Many people don’t think twice about feeding grain to their horse. After all, it’s what everyone does, right? But have you ever stopped to think about whether your horse actually needs grain? Or worse yet, could feeding grain—even a small amount—be doing more harm than good? As with most questions of this nature, the answer will depend on the individual horse.
Pros of Feeding Grain
Grains such as oats, barley, and corn can be a great source of energy and non-structural carbohydrates for horses. For equine athletes, this can be a good thing. In fact, grain provides 1.5 times more energy per pound than hay, which makes it a popular choice for performance horses.
However, keep in mind that even a hardworking horse’s diet should be restricted to less than 25% grain. The rest of the diet should consist of good quality forage.
Cons of Feeding Grain
The downside of feeding grain is that, if fed in large amounts, it can lead to digestive issues like colic or ulcers. If horses eat too much grain at once, it can spill into the hindgut where microbes digest it rapidly and produce large amounts of gas and acid.
Even if you aren’t feeding a large amount of grain, the fact is that many horses just don’t need it. In fact, most idle or horses or those in light work can be sustained on pasture or hay, with an added vitamin and mineral supplement. Horses with insulin resistance (IR) or Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) are especially sensitive to carbohydrates in grain (as well as in grasses) so eliminating all grains is important for them.
The basis of all horses’ diets should be good quality hay or pasture, and as previously mentioned, many horses do fine on forage alone. However, even if your horse requires more energy than forage can provide, you can opt for a grain alternative, which is lower in carbohydrates. Beet pulp and forage based feeds are two prime examples. High fat feeds can also provide plenty of energy without added grains.
Just remember that, when it comes to feeding grain, you don’t necessarily have to go with the grain. Yes, some horses can benefit from eating it, but most fare better on grain-free diets.
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