7 Myths about equine nutrition

To help you ensure that your horse’s diet meets his needs, we debunk common—and persistent—horse-feeding myths.

Thanks to the internet, horse owners have access to more information about equine nutrition than ever before. Yet, some stubborn misconceptions about feeding persist. To help you ensure your horse’s diet is formulated based on up-to-date and accurate information, we are laying to rest seven of the most common horse-feeding myths. Armed with the truth, you can better identify misinformation you may come across online. Then you can do the best by your horse when mealtime rolls around. 

Myth #1: Horses must be fed at the same time every day.

You don’t have to worry if you’re late delivering your horse’s breakfast. In fact, a little variation in your horse’s feeding schedule can be beneficial. Horses fed on strict schedules are more likely to develop destructive anticipatory behaviors, such as pacing or stall kicking. Even if he doesn’t act out, a horse can experience significant anxiety if a meal doesn’t arrive at the precise time he’s been conditioned to expect it.

Varying mealtimes within an hour or two can prevent and minimize this anticipatory angst. Furthermore, studies have shown that there is no physiological reason for a pleasure horse to be fed on a strict schedule. Nor are horses more likely to colic or develop laminitis if their meals come at slightly varying times. Those problems are associated with large, starchy meals rather than feeding schedules. (Elite athletes in training, however, do need to receive grain at more rigid intervals. Feeding these horses on a schedule helps their bodies more efficiently process and utilize calories.)

Even if your horses are already fixated on specific mealtimes, it’s possible to break them of that habit in a few weeks without too much stress. Start by offering free-choice hay throughout the day. This is easiest to do using a slow feeder that controls portions while reducing waste. Unlimited hay provides a horse with something to occupy his time as he  waits for grain meals to arrive. It also prevents the kind of hunger that can lead to anxious behavior.

With free-choice hay available, delay feeding time by 30 minutes one day. Then, the next day, show up about 20 minutes earlier than usual. Continue to vary your schedule over several weeks, so that meals arrive within a two-hour window, but never at the same time. Your horse will adapt and you can enjoy a bit more flexibility around feeding time.

Myth #2: Concentrates are the foundation of a healthy equine diet.

This may be one of the biggest misconceptions about feeding horses. As satisfying as it may feel to dole out scoops of grain, a horse’s diet is ideally structured around forage. In fact, retired horses and those in light work may do  fine on a hay-  or pasture-only diet. Concentrated energy feeds—like oats, pellets and sweet feeds—are necessary only for hard working equine athletes, lactating mares  and other horses with higher energy  demands. In addition, concentrates may be needed when the hay available does not provide sufficient calories.

Even when concentrates are necessary, they would not comprise more than half of a total ration’s weight in a balanced equine diet. Excess intake of concentrates can lead to obesity and increases the risk of colic. Individual requirements vary somewhat, but most horses do well if they receive about 2 percent of their body weight in forage each day.

Armed with the truth, you can better identify misinformation you may come across online. Then you can do the best by your horse when mealtime rolls around. 

Be aware that, as their name suggests,  “complete” pellets supply roughage as well as concentrated energy. These feeds are helpful for horses who are unable to chew forage or have respiratory conditions aggravated by the dust in hay, but they may not be the best choice for others. Munching hay helps keep a horse occupied—discouraging stall vices. Plus, the bulk this forage provides helps keep his digestive tract working properly.

Myth #3: Horses eat dirt mainly out of boredom.

Dirt-eating (also called geophagia) is common in horses and the root cause of this behavior has long been the subject of debate. Technically dirt-eating is a form of  pica, a condition in which an individual eats substances of little or no nutritional value. Other forms of pica in horses include coprophagia (ingesting feces) and lignophagia (chewing and eating wood).

Although geophagia in horses is not well understood, deficiencies in calcium, sodium, copper, iron or other minerals or vitamins may contribute to the behavior. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some horses indulge in geophagia more often in the spring when returning to pasture after winter stabling. This might indicate that certain nutrients are lacking in spring grass.

