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.

Meet “George”: A Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) Horse

I’m proud to introduce you to George, a “Heinz-57” draft cross, and my current equine partner.  He is the result of a ½ Thoroughbred, ½ Percheron (dam) x ½ Hanoverian, ½ Paint horse (sire). I’ve had the privilege of knowing George since he was a weanling, and bought him as a yearling.  It wasn’t until I started him under-saddle as a three and a half year old that I started noticing behavioral changes (crankiness – not like George), non-specific muscle soreness, and a transient, almost undetectable gait abnormality, all of which happened to be associated with new hay delivery.  I won’t mention how much I’ve spent having him worked-up, imaged, adjusted, fitted and many more things to get to the bottom of what his body was trying to tell me.  We were coming up empty handed and frustrated.

It wasn’t until after I returned from an equine nutrition symposia that it occurred to me to have him tested for polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). PSSM causes the horse’s muscle cells to store energy (glycogen) in excess, which can result in a variety of symptoms, the most severe of which is tying up after aerobic exercise.  Nearly all of the classic signs were there, short of a bad tying up episode.  Wouldn’t you know it, he came back positive for Type-1 PSSM a.k.a. EPSM, tying- up syndrome/exertional rhabdomyolysis/Monday morning disease, set fast or azoturia.  There is more than one version of PSSM (Type-1 is most common) and the diagnostic tests for each are unique.

Recent advances in equine genetics have made testing a blood, muscle, or hair follicle sample possible.  As it turns out, three of the four breeds that George represents have been identified as prone to carrying the genetic mutation responsible for PSSM.  Unlike some other recessive genetic diseases, PSSM is inherited as a dominant gene; in other words having just one copy of the mutated gene means the horse has the disease.  Horses lucky enough to inherit 2 copies of the gene can be more severely affected.   The good news is, with a little diligence, these horses can be managed and go on to have a good quality of life and successful athletic careers; both of which I want for George. 

Diagnostic information can be found at the University of Minnesota Neuromuscular Diagnostic lab website: http://www.cvm.umn.edu/umec/lab/home.html

Feeding Tips for Horses with Laminitis

Laminitis in short, is the inflammation of soft tissue in the hoof causing damage to or death of the laminar cells, resulting in the loss of the foot’s mechanical integrity.  The severity of damage is unique to each case with the worst damage resulting in founder which is the sinking of the coffin bone.

Overall management and feeding of horses with laminitis requires special care, since factors such as body weight, starch intake, mineral and energy balance, as well as metabolic function can have a profound effect on the fragile environment of the damaged tissue of the hoof.  If you are managing a horse currently being treated for laminitis or one with a history of laminitis, the most important element of overall care is staying connected to your vet and farrier.  When it comes to feeding, here are some nutrition tips to help you along the way.

  • Weight: weight control and regular exercise help any horse physically and mentally, but the laminitic horse in particular.  Excess weight and stagnation add unneeded stress to an already fragile situation. Once the acute phase has passed, regular turn out and exercise provide essential blood flow to the foot, which provides the nutrients for tissue repair.  Activity is also helpful in managing weight.
  • Pasture:  Lush pasture access should be limited by a grazing muzzle for horses prone to laminitis or those currently being treated for it.  If a grazing muzzle is not available, the horse should be limited to access later in the day when plant sugar (fructans) levels in grass are lower, or be kept on a dry lot.
  • Forage: High quality grass hay is the ideal forage for a horse prone to laminitis.
  • Feed: A product specially formulated for metabolic issues or a ration balancer are the best bet to feed your laminitic horse.  Micro nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are essential for tissue repair, so be sure to check that the feed is balanced for these as well as the essential amino acids.   Avoid feeds which provide high levels of starch per meal as these horses tend to be sensitive to increases in blood sugar and insulin.
  • Supplements: Horses with laminitis may benefit from supplemental magnesium and chromium, both of which assist in sensitivity to insulin.
  • Water: Often overlooked as a nutrient, water is one of the best allies in the defense of laminitis in your horse.  Fresh, clean tepid water is a key to overall health as well as circulation of nutrient rich blood.

Following these guidelines for feeding and management, as well as working closely with your veterinarian and farrier should provide you with the tools you need to manage laminitis in your horse.  With extra care and help from the trusted professionals in your life, your horse with laminitis can live a happy, balanced life.

Hoof Health and Nutrition

If your horse has ever had issues with his/her feet, the old adage, ‘no hoof, no horse’ could not ring truer.  When considering hoof health, multiple factors influence the state of your horse’s feet including nutrition, conformation, environment, use and overall management and care.  When assessing your nutrition program in relation to hoof health, there are many key components that need to be present for healthy hoof maintenance and growth. 

  1. Water is the most important nutrient for horses overall.  Specifically for feet, adequate amounts of water provide tissue hydration and promotes the circulation needed to deliver nutrients to the living hoof tissues.
  2. Balanced energy in the diet is important to support metabolic activity, the growth and function across the entire body system, including the feet. 
  3. Balanced proteins (aka amino acids) provide structural strength and function for hoof tissues. Lysine, Methionine and Threonine are the three most commonly associated with hoof growth.  It is imperative that amino acids be present in balanced levels along with key minerals and vitamins.  The ability for the body to absorb these critical nutrients is dependant on the delicate balance of them and too much of one or another can disrupt the utilization of these key nutrients.
  4. Macro minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and sulfur.  The appropriate balance of macro minerals play a key role in skeletal development and maintenance, blood clotting, muscle contraction, temperature regulation, enzyme activity regulation, glandular secretion and cell membrane integrity. 
  5. Micro minerals (aka trace minerals) include zinc, copper, manganese, cobalt, selenium and more. Trace minerals help with the synthesis of proteins, immune system activity, synthesis and maintenance of elastic connective tissues, the integrity of skeletal bone tissue, antioxidant activity and much more.
  6. Vitamins, both fat and water soluble, play a key role in the formation, maintenance and repair of hoof tissues. Vitamin A,D and E aid in bone and muscle growth, maintenance of healthy epithelial tissue, calcium metabolism control, immune response and activity.  Vitamins C and B-biotin, both water-soluble vitamins, aid in antioxidant activity, lipid metabolism, as well as growth and maintenance of tissues. Biotin aids in the cell-to-cell adhesion in the outer hoof layer.

