Oats are a traditional mainstay in horse feeding. They are often thought of as a safe grain and frequently make up the basis of a horse’s grain diet. In reality, there are upsides and downsides to feeding oats. Is feeding oats to horses for weight gain a good thing?
In this article, we explore the nutritional makeup of this traditional grain and provide sound advice on how, when and why it should be fed – or not. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
Not All Oats Are Alike
Oats are sourced from all around the world. They are grown in Europe, Canada and the United States. The quality of oats varies depending on a number of factors, such as:
- Growing conditions
- Harvest conditions
- Shipping conditions
- Storage conditions
- Genetic variety
- Nutrient content
- Soil type
Because of this, nutritional content of oats can vary as much as 15% from one batch to the next.
Nutrients Found In Oats
Horses require calcium and phosphorus in balanced amounts for good health. Oats contain these minerals in varying degrees; however, usually this grain contains a great deal more phosphorus than calcium.
Starch metabolizes as sugar, and this can be very detrimental to horses with Cushings syndrome or other metabolic complications.
Oats have been traditionally considered a low starch choice in grains; however, this grain is really only low starch when compared with corn.
Oats typically contain between 32 and 43 percent starch. On the upside, that starch is more digestible than the starch found in other types of grain.
If you are feeding oats for weight gain, this can be a good thing. If you are feeding to prevent metabolic problems, you are better off with a prepared low-starch feed containing between 11 and 14 percent starch.
Amino acids (e.g. threonine, methionine and lysine) are “protein building blocks”. For weight gain, a high level of amino acid content is necessary.
Oats do contain amino acids, but levels vary from one batch of oats to the next, and the levels are not impressively high under any circumstances.
Clearly, there are many variables to consider when feeding your horse oats. A diet of oats alone would not be sufficient for any horse, and as a weight gain supplement oats are definitely lacking.
Can I Feed My Horse Oats?
Poor Digestibility Reduces Oats’ Benefits
The digestibility of oats also varies greatly depending both on the quality of the grain and its processing. Whole, rolled oats are definitely the least digestible. This grain can be crushed, crimped or de-hulled to increase digestibility.
Even so, you are sure to find lots of undigested oats in your horse’s manure. This means the grain has simply passed through your horse’s system as roughage without providing any nutrients.
Problems can arise when the undigested starches in the oats reach the hindgut where the starch begins to ferment.
This process produces a great deal of lactic acid, which interferes with the work of beneficial microbes – the breakdown of fiber. This interference lowers the pH level of the hindgut by increasing acidity.
When acidity levels in the hindgut get too high, beneficial microbes die and release toxins. These toxins can cause myriad health problems such as:
- Digestive imbalance
- Hindgut acidosis
How Can You Help Your Horse Gain Weight?
Consult with your vet to find a high quality complete feed that is appropriate to your horse. These feeds are specially prepared to provide balanced nutrients in an easily digestible form.
Many contain oats that have been processed in a way that makes their nutrients more easily available to horses.
Choose a beneficial, natural complete feed. Look for these ingredients:
- Prebiotic Mannanoligosaccharides (MOS)
- Flaxseed oil
- Beta glucan
- Polar lipids
Feed small meals multiple times daily.
Give your horse free access to pasture and high quality hay 24/7.
Increase forage and frequency of meals, not the amount of grain you are feeding. Too much grain or complete feed can disrupt a horse’s digestive system and work against weight gain.
Patiently supplying a balanced diet is the best way to help your horse gain weight gradually.
With specially prepared, complete weight gain feeds the stomach breaks down food to be absorbed. It does not break down roughage or fiber (e.g. beet pulp, hay, grass). Nutrients are absorbed from the food in the small intestine. Fiber slows down the digestive process.
If you only feed a large meal of processed feed or complete feed once or twice a day, these meals will move through the stomach and the small intestine quickly and will be broken down and absorbed completely before reaching the hindgut.
This can disrupt acidity levels in the hindgut. This is why feeding large amounts of concentrates all at once is counterproductive. Doing so creates a situation in which the nutrients and calories in the feed cannot be absorbed by the body.
Furthermore, this situation can damage the function and structure of your horses gastrointestinal tract.
Finally, lowered pH levels in the hindgut can adversely affect your horse’s energy and performance levels as well as his overall health.
Frequently Asked Questions
Oats are a good addition to a horse’s diet because they contain a great deal of biotin, which is good for hoof and coat health. In combination with a balanced feed formula, they can help a horse gain and maintain weight.
Equines should always be fed crimped oats because whole oats are fairly indigestible for non-ruminant animals. Crimped oats have been crushed making the nutrition they contain more readily available.
Overnight oats are not a “thing” when it comes to feeding horses. This is a term used in relation to human consumption of oatmeal. It’s just a way of making breakfast preparation more convenient. Some people worry that preparing oatmeal by adding high calorie liquids, such as fruit juice, can cause weight gain. While this may be true for people, your horse needn’t worry about it!
Feed a balanced, high quality commercial feed formula that is intended for your horse’s age and level of activity. If you do not get the desired results, call in your veterinarian to give your horse a complete exam. He or she may recommend that you have your horse’s teeth floated so that the animal can make more efficient use of the feed provided. Your vet may also recommend a high fat equine supplement to help your horse gain weight.
Putting weight on a horse “fast” is not necessarily a good idea. If you have a very thin horse in need of re-feeding, you could easily kill the animal by giving it too much nourishment, too quickly. It’s best to simply provide good quality, free feed hay and pasture, ample water and a salt/mineral block at first. Talk with your vet about adding a high quality feed formula intended for the age and weight of your horse. Be patient and careful when feeding for weight gain.
Remember Every Horse Is An Individual
The bottom line is, you should work closely with your vet to determine just the right diet to help your horse gain and maintain the correct weight. Trial and error, hit and miss and guesswork can be costly and very detrimental to your horse’s health.