1 Month Grain Free Challenge
Learnings and Observations
We’re officially past the month marker and heading into week 5 of the “grain-free” challenge. Every day I’m learning a bit more, by either responding to and understanding my horse’s physical (and mental) changes or from researching everyone’s comments and questions. A subject I’ve found particularly important in discussing and addressing, is this: Are low carb diets ACTUALLY good for horses?? It’s easy for us to throw around the diet terminology of being “low-carb” or “keto” and blaming carbohydrates for every bit of inflammation and discomfort, both in our bodies and in our horses. However, we also know that carbs are one of the building blocks in the macro nutrient pyramid that fuels bodybuilders, weightlifters, triathletes and likely the majority of fit human beings on the planet. So what gives? With so much conflicting information out there concerning carbs, sometimes it can be difficult to see the forest through the trees.
First and foremost, one such blanket statement cannot, or rather should not, be made “Horses (and humans) are healthier on a low-carb diet”. It’s a bit more complicated than that, with a high number of variables muddling the facts for both horse and human. Let’s address this statement by talking about the carb structures found in two foods, a piece of sweet potato versus a cookie. We know that both food items are high in carbs, but at the same time, we also know which one is obviously the healthier choice for us to consume. Carbs can be classified into two categories; nonstructural and structural. Nonstructural carbs (the cookie) are comprised of sugar and starches that are digested by enzymes in the foregut. Structural carbohydrates (the sweet potato) are comprised of fiber types, and are digested by microorganisms throughout the hind gut. While both carb types can provide energy for horses (and humans) the difference comes from the speed in which the gut breaks them down and how quickly the molecules are then converted into energy. We all get a little rush from drinking that sugary soda, but not so much from chowing down on a big bowl of quinoa (in fact, it can be quite the opposite!). Therefore, we know nonstructural carbs give a rapid burst of energy (as they are digested quickly in the foregut) while structural carbs give a slow release of energy as they’re slowly broken down throughout the miles of a horse’s hind gut.
So, simple sugars give you energy. Woohoo! What could be wrong with that? Let’s reference back to my first blog post, which speaks to the damage that comes from volatile spikes in blood sugar and glucose as a result of eating a high nonstructural carbohydrate meal. The rapid breakdown inflames the gut, leading to a host of inflammatory problems that can occur in the horses body, e.g., laminitis, founder, arthritis, gastric ulcers, etc.. So, allow me to edit the aforementioned statement, “Horses (and humans) are healthier on a low, nonstructural carbohydrate diet”. So now we’re all totally confused and you’re probably thinking “well screw your grain-free challenge!”. Allow me to digress..
We’ve established that a NSC (nonstructural carbohydrate) diet is likely healthier for horses as it lowers overall inflammation in the body. So when I say “grain-free”, let’s also establish that grains by themselves are not necessarily bad, and can serve as a source for a horse’s required carb intake (when fed in moderation).
However, most commercial grain-based products contain within them not just synthetic nutrients, but also preservatives, dyes, sweeteners, and other chemicals and carcinogens. Putting the two together, carbohydrates and added ‘junk’, equates to inflammatory problems for most horses. The reality is, while feeding grains can give performance horses that rapid burst of energy, there is a dark side that often comes in the form of poor hoof health, laminitis, founder, injured tendons, gastric ulcers, and a host of metabolic problems. These problems are usually seen as isolated events, not dietary related, and are treated as such. Then, there is often recurrence, failure to heal properly, and in many cases, a donated horse that no longer competes, or even worse, the loss of life from developed metabolic diseases.
Schell, Tom. “What? No Grain for My Horse?” Nouvelle Research Official Website, 3 Mar. 2021, nouvelleresearch.com/index.php/articles/17441-what-no-grain-for-my-horse.
