“Grain-free” has become a popular buzzword in the pet and horse industries. What is a grain-free diet, and is it something you should consider for your horse?
Search “grain-free horse diet” on a horse forum or in a barrel racing Facebook group, and you’re bound to get quite a few hits. The trend has gained popularity in the last few years, alongside a similar movement in the pet food industry. With the abundance of information available, it can be confusing to sift through all of the options and separate fact from fiction.
Some of those options can be appropriate when fed correctly, but others might rob your horse of the nutrients it needs for its workload. Therefore, it is essential to first know why you’re wanting to make the switch—whether it’s for a medical condition, reduction of certain ingredients or as a personal preference— then work with a nutritionist to ensure you’re feeding a diet that is balanced for your horse’s particular needs.
Much like with dog and cat food, grain-free diets have gained a lot of publicity in the horse world. Part of the reason grain-free diets have gained popularity in dog and cat food, and now horse feed, is that meals higher in soluble carbohydrates— high in grain—can be detrimental to horses. Because of that, if an owner is concerned with the sugar and starch in their horse’s diet, they might consider going grain-free.
In the animal feed world, grain-free does not necessarily mean what it sounds like, though. According to Dr. Katie Young, consulting equine nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research, the term can get a little tricky. To start with, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which is the regulatory group that defines ingredients used in animal and pet food, simply classifies “grain” as seed from a cereal plant.
“The major cereal grains are corn, rice and wheat, and as far as horses are concerned, oats and barley are also considered cereal grains,” Young said. “A cereal is any grass cultivated for the edible components of its grain. Therefore, grain-free means it does not include these whole grains, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t include any part of a grain.”
Based on that, Young said if a horse owner is considering going grain-free, it’s important to know why that is. Are they looking to reduce something in a horse’s diet, like calories or soluble carbs? Or are they perhaps trying to avoid a certain ingredient due to a food sensitivity? If it’s the former, then going grain-free might not be necessary. The owner could switch to a different type of grain or reduce the amount of high-carb ingredients. For instance, since corn is high in starch, a feed that is corn-based wouldn’t be recommended. Unless it is believed the horse is actually allergic to corn, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean the ingredient has to be wiped out entirely.
“As a nutritionist, I tend to go to the nutrients rather than the particular source of those nutrients,” Young said. “It is rare, though not impossible, for a horse to have a sensitivity to a certain ingredient, but food allergies in horses are very uncommon.”
Some medical conditions, such as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), also known as Cushing’s disease, or Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM), may require a horse to eat a diet that is reduced in starch and sugar. In most cases, it still probably isn’t necessary to go completely grain-free, but the owner should look at the components of their horse’s diet as a whole to determine the best course of action.
“For some of the muscle myopathies, a feed that is in the mid-20 percent for soluble carbs may be perfectly appropriate for that muscle myopathy,” Young said. “It depends on the medical condition and what that individual horse needs to help manage that condition.”
If the owner wants to feed grain-free because they believe it to be a healthier option, then as long as it meets their horse’s basic nutritional needs and energy requirements, such a diet can be successful. For performance horses, it might take a little more work on the owner’s end and some supplementation to make sure the diet is complete.
The Options Are Many
No matter the reason for feeding grain-free, preparing the correct diet for a horse’s activity level is essential. Barrel racing, for instance, requires anaerobic exercise, characterized by short bursts of power and speed. The main fuel used for anaerobic exercise is muscle glycogen, a polysaccharide made up of glucose molecules, which is sugar.
“If it’s a maintenance horse or light-exercising horse, it will usually receive adequate fuel from a forage diet,” Young said. “If the horse is being worked hard, competed regularly and hauled down the road, its calorie requirements are going to be much higher. You’ll rarely be able to meet all the energy needs with forages alone, so you’ll need an additional source of calories.”
Feeds that are technically considered grain-free by AAFCO standards, even though they contain some grain by-products, can provide those extra calories needed by high-performing horses. For instance, professional barrel racer Ivy (Conrado) Saebens feeds a small amount of Renew Gold Senior daily. It consists of stabilized rice bran, ground peas, coconut meal and stabilized milled flaxseed but doesn’t include corn, soy or wheat.
“We feed a pound of the Renew Gold Senior once a day, along with alfalfa hay,” Saebens said. “I feel like it makes their digestive system work better having hay or grass in front of them. We have really good grass where I live in Oklahoma. The Renew Gold Senior has a high protein content, so I only have to feed a pound of it, and it’s all natural. None of it’s genetically modified.”
Saebens believes this diet works well for her horses, especially KN Fabs Gift Of Fame, or “JLo,” her 2019 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Reserve World Champion and National Finals Rodeo Average Champion. JLo is a finicky eater and doesn’t like large meals of grain.
“I think it just helps their digestive system not feeding a lot of grain, which is really important on the road,” Saebens said. “You see a lot of people who come out here and they have horses colic, and I think if your horse has a healthy digestive system, you don’t run into stuff like that.”
