Seven years ago I sat down and really studied the label of one of the feeds I was using. And I was shocked. My first reaction was: where’s the food? The contents were mostly food by-products plus chemically sourced vitamins, and inorganic minerals.
At that moment I realized that fundamentally I had been feeding a version of fast food to my horses. With that realization came the understanding that I was actually increasing stress on their GI tracts.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF THE EQUINE DIET
Horses need water, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, and fat. They need a complex of macro and micro minerals. They need a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria (the micro biota) in the GI tract to synthesize B vitamins, to help with the fermentation of fiber and protein, and to play a pivotal role in both the innate and adaptive immune system.
THE WHOLE FOOD DIET
The whole food diet is not revolutionary; it is fundamentally minimally processed foods based on the energy needs of each horse and chosen for their whole nutritional contribution to the diet.
Foods not included in the whole food diet are soy, corn, and canola due to the difficulties sourcing GMO-free or organic sources.
Fiber: This is the most important component of an equine diet and is often very low in the guaranteed analysis of commercial feeds. The foundation of fiber for horses is hay and pasture. Horses, especially easy keepers and metabolic horses, need to eat 20 hours a day to maintain consistent blood sugar levels, and to maintain a healthy GI tract and reduce the incidence of gastric ulcers. The whole food diet begins with fiber such as alfalfa or timothy pellets or cubes, and/or molasses-free and GMO-free beet pulp.
Protein: All horses need quality protein that includes the essential amino acids (the amino acids the body must get from dietary sources). Important food sources for protein and the essential amino acids include alfalfa, coconut meal, and rice bran. Grains such as oats, and barley also provide the essential amino acids, as do whey protein and egg protein.
Carbohydrates: Nonstructural carbohydrates, including glucose, fructose, lactose, sucrose and starch, and Structural, which include plant fibers such as cellulose and hemicellulose.
Pasture and hays provide carbohydrates because plant matter is comprised of 75% carbohydrates and can be more than sufficient for most horses. Barrel racers, event horses, show jumpers and even some dressage horses can require more carbohydrate and calories than the easy keepers. Oats and peas can be good sources of additional carbohydrates for horses who have the caloric needs and are not metabolic or easy keepers.
A Word on Starches
Glucose and Fructose can be absorbed from the intestine but starch needs the enzyme amylase. The horse’s ability to produce amylase is limited causing a great deal of starch to escape digestion. When the starches aren’t digested in the small intestine they travel to the large intestine, which is designed for fiber. Too much starch in the hind-gut can cause acidosis, increased lactic acid, and an irritation in the gut lining. Starches from grains increase blood glucose levels.
Fats: As valuable feed sources for added long-burn energy, fats can provide additional health benefits from the essential fatty acids.
Omega 3 and omega 6 must be balanced in the body for both to be effective. Although science has not identified the optimal ratio for horses, currently it is thought that the ratio (omega 3:omega 6) 2:1 and as high as 4:1 is optimal.
Medium Chain Fats: Coconut oil is a medium chain triglyceride and so is used primarily to fuel muscles and organs. It is not stored as fat like vegetable oils and the other long chain fats: soy, corn oil, canola oil, and rice bran oil. Coconut meal, which provides 8-10% fat, or pure coconut oil is often the best choice for energy needs, particularly for metabolic or easy keepers. Studies have shown that adding fat to the equine diet can reduce the glycemic response to the Non Structural Carbohydrates in the diet.
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Macro and micro minerals are essential nutrients for the horse, while certain vitamins can be synthesized by the horse's GI tract; these would include ascorbic acid and the B vitamin complex.
The B-complex and ascorbic acid are not considered "essential" because the horse can make these particular nutrients. Feeds and supplements often contain B vitamins, which are either synthetically derived, or made from coal tar residue. Food sources include brewers yeast, nutritional yeast, and rice.
Minerals in water and soil have very low bioavailability because to the body they are inorganic. Common forms of inorganic minerals are oxides, carbonates, and sulfates. Organic minerals are minerals that are bound (chelated) to organic material; for instance, amino acids or ascorbic acid.
Plants take in the inorganic minerals from soil and water and then chelate them to amino acids. This increases the bioavailability/absorption from 2%-8% for inorganic minerals to as high as 45% for chelated minerals. Some supplement and feed companies use chelated minerals that are created through a manufacturing process (binding inorganic minerals to protein for example) to increase bioavailability of minerals. There is a chelate called Gluconate, which is using corn as the substance to bind to the mineral. Since most corn is GMO, if you want to avoid genetically modified organisms, you would want to avoid mineral gluconates.
When you choose to feed whole food, or a certified organic feed, you not only reduce stress on the GI tract of your horse, you are feeding them as they were designed to be fed: real food, minimally processed, high in fiber. This approach to feeding focuses on the energy needs of each horse -- the way our grandfathers used to feed.
The other benefits are that you return healthy manure back to the soil, which supports better pasture health for the soil micro organisms, and then helps to increase the nutrient and mineral density of the grasses. For horses, humans, and Mother Earth, it’s a win-win situation.
Tigger Montague’s background is extensive in nutrition, including 30 years in the human and equine supplement industry with a focus on Ayurvedic Medicine. A dog owner all her life and Grand Prix dressage rider, she has spent seven years researching and testing products for BioStar Whole Food Supplements. Info: www.biostarus.com/