The nutrient content of forage varies greatly with maturity of the grasses, fertilization, management and environmental conditions. That means that even when consuming an adequate volume of hay, a horse may not receive all the nutrients he needs. Even a horse fed a well-regarded commercial feed may receive insufficient amounts of particular nutrients depending on his individual needs. If you observe your horse habitually eating dirt, consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist. You’ll want to make sure you are providing adequate calories, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

If your horse receives a well-balanced diet and has no significant health issues, then boredom or loneliness might be the motivation behind geophagia. In those cases, allowing time for socialization with other horses may help control or eliminate the behavior.

Myth #4: Bran mashes have a laxative effect and help keep a  horse warm.

There’s something particularly satisfying about making a traditional hot bran mash for your horse on a cold winter day. As you watch your horse tuck into the steamy meal, you may even congratulate yourself for making the effort to keep his digestive system functioning properly. But modern research has shown that bran mashes have no laxative effect and do not prevent colic. Bran mashes also do not offer a lasting “heating” effect for a horse. In fact, overzealous feeding of bran can do more harm than good. Bran’s high phosphorus content can lead to serious mineral imbalances.

If you’d like to give your horse a warm meal, add hot water to his regular ration. And, if your horse isn’t sensitive to sugars, you can make it extra special by topping it with a single peppermint.  

Myth #5: Alfalfa is  too “rich” to be safely fed to horses.

This myth seems to be regional: Many horses in Western states happily and safely eat the very alfalfa that some East Coast horse owners are afraid to include in equine rations. This disparity may come from a misunderstanding about the nutrient values  of alfalfa. While it does contain more protein, digestible energy and calcium than grass hays,  alfalfa is usually lower in soluble sugars. Its reputation for being “rich” may also stem from the highly nutritious leaves, which are more digestible than in most hays. This can contribute to gastrointestinal upset and colic if alfalfa is introduced too quickly into a horse’s diet.

If you decide to feed alfalfa, you’ll  want to add it gradually to your horse’s diet, just as you would acclimate him to lush pasture grass. Most horses will get obese if fed good quality alfalfa free-choice, so it is usually best fed in limited amounts, supplemented with less  nutrient-rich grass hay to provide adequate “chew time” to ward off boredom without contributing to weight gain.

In addition, the idea that alfalfa is hard on a horse’s kidneys is incorrect. It is true that the higher protein and calcium content of alfalfa results in increased urine output (and water intake). But this is not at all harmful to a healthy horse’s kidneys. In fact, studies show that adding alfalfa to rations of horses confined to stalls may actually protect against ulcers, probably due to the buffering effects of the higher protein and calcium.

Finally, contrary to popular belief, research has shown that alfalfa will  not cause—and may in fact prevent— developmental orthopedic disorders, such as osteochondritis dissecans in young horses. 

Myth #6: Horses are too skinny or fat solely because of how they  are fed.

When a horse is obese or perpetually thin, it’s natural to look to his diet first. And that’s often where you’ll find answers. But sometimes the horse’s feed tub isn’t the source of a problem. A horse who is too skinny, for example, may have dental problems that prevent him from chewing his food properly. Parasite loads or systemic illness can cause a horse to lose weight even if he is receiving adequate amounts of quality feed.

Whenever a horse has trouble holding weight, resist the urge to simply increase his grain ration. Instead, call your veterinarian and arrange for a complete exam to determine the cause. Likewise, an obese horse is obviously being fed more calories than he needs, but cutting back his ration is only part of the solution. Some horses have a “thrifty gene” that allows them to gain weight even on sparse, forage-only diets. These horses are usually more susceptible to metabolic disorders and laminitis. In these cases, the best course is a weight-control program that integrates a steady exercise program—such as active riding four days a week—along with a restricted diet.

Myth #7: Corn is a “heating” feed.

The erroneous idea that feeding corn helps keep horses warm probably stems from how “hot,” in terms of behavior, some horses who receive this ration can seem. Much of this stems from over feeding. A quart of corn weighs more than a quart of oats. That means that owners may unwittingly supply more calories—and energy—than intended by feeding the same volume of corn as another concentrate. In terms of temperature, however, any metabolic warmth generated by corn is minimal and short-lived.

So what can be fed to a horse in winter to stock his internal furnace? Hay is digested comparatively slowly, and the bacteria in the gut doing that work produce heat for a longer period of time. 

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