphorus ratio and on average run 0.06% calcium to 0.45% phosphorus.

Starch level – The ‘low starch’ movement of the past decade has redefined what “low” is.  Low, being a relative term, historically may have meant anything below corn, which runs on average 65% starch.  So what is the starch level of oats?  The level of starch in oats can range from 32% up to 43%, however, the digestibility of the starch found in oats tends to be higher than in other cereal grains.  To put this into persecptive, take into consideration that ‘low’ starch feeds today run around 11-14%, and even oats are starting to look high!

Amino Acid Deficiancy – The building blocks of protein, amino acids such as lysine, methionine or threonine are required to effectively build and maintain muscle.  Though present in oats, the variability of levels is high and there are no guaranteed or consistent levels.

Digestibility – Processing oats by de-hulling, crimping, rolling, or crushing can provide a marginal increase in the digestibility of nutrients.  How much it increases, is actually minimal.  Consider this: next time you are cleaning out stalls, take a look at a pile of your horse’s manure.  See any oats in there?  Those have made it through the digestive tract without providing nutrition to your horse.

As you can see, oats are highly variable and nutritionally unbalanced in many areas important to horses.  Feeding your horse oats without balancing the diet could easily result in nutritional deficiencies.   If you feel strongly about feeding oats to your horse, it’s worth considering a commercial grain made with oats.

Alternatively, certain supplements are made to compliment oats and fill the nutrient  gaps for your horse.  This way, you can feel good about feeding your horse oats, and your horse will feel good with balanced nutrition.

35 thoughts on “Feeding Oats to Horses – The Whole Picture

  1. Pingback: What number on the body condition score card? - Page 2

  2. The farm has just harvested an oat paddock with lots of barley plants through it. I sorted a handful of grain and came up with almost half barley, the remainder oats. How can I safely feed this mix to horses? I don’t have access to a steam flaker or roller, but if I boil the grain to make the barley safe, will this have a detrimental effect on the oats?
    Any feedback would be appreciated.

    • Hello Carolyn

      Thanks for your question – it’s a really good one. You are correct in wanting to boil or further process the barley. The thick husk on the grain makes it difficult for horses to digest the grain without any further processing. If barley is not processed, some of the grain will pass thru the horse undigested. This is not a safety issue, but does reduce the nutrients available to the horse.r

      Boiling will help improve the digestibility of the barley as well as the oats but the down side of this approach is that many of the water soluble nutrients may be lost in the process. Both grains are a good source of energy for horses but not a complete diet alone. To help insure your horses are receiving a balanced daily dose of nutrition, you can add in a ration balancer to the mix. This concentrated nutrition is not like a ‘traditional’ feed, with lower feeding rates so be mindful to follow feeding directions.

      We hope this helps! If you have additional questions, please feel free to reach out.

      All the best,
      Megan C.

  3. You mentioned in your article about feeding oats, that there are supplements made to compliment and fill the nutrient gaps for our horses. What are the supplements?

    Thanks!

    • Hello Connie

      Thanks for your question! Generally speaking, a ration (also called diet) balancer is designed to provide all the micronutrients + balanced protein that a horse on a grass or grass and oats diet would need. Balancers are fed at very low rates (about 1-2 pounds per day depending on the size of your horse) so be sure to double check the feeding directions.

      We recommend Empower Balance. It is widely available from many dealers and if they don’t stock it, can usually order it for you.
      I hope this helps. Please let me know of any other questions!

      Megan C.

      • We feed oats, and supplement with flax seed oil and kelp. Also Himalayan salt. No more commercial feeds for us. 🙂 Horses are doing great.

        • I want to get my horses off feed completely. They don’t eat much feed now, so I think switching to whole oats would be fine. I’m having a hard time just finding a dealer or online supplier. What brands do you recommend for whole oats?
          Thank you
          from TX!

          • Hi Holly,
            Thank you for your question about getting your horses off feed completely as they are not eating much feed now. I am assuming that with rains you have had in Texas, pasture must be adequate?

            If your pasture is good or you have good forage, you may want to consider feeding a ration balancer product at recommended feeding rate (generally 1-3 lbs. per head per day) instead of oats. Oats are a very good feed ingredient and good source of Calories, but do not balance high forage diets very well when it comes to macro minerals (calcium, phosphorus and magnesium), trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese, selenium etc.) and vitamins. You also need to provide salt free choice.

            If you do decide to purchase oats, good quality oats are available at most Nutrena dealerships. Products labeled “Race Horse Oats” are generally heavier test weight and have generally been cleaned an extra time.

            Best wishes,
            Roy

  4. I feed oats to my mules along with a supplement, grass hay and pasture. Have always heard that mules process oats, as well as other feeds different than horse’s.
    —— Fact or fiction?????
    If so why can I not purchase feed especially for my mules?

