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oats for horses

How do I Feed Oats to my Horse?

In this article, we are going to look at the various types and forms of oats for horses and which we feel is the best to feed to your horse or pony.

We will be looking into the nutritional values, along with some of the pros and cons of the different types of oats and when is the best time and way to feed oats to horses.

What are Oats for Horses?

Oats are oats, right? No, not all oats are created equal.

Most oats fed to horses are whole, meaning each kernel is encased in a hull or fibrous sheath. Because the inside of the oat is the nutritious part oats are frequently subjected to processing, typically rolling or crimping, which cracks the hulls and renders them more digestible as they pass through the digestive system. Hulls constitute a considerable portion of the grain, between 23 and 35% depending on the variety, and are usually over 30% crude fibre. Because of their high fibre content and lower starch value in comparison to maize and barley, whole oats have traditionally been a relatively safe feed for horses as long as they are not EMS or lamintic. Oats are the only cereal that our team at Forageplus feel should be routinely fed to metabolically healthy horses but we like them to be fed as the groat and in a high fibre carrier such as unmollassed beet pulp.

What types of horse oats can I feed to horses?

  • Whole oats: These are as they come from the field, complete with the husks (or outer casing). This means they have the highest fibre level of all oats and grains. However, very young horses or veterans with teeth problems may have difficulty chewing these, so will not get the full nutritional benefit. These oats are best soaked overnight before feeding.  Some people will sprout this type of oat.
  • Bruised oats: The husk of the oat is broken to allow the digestive enzymes access to the nutrients and aid better digestibility.
  • Rolled oats: Rolling has a similar effect to bruising. The past horse owners would buy whole oats and roll them on an ad hoc basis to maximise storage time.
  • Crimped oats: This process damages the husk and increases the surface area, so the digestive juices can get to work more effectively.
  • Clipped oats: Oats are often clipped alongside bruising. The ends of the grain are trimmed to give a neater final product.
  • Crushed oats: This is a rougher process, which involves breaking both the husk and the kernel of the oat. This makes them slightly more digestible, but they suffer from short shelf life.
  • Naked oats: These are grown to have loose husks that are shed when harvested. This lowers the fibre content and increases digestibility. In addition, they have a third more digestible energy and protein than a standard oat, plus they are high in oil.  Our naked oats are slightly steamed and then rolled to be like porridge oats.

The Nutritional Value of Oats for Horses

Oats provide concentrated high energy, high phosphorous food for horses.  Where phosphorus levels are low in grass or hay horses are eating then the addition of oats to the bucket feed will enable phosphorous levels to be raised in the daily diet.  This is particularly important in the diets of both young horses and breeding mares, both of which require high levels of phosphorous to facilitate healthy bone development in the foetus, foal and young horse. To improve upon the nutritional qualities of traditional oats, plant breeders created varieties of hull-less or naked oats. Despite their name, hulls do shroud the kernel while the plant is maturing, but they are paper-thin and loosely attached, so they readily separate from the remainder of the kernel during harvesting.

In essence, hull-less oats are self-milling. Hull-less oats and dehulled oats are not the same. The hulls of dehulled oats are mechanically removed from the kernel, and this process may leave the kernel damaged and unpalatable. Some varieties of naked oats have been found to have increased levels of other nutrients, most notably protein, fat, and phosphorus.

Traditional oats contain approximately 9-12% protein, while naked, hull-less oats usually check-in at 15-20% protein. Differences in the amino acid profiles of each also exist. Naked oats are believed to contain 62% more lysine (0.65% in naked oats and 0.40% in conventional oats) and nearly double the amount of methionine found in conventional oats (0.40% in naked oats and 0.20% in conventional oats).

This is good news for horse owners caring for young growing horses. Lysine and methionine are critical amino acids for proper muscle development and maintenance. A deficiency in either may lead to slow growth or lacklustre performance.

  • Naked varieties possess 9-12% fat, considerably more than the approximate 5% found in hulled oats. The additional calories in hull-less oats come from natural oil stores in the kernels. Because the calories are derived from fat and not starch, hull-less oats are less likely to induce digestive disturbances in performance horses. This nutrient density also translates into savings for horse owners because they can ultimately feed fewer oats while fulfilling basic nutritional needs.
  • Naked oats typically have more phosphorus than hulled oats. These varieties may contain nearly 30% more phosphorus, which would make them a wise complement to diets composed largely of high-calcium legume forages such as alfalfa or high calcium hays and grasses.

