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Whole Food Diet for Equines

Whole Horse Whole Food

At BioStar US, we take horse nutrition very seriously and strive to constantly provide information from high performance horse needs to basic equine nutrition. Our focus is on the benefits of a whole food diet and feed program; and how they can improve the health, performance, and well-being of your horse.

We frequently cover scientific studies, horse feed nutrition facts and other areas of interest on our blog and Facebook page, so check us out!

Whole Food for Horses








Making a switch from commercial food products and processed feed can seem daunting at first. This is due in part because feed companies have instilled a concept in horse owners that we (riders, owners, trainers, barn managers) “cannot provide an adequately balanced feed program without a commercial feed company, because equine nutrition is too complicated for a horse owner to understand.” The fact is, horses have thrived for thousands of years without processed food and synthetic additives.

Equine nutrition, in it’s most fundamental essence, is simply: fiber, protein, fats, and carbohydrates; vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.

Reading a label on a feed bag can be daunting. There are more unpronounceable ingredients than there are food ingredients. What is easily understandable to us horse owners is the % of protein, fiber and fat that are printed on the label. For some of us the percentage is the rule of thumb, or the basis by which to purchase a product. Unless an owner has a dictionary handy at the feed store, or their laptop or smartphone, how is one to know what ingredients like Pyridoxine HCL, Thiamin Mononitrate, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate are? Commercial, processed feed in a lot of ways has become simply large bags of synthetic additives with some food and sweeteners thrown in for good measure and palatability.

There is no question that commercial processed feeds have provided convenience Image by Daniel O’Neilto horse owners and barn owners. It’s easy to rip open commercial processed feed bags, scoop the pellets or sweet feed or texturized feed, and then pour it in the bucket. Convenience and time saving in our daily lives is a big benefit. Since the commercial processed feeds are by in large “complete” feeds, these formulas help make feeding less complicated, take the guesswork out of feeding, and in many cases reduce the need for additional multivitamin/mineral supplementation. Many of the feed companies do recommend that there is no need to add more vitamins and minerals to their complete feed formulas. Feed companies provide lots of different feed formulas, thus providing horse owners with a choice of which formula to feed each horse.

Since 1997 Genetically engineered (GE) and Genetically modified Organisms (GMO) corn and soy have been in commercial equine feed. While the scientific community continues to debate on the safety of GE and GMO food, one undeniable consequence is already occurring: the increased amount of pesticides and herbicides used to grow GMO and GE crops. While some of these GE and GMO crops have a herbicide tolerant gene inserted in them, the result has been that the weeds for which the farmers are spraying are simply becoming more herbicide resistant; resulting in an increase in herbicide and pesticide use. GM crops also accelerate the erosion of seed diversity and intensify existing soil erosion problems.
Feed formulas that use corn and or soy (and are not marked as GE Free or GMO Free) do not help us move to a greener more eco-friendly environment.

In the US, most of our grains (corn, soy, oats, wheat) are funneled into commercial channels for processing — unlike countries like Canada and some of the EU nations, who rely more on a system of local feedmills or the grains are sold direct from the farm to other farmers for livestock feed. The advantage of a local feedmill/farmer arrangement is quality of grains rather than quantity, and the reduction in fossil fuel consumption for long distance shipping of grains to processors.

Grains are sorted at processing plants and graded. Superior graded grains go to human consumption. Lower graded grains go to animal consumption. By- products of the processing (soy hulls, wheat middlings for instance) become inexpensive fillers for horse feed. Because the grains for animals are nutritionally lower than the human graded grains, feed companies must add synthetic additives to provide nutrients. These synthetic additives (including vitamins) are made from coal tar derivatives, petroleum extracts, acetone, formaldehyde, and irradiated cattle brains (vitamin D). The processing of the grains themselves can expose the grains to temperatures exceeding 450 degrees. Enzymes and other nutrients can’t survive in temperatures exceeding 145 degrees.

Sugar in the form of molasses is often added not only as a binder, but for palatability. Molasses is made from sugar cane and sulfur dioxide is used during the processing to lighten up the color of the molasses or help extend its shelf life. Sulfur dioxide is also used to help with the processing of sugar cane when the cane has been harvested at an early stage. Sulfur dioxide is a primary component of acid raid and is a pollutant of enormous concern to environmental scientists.