Grain versus “Grain”
Ok, back to grain. Grains are naturally occurring seeds that are harvested from plants such as wheat, oats, rice, and corn. They are structural carbohydrates in nature, and are grazed upon by wild horses with no issue, supplying the required carb intake and providing energy. When fed in moderation over a long period of time, there’s really no issue, and any resulting inflammation is likely negated from the high fiber content consumed from the constant grazing of forage. So looking at most barns, the average horse is being fed a whopping 4-5 pounds of commercial feed, twice a day, for a total of around 10 pounds of grain daily. Not to mention the molasses, preservatives, chemicals, and ‘junk’ found in that seemingly healthy scoop, but a single serving of grain skyrockets past the recommended carb intake for most horses, and the inflammatory responses kick in thereafter. So for horses, it’s not so much the consumption of carbs that is bad, but rather the delivery and quantity in which it has been accustomed to feed. If you fed your horse a handful of raw grain, every hour for 16 hours, it would equate to about two average scoops. Now instead, how about if we just dump both scoops of grain into a bucket all at once and give our horse free choice to consume it all? Over time, the resulting gut inflammation between the two horses would become most obvious. One horse would maintain steady blood glucose levels, while the other would rage from sudden spikes in glucose to hours of lull with no activity. Want to take a guess as to which horse would eventually develop gastric ulcers? While most of us can’t afford to spend 16 hours a day hand feeding our horses, that’s where high quality hay, grass and forage comes into play, as horses are forced to slow their eating. For those hungry hippos who can destroy a few flakes of alfalfa, consider a slow feed hay net to help the process.
It’s an unfortunate and industry wide misconception that performance horses NEED high-performance grain. As I am learning more about this venture, I’m coming to realize that there is a whole community of grain-free advocates who ride in demanding sports, with their horses thriving on purely forage based diets. Their horses energy requirements are met through high quality hay and grass, rather than relying on touted “performance feeds” from big manufactures. So long story short, carbs are just about everywhere, lurking in cool season grass and all hay types, and by ensuring that our horses are eating around 1.5% of their body weight per day in forage, then they will meet their maintenance carb requirements. Going beyond that, and carbo-loading our horses, is both a selfless and selfish act. We all want to do what is best for our horses, but in most cases, I’m confident that getting back to basics is the best thing we can do for our 4-legged friends (and ourselves!). In conclusion, I will say this. No horse (or human) is identical, and factors such as genetics, activity level, and predispositions will effect the recommended macros for each individual. High performance horses may thrive on a slightly higher structural carb diet, while more sedentary “pasture ornaments” or pleasure horses might be better off a more restricted carb diet. So while I think the removal of most commercial grains will benefit the majority of horses, please always consult your veterinarian in determining the best overall diet and nutritional needs for your horse.
So I’ll finish by giving a recap on my horse’s 5-week progress report. He has flourished, and while I don’t necessarily give all the credit to just eliminating grain, his diet is near perfection as he grazes on the beautiful new spring grass out in his pasture. He is out for probably 16+ hours a day, and only comes in to take a nap, munch on his gourmet alfalfa and get ridden. His once discolored spots of missing hair and dermatitis are slowly being replaced by a shiny and lustful summer coat, and if I do say so myself, I think a few faint dapples are making an appearance on his shoulders. While we have struggled through a few lessons with what I call his “alfalfa brain” I have started him on a natural magnesium supplement, which does seem to help in keeping him more relaxed and allowing him to focus during our work. I may play with getting a load of timothy or maybe timothy/alfalfa next, but as for now, I’m just happy to see my awesome warmblood starting to look and feel his best.
Deutschmark – 1 Month “Grain Free”
Lastly, I do owe a considerable amount of credit for the success of this challenge to my mother who is a retired nurse, food nutritionist, health junkie, and sometimes, a know-it-all. I’m beyond fortunate to have her as a riding buddy at my barn and wanted to share a picture of her 6 YO Percheron/Thoroughbred mare who has been “grain free” for about 3 years now. I’m still convinced that anything “drafty” can live off of air, but she looks pretty darn good! So I do owe my Mom some credit in taking the challenge, and once my big gelding popped out a few dapples, I heard her scoffing “I told you so!”.
Such A Duchess – 3 Years “Grain Free”
Hi Happy Horse! This was an excellent write! I am curious about what you saw with your horses, “alfalfa brain.” Keep up the good work! We need it!