When you walk into a feed store trying to find feed to meet your horse’s needs it can be pretty overwhelming. Every store you walk into is going to give you a different recommendation and every sales person is going to give you their opinion as well. Be warned; many feed stores are more motivated by how big their profit margin is rather than concern for your horse's health. Remember that some people working in feed stores have had little or no training on how to correctly feed a horse. Just because they work in a feed store doesn’t mean they have ever owned a horse or been responsible for feeding one. It is important to:
- Ask the person helping you if they have ever been responsible for feeding a horse.
- Ask them WHY they believe in the food they are suggesting.
- Don’t just believe what one person says, but become an educated consumer.
How do you become an educated consumer? First of all, learn a bit about the equine diet. It’s pretty simple. Good forage as a fiber source (hay), healthy fats that are high in omega 3’s (flax, copra meal, chia etc), vitamins, and minerals are the things your horse's feed needs to include. It is similar to a human diet, just minus the animal proteins. We all need a high fiber, healthy fat, vitamin and mineral-rich diet to be healthy. Each person needs these ingredients in differing levels based on their needs, the same as your horse.
Next, do some studying on what the ingredients are by learning how to read a label. Grab a label off your last bag of horse feed, pull up your favorite search engine, and start researching those ingredients. I’ve done this with many of my customers, and like them, you will be very shocked by what you find! Though you will find both positives and negative reports, most horse feeds are full of 'throw away filler type ingredients, with limited nutrients chemically added in.
Here is a pretty typical food label:
wheat middlings, dehydrated alfalfa, cane molasses, ground peanut hulls, dried beet pulp, dehulled soybean meal, ground soybean hulls, stablilized rice bran, soybean oil, wheat flour, vegetable oil, ground corn, flaxseed, calcium carbonate, salt thiamine mononitrate, citric acid, l-lysine, choline chloride, iron oxide, propionic acid (a preservative), ascorbic acid, vitamin E supplement, sorbitan monostearate, biotin, calcium pantothenate, vitamin E, riboflavin supplement, folic acid, anise flavor, fenugreek flavor, vitamin B-12 supplement, niacin supplement, tocopherols (a preservative), vitamin A supplement, xanthan gum, zinc oxide, copper sulfate, calcium iodate, magnesium oxide, cobalt carbonate, ferrous carbonate, vitamin D3 supplement, manganous oxide, dl-methionine, sodium selenite
The first thing you need to know about a food label is that they generally list ingredients by percentage of the ingredient in the overall recipe. In the example above, the highest percentage of this feed is wheat middlings. What are wheat middlings? Middlings are the 'throw away part of the wheat, meaning the part that doesn’t get fed to humans. Though it has plenty of protein and fiber, it is very limited in nutritional value. Horse cannot live on protein and fiber alone!
Next on the list is alfalfa. Alfalfa in itself is not a bad ingredient unless you happen to be allergic to it. Many horses experience negative effects when they are put on alfalfa. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the protein level that is affecting your horse, but whether they are allergic to the alfalfa, is a legume like peanuts. Many people suffer from peanut allergies and so do a number of horses. If you notice allergy type symptoms in your horse such as excessive scratching, diarrhea, or hyper energy levels while on alfalfa, chances are your horse is allergic to it. For those not allergic to alfalfa, it can actually benefit other types of allergy symptoms as it can lower histamine levels.
Cane molasses is next on the list, and consequently very high on the list. Molasses has limited nutritional value, though it does supply quite a bit of sulfur to the diet. Molasses is usually added to encourage the horse to eat the feed product. After all, most horses have a sweet tooth like we do! Molasses has a very serious downside, just like sugar in our diets, because it raises the non-structural, or NSC, value of the feed. The feed the example label is from is rated at 27% NSC value, which is exceedingly high. A NSC value of 12% is recommended for horses with metabolic issues and levels below 18% are being recommended for all horses.
Like us eating candy, a higher NSC value leads to sugar-related health issues, including laminitis, founder, cresty neck, and the horse-version of sugar diabetes. It may not happen with the first bag, or the first 100 bags, but eventually it will catch up to your horse. You might be thinking “my horse has been eating that for years and is still skinny." Remember, skinny people get diabetes too!
Have you ever eaten a peanut hull? Again like the wheat middlings, it is the 'throw away' part of the peanut and is also an allergen. Although I have not seen peanut hulls in any recent feeds, it demonstrates how carefully we need to watch feed labels. Peanuts are a serious allergen, as is wheat, and with metabolic issues and allergy symptoms on the rise in so many horses, it is very important to avoid as many types of allergens as is possible. Even if a horse is not highly sensitive, allergens promote inflammation in the body which breaks down the immune system. A good diet is about eating right today, tomorrow and every day whether you be a horse or human.
Beet pulp is one of those ingredients that drives me nuts! On one hand, it has many uses; it lowers the NSC value of a feed, it’s great for adding fiber and moisture to a feed, and it’s very inexpensive. Beet pulp has some very serious downsides however.
Beet pulp is a food byproduct. It’s the 'throw away' part of a sugar beet. Glyphosphates, or herbicides, are heavily used in the growing of the sugar beet and it is very difficult to find beet pulp that is organic. Studies show a rise in mouth, throat, and stomach cancer in horses due to the use of glyphosphates. Though glyphosphates are not limited to beet pulp alone, the heavy use of beet pulp and the fact that it is a root plant increases the levels of glyphophates in the product. In addition, for sugar beets to be processed, the beets must be heavily washed, heated, and in some cases, bleached. What you are left with is something with low in nutrients except a bit protein and calcium. Why is it used? It is a cheap filler that fill the stomach of lacks any real nutrition.
Soy is also an interesting ingredients. Soy once had a very strong following until it was linked to breast cancer. This is because soy is very high in estrogen, higher than just about any other plant out there. Originally it was fed to monks in China to lower testosterone levels. Soy affects a horse’s hormone levels as well. It can lead to very marish mares, mastitis, issues with breeding horse, and since the thyroid is linked to hormones, thyroid issues can also appear. Soy is now a cheap GMO additive, and is found in far too many human foods, let alone animal foods. As a GMO food, it is also high in glyphosphates.
When you break down the rest of the feed label, what you get is chemical additives meant to supply some vitamins, minerals and stabilizers. This doesn’t work for an equine diet any more than it works for a human diet. So what does a person do? As with your own diet, go for more complete feeds, greater variety, fresher foods, and simpler products. Educate yourself on what is really good and what is just a marketing scheme. Some feed companies don’t care about the health effects of their feeds. They just want you to buy their product. Some companies don’t have a conscious, just a bottom line. Remember that ingredients may be based on what will creates the highest profit margin, and not the best food source. If you are buying a food because its cheap, companies will continue to use cheap fillers to keep their costs down.
You shouldn’t make feed choices based on the price. Kidding yourself that cheap food is healthy for your horse is like convincing yourself you can eat fast food every day because it is inexpensive and still maintain your health. You often get what you pay for, though even high priced feeds need to be carefully examined. Do your own research to find companies that care about the health of animals and support them. You may end up paying a bit more for your feeds, but it will repay itself in lower vet bills and a longer and healthier life for your horse.