Horse Nutribaloney  

Common horse nutrition myths dispelled by Registered Independent Equine Nutritionist Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr

Common horse nutrition myths dispelled by Registered Independent Equine Nutritionist Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr

Nutribaloney is a neologism; a new word. A word that is useful to explain some of the nonsensical information that is available nowadays – particularly online – about horse nutrition. Although the word sounds quite humorous, the nutrition nonsense that is shared far and wide could not only be detrimental to horse welfare but also to human welfare.  

Nutribaloney can cause horse owners to become confused, worried, and concerned. Owner’s report feeling stressed about the conflicting information available about horse nutrition and feeding, because they don’t know what to choose to ensure they give their horses the best care they can.   

In trying to avoid certain types of feeds or ingredients, and altering management regimes, owners could put their horse at risk of serious health issues including (but not limited to) an unbalanced diet, over- or under-feeding, or inappropriate forage that could cause airway disease.  

It can be challenging for horse owners to discern which information is nutribaloney, and which is not. Many horse owners are not aware that some feed or supplement companies are not ethical in their marketing or do not follow the rules and regulations that are laid down to protect the consumer (and the horse). Some owners are not aware that anyone can write anything about horse nutrition and publish it online, regardless of whether or not it is correct. Furthermore, some marketing information and feeding system advice – especially on social media – can be competently written and very compelling, despite being nutribaloney.  

Four common examples of nutribaloney (which are further explained below): 

  1. “Haylage is very acidic, so is not safe to feed to horses” 
  2. “Sugar is much more important to consider than calories (digestible energy)” 
  3. “Compound concentrate feeds are high in starch, which is bad for horses, so should be avoided” 
  4. “Sugar beet is bad for horses so should be avoided”

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“Haylage is very acidic, so is not safe to feed to horses” 

The author worked with an owner almost in tears about this nutribaloney because she was so worried about the effect haylage might have had on her horse. Haylage – due to its superior hygiene quality compared to UK-made hay – is a very useful forage for horses who are allergic to hay and have recurrent airway obstruction or equine asthma (which used to be called COPD). Hygiene quality reflects the mould spore and dust content of a forage. Haylage is also very useful when storage space is minimal because it can be stored outside successfully, unlike hay. Haylage is also useful for owners who themselves are allergic to hay, which can cause asthma and/or urticaria (hives).   

Nutribaloney reported about haylage include that it is very acidic and it burns your horse’s gut including stomach, and it therefore should never be fed. This is simply not true. Interestingly, haylage is more extensively researched than many other feeds and feed ingredients. There has been a fair amount of research carried out in Europe investigating haylage for horses mainly because it is a commonly produced forage there due to the challenges of making good hay in a wet climate. Haylage is wilted for less time than hay and does not rely on the number of days of sun that hay does in order to make a good quality product. Haylage, if made correctly, is perfectly safe to feed to horses as it is not very acidic. There is no danger of your horse’s stomach or any other part of their digestive tract being burned or even affected negatively by the pH level (the acid/alkaline balance) of well-made haylage.  

Perhaps the nutribaloney of haylage being acidic came from a misunderstanding of what haylage is, and confusion with silage. Haylage is quite different to silage. Despite being wrapped and fermented like silage, haylage is baled at a much higher dry matter, and the extent of fermentation of the grass is much less than silage. This lesser fermentation is why it is not acidic like some silage can be.  

The other factor that could contribute to negativity about haylage is that if it is poorly made it can be harmful to horses, and potentially more harmful than poorly made hay. If, however, haylage is purchased from a reputable supplier, it is well-made and wrapped correctly (with enough layers to keep air out) then it is safe to feed. It does need to be fed carefully in terms of diet balance, however, because it is often higher in calories than a typical hay. Haylage is not particularly acidic and will not burn your horse’s gut. 

“Sugar is much more important to consider than calories (digestible energy)” 

This myth – or nutribaloney – is concerning because it can cause the owner to focus so much on one aspect of the diet that they forget the key factor involved in healthy weight maintenance, which is energy (calorie) balance.  

Whilst it is useful that owners are becoming more aware of the sugar intake of their horses and ponies, especially if they are overweight or have insulin dysregulation, it is important that calorie balance is not forgotten. There is no point in a low sugar diet if it is oversupplying calories to an overweight horse, and low sugar hay or meadow pasture (which is generally lower in sugar than improved ryegrass pasture) can still oversupply calories.  

(The term calories is used here to describe energy because it does help to focus owners on feed energy rather than behavioural energy, despite the fact that ‘calories’ is not a strictly accurate term to describe horse feed energy).  

It is good that owners are more considerate of their horse’s sugar intake, and this should not be ignored, but if sugar alone is focused on, the diet could end up being very unbalanced.   

The main source of sugar (sucrose) in horse diets is most often the forages – grass, hay and to a lesser extent, haylage. Most horses are fed more forage than bucket feed, and most bucket feeds are not particularly high in sugar – at least compared to good hay and grass per kilo.  

Furthermore, whilst most owners would be aware that fertilised ryegrass-based pasture would be high in both calories and sugar for horses, some are not aware that unimproved meadow pasture usually still oversupplies calories for horses and ponies given free access, causing weight gain and potentially, obesity.  

Some of the lowest sugar feeds are the highest in calories, including whole linseed and vegetable oil. These both supply calories from oil and in the case of linseed, from fibre and other carbohydrates, but both are very low sugar feeds. Unmolassed sugar beet is another moderately high energy feed (per kilo dry weight) but very low in sugar at around 5%, typically. 

