Ever since Gem's less than stellar effort on the second loop of our last conditioning ride, I have been pouring all my extra time and energy into researching equine nutrition. It amounted to roughly 40 or so hours of reading articles and talking to people. By the end of it all my head was swimming, but I did formulate a solid plan of action.
Big bold disclaimer here: I am not an equine nutritionist, I do not have a veterinary medicine degree and I am in no way shape or form considering myself an expert on this subject. I am just providing here what I was able to find out through discussion and personal research.
Here is what I found out, from as many reputable sources as possible, about equine nutrition:
~ Corn is the devil and is pure sugar, so don't use it as a food source...unless your horse does really well on it then go ahead and feed it.
~ Oats provide good fiber and nutrition and is a staple in horse feeding regimens...unless it gives your horse ulcers and makes them high as a kite...then don't feed it.
~ Barley is a good substitute for oats except when your horse doesn't get enough energy from it.
~ Beet pulp is a wonderful fiber base and provides long term energy...except it can cause choke if not moistened...except in complete feeds when it doesn't need moistened....except maybe it does still need moistened
~ Grain based feeds (oats, barley, corn) are not good choices for horses due to the higher carbs in it and the risk of tie up and ulcers....except most horses actually do need these so go ahead and feed them.
I'm being a little tongue in cheek here, but seriously that isn't far off from what I was able to compile in all my research, article reading and brain picking. There were some basic rules of thumb to follow that made sense to me and made the light bulb finally go off in my head and those are what I am going to talk about here. There has been some research into actual endurance horses which is what I focused on, but this can be extrapolated easily to other disciplines.
When it comes to a good feeding regimen, it should all start with the hay. Free choice high quality hay and access to high quality grass forage in a pasture is number one. Except (see my tongue in cheek opening isn't so far off the mark after all) all hay and grass isn't high quality and most people really don't have much control over this. Yes, you can pick your hay supplier and get it tested, but unless you grow your own hay and can reseeed your pasture all the time, you are limited in where you get these things from. Stuffing your horse full of poor quality hay isn't really going to help much beyond giving them a ton of fiber.
This is where the importance of your "grain" choice comes in. I put that in parenthases because most people call anything they feed their horse in the bucket "grain" when in fact it is only officially "grain" when it contains oats, barley, corn etc...Here is what I was able to find out:
~ Beet pulp is a great starting base. It provides a ton of fiber, holds onto water really well and does have some nutrition as well. It comes from sugar beets and is the left over fiber after processing the sugar beets for other purposes. It comes in pellets or shreds with the pellets requiring soaking in advance. Beet pulp alone is not enough for your horse, but can provide longer sustained energy due to the high fiber content.
~ Oats are a bit controversial, but the overwhelming data shows that they are beneficial for the working horse. One article stated that they are 50% NSC, so be careful of feeding pure oats as your mainstay. There is a big myth out there that horses can not digest it and just pass it through. Unless your horse does not have the ability to chew its food, what you are seeing passing through is the empty hull having the actual nutrient rich seed extruded by chewing and digestion. It is kind of like people eating corn: you see the empty shell pass through having chewed it open and gotten the soft center out of it. Oats do have a good nutrient profile and provide energy. Would I place my pasture puff or an IR horse on oats? No, I personally wouldn't, but for a working horse who needs them it is a great way to go. As far as what to offer, whole oats > rolled/steamed oats > crimped oats in terms of nutrient retention. If you are truly seeing not only the hulls, but also the seeds inside the hulls passing through your horse, then go to rolled oats.
~ Barely is a grain similar in profile to oats but seems to have a lower natural NSC and came up a bunch when people complained of the high as a kite horse on oats as a good alternative. Some complete feeds do offer barley as a major ingredient versus oats.
~ Corn. Ah...corn was interesting. It is pretty much all sugar and has the same glycemic index as sugar at 100. It does provide a lot of short term energy for your horse, but no real nutrition. Most sources said to stay away, although a few high end performance articles did really like adding corn in a 3:1 oats:corn ratio.
So where are we...we have beet pulp as a high fiber base and we have added in some oats for carbs and energy for our endurance horse are we finished? In the words of Pete the Cat (can you tell I have a 3 year old?)....Goodness No!
Beet pulp and oats alone won't provide a good enough vitamin/mineral profile. There are a ton of different ways to provide sufficient vitamins and minerals from adding each one yourself, to providing a ration balancer to feeding a complete feed with it all in there. No matter how you do it, which really seems to be based on personal preference, make sure you are getting a full profile.
Great...now we have fiber (beet pulp), carbs and energy (oats versus barley versus corn) and vitamins/minerals. Surely we are finished? Goodness No!
We still need to discuss protein and fat.
