Nutrition 24 of 24

Whole Foods Vs. Processed

In the last 20 years, there has been a move away from whole grains to processed pellets. One reason for this is that whole grains do not contain the nutrients they used to due to the soil lacking abundant and effective microbe populations. Vitamins and mineral supplements that would sift out of grain can be incorporated into pellets. Unfortunately, usually synthetic vitamins and inorganic minerals are used in processed feeds, and these substances act more like drugs than nutrients in the body. The few remaining natural vitamins in grains or forage products are mostly destroyed during the pelleting process. The smaller and harder the pellet, the more heat was used when it was processed. Inorganic minerals are not as easy for the horse to assimilate as those derived from organic sources. Another problem with pellets is that generic labeling gives very little clue what the actual ingredients are. Using terms like “grain products” allows companies to alter feed formulas depending on what is cheapest and easiest to obtain.

Generic labeling also allows the use of poor-quality ingredients. Pelleting destroys food enzymes. An enzyme is a specialized protein structure that carries with it an energetic charge. Enzymes speed up chemical reactions that normally take place very slowly or not at all. Foods that have not been heated or processed contain enzymes that speed up their digestion after they are eaten. These same enzymes will cause foods to spoil more rapidly, which is why processed foods tend to keep longer. Destroying natural food enzymes by processing will allow foods to keep longer, but these foods will require the body to produce extra enzymes to digest them. The enzymes required to digest these foods may deplete the enzymes that would normally be used to complete other chemical reactions. Feeding whole grains allows more consistency in the feeding program. Oats, barley and corn are the primary grains routinely fed to horses.


Oats can be fed whole or crimped. They have less energy per pound than barley or corn. Energetically, oats are warming with a sweet and slightly bitter flavor. They restore the nervous and reproductive systems, strengthen the spleen and pancreas, build and regulate Qi energy, remove cholesterol from the digestive tract and arteries, and strengthen cardiac muscles. Oats are digested in the stomach and will tend to put glucose into the circulatory system more quickly than corn or barley. For this reason they should not be fed to horses with gastric ulcers, Cushing’s disease, or insulin resistance.


Barley is intermediate between oats and corn with respect to energy content. It is cooling with a sweet and salty flavor, strengthens the spleen/pancreas, regulates the stomach and fortifies the intestines, builds the blood and yin fluids and moistens dryness, promotes diuresis (urination), benefits the gall bladder and nerves, and is easily digested. I know of no contra-indications for feeding barley.


Corn is higher in both energy content and density than oats. If fed in equal volume as oats it contains twice the energy. Corn is not a heating feed, however, and it can be added to the ration during cold weather when extra energy is needed. Corn has a neutral thermal nature, sweet flavor, diuretic action, nourishes the heart, influences the stomach, improves appetite, helps regulate digestion, promotes healthy teeth and gums, and tonifies (supports and builds up) the kidneys.There are, however, several drawbacks to corn:

  • It can be contaminated with a fungus which is fatal to horses.
  • Some people believe it can be high in aluminum which can interfere with proper brain function.
  • It is one of the primary grains to be genetically modified, and the implication of genetically modified foods has yet to be discovered.

Wheat Bran

Wheat bran is another excellent food for horses. Due to its high phosphorus content, it is not a good feed for growing horses because the excess phosphorous can cause improper bone development by interfering with calcium metabolism. Bran acts as a bulk laxative when given as a mash and, conversely, can contribute to impaction if fed dry in conjunction with inadequate water consumption.

It is best to try each of these grains individually or in combination. See what works best for your horse.


Because of the lack of nutrition in whole grains and the lack of consistency in pelleted feeds, you will probably need to supplement the nutrients your horse receives from his regular feed. Ideally these supplements should come from whole food sources of natural vitamins and organic minerals. There are three major reasons to add feed supplements to your horse’s diet:

To Replace the Nutrients Lacking in Feed:

As discussed above, modern farming practices mean nutrient-deficient foods. To replace the missing vitamins and minerals, it is crucial to use whole food sources, not synthetic and inorganic ones. The body treats synthetic vitamins like drugs and utilizes them only if nothing else is available. In fact, the body must actually expend energy to excrete the unused portions. Horses do not absorb or assimilate minerals well unless they are in their natural chelated form. Chelated minerals, such as those found in whole food sources, are naturally bonded to other forms of nutrients, thereby enhancing their digestibility.

To Supply Extra Nutrients During Heavy Work or Recovery:

Horses use up large quantities of nutrients during heavy exercise, especially over a long period of time. The same is also true when they are recovering from illness or injury. It is important to supply high quality nutrients in substantial quantities in each of these situations. Synthetic supplements may give a temporary boost to animals stressed from overtraining or injury so may be used as a short-term aid, if needed, in addition to whole food nutrient-dense supplements.

To Enhance Performance:

I have found that whole food supplements provide horses with the nutrition they need to perform up to their best long-term potential. However, a short-lived boost may sometimes be noticed after giving synthetic supplements. Just remember, those effects are short-lived, so synthetic supplements should not be relied upon for long-term, optimum performance.

About the Author

Madalyn Ward, DVM, owns Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic in Austin, Texas. She is certified in Veterinary Homeopathy and Equine Osteopathy.

Memberships include American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy.

She has authored several books and publishes at her blog.

Madalyn Ward DVM