Some horse owners may be hesitant to feed hull-less oats because they believe the hulls contribute significantly to the fibre intake of horses. Fibre is undoubtedly essential for the proper functioning of the equine digestive tract but this fibre is better provided by hay and grass rather than high levels of hulled cereal.

Cereals are fed to elevate the energy content of a diet in instances where a forage-based diet of hay and grass cannot meet calorie demands brought about by work, growth, or reproduction. This is just simply a situation where the horse cannot consume enough hay and grass due to the bulk needed to provide the number of calories needed to provide the energy and weight maintenance. An additional point is that while whole oats do contain significant fibre, it is not the sort easily digested by the horse.

Are oats heating?

Many people avoid feeding oats to their horses because they have found that they cause silly, fizzy and overexcitable behaviour. This can certainly be true if they are fed on their own in large quantities.  We have found that if they are fed in proportion to the level of work actually being done, and with a fast soak high fibre provider, oats rarely cause a problem.

Out of all the cereals used here in the UK and Europe, oats have the lowest digestible energy of the cereals. Barley and maize are far more likely to cause digestive upset and fizzy behaviour due to these cereals having a much higher starch content. It is starch that causes the “heating” effect, as it is broken down rapidly into glycogen and then glucose. These sugars are absorbed very quickly, giving the horse a rush of energy.

While most horses are not affected, a few do react by becoming excitable. This is as likely, if not more so, to occur with maize and barley (which are both higher in energy) as it is with oats.

We have found however that the practice of feeding a fast soak high fibre provider with the oats as a naked porridge oat form will slow the release of the starch and mean that these oats can be fed safely to most horses and they stay sane with a controlled and measured energy release attitude.

Glucose and Oats

Glucose is the most important fuel for all cells in the horse’s body.  There is a baseline minimum requirement for glucose without which all cells would die.  Glucose is so essential the horse’s body is equipped to produce it from other substances if dietary levels are low.

Muscle cells do pull glucose from the blood when working but they cannot get a sufficient amount this way. They are heavily reliant on glucose stored inside muscle and liver cells in the form of glycogen.

With exercise, fat, amino acids and glucose are burned.  The relative percentages depend on the intensity of the exercise but can be influenced to some extent by diet and level of fitness.  However, the bottom line for both high-speed work and endurance-type work is that glycogen stores are the limiting factor.

Racing, eventing and endurance are the sports where horses are most likely to face limited exercise capacity related to insufficient glycogen.  Horses doing less strenuous work may be just fine with lower levels of glycogen in their muscles.  As you might expect, signs of insufficient glycogen include the inability to continue performing beyond a certain distance/time duration with slow work and the inability to meet speed targets with faster work. A horse that feels like they are running out of petrol in the tank may well need glycogen supplies increasing.

When to Feed Oats to your Horse

The harder a horse works the more likely it is to need a concentrated calorie source and high glycogen supplies to build reserves in the muscles and liver.  Even when holding weight and muscling well on hay and grass-only diets, endurance, stamina and speed may suffer without the inclusion of some type of more concentrated carbohydrate source. Feed oats in the daily feed along with a forage focused horse feed balancer which matches to balance grass and hay.

Using a guide of feeding no more than 1 kg in any one feed and a ratio of 2 parts high fibre fast soak feed to one parts oats is highly successful.  For example, if you feed 200 grams of oats then make sure you feed 400 grams of a high fibre feed such as unmolassed sugar beet and a hay pellet along with the oat measure. You could therefore either feed 200 grams of oats and 400 grams of beet pulp or hay pellets or you could feed 200 grams of oats, 200 grams of sugar beet and 200 grams of hay pellets. The table below helps explain this more clearly.

Sugar Beet
1400 gramsnone200 grams
2none400 grams200 grams
3200 grams200 grams200 grams

Feeding oats directly after work is also beneficial to serve as a quick-release form of glycogen. To fuel muscles and future performance and give your horse more stamina during any exercise try glycogen loading after work. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose which is the energy that fuels all cells in the body.  Glycogen is stored in both the muscles and the liver. Supply levels can be increased by refuelling the body after work. Lethargy, poor stamina and poor muscle development may all be seen when a horse is low in protein, sodium or glycogen or all three.  It pays then to be on the ball with minerals and vitamins to power the chemical and enzymatic processes in the body which use the glycogen and the protein to build and repair body structures by using a horse feed balancer matched to grass and hay, but to also supply a form of quick and short release carbohydrate after exercise to replace and build glycogen reserves. Naked rolled oats, porridge oats for horses, can be part of this glycogen loading approach.

