Walk into almost any feed shed and you will most likely find at least one bin with either a straight grain or a grain-based feed. Twice a day, and sometimes more, the horses receive their daily ration of either a sweet feed, pelleted feed, or some kind of processed feed. A scoop of grain and two biscuits of hay makes up the typical meal for most horses.
Its interesting, as we tend to forget that horses are grazing animals and are designed to extract all the nutrition and energy they require from forage, or a variety of stemmy, fibrous grasses and plants. Grain is just an extra boost of energy to maintain condition for workload. The equine digestive system is designed to break down and absorb structural carbohydrates found in forage through the process of fermentation in the hindgut. Horses can get as much as 70% of their daily energy requirements from the fermentation of these complex carbs in the hindgut and produce energy via the production of Volatile Fatty Acids.
When horses are in work, are hard keepers, or are broodmares (either gestational or lactating) they have additional energy requirements that may not by met with quality hay or pasture grass alone. We give horses grain-based feeds to meet this additional caloric need. The simple carbohydrates found in starchy feeds like oats, steam rolled barley, and processed corn are easily digested in the horse’s foregut and turned into extra energy.
Feeding grains to horses is a great way to increase the overall energy intake but, to ensure a balanced diet, they need to be combined with other feed sources to meet requirements for protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Grain is one of the most traditional feeds for horses. When grains are used in horse feeds they are most commonly processed to help enhance digestion. Processing methods can include soaking, cracking, crimping, pelletising, steam flaking, rolling, micronizing and extruding.
Oats are the only straight grain that can be fed without prior processing. Oats are probably the most traditional and versatile grain fed to horses, and provide a source of energy and fibre and are highly digestible. Oats energy content is considered low for a cereal grain, and they have a moderate amount of starch when compared to other straight grain rations. Crimped oats have the hull of the oat broken while rolled oats have been steamed and rolled flat.
Corn (maize) is added to feed as an energy source and is also one of the grains that has a high starch content. Whole corn is not typically used in textured horse or sweet feeds unless it is processed (flaked , cracked, etc.), and fine ground corn should not be used in textured feed because it increases the risk of colic. While it has received a bit of a bad rap in recent years due to its higher starch content, it can be, and is, still a valuable piece of the formulation of a total feed, especially for hard working horses like racehorses, as long as the proper attention is given to the overall starch level of the finished feed.
Barley is also an energy source, and has a fibre and starch content somewhere in between oats and corn. Whole barley consists of whole kernels of barley with the outer covering intact. Barley has a tougher hull than oats, so it is most commonly processed (cracked, rolled or steam flaked) when put into horse feeds. Whole barley can also be soaked or boiled and can be a really nice way to add barley in wintertime – warm.
In our next article – Feeding Grains to horses PART 2, we look at feeding seeds..
Check out our range of grains here