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Could pelleted feed be making your horse sick?

All horse owners know that pelleted feed can be a quick and convenient way to feed a horse, but could pelleted feed actually be harming your horse? Erika Gough, equine nutritionist from Inside Out Equine Health discusses the pros and the cons of pelleted/‘complete’ feeds, how to make better pelleted feed choices and also some alternatives for those looking for a change.

Let’s start with a little test... honesty required!

Can you name the first four ingredients of your pelleted feed? If you can, congratulations, you’re halfway there! The next part of the test is whether you know, or even can know, what these ingredients actually are. Are they ‘definitive’ ingredients or are they decidedly vague? Definitive ingredients are those such as ‘lupins’, ‘molasses’, ‘extruded full fat soybean’ and ‘cold-pressed canola oil’. Vague ingredients are those such as ‘vegetable protein meals’, ‘mill-mix or mill-run’, ‘cereal grains’ and cereal by-products’.

Perhaps you’re asking why all of this is important, let me explain: Some feed companies stick to certain recipes when producing feeds; each bag of feed has the same ingredients and the same amount of protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals. Others stick to set levels of protein, fat, and so on, but use a range of ingredients from batch to batch to achieve these levels. There are also some feed companies which also use ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ percentages when listing amounts of nutrients which means that if fibre is listed at a maximum of 12%, there may actually only be 7% fibre in the feed.

Ingredients that appear to be the same on paper (or FeedXL!) may actually have very different effects on your horse. Protein is considered high quality if it contains a high proportion of amino acids essential to the equine diet. One of the most important amino acids is lysine which aids growth. Soybean meal is an excellent source of essential amino acids and lysine whereas the far cheaper cottonseed meal is high in protein, but this protein contains far less of the essential amino acids and lysine. Feed companies that are paying more to use soybean meal are unlikely to list this as ‘vegetable proteins’ given they’re paying for soybean so if your bag says vegetable protein meal the likelihood it’s cottonseed meal is higher.

Additionally, any changes to a horse’s diet should be made gradually. Microorganisms in your horse’s gastrointestinal tract are sensitive to changes. These microorganisms can change based on what your horse is being fed and how quickly it passes through the tract. Sudden changes in diet, especially those involving starches and water-soluble carbohydrates (such as grains) can lead to hindgut acidosis, colic, and laminitis. In fact, even the Humane Society’s ‘Rules of feeding your horse’ recommends that any changes to a horse’s diet are made gradually.

So if a feed company is making changes to what’s in each batch according to what ingredients they can source most inexpensively at any given time, your horse may experience a sudden change to its diet if you finish one bag of feed belonging to one batch of feed and start on another which is made up from a different batch. Buying feeds that have all ingredients definitely listed means that you will be avoiding this possibility. Often, (but certainly not always!) it is the more expensive brands which can offer this.

I also often see pelleted feeds advertised as ‘grain free’, ‘safe for laminitic horses/ponies’ and ‘cool energy’, but then the first listed ingredient on the bag is ‘cereal grains’ or ‘millmix’ (wheat flour by-product). These products not only contain grains, but in most cases are not safe for laminitic prone horses or ponies. Additionally many of these feeds contain significant amounts of molasses which is not the right thing to be feeding a horse that is laminitis-prone, ulcer-prone or sensitive to sugars and starches.

The other potential issue with pelleted/’complete’ feed is that you must ensure that you’re feeding it at the recommended amount or your horse is likely to be missing out on essential nutrients. For example, if you have a 500kg horse in moderate work and are feeding 1kg of a pelleted feed per day and the company recommends feeding 4kg, then your horse may not getting all the protein, energy, fat and especially vitamins and minerals it needs and the feed is therefore not ‘complete’. Pelleted feeds can only be ‘complete’ if fed at the recommended amount and if they’re of a high enough quality as outlined above. You also need to keep in mind that feeding 4kgs of pelleted feed also needs to be fed over two feeds as horses stomachs are not big enough to cope with 4kgs all at once. Of course you can feed pelleted feed at a less than recommended rate, but this will most likely require the addition of other nutrients to your horse’s diet.

What are the alternatives to pelleted feed?

The good news is that there are lots of great alternatives to pelleted feed. In fact, feeding less processed more ‘whole-food’ type feeds can often not only be healthier, but also less expensive. There are a variety of these feeds to choose from when making up a diet such as chaff, lupins, whole oats, beet pulp, soybean meal, copra and so on. Teamed with a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement and salt, these feeds make an ideal ‘hard-feed’ alternative. Getting the right balance of these feeds may require a little bit of professional help so you may want to get some guidance from an equine nutritionist to ensure you’re on the right track.

The one thing that is often overlooked and absolutely should not be is hay. Hay is a wonderful and necessary addition to the overwhelming majority of equine diets and there is nothing that goes into a bucket that can make up for feeding the ‘right’ kind of hay to your horse. By ‘right’ I mean that which balances with pasture, hard feed, horse condition, age, workload and so on. Chewing on hay stimulates saliva, keeps horses occupied, maintains good gastrointestinal health and in and of itself, is high in many essential vitamins and minerals, fibre and energy.

In what circumstances could pelleted feed be a better alternative?

Pelleted feed is obviously a lot more convenient. Many of these less processed feeds need soaking prior to feeding, and adding a supplement plus salt in addition to your chaff, soaked lupins, whole oats and a maybe even a splash of linseed oil (for example) can be time consuming, especially if you are feeding multiple horses. Pelleted feed can also be an excellent option for sick or aged horses who have difficulty chewing as pellets can usually be wet down into a mash - that said there are excellent options for less processed feeds to be wetted down as well, such as beet pulp or copra. High quality pelleted feed may also be very energy dense so is a good way to add a lot of calories to a horse’s diet without adding excess bulk/mass so it is good for horses with a smaller appetite, performance horses that have heavy workloads or people that can only feed once a day or less. Again the same can be said for a high quality oil or seed such as linseed/flaxseed which is a lot less processed. The right kind of pelleted feed may be easier to digest than whole grains/seeds which can pass straight through the digestive system (although this can often be an issue related to teeth or a gastrointestinal issue). Some pelleted feed also makes a tasty treat if you’re using it to coax a fussy or unwell horse to eat and a handful here and there is a good training treat or can be excellent for mixing with bad tasting medicine or supplements to encourage ingestion.

Of course the decision of what to feed lies with each horse owner, but having all the information at hand gives you the knowledge to make the decision that is best for your horse as an individual. All horse owners are recommended to turn the bag and to read and understand the ingredients. This way you will better know how each ingredient in each feed may affect your horse’s appearance, health and performance.


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