How many oats to feed to a horse each day

To support glycogen loading and protein levels then follow this protocol at the same time as providing minerals and vitamins matched to grass and hay:

  • Feed a small feed after each work period. We find unmolassed sugar beet and oats with 50 grams of Essential Amino Acids after work – 100 grams of beet pulp and 50-100 grams of naked oats (porridge) is perfect for an average 500 kg horse – this will replenish glycogen supplies in the liver and muscles with the beet pulp being a slow-release and the oats a fast release but low glycaemic carbohydrate source.  Feed this directly after work as this is when the body is most hungry to replenish the glycogen supplies and it will be done most efficiently.
  • If you feel your horse needs a larger feed then stick to a 50:50 mixture of beet pulp to oats and increase up to 300 grams of each.
  • Alternatively, you could use Pea Protein or Topline Plus instead of Essential Amino Acids. Essential Amino Acids after work at 50 grams and also 100 grams of pea protein in the daily bucket feed with the balancer will give a great range of the essential amino acids.  Whether you do one or both is down to how much exercise your horse does and the possible levels of protein in the hay and grass eaten.  If you know, through analysis, the hay fed is low in protein for moderate work, then include 100 grams of Pea Protein or Topline Plus each day in the bucket feed.  Horses seem to love the taste which is a bonus.
Feeding horse oats

Can you feed oats to horses who are prone to laminitis?

Horses and ponies who are prone to laminitis are very sensitive to starch and simple sugar levels in the daily food eaten.  For this reason, extreme care should be taken when using oats as part of their daily diet. Horses who are overweight and need strict calorie control to manage weight loss should not be fed oats. Horses that are in acute laminitis should not be fed oats. Horses with poorly controlled insulin resistance resulting in high insulin levels should not be fed oats. However, where a horse or pony has returned to regular exercise which moves from light into the moderate category then the carbohydrate level of a low sugar and starch laminitis management diet may become too restrictive.

Where a horse ‘hits the wall’ and ‘runs out of petrol’ at a certain level of exercise and or fatigues easily and does not seem to be getting more conditioned with exercise then a higher level of glycogen supply may well be needed.

When a horse exercises, cortisol is released.  The cortisol enables the liver to break down glycogen, the storage form of glucose and release it into the bloodstream to help meet the rising energy demands of the muscle.  The muscle’s uptake of glucose is not dependent upon insulin during exercise. Circulating blood glucose is not sufficient to meet all the energy demands, so muscle relies on its glycogen stores to generate glucose.  When this system is working well glucose levels stay steady during exercise.  After exercise glucose will rise for a while and then return to normal.

Insulin resistance limits the entry of glucose into the live rand muscle which then also limits the ability of these tissues to store the much-needed glycogen.  This means when a laminitis-prone horse goes back into an exercise programme it can struggle to have enough reserves to maintain the level of energy and stamina needed for exercise on low sugar, low-starch, hay-orientated, high-fibre diet.

The solution is to feed more concentrated carbohydrates but time this feeding when the body is most hungry to replenish glycogen reserves and not exceed the horse’s capacity to handle simple carbs as follows:

  • Feed a small feed within one hour of stopping exercise and a second one in the next hour. We find unmolassed sugar beet pulp and oats with 50 grams of Essential Amino Acids after work – 100 grams of beet pulp and 50-100 grams of naked oats (porridge) is perfect for an average 500 kg horse.
  • Stick to your regular low sugar/starch bucket feed and hay otherwise.
  • If you feel your horse needs a larger feed then stick to a 50:50 mixture of beet pulp to oats and increase up to 200 grams of each.

You may also find it beneficial where a good-doer, laminitis prone horse is on restricted hay content to boost protein supplies especially when the horse is upping the level of work from light to moderate. You can use Pea Protein or Topline Plus each day at 100 grams per 500 kg horse to improve amino acid and protein supplies.

The Summary

The bottom line is that while cereal-free, high-forage diets make sense for some horses, cereal in the form of oats has a place in the diets of horses in exercise or growing youngsters and breeding mares. A careful and measured approach that starts with grass and hay, matches minerals and vitamins and adds appropriate levels of carbohydrate at the right time and in the right amount, in the form of oats mixed with a fast soak fibre provider, can be a game-changer for performance, stamina and all-round horse health.

Interesting in finding out the nutritional value of your own grass or hay? Check out our range of forage analysis services by clicking here.

Check out our winter performance horse feed balancer here.

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