~ Protein. This is what really separates out the endurance horse from other disciplines. Protein requires a lot more energy to break it down and use it than fat does. This in turns creates more heat that needs to be dissipated and one interesting article even stated that it then requires more water consumption and creates higher urine output. Makes sense from what I know of human physiology. Increased heat, less water and more urine are all really bad players in endurance and we spend the entire ride trying to battle those things. You can't eliminate protein or you will kill your horse, so what is a happy medium? It turns out to be 10-12% protein. I was doing a happy dance when I actually saw some numbers start to fly around in the literature.
~ Fat. Horses under a high work load need fat which is easier to get to and break down for energy demands. How you supply that fat is, once again, all over the place. Rice bran was the most commonly recommended with the oils (corn, veggie etc) second. The thing with fat, though, is that no specific values were ever mentioned and the more recent endurance related articles recommended removing extra fat from the diet 7-10 days prior to a ride to help the horse's body get used to using the stores already available.
~Flax seed was another ingredient that kept coming up although the amount and the exact benefits were vague.
~ Carbs. One quick thing that I saw come up time and again that I found useful enough to write down: don't be afraid of NSC in the high performance horse. A lot of marketing has gone into providing low NSC in horse feed and that appears to be a great thing when the vast majority of horses today are overweight and teetering on the edge of being IR. However, in the high performance horse, such as endurance and eventing and the like, the carbs are needed for proper function and stamina. What was recommended was to go ahead and feed the high NSCs (such as oats) when they are working hard, but to decrease on days or periods of rest. Makes a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it.
Ok...beet pulp, oats, vitamins, rice bran, flax seed, low protein. Check.
How do you go about doing all of this?
There are two ways: do it all yourself piecemeal or feed a complete feed with it all in there. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the notes from a recent endurance clinic that the complete feeds are actually being recommended. I thought for sure I would read that you can only do it right if you provide it all yourself.
A lot of complete feeds these days are beet pulp based and contain flax seed and rice bran and all the other goodies that are needed. Here is the thing with complete feed though: you have to feed enough. The labels will provide the recommended allotment usually per 1000 lbs of horseflesh. The problem becomes when the volume required to provide the vitamins and minerals in the required amount is too much for the horse. When this is the case, it is recommended that you add a ration balancer to even it all out and allow you to feed the need volume. Be careful though! Triple Crown has a ration balancer, but it is 30% protein. Not good. You need to continue to keep that protein down, so do your diligence in choosing what balancer you want to add.
One more thing to add about complete feeds which you all may already know, but was a surprise to me. I am so used to human ingredient lists that list the ingredients in order of amounts contained. Not so in horse feed. They label per weight, so just because an ingredient is listed first doesn't mean it is the main ingredient in the food. It just means that its volume by weight is the most. Maybe not important, but interesting.
Phew!!! I'm exhausted.
After all of that, I have decided to continue with a complete feed to provide all the necessary building blocks that Gem needs while keeping her fat high and protein low. Which feed became a bit of an obsession and I will just rant here a second to say that Purina does not provide online ingredient lists which is not cool. One of the most recommended feeds was LMF Gold which has flax seed and beet pulp and alfalfa along with barley. Problem is that the closest vendor is in TX. The most common here in the SE amongst top endurance folks is Purina Ultium. It took me an enormous amount of effort to get an ingredient list and I was actually shocked to see corn as the grain ingredient in this feed.
When all was said and done and the dust settled on my brain, I made a plan.
Gem: Switch to the Triple Crown Complete which is still a beet pulp based feed with the beet pulp texture and mash-ability (new word!), but has added oats. Protein is 12% which is the highest I would personally feel comfortable with and fat at 12% as well. The only thing it doesn't have is flax seed, but since Gem has never had that anyway I am refusing to lose sleep over it. If volume becomes an issue, I will go back to giving her the Grand Vite supplement that she does well on and I typically use the week leading up to and after a ride. She will get 4 pounds a day with more after a conditioning ride to offset the work performed.
Pete: He is a bit more concerning at the moment. He is getting very little of the Triple Crown Senior because he doesn't need the calories to sit in a pasture, but that also means he isn't getting anywhere near the vitamins and minerals that he needs. He will be getting a small handful of the Complete with 1/2 pound of the Triple Crown 30% ration balancer twice a day.
Big bold disclaimer again in case you forgot after all that babble: I am not an equine nutritionist nor am I a veterinarian. I do not claim to make any opinion on what you should do for your horse nor do I lay claim to the above being 100% true. The above was based on personal research of available articles, peer reviewed studies (of which their is a shameful paucity) and speaking with those in my sport with proven records and longevity. Go forth on your nutrition adventure with common sense, care, and the help of your vet.