Whole Oats, the Perfect Horse Feed?
Part 1

by Yvonne Welz ©2004-2011

This article was published in The Horse's Hoof Magazine Issue 14, Winter 2004.
*Note: Some horses are grain-intolerant or sensitive to oats. Avoid feeding oats if you suspect EPSM/PSSM, muscle problems, or metabolic disorder, and discontinue oats if you notice any problems with your horse.

The topic of equine nutrition was a featured presentation at the 2003 Internat’l Conference for Strasser Hoofcare. Prepared by Dr. med. vet. Dorothe Meyer of IWEST, Germany, every stage of the horse’s digestive process was covered in detail.

One of the highlights was the information that in order for the enzymatic processes of the small intestine to properly function, there has to be a limited acid concentration. This partly depends on the starch content of the feed. When a high ratio of starch arrives in the small intestine, the contents of the small intestine become more acidic, to facilitate the digestion of this starch.

However, below a pH of 6 (too acidic) the enzymatic breakdown doesn’t always happen, and things like gas and ulcers can occur. This is more likely to occur when feeding large quantities of cereals that contain starch, which is difficult to break down, such as corn and barley. The enzymatic consequences of feeding large amounts of corn and barley is a disruption of the pH of the small intestine, which leads to the transition of undigested starch into the large intestine (colic, gas, acid feces, insufficient absorption of minerals).

Which leads us to oats, which have 90% starch digestibility, compared to around 30-35% for barley and corn. So when oats are fed (in appropriate amounts), they are easily broken down in the small intestine, and the enzymatic processes are not disturbed.

Whole oats are ideal because:
• high proportion of mucilaginous substances
• high proportion of husks
• high prececal starch digestibility even before breakdown
• high fat content
• ideal to chew taking into account the horse’s dentition
• very high palatability

Another reason for whole oats (instead of crushed) is that you need the intact kernel in order to receive the fat content of the whole grain. The husk of the whole oat is very important for correct chewing and digestive processes. A horse with good teeth and proper dental care will chew and digest the whole oat, leaving only husks in the manure. If oats are coming out undigested, there could be a tooth or digestion problem going on, so be sure to investigate that.

How many whole oats? Of course, that would depend on the workload—if the horse was not worked and was on good pasture, perhaps none at all. If the horse receives significant exercise (as all our horses should) and/or is not on pasture (hay only), or is recovering from a problem, it will most likely benefit from the addition of some whole oats to its diet.

It was recommended that oats be fed broken up into many small meals, with a maximum of up to 2.4 kg per meal for a 600 kg gram horse (converts to around 5 lb per meal for a 1320 lb horse—remember that is the maximum, not the recommended!). Also, the oats should be introduced gradually, of course.

German SHP Peter Speckmaier told me that when horses are fed too many oats, they get lazy, and not too energetic—I imagine he’s speaking from experience—so you can tell if you are giving too much when the horse lacks energy. I also heard from quite a few people that the addition of whole oats has increased hoof growth. I’ve fed whole oats for many years, but not in any significant quantity, so I upped the oats on my own horses. Things are looking very good so far.

Dr. Meyer contends that a problem with sport horses today is that they often do not have a sufficient supply of the fatty acids to fulfill their energy requirements, and actually panic from the feeling that they do not have the energy they need, and take refuge in flight. Therefore, some horses may appear hyper and uncontrollable (and then the owner cuts down on the oats!) when what they really need are more oats to give them enough energy to do their job, and they won’t be so hyper.

More interesting information from Dr. Meyer was that the job of the bacteria in the large intestine is to produce the volatile fatty acids which are the horse’s very energy source. Dr. Meyer said we should avoid anything that will harm these beneficial bacteria, as anything that endangers them, endangers the very life of the horse (one of the reasons to be so careful with antibiotics!)

Jane Kempton, UK SHP, comments about her experiences feeding whole oats to her horses: “I have noticed a change and relaxation in his being since he has been on the oats for nearly four months. Hoof growth has increased and the coats of all the horses look fantastic. They don’t grab at the buckets quite the same as they did before, and Hugo and Mouse produce enough dripping saliva to turn the bowl into a sort of porridge as they are eating. It’s being digested even before it goes into their mouths!!

“The droppings are slightly different, too. In the beginning quite a few oats were coming out whole, simply because in their excitement, the horses weren’t chewing them properly. Now it is only a few husks that appear. Feeding whole oats is a complete novelty in England. You have to order the bags specially as there is no demand. To start with, it seemed a huge amount to feed, but our horses are doing fine, too well, in fact…”

Erica Lynall, UK SHP, told us about feeding whole oats to her formerly foundered mare: “My mare, Moose, has been on whole oats for 2 years, but I upped the amount in the summer after talking with Peter Speckmaier. I fed too much, and she did start to get lazy—it was really weird, and I thought something was wrong with her. Now she’s on the right amount, and she’s full of energy and fantastic to ride. Before that, I wasn’t feeding enough.

“Peter told me that ammonia in her liver was causing her to be sensitive on stones (she’s ex laminitis). He said the ammonia seeps out through the skin, eyes and lamellae, but it actually sits in the lamellae and causes this sensitivity. Moose has suffered runny eyes since I’ve known her, but they are 85% better now (the eyes are on the liver meridian). The protein and fat in the whole oats helps heal the tissues, and I’ve also been treating her liver with herbs and homeopathics to speed things along, as otherwise it could take 6-7 years of natural living! I’ve also added extra lysine & methionine, as these are 2 amino acids oats are low in. This makes for a more complete and digestible protein.

“Now, she is stomping over stones like they aren’t there! I can hardly believe it, as I’ve battled with this for so long. Back in the summer she was walking on them okay, but carefully, and now there is a big, big difference. Her eyes continue to clear up, too, and she is much easier to handle, as she is more mentally alert.

“I’ve had 5 particularly bad laminitic ponies to trim this past summer, and I told all their owners to start using whole oats. They were a bit worried, as most vets would keel over at this idea, but they trusted and fed them. The healing has gone so much faster and easier for them since the oats. They’ve all had crests and fat deposits, which are softening and disappearing.

“In a book on human nutrition, by John Gray, he states that beer bellies are actually a sign of liver problems/toxicity. The reason they are also known as “middle-age spread” is that it takes until middle age for the liver to start causing this bloated appearance. I’ve noticed masses of horses in their teens who appear to be fat, but on second look actually just have a pot belly. John Gray states that no amount of exercise gets rid of this—only detoxing the liver will!”

Note: Organic whole oats are highly recommended if they are available.

Click here for Oats part 2.

©2006 by The Horse's Hoof. All rights reserved. No part of these publications may be reproduced by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher and/or authors. The information contained within these articles is intended for educational purposes only, and not for diagnosing or medicinally prescribing in any way. Readers are cautioned to seek expert advice from a qualified health professional before pursuing any form of treatment on their animals. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.


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