    • Hello Leslie,

      Thanks for your great question! It is a bit of both (Fact & Fiction). Mules digest very similar to horses, however, they tend to be very ‘thrifty’ in their ability to extract calories from food. In other words, they tend to be very easy keepers.

      For whatever feed you are providing, start with the lowest amount recommended for the mule’s weight. Monitor body condition to be sure they don’t gain excess body condition. If you start to see BCS getting above the 6.5 mark, you can begin to cut calories by reducing the amount of oats and stick with forage and a diet fortification supplement.

      For easy keepers such as mules, we recommend a diet (or ration) balancer like Empower Balance, to fill in the nutritional needs of balanced vitamins, minerals and proteins without additional energy. Lastly, be sure to provide salt free choice and access to fresh water.
      I hope this helps with your question! Let us know if you have more.

      Best,
      Megan C.

  5. Everytime I read one of these articles about oats, I just shake my head. We have always fed oats to the horses for the past 45 years. We do make a switch in late fall through early spring by adding a sweet mix with the oats, but it is still 50% oats. Horses are on 24/7 turnout with free access to trace mineral salts and hay/pasture depending on the spring. Are they healthy? Yes. Have I ever had a horse colic? No. What have my horses been used for? Every type of show event from local clubs to 4-H to world championship breed shows. Have we been successful? Yes. This is an interesting read, but not changing the feeding strategy at home.

    • Hi Melissa

      First, thank you for reading the blog and for your comment. You bring up good points about the value of oats to horses. For years oats have been the staple energy source to help horses perform. This remains true for most horses today.

      But thanks to advances in research about the nutrient requirements of horses to support metabolism, performance, growth and reproduction, we are better able to provide horses the balanced nutrition they need to live longer more productive lives than ever before.

      My goal of this post was not to state that oats are bad but rather, to help illustrate the nutritional gaps where oats fall short – and what owners can do to fill in the gaps.

      If you are satisfied with how your horses are looking and performing, that is what is important. However, should there come a time when you are unhappy with body condition, muscle mass, topline, coat or hoof quality, I hope you might consider adding a ration balancer to your program to round out the nutrition provided.

      All the best,
      Megan C.

    • I agree with you Melissa …And although I am a new horse owner my breeders family has been raising Clydesdales for over 100yrs and always fed oats. Through all kinds of challenging health situations, oats have been the best choice for her and so that is what I will be sticking with.

  6. Indeed-the feed stores are loaded with products that do nothing more than tax a horse’s digestive tract and rack up the profit for boutique feeds and “powerful nutritional enhancements” . The horse’s -if they continue to do well-do well in spite of them, not because of them.
    Good grass-alfalfa is fine-and clean fat oats that I am sorry to say-aren’t even available anymore in the US. Canada still has oats that are acceptable—America’s oats-every horse market oat out there-looks like old dead empty grass hulls. It’s a shame.

  7. We are considering switching to bulk oats and a ration balancer. Reason for this is we are going to have 6 horses on the farm and are tired of buying so much bagged feeds. We have been feeding Safe Choice Perform at about 4lbs per day and free choice grass hay.
    We actively compete in Ranch Sorting during the winter and do Western Pleasure and Trail riding all summer long. I would consider my horses to be at medium work most of the year, youngest horse is a coming 3 year old and others are between 7 and 10.
    My question is if a person were to use the Empower Balance, is it safe to add the empower boost during peak competition times for the extra fat to keep those horses in top shape?
    My hopes would be it would save a few trips to the feed store, and a lot less bag lugging around.

    • Hello DeAnna, Thank you for contacting us. Yes, you can feed the Empower Boost right alongside the Empower Balance very safely. Simply stay within the feeding directions for both products, for each individual horse’s weight and activity level.
      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  8. I was wondering about your thoughts on oats and ulcers. I am hearing conflicting stories. wondering if he should be on them or on a lower starch feed? Thank you!!

    • Hello Bonnie,

      Thank you for the question. A lower starch feed for a horse with ulcers is generally a good idea. You can also find lower starch feeds that are higher in fat/calories than oats, so you can feed less total feed to get the same body condition – and less feed for a horse with ulcers is also a very good thing! Add to that the idea that you will also have a more complete nutritional profile in terms of vitamins and minerals, and it’s really the best decision.

      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  9. I gave a 25 year old mare to a friend, the mare appears to be underweight, my friend said she is going to feed her oats and nutritional additives…..is this the best option for this horse…..

    • Hello Dwight,

      Thanks for the question. If your friend is currently only providing hay and/or pasture for her mare, then adding oats & a supplement is a great step in the right direction! It will provide more calories and help her get some weight on. Ideally, we’d suggest a more nutritionally balanced solution, such as a senior horse feed that is commercially available, but oats are a great first step!

      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  10. I was considering adding oats to my horses feed plan. He needs a little weight and I have heard its good for that. My horse is insulin resistant and I see oats are high in startch. Is this safe for him?

