Cool Energy Feeding for Horses

How do you know if a feed is going to be ‘heating’ for your horse? It is actually quite easy when you understand the following information on how the horse’s digestive system works.

Food that is first chewed and thereby mixed with saliva passes into the stomach which has a very acidic environment because it is expecting to have to start the breakdown process of high fibre forage. This material then moves into the small intestine (which is actually quite long and narrow) where the ‘simple’ sugars (for example from growing grass or molasses) are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.

Carbohydrates and starches from various grains and plants like clovers are broken down with the help of enzymes into simple sugars so they too can be quickly transported into the blood. This is the reason such feeds are high energy and can so quickly cause metabolic and behavioural problems for the horse.

All ‘broadleaf’ plants are capable of storing a LOT of starch and each molecule of starch contains a LOT of molecules of sugar. Hence clovers,  dandelions, cat’s ear, cape weeds and plantains are both palatable and fattening! Starch is also a major component of cereal grains, oats being about 50% and corn up to 70%.

The fibre content of the horse’s diet however, travels through the small  intestine and on into the enormous hind-gut which consists of the caecum plus the large intestine, both of which are inhabited by billions of micro-organisms making up the hind-gut flora. The hind-gut flora thrive on fermenting this fibre. As a by-product of the fermentation process they produce enough ‘volatile fatty acids’ to be useful to the horse as energy, (the best kind of energy), plenty of B-Vitamins which help the nervous system, biotin for healthy coat and hooves, Vitamin K, heat, water (and some gas!) Because they are ‘hind-gut fermenters’, horses can bloom in very unfertile regions of the planet. They survive by deriving a little bit of nutrition out of a lot of mouthfuls of low nutrient density fodder. This is why they graze or browse all day long.

Vegetative (growing) grass is not high enough in fibre. Instead it is high in  potassium, nitrogen, simple sugars and water. Horses were never meant to be confined behind fences eating regrowth grass!

Therefore if you really do want ‘cool’ energy for the quiet ride at the weekend, safe ponies for your kids and good behaviour at the competition, then high fibre feeds should predominate in your horse’s diet. Hay, more mature, stalky grass, chaffs and beets are ideal. These are the feeds that will be fermented by the hind-gut flora.

Avoid too much green grass, legumes, grains, especially processed,  micronized or extruded, protein meals and molasses. On the other hand if your horse lacks energy or you need more energy for more intense work then you can gradually add these items to your horse’s diet. Bear in mind if you do feed a high carbohydrate diet, that there is a risk of undigested starch reaching the large intestine where it causes trouble by feeding the ‘not so desirable’ members of the flora population and wreck the environment for the ‘good’ flora. This can lead to various digestive disturbances and  laminitis. Keep in mind that your  primary objective is to feed the flora in the hind-gut so they can feed the horse. The horse will not be in optimal health without a happy hindgut flora population.

To sum up: The only truly ‘cool’ feeds are high fibre feeds such as mature grasses, hays, beets and chaffs. Only add carbohydrates, starches, extruded grains and other ‘highly digestible’ feeds if you need more energy when you ride.

Vicky’s Shrek (pictured)  performed to a very high level on such a high fibre diet supplemented with Supreme Horse Minerals, Xtra Cal, ToxDefy with Alleviate around  competition time. He has not had any processed feeds for more than 3 years. He demonstrated a picture of health and vitality as well as keeping a cool head under duress of competition.

By Jenny Paterson B.Sc    

The above mentioned supplements and Speedi-beet are available from Greenpet