Oats, Rice Bran and Flax Meal in Performance Horse Diets (revised)
In order to meet the energy demands of today’s performance horses, some would have us believe that rice bran and corn oil are the only energy-dense feed sources available. Meanwhile, whole oats continue to be pushed back in the corner as being “old fashioned” and “inadequate”. Let’s take a look at a few different energy sources and see how they stand up to close scrutiny.
For well over one hundred years, whole oats have been recognized as the “perfect feed for the horse”. Rich in digestible fiber and abundant in energy, whole oats have fueled everything from the Calvary mount to Triple Crown winners.
With the advent of feed processing equipment such as roller mills and hammer mills, cereal grains have been processed to allow for “better feed utilization by the animal”. While exposing the contents of the grain kernel without the animal chewing as much, more was lost in the process than gained through the theorized “better feed utilization” in the case of the horse. For the most part, all that this “processing” has done is allow a mill to charge more. The term “value added” is used in the industry to describe how to be able to charge more for a commodity either by “processing” it or providing additional services that might benefit the customer. The terms “window dressing, smoke and mirrors and fluff” fall into this same category.
For the sake of argument, let’s a look at some grain products commonly fed to horses and see how they stack up as feed for the performance horse. We have referenced a number of sources to gather the information presented here.
Whole oats are packed with energy from digestible fiber, the kind of fiber that the horse was designed to live on. Horses are grazers and hence they thrive on good quality pasture. When we take them out of that environment and change the way that they live and eat, then pile the stress of training and competition on top, we run into trouble. When the energy required by the horse is greater than the hay can provide, we need to turn to a concentrated form of energy (grain) to make up the difference.
“Oat grain has a soft kernel and is easy to chew. Processing oats is not beneficial except for horses with poor teeth or those that are very young. The fiber level of oats is 10-12% and is therefore less likely to cause laminitis or digestive problems as compared to other grains”5.
Since all grains are not created equal, which one do we choose? Let’s look at the popular ones and see which fits our requirements best. The table below compares cereal grains commonly fed to horses and allows us to see which one will be the best.
Chart 1. Chemical composition of alfalfa cubes and grains consumed by geldings6
|Item DM,%||Alfalfa Cubes 92.3||Barley 90.8||Corn 89.7||Naked Oats 92.1||Whole Oats 92.5|
OM = Organic Matter, TNC = Total Nonstructural Carbohydrate (starch), Ether Extract = Crude Fat. (Journal of Animal Science – Hussein et al, 1986)
Many different cereal grains are fed to horses and they all vary in energy, protein, fat, and fiber content. Oats are very safe for horses because their starch is easily digested and their fiber content is relatively high. Oat grain is rich in amorphous (without a crystalline structure) starch. That is why larger amounts of oats can be fed on a daily basis as compared to the other grains with crystalline-structured starch5.
“Cereal grain is an important feed ingredient for most intensively managed horses and although cereals provide a valuable source of digestible energy their feeding to horses is always associated with some risk. The danger in feeding cereal grain to horses lies in the risk of incomplete digestion of starch in the small intestine and the possibility that significant amounts of starch can pass through to the cecum and colon (large intestine, or hind gut). Starch entering the hind gut is fermented very much more quickly than roughage and this rapid fermentation leads to accumulation of acidic end products and low pH. Just how the acid build up in the hind gut affects the horse is not clear but there is no doubt that acid accumulation in the hind gut is the primary cause of laminitis as well as many of the behavioral changes commonly associated with feeding grain to horses”9.
Corn and milo contain a high level of crystalline starch that is difficult to breakdown enzymatically. The result is a greater amount of starch entering the cecum that is broken-down by fermentation. A by-product of cecal starch digestion is lactic acid that can give rise to digestive upsets, colic, laminitis, and founder. Cereal grains in order of ease of starch digestion are oat grain, rice, barley, wheat, milo, and corn.5
Wheat is not shown on the charts presented but it too has high levels of crystalline starches and yet is found on the ingredient list of many commercial horse feeds.
Rice bran came along as a by-product from milling and polishing rice and once it was discovered that it had a decent amount of fat in it; efforts were made to market it as a concentrate. Since performance horse owners were looking for energy dense feeds it looked like their prayers had been answered. The following chart compares whole oats, rice bran and flax meal. The flax meal shown in this example is milled, whole flax seed that has not had the oil extracted.