If grains and grain byproducts are a no-go, there are forage-only diets that can work with proper supplementation. Professional barrel racer Andrea Cline started feeding forage-only about six years ago, choosing to go the alfalfa cubes route because she hated the waste that can sometimes be involved with alfalfa hay, like when a horse pees in their forage. Her family fed cubes when she was growing up in Nevada, so she was familiar with the concept.
“It’s something I had been reading about for quite a while,” Cline said of why she chose to go grain-free. “I have a problem when I read ingredients with stuff I can’t pronounce, so I started looking at ingredient lists.”
Cline feeds a soy-free alfalfa pellet along with cubes. Her horses get three meals a day — cubes and pellets in the morning and evening, and coastal hay at lunch time to keep the gut moving. If she feels certain horses need extra carbohydrates, she supplements with beet pulp.
A forage-only diet like this requires a vitamin and mineral supplement or ration balancer to make up for any nutritional deficiencies, Young said. This is because once forage is cut, the Vitamin A and Vitamin E activity in the plant start to decrease, and by the time a hay is several months old, it has lost the majority of that content. Most forages have marginal to deficient amounts of minerals like copper, sodium and zinc, too, and they rarely provide adequate amino acids for working horses.
“I’m a fanatic about mineral. Everybody has to have mineral—people, horses, everybody,” Cline said, noting all her horses get vitamin and mineral supplements along with a molasses nutrient lick tub. “Minerals are key for filling in any holes in the diet. They are big.”
Forage is always important in equine diets, but when going grain-free, it is even more essential. The higher quality a hay is, the more available its nutrients will be for absorption. Hay that was cut at an immature stage will be more easily digested than hay that was allowed to mature before it was baled.
While many in the performance horse world tend to favor alfalfa, Young said alfalfa isn’t necessarily more nutritious than grass hays. It does tend to be higher in protein and calcium, but all of that protein and calcium in the alfalfa may not be available for absorption in the horse. And, when it comes to processed alfalfa, it can be hard to know what kind of quality you’re getting.
“The alfalfa that is chopped and mixed that goes into making cubes or pellets ends up being a pretty average alfalfa,” Young added. “It’s neither really high-quality alfalfa nor really poor-quality alfalfa—just a moderate alfalfa.”
Still, research indicates that horses can get adequate fiber and calories from those processed forages without any long-stem hay supplementation. If cubes and pellets are only fed in a couple large meals a day, though, it’s possible that could cause issues in the future, since the horse’s stomach was designed for small amounts of forage to pass through over long stretches of time.
“That can be a long time that there’s really not much of anything in their gut,” Young said. “Therefore, if you go to processed forages, more meals a day is more advantageous and healthier for the horse’s gut. I think many horses do very well on pelleted forages, but it’s a little more management intensive to make sure those processed forages are fed correctly so as not to increase the risk of digestive disturbances, such as colic or gastric ulcers.”
Both Saebens and Cline have noted some changes in their horses since putting them on their current diets. Saebens said she hasn’t had horses tie up in quite a while, for example, and she attributes that in large part to how Renew Gold is nutritionally balanced.
“As far as being a barrel racer, the main things you’re trying to stay away from are stomach issues, inflammation and tying up,” Saebens said. “It might just be a little bit of how they’re bred, but it’s also the feeding programs and people not paying attention to the protein content or the starch and sugar. You need to be careful if you’re feeding an insane amount of grain if you don’t even really know what’s in it.”
Since she started feeding grain-free, a big difference Cline has seen between her horses and others is her horses don’t usually get “hot,” or full of excess energy that makes them difficult to handle. Instead, they keep a more even keel, she said.
“I have horses that are bred to be that type, but they’re really not,” Cline said. “Everything is just kind of even, as far as they maintain their weight and I’m not fighting that kind of hotness. Granted, some horses are hot, but I don’t play into it, and it just seems like it’s not an issue.”
Neither barrel racer feels like their feeding program is difficult to handle on the road, and storage-wise at home, it’s not much different than how a horse owner would typically need to store grain and hay.
Saebens did note that Renew Gold and Renew Gold Senior looks pricey when compared to conventional grain feeds at first glance, but she says because it is designed to be fed in small amounts, the price evens out. Cline didn’t think her routine was any more expensive than a bag of grain, and in fact, it might even be a little cheaper since the cubes and pellets include less ingredients and aren’t as in-demand, she said.
In the end, feeding grain-free, whether it’s for a health reason or because you think your horse performs better on it, can require a fair amount of work and research to get the diet just right. If you don’t do your homework before you switch, you could end up with a nutrient-deficient diet, and for high-performing athletes, that can be especially detrimental. Overall, as long as the diet is balanced correctly and is meeting the horse’s nutritional needs and performance levels, it can be a valid choice.
“For a barrel racer, if you’re just trying to steer away from the definition of grains, that’s not difficult to do. If you’re trying to steer away from all grains and grain byproducts, it does get trickier,” Young said. “I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it’s harder to do. If your horse maintains appropriate body weight and body condition and is getting the fuel it needs for its workload, you should be good to go.”