Corn syrups are also used as sweeteners in commercial horse feeds. High fructose corn syrup can contain as much as 80% fructose and only 20% glucose. In fruit the ratio is usually 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Fruit contains fiber which slows down the metabolism of fructose and other sugars. But unlike the fructose in fruit, fructose in High Fructose Corn Syrup is absorbed very quickly.

Commercial feed companies rely on further processing after the grains are mixed with the sweetners, additives, and preservatives to produce the pellets or extruded or texturized feeds. The further processing of what originated as food now becomes a food product.

Image via the U.S. Dept. of AgricultureNUTRITIONISM:
When we read the labeled contents of most commercial processed feeds, we see a lot of additives (synthetic nutrients and inorganic minerals) and not much food. There is of course some food, but it’s low grade, and in many cases has been further refined. This may be the result of our processed food culture: from the original TV dinners, to our present microwave meals and fast foods. Horse feed, which once upon a time was simply whole grains, is now a processed convenience food product.

Gyorgy Scrinis, research associate at the Globalism Institute at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia coined the term "nutritionism," which is an ideology based on the premise that the key to understanding food, is to understand the nutrient. It’s the basis for which many nutritional scientists work: study one element of a food to figure out if that one element or nutrient is WHY the food is healthy, beneficial, fights cancer, etc.. He points out: “instead of worrying about nutrients we need to simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of an industry than of nature.”

Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University says, “the problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food."


Image by IrelynkissUnprocessed or minimally processed whole food provides more than nutrients, fiber,
 protein, carbohydrates and fat: it provides one of the keys to digestion: enzymes.

Processed feed, refined foods, heavily processed, or pelletized forms lack the enzymes that live in all plants and seeds. The processing has killed the enzymes. If we consider the equine digestive system as the gateway to nutrient delivery, we can also see the equine digestive system as the gateway to tissue repair and tissue renewal. Proper digestion provides fuel and energy to all body organs and systems. The nutritive fuel of digestion nourishes the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. These in turn play essential roles in the chemical breakdown of food.

Food enzymes initiate the process of digestion in the mouth and stomach. Food enzymes reduce the body’s need to increase production of digestive enzymes. As horses age, the ability to produce more digestive enzymes lessens. Food enzymes help the horse predigest the food so that the digestive system is less taxed and stressed. Whole food also provides the body with nutrients that are in a matrix within the food. All these nutrients plus fiber, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and enzymes work together for the body to use for maximum utilization.

Since the digestion system is the foundation of the nutrient delivery system, what foods we provide our horses is hugely important. The ramifications of feeding food products not whole food effect the entire body system at large: from the blood and plasma to the tissues and cells.

Whole foods do not increase stress on the GI tract as processed feeds do. This is particularly important for ulcer horses, EPM horses, and Lymes horses.

The result is a healthier horse, who can live longer, and perform to the fullest.

The principle of a whole food feed program is to use foods that have been minimally processed. It is important with a whole food feed program to add a multivitamin/mineral supplement to provide additional nutrient support to the food.

