A Working Horse Experiment
Excuse my seemingly irrelevant segue into the “grain-free” topic for this blog post, but here it goes. Over the years, I’ve played with my own diet, always looking for the most optimal fuel sources to make me look and feel my best. Coupled with an active lifestyle, I’ve sought after “super foods” that would somehow transform me both physically and mentally. Through the years of experimenting, I’ve brewed my own milk kefir, followed egg fasts and intermittent fasting, consumed enough blue berries to turn blue and enough flaxseed to sprout into a flax tree (is that a thing?) all the while trying every diet lifestyle imaginable (vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto, etc.). Don’t get me wrong, I’m a foodie at heart, and know I can’t live off kale smoothies and boiled eggs alone. So through my research and trial-and-error, I’ve finally settled into (keywords here) a doable AND sustainable diet that satisfies both my foodie heart and my demanding cross-fit and horsey ventures. This diet has kept me within the range of my goal weight while giving me the energy, clarity and fuel that I need to power through a workout (we’re about to talk about horses, I promise!). So, here it is. Low carb, flexible dieting.
“Research shows that refined carbs cause inflammation in the body. It’s similar to added sugars because nothing slows their breakdown. They hit your bloodstream quickly and spike your blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar creates an inflammatory response.”
What’s more, horses are prone to suffer from a number of inflammatory diseases throughout their lives. Therefore, why am I facilitating the predisposition of these inflammatory responses by pumping my horse full of highly refined, high carb grains?
Here is a bit of background on our subject, Deutschmark. Deutsch is my 9 year old Oldenburg gelding, and is competing 3rd level dressage and schooling up to Prix St. George. He’s ridden on average 4 days per week, with most sessions lasting up to an hour of high-level work (with appropriate warmups and cool downs). While he always gives me 110% (with the occasional attitude) during our rides, it is not necessarily his performance or energy levels that are prompting this experiment. I will always think he is the most beautiful horse on earth, but even I have struggled with his external appearance as of late. He’s not skinny by any means at around 1400 lbs and is nicely muscled with a good topline. My biggest quarrel is with his dry, patchy coat and his “dandruffy”, fungus-prone skin. He looks a mess (conformation picture posted at the end). A bit more background on his current situation, but we are just coming out of winter here in North Georgia. Obviously winters are hard on horses anywhere, but for my dressage horse whom I groom daily, feed (what I thought) was a good diet and exercise, I am APPALLED at how he looks. So here goes my reasons for waning him off from his 2X scoops of sweet feed grain per day.
Horses, as we know, are grazers. They have relatively tiny stomachs and are meant to eat small amounts of high-fiber forage over long periods of time. The pH of a horse’s stomach is quite acidic and their slow grazing mechanisms allows for their slightly alkaline saliva to help buffer the acidity in their stomachs. When we dump large quantities of sweet feed into their bowls, they’re more than happy to scarf it down, resulting in a spike of excess acid produced in the hindgut. Acidity plays a huge role in both horses and humans in breaking down food, but the irregular surges in acidity create excessive fermentation and gas in the hindgut which can lead to long-term inflammatory issues within the body (i.e., gastric ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, laminitis, diarrhea, colic, etc.). Along the same lines, we have to think about how those carbs and resulting acid and inflammation are then affecting the largest organ of them all; the skin.
A horse’s skin, much like our own, respond poorly to foods high on the glycemic index (another vain reason I myself have written off carbs, sugar and most processed foods!). Common complaints from horse owners who feed a high carb diet include dull coats that lack luster and shine, while weakened immune systems affect their horse’s natural ability to combat topical diseases which results in fungal infections such as rainrot, scratches and bouts of itchy and bumpy dermatitis. So it’s no wonder my beautiful boy looks patchy, uneven and rough, and while I partially blame myself, I am now turning to blame the “sport” feeds that are touted to boost endurance, performance and optimal skin and coat health (much like many of the “health” foods even in the human food industry, hello protein bars!).
So let’s take a look at the ingredients in your regular run-of-the-mill sweet feeds, which typically includes oats, corn, barley, salt, and molasses. The high sugar and starch content of these foods are the culprit for that surge of glucose in the blood, which can not only create a “hot” horse in the interim, but will ultimately lead to a crash, leaving your horse feeling fatigued, and in some cases, can cause them to stop producing glucose normally. For instance, think about a kid after eating too much ice cream, and while that immediate surge of sugar will send them into a youthful euphoria, it’s quickly met with a not-so-pleasant drop in glucose, leaving them grouchy with an upset tummy and in desperate need of a nap (sorry parents). So for my giant 1400 lb. kid, my horse not only looks bad with his patchy coat and dry skin, but he probably doesn’t feel as good as he otherwise should.
While I do think there can be benefits to feeding high-performance feeds in the interim (perhaps in efforts to spur weight gain) I’m 99.99% confident that going grain-free, the correct way and with proper mineral supplementation, will increase health markers for the majority of working horses. So this begins my journey for slowly phasing my horse, and his giant sweet tooth, off from his sticky, sugar laden barn grain. Unfortunately my horse is an extremely picky eater, so I’m prepared to transition him by slowly reducing his normal ration of sweet feed and supplementing with mixed in forage type pellets (alfalfa pellets, beet pulp shreds and coconut meal pellets). In addition to his AM/PM feedings of (eventually) straight forage pellets, I will be feeding him free choice fescue hay with 2-3 flakes of straight alfalfa. I should also note that my horse is turned out for 14-16 hours at night, and is currently eating the new spring grass (which is also full of sugar). So while I’m fortunate to have him eating the best source of natural forage possible for the majority of the day, I plan to give him free choice, slow grazing quality hay with a mineral block in addition to his 2x day forage pellet feedings while he’s in his stall during the day.
Step #1 – pull out the credit card! I stopped by Tractor Supply this morning to load up on gourmet compressed hay, alfalfa pellets and ration balancers, so today will be day #1 of the “grain-free” challenge, whether he likes it or not… My first rated USDF dressage show is on May 1st (just short of 2 ½ months from now) so my goal is to have him looking show ready and feeling his best. I know any such long-term benefits will require more time, but I am particularly interested in monitoring any changes in his hoof health. I plan on taking weekly pictures of his progress, starting with the below body conformation shot of him today (March 15th). As you can see, he’s missing some hair (hello blanket rubs) and has discolored patches of hair from scratches and healing bouts of winter bumps and dryness. I’ll be monitoring any changes in his weight, conformation and energy levels during exercise and will make any adjustments as needed as we go along.
So in conclusion, if my horse improves from the grain-free experiment, then I’ll need to find ways to make it affordable, and similar to my own diet, sustainable and doable. It does all circle back to my own experiences with food, and if we ourselves make conscious food choices for our own health, vitality and performance, then how can we be so unattuned when it comes to our horses food and overall wellbeing? I realize I’m guilty here, but hope to make some diet changes through proper research and supplementation that will give my wonderful friend a longer and more comfortable life. I’ll share more on the exact products and feed supplements in the blog posts to come.
March 15th – Day 1 Grain Free Challenge
*** Disclaimer, as always, we recommend to always consult your veterinarian on any dietary or supplementation needs your horse may require!