Week 2 – Grain Free Challenge
Learnings and Observations
To my horse’s dismay, his once sugar-laden meals have now completely vanished! For several reasons, I took the first week to slowly transition him off from his grain to his now purely forage based pellets. First and foremost, a horse’s gut is very finicky, and what they eat on a day-to-day basis determines the type of gut bacteria that thrives in their digestive track. If you switch a horse’s normal feed too quickly, their carefully catered gut microbes can struggle to breakdown the new food, due to differences in the protein, fiber, carb and fat structures. Therefore, to avoid diarrhea, or even worse, a potential colic, it’s crucial to slowly introduce new foods and give their sensitive tummy’s time to “retrain” their gut microbes. For the second reason, my horse was a sugar addict. He’s been on some form of sticky sweet feed for some time now. I knew if I offered him a scoop full of purely alfalfa pellets, he’d rather just go hungry (insert dramatic effect). So, by reducing his grain by ¼ scoop every few days, and bumping up his forage pellets, he’s slowly coming to terms that maybe his new food isn’t so bad after all.
*For anyone who’s also making this transition with a picky eater, I highly recommend soaking your forage pellets in warm/hot water. This made all the difference in my horse eating his new breakfast/dinner. Plus, compressed forage pellets will expand when soaked, so allowing them to expand prior to feeding reduces any chance of expanding in the gut and causing blockages. More water in the gut = always a good thing!
Since starting the challenge, and sharing with others, I’ve had a number of people ask me “aren’t you worried about weight loss??”, seemingly to imply that I was in some way shape or form “starving” my horse. To that end, I started to do some research on the effects of grain in the digestive track as it pertains to weight. Obviously when we eat, our food moves along our digestive track, starting in our mouth as we salivate and chew, then passing through our stomach and then onto the small and large intestines. At each stage of digestion, our bodies are breaking down our food into smaller and smaller components, preparing the final microscopic molecules to be absorbed into our intestinal lining, where we later convert and use those absorbed molecules as energy within the body. Interestingly, our gut lining serves as a strict gate keeper, allowing only certain molecules to enter into our bodies, and some with more ease than others. For example:
- Molecules broken down from certain foods (such as water, fruits and vegetables), pass with ease, causing no irritation or inflammation in the gut as they are readily absorbed.
- Certain bacteria and toxins are NOT permitted through the intestinal walls, and are then expedited through the digestive track (hello diarrhea).
- Lastly, molecules from foods (such as sugar and complex carb/starches), are very difficult to pass through the intestinal walls, and require a great deal of energy to absorb. This energy expenditure causes inflammation and irritation in the gut lining. The energy expenditure is due partly because our gut lining (the gate keeper) is trying to keep the molecules out. So while some molecules are absorbed (with great difficulty), others pass through completely. We’ve all seen the undigested pieces of oats in our horse’s manure, so really, what was the point of feeding it in the first place?
My point? Take an old horse who cannot put on weight, regardless of how much grain you feed, or the OTTB whose ribs and hips protrude, even though the horse is on 4 scoops of a feed per day. The case, more often than not, is that the horse’s gut is severely inflamed, leading to ulcers, discomfort and weight loss. So overall, the energy expenditure of trying to absorb the starchy molecules can often outweigh any caloric benefits, regardless of how calorie dense the food source might be. So just as food for thought (no pun intended) for anyone with a ‘hard keeper”, perhaps take a look at your horse’s gut health to determine why they are having difficulty gaining weight. In many cases, we over feed, supplement and medicate our horses (and even ourselves) but often, getting back to basics can make all the difference in facilitating the natural functions of a horse’s gut ecosystem.
This should come as no surprise, but horses are meant to thrive on grass and water alone. Do they need additional salt, minerals and vitamins? Sure do. In nature, salt and respective minerals exists in loose form, accumulating on rock surfaces and sediments near water sources. So, while our pastured friends might not have a surplus of naturally occurring salt and minerals, it is important that we are adding them back to our domesticated horses diet, via salt licks and vitamin/mineral balancers. However, be wary of commercial-grade salt blocks, as many of them contain artificial dyes and even sweeteners to encourage horses to literally EAT their salt blocks (which causes good, caring horse owners to go buy more salt blocks and put more money in the big feed companies pockets). A reliable, additive-free salt block I can recommend is the 100% Himalayan rock salt lick (I get mine on a rope and hang it in my horse’s stall).
OK, so now onto the 2-week status report. Other than myself being noticeably poorer (JK), I am excited to report an improvement in my horse’s overall attitude and way of going during exercise and lessons. Perhaps there is a bit of a placebo effect in my mind, but my horse (as my trainer has told me) is like a body builder. He is strong and super muscled, and can pull off all the Prix St. George dressage tricks. However, dressage goes far beyond the ability to pirouette and pop out tempi changes, as there is the whole element of “swing” and “elasticity” that comes from the propulsion created from a stretchy backend and topline. Long story short, my horse needed yoga, and for months prior to his grain-free challenge, I’ve had difficulty to get him to REALLY stretch, slow down, take a breath and relax through his body. Again, maybe it’s just in my head, but since eliminating grain and giving him 24/7 access to premium hay and spring grass, he’s been less fussy and notably more willing. Yesterday, his extended trot gave me chills (and almost popped me out of the saddle!).
I take it back. It’s not a placebo effect. I can say with some level of confidence that the overall level of inflammation in my horse’s body has decreased since waning him off from sweet feed and that he’s feeling more comfortable, properly energized, and even though it may sound silly to some, I think he is happier. His once breakfast/dinner sugar-surges have stopped, and he’s spending more time continually grazing, allowing his alkaline saliva to buffer his intestinal lining against excess stomach acid. I’m feeling more confident as I continue to read others success stories and learning about the right products and the “do’s and don’ts” in providing a long-term, healthy diet. So although I am still relatively new to this experiment, here are my starter tips for embarking on the grain free challenge:
- Transition Feed Slowly – Slowly reduce your horse’s normal amount of grain over several days. It is helpful to transition them to a forage based pellet so they “think” they’re still getting breakfast/dinner. This will prevent temper tantrums at feeding times and will keep your horse on his normal schedule (thereby avoiding unnecessary stress for your horse).
- Soak Forage Pellets – Your horse’s new forage pellets are more than likely compressed hay types or beet pulp. This not only makes it difficult and quite dry for them to chew, but can lead to expansion in the gut and potentially cause blockages. Soak your horse’s forage pellets in warm water to allow them to expand and become more palatable for your horse to chew and swallow.
- Free Choice Hay/Grass – This is important. Your horse needs to be eating for around 18 hours a day, so make sure they have access to good quality hay or grass at all times. If your turnout doesn’t offer grass, consider placing a round bale feeder out in their pasture. While stalled, provide a slow feed hay net.
- Provide a Salt Block – Processed grains usually include salt, vitamins and minerals. So if you’re removing grain from your horse’s diet, make sure to add them back in the form of a good quality salt block OR by adding a ration balancer to your horse’s diet.
So here’s Deutschmark’s 2 week conformation shot. He is slowly shedding his clipped, rough winter coat and is growing his spring coat (although it has made his weird areas of recovering bumps and baldness quite dark and noticeable!). He’s still got a ways to go, but I see improvements and I’m excited to continue his progress towards becoming the healthiest and happiest horse he can be!
*Excuse the muddy barn! We had a heck of a storm come through (with tornados not too far off) and our poor barn completely flooded. Crazy spring weather here in North GA.
*** As always, we recommend to always consult your veterinarian on any dietary or supplementation needs your horse may require!