- Fiber: forage, hay. Horses need to eat 20 hours per day, particularly ulcer horses and metabolic horses.
- Additional Fiber: alfalfa pellets or cubes (look for GMO free sources), or timothy pellets. Alfalfa is high in calcium helping to balance the cal/phos ratio.
Beet Pulp is another source of fiber but it is not GMO free. Only Speedi Beet from England is GMO free.
- Protein: alfalfa pellets or cubes provide 15-17% protein, and also provide essential amino acids including Lysine. Timothy pellets or cubes provide 8-10% protein, but no lysine. Both alfalfa and timothy provide calcium. Alfalfa hay is up to 26% protein which for some horses is more protein than their bodies can handle, and so turn that excess protein into energy-- --which results in a horse that can get a little "high". The alfalfa pellets or cubes have much lower protein, and therefore won't cause that "jumping out of his skin" reaction. Alfalfa pellets/cubes are low in NSC, making them a good choice for metabolic horses.
- Other Protein Sources: organic peas provide 23% protein with the amino acid complex similar to that of alfalfa. They are high in NSC, so are not the best choice for a metabolic horse. Some picky eaters don’t like the taste.
- Essential Fatty Acids: flax seeds (whole, or stabilized) or Chia seeds
- Other Fat Sources: coconut meal (also provides additional protein, and fiber, low NSC), Coconut Oil, Hemp Seed Oil, Flax Seed Oil. Rice bran oil is a popular choice, however due to the arsenic and GMO issues BioStar recommends only GMO free rice bran oil from California because of the low arsenic levels.
- Carbohydrates: non-metabolic horses requiring increased energy needs can benefit from grain carbohydrates: oats and or barley. Oats provide 12% protein, high phosphorus. Provide more calories for horses in training. Not recommended for metabolic horses. Barley provides 14% protein, high phosphorus, provides more energy than oats, but less energy than corn. Not recommended for metabolic horses.
- Multi-Vitamin/Mineral: Vitamins in equine supplements and feed are made from the by-products of the petro-chemical industry or are 100% synthetic. Vitamin E is commonly sourced from palm oil, processed with hexane, a neurotoxin. It can also be synthetically produced. Minerals common in equine supplements and feeds are inorganic (oxides, carbonates, et al). Inorganic minerals have a low bioavailability of only up to 10%. Look for multi vitamin/mineral formulas that are from whole food; meaning the nutrients are from foods and plants. Whole food multi vitamin/mineral complexes provide high bioavailibility: up to 80%.

Horses need to eat 20 hours a day. It is essential to provide free choice hay, and or grazing.
It is best to feed 3-4 meals a day, than load the horse with 2 large meals.

Fats provide horses with Long Burn Energy, while carbohydrates (like oats and barley) provide Quick Burn Energy. Some equine athletes need both, others do better with no grains and higher fat content.

Coconut Meal is an excellent source of the medium chain triglycerides, providing 10% fat. The medium chain triglycerides are used by the body for muscle and organ energy. Medium chain triglycerides are safe to feed metabolic horses. Sources for coconut meal include Cool Stance and Renew Gold.

Other excellent sources of fat include Hemp seed Oil, which provides GLA that the body can use to reduce inflammation. Flax seed oil is another excellent choice with its high Omega 3 content.

These oils are from seeds that have been genetically modified, and are highly processed oils. The production of these oils includes high heat, which destroys the nutrients and enzymes. Hexane, a neurotoxin, is used as a solvent in the extraction process. Testing in Switzerland and the US have shown that hexane residue is present in oils processed with hexane, as well as the protein and fiber (soy meal, soy grits, corn meal).

While these oils are used as fat sources in feeds and as supplements, because of the highly processed nature of these oils, the use of Hexane, they cannot be considered whole food sources of fat.

Image by generalisingIf you need assistance customizing a whole food feed program for your horses, please email us ( or call us: 1-800-686-9544 and one of our whole food nutritional consultants will be happy to help you.

We have not listed soy or corn or rice bran that are common feed components. We have not found a GE or GMO free source of soy so we don’t recommend it. While soy has a long history in China, it was originially used as a nitrogen fixer to balance the soil.

During the Chou Dynasty, the Chinese developed fermentation techniques to make tempeh, miso, soy sauce, and later bean curd. For much of history soy protein was a waste product, and mainly used in the U.S. as a sealant on cardboard. Soy needs fermentation. Fermentation helps increase the digestability of soy. The fermentation process also reduces the phytate content. Soybeans have a higher phytate content than any other grain or legume that has been studied. Soy protein isolate is sometimes found in commercial processed feeds and supplements. It is made by grounding the soy beans and subjecting them to high-temperature and solvent extraction to remove the oils. The resultant defatted meal is then mixed with an alkaline solution and sugars in a separation process to remove fiber. Then it is precipitated and separated using an acid wash. Finally the resultant curds are neutralized in an alkaline solution and spray dried at high temperatures to produce the powder. This is a highly refined product. (1)

Corn: Most of all the corn grown in the US is genetically modified.

Rice bran recently came up on the radar due to its high levels of arsenic. The following states have high arsenic content rice: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri. California has low arsenic levels. It is important to check with your supplier on the origin of the rice bran you purchase.

Daniel, Kaayla. 2005. The Whole Soy Story. New Trends Publishing.
El Tiney, A.H. 1989. Proximate Composition of Mineral and Phytate Contents of Legumes Grown in Sudan; Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, v.2, pp. 67-78