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What Horses Used to Eat: Feeding Horses in 1856

Tigger Montague

A veterinary surgeon named John Stewart, professor of veterinary medicine in Glasgow, Scotland, wrote a book that was published in 1856 called The Stable Book: Being a Treatise on the Management of Horses.  With regard to what we know about feeding horses today, it’s fascinating to do a little compare-and-contrast with Stewart’s observations.

Readers in the twenty-first century might chuckle at the frequent mentions of draughts and cordials for horses (according to Dr. Stewart, a cordial helps many an ill or over-worked horse), tonic balls (an herbal preparation made into a ball with honey that is fed orally) and a physic (herbs and other concoctions directed by a veterinarian).  Blood letting is mentioned as treatment for some disorders.  But the real focus of the book is feeding horses.

It is interesting to note, that veterinary surgeons were referred to as Farriers until they were re-named in 1796 by the British Army’s Board of General Officers and became known as Veterinary Surgeons.

It is quite surprising to read about some of the items used for feeding horses in the 19th century: turnips, potatoes, parsnips, sugar beet, mangel-wurzel (beets),  carrots, and yams.  These root vegetables are all boiled or steamed before feeding with the exception of the carrot., and mostly fed in winter.   “A work horse getting from between eight to twelve pounds of grain may have four pounds deducted for every five pounds of carrots he receives.”  Dr. Stewart recommends turnips for farm and cart horses as well as the horses in coaching stables.  He recommends the Swedish variety of turnips, which per 100lbs equals in “nutriment 22 pounds of hay.”  As a modern day horse owner, it’s hard to imagine feeding 100 lbs of turnips per day.

Other foods:

Wheaten bread (recommended for horses that are invalid or off their appetite), linseed, hempseed, oats, barley, and beans were commonly fed to horses.  Dr. Stewart does not recommend bran except for a horse that is off his feed because he says: “ bran has no nutriment; its laxative properties can not be true since bran is constipating to dogs.  A shillings worth of oats is a great deal more nourishing than a shilling’s worth of bran.”

Foods Fed from other countries:

Dr. Stewart provides a travelogue of diets used for feeding horses in different countries: pumpkins, apples, sweet potatoes, and corn stalks in America; figs and chestnuts in Spain and Italy; dates mixed with camels’ milk in Arabia;  dried fish in Iceland and Norway; black bread, rye, malt, and rye bread in Germany and Holland.  In the East Indies  “meat was boiled to rags to which is added some kinds of grain and butter”; and “sheep heads were boiled for horses during campaigns in India”; cows’ milk in England was given to stallions during the “covering season.”  Horses living near the sea in England could be fed dried and ground seaweed.

Feeding Horses in 1856:

Dr. Stewart provides various feeding schedules based on the type of horse: cart, carriage, hunter, cavalry, race -horse, and saddle horse.  For most horses he recommends feeding five times per day: 6am, 9:00am, 1:00pm, 5:00pm, and 8:00pm with a total consumption of 12-16 pounds of grain (oats and beans) with 12 pounds of hay.  He recommends feeding boiled food in the winter at the last meal of the day and adding turnips.  He believes carrots should be given raw throughout the day.  His recommendations include adding barley for horses in laborious work.  The ratio then being 6:3:3 (oats to beans to barley) plus hay.

Herbs and Hedgerows:

Although Dr. Stewart explains how important pasture is for young growing horses, he is strongly against daily turn out for working horses because of “weight gain and a tendency to laziness”.  He does recommend one day per week that the horses get pasture time, particularly access to hedgerows of various plants. He also suggests feeding native herbs like dandelion leaf, hawthorn, milk thistle, mint, and marshmallow root.

What to avoid when feeding horses:

Dr. Stewart does not recommend distillery grains or brewers grains, which he calls “the refuse of breweries”.  He claims when fed regularly “they produce general rottenness, which I suspect in these cases is caused by disease of the liver.  They also contribute to producing staggers and founder.”  Dr. Stewart also doesn’t recommend raw wheat because “fermentation, colic and death are the consequences”; however, he says that if wheat is boiled and given with beans, some oats, and chaff that it “can be useful.”  He also stands strongly against the feeding of eggs (so stated because some stallion owners recommended it to increase the stallions’ sexual potency), because he believes that eggs play no role in stallions’ “readiness”.

Keep in Mind:

It is clear from reading Dr. Stewart’s book, that feeding horses largely depended on what food was available, which varied from country to country.     And while we may think of horses in the 19th century as living bucolic lives, in truth these horses worked daily, worked hard, and had limited access to pasture because they worked 6 days a week either carrying riders, as mail or stage horses, pulling coaches, carts, plows, and wagons, or galloping into battle.  The amount of feed required for a working horse in the 19th century vastly outweighs the feed requirements of most present day sport horses.

The Take Away:

We know a lot more about the nutritional needs of horses than horseman did in the 1800’s.  Yet, there are important insights to be gained from understanding what feeding horses used to entail.

  • From turnips to oats, horses were fed whole food; not turnip skins, or turnip flour, not oat hulls or oat protein powder.   Feeding whole, real food makes a whole, real difference.
  • It is interesting in 1856, that a veterinarian would caution the use of grain by-products: distillery grains, as well as uncooked wheat.  We see these same ingredients today in many commercial horse feeds and supplements as dried distillers grains or dried distillers grains with solubles, or wheat middlings.  The distillers grains now used in animal and equine feeds are the by- product of the ethanol industry and are made from corn.  Some feed companies like Pennfields have removed dried distillers grains because they are a potential source of mycotoxins.  The other concern is the antibiotics used on the corn mash for ethanol production.  The USDA tested 42 samples in 2012 and found antibiotic residue in 22 samples.
  • Dr. Stewart’s recommendation of frequent feedings is a good reminder today for those horses that are primarily stabled with limited turnout: small amounts of food more often is the best feed plan for the health of the equine GI tract.
  • The amount of calories expended by horses in the 19th century, required  significant amounts of carbohydrate, fat, protein, and fiber foods to replace the calories burned, and provide energy to work 8-10 hours per day.  Many horses today don’t have such high caloric needs.

BioStar Equine Supplements are all made with 100% whole food. Learn much more about modern day equine nutrition here and on our blog. Check us out on Facebook for regular updates and more articles like this one.

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The post What Horses Used to Eat: Feeding Horses in 1856 appeared first on BioStar US.


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