All Natural -The Perfect Equine Diet
By Erica Stoton
For almost as long as the domestic horse has existed it has been the aspiration of many horse owners, nutritionists and veterinarians to define the perfect equine diet. For generations wild horses have thrived on scrub plains, herbs (weeds), tree bark, fruits and tubers. However, humankind seems intent on reinventing the diet of the domestic horse. As an old East coast saying goes, "there ain't nothing that can be found but a substitute for them" and this is true of the natural equine diet. When it comes to food, many people in the horse world seem to believe that it is necessary to invent a substitute for that which is natural to the horse. It is also truthfully said that "you are what you eat" and with the development of the modern equine diet we must ask ourselves, "What is my horse made of?"
In an age of science and technology, a healthy diet is no longer about real food and wholesome nourishment but rather about the 'nutrition' of what we eat. Nutrition, a supposedly complex science of food and the body's requirements for it, ironically has been dissected into only the very basics of what we and our horses need to survive. Today, good nutrition means that we are provided with the essential components necessary for daily bodily function and a certain level of health. Our horses, like us, subsist mostly on processed feeds that are thought to be healthful due to the fact that they are 'nutritionally complete'. Yet these nutritionally complete feeds, such as extruded feed pellets and highly processed grains with preservatives, have likely contributed to what we consider to be inevitable equine ailments: dental problems, bloat, impaction, colic, toxicities, internal organ dysfunction, parasite infestation, behavior problems, arthritis, and more. These effects are bringing home the realization that our horses must return to their centuries-old natural diet if they are to possess optimum health.
The modern horse's diet consists mostly of grain, hay and pelleted or prepared feed. Surprisingly, grain plays a very small role in the natural equine diet. Grain based feeds are very commonly fed to horses and include corn, wheat, oats and canola. In fact, most grains are seldom encountered by the wild horse and have acid producing, high carbohydrate qualities. They are a common cause of bloat and contribute to ulcers, allergies and digestive problems. Also, the few grains that our horses' wild ancestors would have eaten were not processed grains. The mycotoxins and chemical residues often present in conventional feed grains are silently ruining our horses' health. Pelleted horse feed is one of the greatest detriments to an equine's health. These over-cooked, mutilated 'foods' often contain chemical preservatives, flavourings, waste grain products and sometimes meat or other animal products. They may be pumped with vitamins and minerals, but it does not mean these additives are utilizable by the horse. Pellets hold little true food value and are not much more than tasty filler. Hay and grass make up the more healthy aspect of the modern equine diet, yet their inherent benefits are often negated by human intervention. Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides used on hay crops and around pastures have detrimental effects on the brain, liver, kidneys and immune system, as well as the environment, over the long term. The use of synthetic fertilizers and the resulting depleted soils that much of our hay is produced on eliminates much of the nutritious qualities of these otherwise natural foods. If we are to provide our horses with a natural, nutritious and healthy diet we must examine the many aspects of diet and current food production methods.
Contrary to popular opinion, the basis of a natural diet for the horse is grass, hay and herbs (weeds). The horse that is fed grass only occasionally may get bloat, diarrhea and founder as a result. These upsets are not due to the change in the diet but rather because the horse lacks the digestive enzymes required to digest this food. If a horse eats only a diet of prepared, 'dead' feeds it will not receive nor develop the intestinal flora that promote good digestion.
Interestingly, some sources believe that the so-called 'grass sickness' experienced by some horses in the spring is actually a beneficial cleansing of the horse's digestive system, which removes toxins, worms and harmful bacteria. The type of grass that the horse eats is also of importance. Don't manicure pastures to golf course perfection. Tall, wild grass and beneficial weeds should be encouraged, and rotating pastures often will help maintain their natural state. In many parts of North America and Europe horses can eat grass year round, constituting a large part of their diet.
Herbs are another component of the horse's diet and are a natural element of a properly cultivated pasture. They serve a vital role by providing horses with vitamins, minerals and trace elements that are not found in grass. Certain herbs grow best in particular areas of the world but there is an endless variety that horses enjoy. Herbs such as dandelion, burdock, plantain, clover and chamomile grow almost anywhere and are very beneficial. Weeds, as herbs are often referred to, are easily introduced into grass pastures and the horse will receive great benefits from them. In some cases, dried herbs can be included with hay if the climate eliminates fresh herbs from the diet in the winter months.
Hay is often fed throughout the year and especially winter when cold weather may exclude grass from the diet. Almost any plant can be provided as hay but the most commonly used are meadow grasses, timothy, alfalfa and clover. To ensure that hay was grown on fertile soil and has not been treated with chemicals, it is essential that it be certified organic. The chemical residues present on most hay, even in minute amounts, counteract the many benefits that the feed has.
The grains eaten by wild horses are whole, fresh grains and our horses should be provided with the same if we feed grain. Whole grain wheat, oats, barley, rye and flax are the best choices. They should be fed as a supplement to the diet and not as the base ingredient. Feed enough grains to help the horse maintain energy and weight. This is usually only necessary for working or performance horses. Ideally, grain should not be fed daily or year round; it can be limited to the fall and winter only, the time when the natural horse would have greater access to such foodstuffs. The grains that are fed should preferably be organic to ensure that they are free of chemical residues and mycotoxins. Using grains as only a supplement to the diet will eliminate the tendency for obesity and other problems while still maintaining the horse's weight.
Tree bark is an essential yet seldom considered part of the equine diet. It is eaten in very small quantities but provides numerous minerals and certain nutrients beneficial to digestive tract health, and helps maintain natural wear and sound teeth. Horses with access to trees may be seen chewing on the trunk or low branches and without this luxury many horses resort to chewing fences and stall doors. Please remember that chemically treated and preserved wood is toxic to all horses. Providing access to wooded areas and trees in pastures will satisfy the horse's instinct to chew on bark, which will help promote natural tooth wear and keep the digestive tract healthy. Many useful trees are native to various parts of the world; some common and beneficial ones are willows, birch and apple trees.
Owners often feed the equine fresh and dried fruits and vegetables as an occasional treat, but better yet they should be included regularly in the diet. Carrots, apples, beets, rutabagas, turnips, pears and numerous other fruits and vegetables are very healthy for horses. They should be fed in moderation, but not merely as a treat. The enzymes found in fresh fruits and vegetables help maintain healthy teeth and gums, and promote proper digestion.
It is clear that the natural equine diet contrasts greatly with that of the modern horse. Changing the horse's diet to meet a healthier standard takes some effort on the part of the owner, but in the end the horse will be healthier and happier for it. Food is truly the staff of life and diet impacts many aspects of equine health. A natural diet positively affects how the horse performs, the way the animal eats, the frequency of dental maintenance, and many other facets of horse care. A diet of whole, raw, living foods can only mean immense benefits for our horses.
It is argued that the nutrition provided to horses through a conventional diet has produced healthy, successful horses for many years. But it should also be considered that with conventional diets we have seen an increase in devastating ailments that cause death for numerous horses and chronic suffering for many more. We need to look beyond just 'nutrition' to healthy, natural foods that will provide our horses with sustenance for life and good health. If we are what we eat, then in the effort to define the perfect equine diet we must ask ourselves one question: "Is my horse's health resting on processed, synthetic, chemically adulterated 'nutrition'? Or is it resting on natural, living, pure, healthy foods?"
©2001, Erica Stoton
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