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Grain-Free - A Fad or Fabulous?

If you know me and anything about my teachings and experiences with horses, you'll know the short answer is – it depends.

There have been a ton of buzz words being thrown around the equine industry lately that are creating a stir amongst cowgirls:

- Forage Based

- Grain Free

- Forage Only

So what’s right and who’s wrong?

Answer: all of them and no one.

There is no one size fits all answer to feeding horses. They are as unique as humans and if there was one diet that worked for the world, no one would be fat.

As a horse owner, I encourage you to become a critically thinking cowgirl and look past trends and labels in order to do right by your horse as their self appointed expert.

My issue with those who advocate for “forage-only” is there is usually an “exception” when you dive into the diets of horses fed forage-only, making the term “only”, a lie. This is dangerous for horse owners who watch half a blog or read one headline and decide they are going to jump on that trend. Horses on forage-“only” diets should at a minimum be fed a mineral ration that balances the deficits in the hay, and I guarantee – there will be mineral deficits and improper ratios in any hay.

Hay also doesn’t provide vitamins or omega’s that pasture does (which is actually a horse’s native diet). So, horses on a forage-“only” feed program also need a healthy fat and vitamin source (especially Vitamin E).

Here’s another kicker for the forage-“only” argument – many of us don’t have access to choosing what kind of hay we buy let alone bringing in a wide variety to create a naturally balanced hay-cocktail. Where I’m from, we get what the neighbor cuts off the field and it’s usually just native pasture grass that’s never even been seeded. #lunchisserved

I have spent 10+ years looking at hay analysis, and can tell you that grass hays are notoriously high in their calcium:phosphorus ratio. Alfalfa hay is even further out of whack. If most hay is high in calcium, it means most cubes are high in calcium. This means if you don’t balance your phosphorus ratio created by your forage-“only” food, a diet high in calcium can lead to an increase in the risk of soft tissue injury as too high calcium can, well, calcify soft tissue.

Feeding high calcium forage “only” is going to leave a deficit in your diet. If you’re thinking you want to just top dress some phosphorus on your cubes to balance that, I wish you luck (the palatability of phosphorus is horrendous), however there is a whole food out there that would help you. Wheat bran is extremely high in phosphorus, it is VERY cheap, and horses love it.

But wheat brain is a grain, and we are grain-free right? So now what. We need to remember that feeding horses is “as much an art as a science” as per Dr. Eleanor Kellon.

Is wheat bran ok for all horses? No. Wheat bran contains starch at about 18% which will be too high for IR horses, but it’s only half the amount of starch that is in oats, making wheat bran a potentially useful whole food to balance the CA:PH ratio in a horse’s diet. It’s also high in fiber and low in fat (because horses can’t go keto remember).

Now that we’ve kicked around the forage-“only” fad, let’s have a go at grain-free.

First let’s define what is a grain:

Grain: oats, wheat bran, corn, barley, rice bran, sorghum

Pulses: soybeans, peas

Forage/Grain hybrid: beet pulp

For the sake of keeping things relatively simple, we are going to call all of the above grains since the term “forage-only” and “grain-free” should make feeding any of the above exempt in those diets.

So. Do the majority of horses being fed grain need it? Here comes my classic answer again - It depends.

If your horse is healthy (not lame, bright eyed, happy to be haltered for work, good coat, good hooves, full topline), and are in less than moderate work (3 rides a week with a basic WTL in a 60 minute session) they probably don’t need grain if they are on a (balanced) forage based diet.

Other horses who may but may not need grain include those in low aerobic or slow stamina sports (dressage, driving, pleasure). Beet pulp and peas would probably be my go-to for those horses who need additional energy & protein.

Then, there are other horses who I do believe need carbs and those are our high-level speed event equines. Track racing, barrel racing, roping, basically any sprinting sport.

Why? Fast twitch muscle fibers in sprinting equines require glycogen to move the muscles faster. Glycogen cannot be stored in the body and must be replenished, and it is through by the digestion of carbohydrates, which come from grains.

Can a horse be fast on a forage-“only” diet? Yes. Could they be faster with some oats? I’d sure test it out if I wanted to win my class.

Disclaimer: this suggestion is for horse owners who actually want every bit of speed from their athlete. Don’t feed oats if you’re happy running in the 3D. But if your horse is in peak shape (our Pasture to Performance Course can help you define that), they are being fed a balanced forage first diet, and you think they should have more speed, then maybe consider adding oats.

I feel the “grain-free” fad has become popular because the majority of horses don’t need the grain they get. So jumping on the bandwagon as an over-arching recommendation feels good, and you’ve found a tribe. I think that we got to this grain-free fad in the first place because 25 years ago everyone said that horses should be fed oats. Let’s learn from the past that blanket statements won’t fit all horses.

Feeding grain to horses who don’t require it for energy replenishment is unnecessary. I haven’t seen any studies but do wonder if it can lead to the predisposition of the development of EMS/IR in horses (similar to Type 2 diabetes in humans).

Now on the flip side if you do tote a forage-“only” diet and don’t test your hay, you are not allowed to leave a comment disagreeing with this blog. Hay, especially grasses, can be just as high in starch and sugars as wheat bran. A low NSC diet should be under 10-12% and if yours isn’t, or you don’t know if it isn’t, the grain free argument is mute.

I know, I know – all my hot-tea-topics are a lot of “it depends.” But that’s why I’m here and why Prime Equine exists. My goal is to develop critically-thinking-cowgirls who challenge the status quo of hors healthcare. Those who want to dig in and research for their own outcomes, become the expert on their horse, and address them as individuals.

So what do I feed my horses?

Forage-First. Full time access to quality (tested) grass hay, supplemented with alfalfa hay as each of my horses requires it. I supplement “balanced rations” (not a ration balancer) to correct deficiencies in my primary forage through supplementing omegas, wheat bran and either a custom blend mineral or an off the shelf if it is VERY close to correcting the imbalances in my hay (best: CalTrace, Vermont Blend, AminoTrace). Then, for my athletes, I add oats. Oats are a moving target in my horses diet, ebbing and flowing with our races, workout regimes and titrated against their energy reserves.

That is my basic mixture, which is further complimented by well-researched gut health and joint support – tailored and fed to each horse as their individual needs require.

All that to say, am I hard and fast against anything? Yes! If you are a loyal and long-time follower, you know I have been for years. I am a hard stop against pre-packaged and processed bag feeds. I think they should be exiled. Don’t get me wrong, I want to use a “complete feed.” It would make my life a whole lot easier. I have spent hundreds of hours pouring over labels and ingredient lists only to be frustrated with every label I throw away. If you disagree with me, send me your label and I’ll analyze it for free if I don’t find anything wrong with it.

If I do – you have to purchase my Horse Health Bundle that includes my guide Simplifying Supplements, an editable workbook, and forage calculator) for losing the bet. 😉

So let’s do away with the trend terms and fad diets. Let’s be critically thinking cowgirls who promote Forage First, Balanced Rations and Whole Food Additives in appropriate moderation.

As always, happy horse-keeping


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