7 Things To Consider Before Buying Grain

7 Things To Consider Before Buying Grain

A 2019 episode of Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain featured Cailin O’Connor, a professor at UC-Irvine who studies how social networks shape our core beliefs. Ms. O’Connor explains how social trust is at the heart of how people form their beliefs, and that few of our beliefs actually rely on direct evidence. Instead, we trust other people to describe the evidence to us so we can make a decision. People will often poo-poo or challenge new information regardless of evidence to support its claims simply because it did not come through their chosen trusted network. They will make no effort to find evidence that proves or disproves the information but will rigidly adhere to their belief, even if evidence shows them they are wrong.

This pattern is obvious in the world of equine nutrition, where it has been widely accepted that the feed company narrative was designed to improve the health of horses. The word of an equine nutritionist is not questioned but assumed to be accurate and based on unbiased science. The science IS biased. These people do not tell you that horse feed was created to save industry the cost of disposing of their hazardous waste with many of these waste materials arriving at feed production facilities in trucks marked “Hazardous”. We eagerly accept their science/health messaging despite evidence of the connection between what we are feeding and the dramatic rise in chronic health issues in our horses. How did this happen?

The feed companies sponsor nutrition courses for veterinarians, animal nutritionists, and animal science students. The narrative is carefully constructed to support sales. This is taught and retaught through online certification courses, repeated by veterinarians, and promoted by equine nutritionists - all industry-educated. We need to stop accepting the dogma that is spoon-fed to us by this global, university-trained sales force.

Your Horse's Diet Is Critical To Their Health

Feeding recycled waste products to horses is the norm in the US. At this point, it is more a tradition than a conscientious choice. We are marketed to by feed companies, equine nutrition consultants, veterinarians, and others who tell us why we should and even need to feed a grain. Walk into most barns and you’ll find a feed room with multiple garbage cans filled with 50 lb. bags of highly processed horse feeds and “ration balancers”. These products smell wonderful, often drenched with molasses, licorice, or some other flavor enhancer. Without these additives, your horse would likely turn up his/her nose and walk away from their bucket. Given this peer pressure, we feed what we’re told to feed, often with no real thought about why or if we should feed any processed feed at all.

Here are three important questions you should ask yourself when it comes to feeding grain to your horse . . .

  1.  Does your horse actually need it?
  2. Why do you think they need it?
  3. Could you be creating problems or even resistance to healing by feeding chemically laden feed to your horse?

I tell at least one person each day that their horse doesn’t need my feed or any other feed but would do quite well with decent-quality hay, pasture, and a simple vitamin/mineral supplement. This advice would likely be met with a “for shame” cluck of the tongue by people who think balancing every single nutrient is the path to health, but a less is more approach seems to work great with many horses. Sadly, many people are so convinced that they must feed a fortified grain and battery of supplements that the very notion of putting a horse on a species-appropriate forage-based diet with minimal supplementation is terrifying.

Shocking but true!

Nutrition From Food vs Synthetics

Most commercial feed companies spray synthetic vitamins and minerals onto their ultra-processed feed products, coat them with palatability enhancers, and affix a label with nutrition data gleaned from lab analysis or a computer-generated feed calculator. They push these products as vital sources of balanced nutrition that have been scientifically formulated. We believe them, accepting that “Science You Can Trust” is not a slogan (it is) but a way of life for the people running these multi-national conglomerates. This is like feeding your horse vitamin-fortified Lucky Charms or Cheerios and believing they are getting everything they need to power their body and mind for an excellent life. It simply doesn’t work that way. Those nutrients are synthetic or artificial and lack the complex and diverse micronutrients available in food. They are NOT the real thing no matter how closely related they may be chemically and the body does not utilize them the same way.

Food, real food, does not provide nutrition in isolation but relies upon a host of other beneficial co-factors to aid with digestion and absorption. This activity supports the biochemical reactions necessary to create other beneficial compounds for systemic health.