    • Hi Amy, Thanks for contacting us. We’d definitely suggest a different option to put weight on a horse, especially one that is insulin resistant. You have a couple options better suited to try:
      1. Increase his current feed – assuming you’ve already got him on something suitable for an IR horse, and as long as you aren’t going over the recommended amount (you can for one activity level higher than he is actually at, according to the directions on the tag, and be perfectly safe), this is often the simplest and most efficient method. You can either slightly increase his current regular feedings, or add an additional feeding period during the day.

      2. Add a high fat rice bran supplement, such as our Empower Boost – it’s extremely high in calories (nearly double per pound compared to oats) so you won’t have to feed as much to get the same results. Rice bran is also significantly lower in NSC than oats, so with the lower intake needed, it’s a much better alternative to oats for weight gain.

      We hope these options help! If you have further questions, please let us know! Thank you ~ Gina T.

  11. I have a new foal born on our place… He’s from WC parents. He’s 18 days old and started to notice he’s coming over on the knee’s. I feed Alfalfa hay, safechoice, oats, select 1 vit mineral and Dac oil to increase fat… Looking more rockie as the days go by and yesterday I think I saw him off on his stride… IDEA’S.. I need the mare and foal to hold good weight.. NEVER had this problem before

  12. I think the whole ‘anti-grain’ thing is ridiculous. I’m old; we fed horses grain (chiefly oats) for decades. The difference was that we didn’t feed them TOO MUCH. For example a very hard working horse doing an hour every day of intense specialized work, got only 5 lbs of in-hull oats per day. People caused ‘grain problems’ by overfeeding and getting horses too far, though the real problem with many feeds was all the added molasses and corn. Just too many calories for many horses.

  13. Hi
    My horse is a 20 year old arab horse with no back teeth to chew grass or hay.
    So I put him on hay pellets, senior feed and a another grain for all horses and some dac oil. The owner of property says that he needs to be feed two scopes of oats twice a day whether I like it or not. So with all the other feeds, is adding oats OK? He is feed 8 lbs of grain in the morning and 8 lbs at night.

    • Hi Marcia,
      Thank you for your question about feeding oats to your 20+ year old Arabian with no back teeth. He may not be able to chew the oats very well, but the 2 scoops of oats should not be detrimental. You may see some whole oats in his droppings. As long as you adjust the hay pellets and senior feed so he maintains body condition, the oats should not be an issue. Any birds that have access to the manure will appreciate the extra oats in the manure!
      Best of luck,
      Roy J.

  14. I have a 3 year old mare that is underweight. I am feeding her half feed oats and half Strategy. Will that give her the nutrition she needs. She has free mineral block and hay. I have had her about 3 weeks.

  15. I have a 7 year old Gypsy Vanner mare that I suspect has some ulcer issues. She palpates positive at the girth, belly and chest, but is otherwise in great condition. I am feeding her: 2 cups of crimped oats, 1 cup grass forage pellets, a probiotic and a natural ulcer supplement. Also she is getting a vitamin/mineral supplement. She has a redmond rock in her stall. She has been on this regimen for a year or so, and still is reactive to palpation. I am going to add aloe vera gel to her feed, but would like to know if I should be feeding alfalfa pellets instead of oats? Thank you.

    • Hi Carol,
      Thank you for your interesting question regarding your 7 year old Gypsy Vanner mare that may have an ulcer issue based on palpation sensitivity. Alfalfa has been recommended as an option in horses prone to ulcers as it appears to have some buffering properties and the addition of alfalfa to the diet had been demonstrated to be beneficial. Your note did not indicate, but assume she has access to other forage or to pasture along with what you indicated that you are feeding her.
      If she appears to have ulcers as indicated by palpation sensitivity, you might want to consider working with your veterinarian to either get a positive diagnosis via examination or use an approved treatment regimen to see if you can heal the ulcers, then use diet and appropriate supplements to reduce the risk of ulcers returning. It may be difficult to get existing ulcers healed with diet and supplements.
      Best of luck,
      Roy

  16. Hi, I have a Suffolk Punch draft, draft cx and an older ottb, I have them on 3 different feeds. I want to put them all on one feed. They have a ton of grass and hay. Would oats be a good change??

    • Hi Karen,
      Thank you for your interesting question. It sounds like you have quite a combination with a Suffolk Punch draft, a draft cx and an older OTTB. I would expect that the off track TB might be the hardest keeper of the trio compared to the Suffolk Punch and the draft cross. If you have a lot of grass and have hay as indicated, then you might want to consider using a ration balancer product such as Empower Balance or a comparable product, for all 3 to provide the vitamins and minerals to supplement the grass and hay and to provide some essential amino acids for hair coat, hoof quality and muscle mass. If you do this and they maintain body condition and muscle mass, you would be good to go. If you determine that the OTTB does not maintain body condition, you could then add oats as an energy source to maintain desired body condition. All of them should have access to free choice salt and fresh clean water at all times along with regular dental care and vaccinations.

      Best wishes,
      Roy

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