If you are feeding a commercially produced complete feed, check the guaranteed analysis for these nutrients.  It is also important to check that you are following the feeding directions so the proper levels of nutrients are making it in your horse.  Feed companies formulate the nutrient density and balance based on their feeding directions.  Feeding less than recommended amount means your horse is likely not getting enough of the balanced nutrients he needs.

Hoof supplements are widely available and varied.  If you are feeding a complete feed from a commercial manufacturer that guarentees levels of the nutrients listed above,  you likely do not need to supplement for hoof quality. However, special cases require additional nutrient supplementation.  It is best to work with your vet, farrier and a qualified nutrition consultant to determine the best feed and supplementation program for your horse.

Feeding a horse that has established foot issues such as laminitis takes special care,  as he needs the nutrients in feed but likely not the energy provided.  Excessive levels of starch and sugar per meal increase spikes in glucose and insulin which may have a negative impact on feet.  A low calorie feed or ration balancer  fully fortified with vitamins, minerals and amino acids is your best bet for these special cases. 

Finally, if you have specific questions about your feeding program, check with a qualified nutrition consultant for more information.  A combination of regular hoof care , the right nutrition and proper management for your horse will go a long way in keeping him or her sound for years to come.

Selecting the Right Feed

Browsing through the aisles of your local feed store, it’s likely you have noticed the variety of horse feeds available.  National brands, regional brands and local manufacturers all crowd the shelves, adding to the confusion.  Which feed is right for your horse?  Here is a quick guide of what to consider when you are contemplating your feed selection.  Start by assessing your:

  1. Horse’s life stage
  2. Horse’s activity level
  3. Any health issues your horse may have
  4. Feed budget

Most feeds are designed to meet the specific nutrient requirements of life stages and activity levels of horses, and generally will specify on the packaging what they are designed for.  When estimating your horse’s activity level, be reasonable in your classification since over feeding energy can make him ‘hot’ and he may gain unwanted weight.  Generally when people see this happening, they tend to reduce the amount fed below the recommended feeding rate instead of changing to a lower energy feed.  This is not advised, as dropping below the recommended feeding rate means your horse is not getting the essential micro-nutrients he needs.  Try switching to a lower energy feed such as a maintenance feed or balancer.  Most maintenance feeds are formulated to provide mid to low energy levels.

If your horse has a specific health issue that can be influenced by his feed, make sure to seek out the information from the bag, your veterinarian or directly from the manufactor.  For example, horses with a history of feed-related laminitis are often best suited to a diet feed or ration balancer which provide much needed minerals and vitamins while keeping starch levels under control.

Complete feeds such as this textured one, are balanced on all nutrients.

Finally, consider your budget.  The features and benefits of feed typically drive up the cost; so ask yourself, can I afford to feed this product at the recommended feeding levels?   Note that feeding rates vary between products and this can influence the cost to feed your horse per head, per day; it is not enough to consider the price per bag alone.  If you are feeding an inexpensive feed but loading it with supplements, it may cost you more than purchasing a commercial complete feed and cutting out the supplements.

Complete feeds are formulated with all the necessary nutrients to meet your horse’s needs in the proper ratios.  When feeding a complete feed, be sure to follow feeding directions closely and monitor his weight through assessing his body condition score and calculating his weight periodically.

This is a very quick guide to help you navigate the increasingly complex decision of how to select the feed that is right for your horse. For more in-depth information, refer to a feed selector or ask a qualified equine nutritionist.

Horse-Life Balance

Like many of you, I am fortunate to have my horses in my life. But having horses often means giving up time for other parts of my life, such as going out with friends, cleaning the house (oh darn) or other hobbies.  Horse people have a saying: if your house is clean, you’re not spending enough time in the barn.

I was fortunate enough to grow up on a small hobby farm with horses.  My parent’s told me that if I wanted to have horses as a ‘grown up’ that I needed good grades in school, to get through college and get a good job.  Horses are not exactly a low investment hobby, so I followed their advice.  Now that I have the degree, career and horses, time seems to be the biggest constraint.

There is a certain amount of irony to this; the job that pays for the horses is the biggest thing that keeps me from spending time with them.  I don’t believe that I am alone; countless other professionals or college students must have this same struggle. 

During the week, I get home after a long commute (I live out in the country so my horses can be with me), feed the horses, clean the barn and check fences.  If anything has been broken, it gets fixed.  Add in time to feed and care for the dogs, myself and it’s already late in the evening, nearly time to go to bed just to get up early for the long commute to work the next morning.

My solution so far has been to ‘schedule’ my saddle time.  Weather permitting I designate an evening during the week after work to be ‘horse night’.  If I’m too tired from work, I will only do grooming or ground work.  So instead of cleaning the house, walking the dog or weeding the garden, the horses get their much deserved attention.  This is a sacrifice I’m willing to make; I’m sure the weeds will be there tomorrow.

What do you do to strike the balance in your life?