When considering body fat levels in horses, it is the calorie balance first and foremost that is going to get them slimmer and healthier, regardless of the sugar content of the diet. If the sugar intake has been high (over 10% of dry matter), then yes ideally this should be reduced as well as the calories in order to reduce the risk of hyperinsulinaemia (which carries with it a higher risk of laminitis) but it is only a calorie deficit that causes body fat to be lost (due to it being used up for energy provision).   

The key factor is that low sugar doesn’t always mean low calorie so whilst sugar should not be ignored, good nutrition focuses on the calorie balance first, to help maintain a healthy body fat level. Sugar intake, therefore, is secondary to diet calorie (energy) balance.  

“Compound concentrate feeds are high in starch, which is bad for horses, so should be avoided” 

It is understandable where this nutribaloney came from because old fashioned compound concentrate mixes were relatively high in starch, and commonly at least 28-30%. Interestingly, however, that starch content is still much lower than straight cereals, for example oats, which are 40% starch. Starch comes mostly from cereal grains and was a mainstay of hard-working horses in the past. Starch is well digested by horses if fed in limited amounts, so although some feed companies would lead owners to believe that horses are ‘intolerant’ to starch, most are not, if it is fed at rates low enough not to overwhelm digestive capacity. A maximum of 1 g starch per kilo bodyweight per meal is recommended to ensure thorough digestion in the small intestine.  

Although some horses need a low-starch diet – including obese individuals, those with laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), insulin dysregulation, gastric ulcers, and myopathies like Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) – for others, especially very hard-working horses, a moderate dietary intake of starch can be very useful. The key to feeding starch in a healthy way is to feed it within the digestive capacity of the horse, and to use cooked cereals if any apart from oats are fed, which increases digestibility. It is important to ensure thorough digestion of starch in the small intestine because if not, it will flow undigested into the hindgut where it will disturb the fibre-degrading microbes and cause unhealthy acidity.  

Going back to compound feeds; nowadays, low starch versions are available, so no longer do compound concentrates need to be avoided for a low-starch diet. Examples of low starch concentrate compound feeds include Baileys Ease and Excel and Spillers UlcaFibre both of which have a starch content of under 10%. If the starch content of a feed is not available on the packaging or marketing information, the company can be contacted direct and should be able to advise of the starch content of that feed. 

The benefit for horse owners of compound concentrate feeds is that they provide a balanced diet when fed with appropriate forage, so using them provides a much easier way to make sure that the horse is having an optimal, well-balanced diet. Low starch compound concentrate feeds are available nowadays, and not all horses need a very low starch feed, so there is no need to avoid compound concentrates due to concerns over starch content.   

“Sugar beet is bad for horses and should be avoided” 

Nutribaloney bashing sugar beet is a surprise considering it has been fed to horses for so many years. Sugar beet is a winter horse-feed staple in the UK, and the development of a quick-soak unmolassed version by British Horse Feeds in their ‘Speedibeet’ product (several others are now available) has made it popular with horse owners all year round.  

Sugar beet is a processed feed, being the fibrous material left over after sugar extraction, but interestingly it has been well researched as a horse feed. Over two decades ago, Derek Cuddeford and team at the University of Edinburgh carried out research funded by Spillers (owned by Dalgety at the time) investigating the digestion by horses of several fibrous feeds, including sugar beet. The author was involved in this work whilst completing her undergraduate research thesis. Dr Cuddeford’s team’s research was groundbreaking because they discovered the horse’s unique ability to extract more energy out of certain digestible fibres than predicted levels, and this discovery formed the basis for the “HDF feeds” developed by Spillers, followed later by a wide range of high digestible fibre, low starch compound concentrate feeds from several brands.  

Unmolassed sugar beet is rich in digestible fibre and very low in sugar and starch compared to other feeds, especially those of similar energy level, so it is useful alternative to traditional starch-based concentrates. Researchers in the US have investigated its use as a lower glycaemic alternative to traditional coarse mixes and found it to be very useful for horses and ponies who have moderately high energy requirements but for whom a starchy or sugary diet is contraindicated.  

Sugar beet fed as a straight i.e. not as an ingredient in compound feed, is moderately high in calories per kilo dry weight, but because it is soaked in around 4 parts water, it becomes a very low calorie feed after soaking. Therefore, if a small scoop of soaked beet is fed to carry essential vitamins and minerals, it provides a minimal amount of calories, ideal for an overweight horse or pony on a restricted diet for weight loss.  

Sugar beet is a useful succulent in winter if horses are on a dry diet of hay and bucket feed, due to its high water content after soaking. It is also a useful easily chewed source of fibre for older horses and ponies with dental challenges, who cannot eat enough long forage such as hay, to maintain weight.  

Sugar beet from a reputable supplier who sells it as a horse feed is safe to feed to all horses and ponies, as part of a correctly balanced diet. Unmolassed sugar beet is more useful than the molassed version for horses and ponies with low energy requirements who need a low sugar diet. Sugar beet sold as animal feed by a reputable supplier will not contain harmful contaminants or processing agents and is not a bad feed for horses.  

In conclusion, there is an increasing amount of nutribaloney present nowadays, about horse feeds and feeding. It can be alarming and worrying for horse owners to navigate themselves around these myths, and unfortunately there is no way of avoiding them. Owners are encouraged to question unusual or extreme types of information, and seek out reassurance from qualified and experienced professionals and reliable, reputable sources. Being aware of how compelling nutribaloney can be, and being sceptical of anything that sounds too good to be true, will help protect owners from making poor choices in how and what they feed their horses, therefore keeping their horses healthy and themselves happy.  

For further nutriabaloney resources, please see Clare’s website  

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