There is a mile of road between real food and what comes in a bag of recycled, reprocessed, and relabeled commercial feed. One is nutritious and bestows health-giving properties. The other is waste masquerading as “food”.

Food And Oxidative Stress

Nearly every health condition and lameness issue in the horse can be linked back to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is the cellular process where damaging free radicals accumulate in the body and cause damage on a cellular level. This is a natural part of life. We all age and eventually die, but there is a way to protect the body and slow the process. The path to protection is through food choices. Real food not only contains nutrition to fuel and rebuild the body, but it also contains potent antioxidants and phytochemicals that help balance oxidative stress against reductive stress. Food also contains necessary micro and macronutrients and packs a punch with natural prebiotic properties for the gut microbiome. Waste does not provide the same benefits no matter how it has been enhanced.

Ration Balancers

I do not believe conventional ration balancers are good for the horse. There has been a trend in recent years toward plugging numbers from every supplement and grain that you are feeding into a software program. That program then dictates what your horse either needs or is lacking in their diet. On one hand, I applaud people for wanting to provide a healthy diet for their horses. However; this act of putting numbers into a program and calling it “balanced nutrition” is nothing short of pure marketing genius. Feed tags give you numbers but they tell you nothing about how or IF the body utilizes the nutrient, the quality of the ingredients, the origin of the ingredient or how they have been processed, and your horse is not considered as a unique individual.

In many cases, horse owners are feeding a ration balancer, a vitamin-mineral blend, a fortified feed, AND a joint supplement, hoof supplement, or gut supplement. What’s worse is that this is being recommended by individuals who are simply parroting what they have been taught by others who were taught at Universities where funding for nutrition programs comes from feed companies. The monumental conflict of interest this represents is ignored and the information passed along to continue to grow the industry’s influence in the marketplace. When these carefully calculated diets don't produce the desired results an online group (social support network) is consulted to determine what went wrong with the calculations. Dozens of opinions are rendered to help the owner “fix” the problem. True balance is what is missing. A carefully crafted diet of synthetic excess and antioxidant overload served up in a bucket of wonderful-smelling waste can cause reductive stress and chronic inflammation in the horse. Yes, too much of a good thing can actually be bad.

What Is Reductive Stress?

Reductive stress occurs when antioxidant levels in the blood are very high and free radical levels are low. This trend is growing in horses on ration balancers and vitamin-mineral blends. These supplements are often synthetic, are oftentimes toxic to the gut microbiome, and may be absorbed at an unnaturally high rate, thus raising the antioxidant load significantly. As with oxidative stress, reductive stress in horses also demonstrates an imbalanced digestive microbiome with markers for inflammation. One of the most troublesome impacts of this imbalance is the science that shows us the adverse impact on nitric oxide that occurs with reductive stress. Insufficient production and circulation of nitric oxide to the hoof of the horse is one of the key findings in laminitis. It is prudent to follow evidence-based science and very carefully manage supplementation with synthetics in horses prone to laminitis so we do not induce reductive stress and cause a flare-up of this exceedingly painful condition.

The Gut Microbiome

The population of bacteria in your horse’s gut dictates the level of inflammatory markers in their body. The more out of balance, the more chronic inflammation.

  1. Feeding highly processed feedstuffs with high levels of chemical residues impairs the gut microbiome by immediately destroying sensitive bacteria the horse needs to maintain homeostasis.
  2. Feeding ration balancers with synthetic vitamins and minerals may cause dysbiosis in the microbiome and cause inflammation by raising the antioxidant levels to create imbalance and inflammation via reductive stress.

In Summary

I believe that feeding a horse a diverse diet of real food is a more natural way to help them maintain systemic health. We need to stop confusing convenience with “science” and contemplate the needs of the horse from their perspective. Yes, the way we house them and use them is unnatural, but there are ways to respect their bodies by providing them with food that values their needs above the cost/profit needs of the companies who market their fortified waste as “nutritious and balanced equine food”.

~ From the desk of Mary Hartman, CEO and Founder

*This is a personal blog. Any information herein is not to be construed as medical advice.