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How to feed cereals and cereal-based mixes

Many owners throw their hands up in horror at the idea of feeding cereals to horses with all the bad press they get from some feed companies, but in fact cereal grains can be a useful ingredient for certain horses in certain situations. 

What are cereals and what do they give the horse? 

Cereal grains are the seeds of plants related to grass, including oats, barley, wheat and maize. Despite looking similar when flaked and added to coarse mixes, beans, peas and soya beans are not cereals and are classed as legumes. 

Cereal grains are a superior source of energy for horses with high energy requirements, such as those in intense work and broodmares during lactation. Cereals are rich in starch, and contain a variable level of fibre, with oats being the highest.

Cereals contain a fair amount of protein, but not of good quality i.e. they’re short of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine. Cereals are all deficient in calcium, and are rich in phosphorus therefore they must be balanced with extra calcium. They also need to be balanced with vitamins. The most suitable cereal grain for horses is oats, because they are the most digestible. Oats have been fed to horses for many decades, for good reason.

How to feed cereals

The key with cereals is not to feed too much at once, so that you don’t overwhelm the limited starch digestive capacity of the horse. Feed so that you deliver no more than 1g of starch per kilo of horse bodyweight per meal. The equivalent is 1.25kg (2lb 12oz) of oats (40% starch) per meal for a 500kg horse.

Cereals do cause a higher glycaemic response than other feeds such as vegetable oils and digestible fibres, but for most horses in hard work, this is not a problem. 

Cereal-based feeds can be useful for some horses who are not naturally forward going because they seem to give them more ‘spark’. This doesn’t apply to all horses, however, and some won’t show any behavioural changes when fed cereal grains. 

Cereal and their components e.g. brans are very palatable so they can be very useful to mask medication or to encourage an ill or inappetant horse to eat. Traditionally bran mashes were fed to tired, dehydrated hunt horses to encourage them to eat fibre and take in fluid. Of course now we know you need to feed bran daily if you are going to feed a large quantity in a mash once weekly so that you don’t disturb the hindgut.

Cereals should not be fed to horses with insulin dysregulation, those who tie up (suffer from exertional rhabdomyolysis) and those who have or are prone to stomach ulcers. Energy provision for these horses should be from other sources because starch can be harmful. Cereals should also be avoided for fizzy, over-reactive horses since starch may exacerbate the problem. 

In summary, cereals can be useful for some horses, providing they are fed correctly and as part of a well-balanced diet. 

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