Reasons to exorcise the 'demon' in grain - DVM
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Reasons to exorcise the 'demon' in grain
It's not always to blame for obesity, other horse-health issues, and still has a place in some equine feeding programs


Feeding good quality, soluable fiber, Gill says, "is a much healthier way to provide energy to the hard-working horse."

It is easy to see why some clients are becoming confused and why grain seems to be "bad seed" in current equine nutritional recommendations.

But grain is not all bad and does have a place in some equine feeding programs. There are many, many horses that do not have genetic, hormonal or other predispositions to obesity or associated conditions and the vast majority of these horses can live full, healthy lives on appropriate grain-based diets.

Amount, type of grain are key

The operative word here is "appropriate" grain diets.

"Most cases of equine obesity are simply due to overfeeding," says Dr. Jonathan Foreman of the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

It is not grain that is problematic for horses, but rather too much grain or the incorrect type of grain.

For some horses, grain may be essential to the diet because of other "unnatural" demands placed on these equine athletes. Horses in show or heavy performance schedules are required to hold up to the demands of traveling and exercising at an elite level. "For many of these horses," says Dr. Marty Adams, an equine nutritionist with Southern States, "the amount of time allowed for pasture or hay intake is not sufficient to provide adequate calories to maintain adequate body condition when a high level of energy is required."

Often, even when there is adequate hay or pasture time given to horses, there may be too many horses for a given area and the amount of hay or grass may be insufficient or of poorer quality to maintain a desired body condition, Adams says.

Many areas of the southeastern United States experienced a severe drought last year and some locations are still recovering. These areas had poor pastures and limited hay supplies, making the correct use of some grain in the diet almost a requirement for many horses.

Additionally, there are many vitamins and minerals needed by horses that are poorly supplied by forage. Vitamin A, zinc, copper, magnesium, Vitamin E and selenium are all necessary for various phases of a horse's life, and adequate levels are unlikely to be achieved on pasture or forage alone.

Appropriate feeding of grain

Still, there are many intelligent choices that can be made by owners and trainers that will allow them to feed some type of grain, provide adequate vitamins and minerals, ensure appropriate energy for performance and still provide their horse with healthier carbohydrates.

Feed companies have recognized the needs of horses and the newer concerns of horse owners and have responded. Most now offer a "balancer" product designed to be added to the diet of horses consuming adequate grass or forage. This supplement adds appropriate vitamins and minerals, along with biotin, omega -3 fatty acids and other compounds that make this primarily forage-based diet complete.

Horses that do not have enough forage or hay access need a grain-based diet, but low to extremely low starch-based concentrates are available.

While traditional sweet feed grains have nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) percentages in the high 30s to 40s, the newer low-starch grains have NSC percentages in the lower teens to single digits.

Additionally, these low-starch diets have been shown to lower blood glucose and insulin levels after feeding, lowering the risks of metabolic syndrome and/or laminitis.

Certain low-starch diets have been shown to lower post-exercise heart rates, which may yield performance increases in certain equine sports.

Monitoring weight, exercise

Most nutritionists maintain that the scale remains one of the most important and yet most underused tools in equine feeding management.

Weighing a horse's feed and feeding it appropriate amounts of the correct type of feed will eliminate many of the problems typically seen in overweight horses.

Add to this the concept of adequate exercise and a majority of feeding-related problems will take care of themselves.

"Horses need to be exercised daily in meaningful ways," Slater says. "Owners should push their horses for more strenuous exercise. It is not enough to ride a horse three times weekly for 20 to 30 minutes a session."

There is some thought that even horses in show situations are working too lightly for their feeding programs. An ongoing study of hunter/jumper horses using GPS and heart-rate monitors has produced preliminary data showing that these horses rarely travel over three to four miles, or have heart rates that exceed 100 beats per minute during the course of what would be considered a "heavy" day of competition.

Such easy physiological workouts hardly justify the level of grain that most of these horses receive.

For them, more attention to designing an appropriate diet is necessary. Simply switching to a low-starch or reduced-calorie balanced feed may be all that is needed to provide some performance horses with enough energy to win while reducing enough sugar to stay thin.

Dr. Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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