Chart 2. Chemical Composition of Oats, Rice Bran and Flax Meal
|Whole Oats 1,2||Rice Bran1,7||Flax Meal1,3,4|
|Crude Protein %||10.0||12.8||22|
|Crude Fat %||5.6||20||40|
|Crude Fiber %||12.2||12.7||6.5|
|Omega 6 (mg/lb.)||10,960||163,296||27,216|
|Omega 3 (mg/lb)||502||9,072||108,664|
While the rice bran has almost four times the fat content of whole oats, it is lower in TDN (Total Digestive Nutrients) and is considerably lower in NDF (easily digested fiber). Since fat is what we are after when feeding rice bran, it is important to look at the fatty acid content.
The two most important essential fatty acids are Omega-3 (O3) and Omega-6 (06). Rice bran has considerably more O6 than O3 than does the oats, therefore we really need something to balance these volatile fatty acids, the ideal ratio being closer to 4:1 (O6:O3)
“An imbalance in favor of Omega-6 has proven to cause a number of physiological problems including enhanced blood clotting, vasospasm and vasoconstriction. As such, restoring a healthful omega-6: omega-3 balance is imperative to good health.”8 Another aspect of rice bran that cannot seem to be accounted for are the sugars present. None of the resources that we can find address the sugar content or explain the “sweet” taste that rice bran has.
This brings us to flax meal (linseed) and it is no secret that flax meal has a number of health benefits to offer. The balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in flax is important for horse health. Due to its high alpha-linolenic content, flax can eliminate dull, dry coats, and the itching and scratching that can accompany them. Flax can also prevent colic in horses.4
“Whole-milled flax seed contains very high levels of antioxidants. Presumably, this reflects nature’s way of protecting the healthy polyunsaturated oils that are distributed within the seed matrix. Using the Trolox Equivalence method (an analysis that uses vitamin-E as its benchmark), flax seed contains roughly twice the antioxidant value of blueberries or blackberries, berries which are celebrated for their antioxidant value.”10
Flax seed’s antioxidants include about 1% by weight of lignans (complex polyphenolics) and an additional 1% of simple polyphenolics. In addition, flax seed contains significant concentrations of tocopherols, tocotrienols and phytic acid.10
“Flax seed is also a nutritious alternative for psyllium seed husks to prevent sand colic. Flax seed contains a high mucilage (soluble fiber) content that swells and takes on a gel-like consistency, helping prevent sand colic and impaction. Be sure water is always available to your horse. Flax mucilage traps and suspends sand, carrying it out. Flax seed acts to buffer excess acid and aids in the stabilization and modulation of blood glucose. Be sure to supplement with the recommended ½ cup serving per day to help maintain sand colic prevention”.4
When choosing a grain product to add energy to your performance horse’s diet remember the primary elements that you are looking for:
- 1. Palatability
- 2. High TDN levels
- 3. High fat content (with low Omega 6 levels)
- 4. High digestible fiber content (NDF)
- 5. Correct starch form for horses.
- 6. High digestibility of starch in the stomach.
Elements to be avoided are:
- 1. Unnecessary processing
- 2. Low digestible fiber content (NDF)
- 3. High starch (crystalline) levels
- 4. High Omega-6 levels in ratio to Omega-3
After examining the information that we have considered here, whole oats win hands down. For the times that hay and oats are not enough, the addition of a premium quality milled flax seed is by far the best choice to provide fat, omega-3, digestible fiber and lignans. This winning combination will provide your equine athlete with a sound foundation of the building blocks needed to perform and thrive.
- Nick Dale and Amy Batal, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
- Bruno Cesar do Amaral – Whole Oats
- Reed Richardson – Composition of Feeds Commonly Used In Horse Diets – 1997
- Flax Council of Canada – Dr. Diane H. Morris. Al Cirelli, Jr. Extension Horse Specialist, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of
- Hussein et al – 82 (7) 1986 Table 1 – Journal of Animal Science
- Omega Fields (ENRECO, Inc.) Stabilized Rice Bran
- Canola Council of Canada – 1999
- Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation
- Premium Flax seed – Healthy Living, 2006
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Dan Houdeshell says
Thank’s for the complement!