By: Shannon Pratt-Phillips, PhD
Equine nutritionist, Shannon Pratt-Phillips, Ph.D., explains that of all the cereal grains, oats have the most appropriate nutritional profile for horses.
Yes – if your horse needs them! Of all the cereal grains (e.g. corn, barley, wheat, etc.) oats have the most appropriate nutritional profile for horses. They are an excellent source of calories, and have a better protein and amino acid profile than many other grains. They are higher in fat and fibre (thanks to the hull) and are, therefore, lower in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) than most other grains. They are well digested within the horse’s small intestine, even with little processing (as long a horse has good teeth!) and, therefore, pose a lower risk of sugars reaching the large intestine and contributing to colic or laminitis. Also, because of their lower NSC content, they are not considered a “hot” feed.
If your horse has nutrient requirements that are higher than what is being met with hay alone – particularly energy (calories), oats can be an excellent option. Oats are, however, low in calcium and high in phosphorus, and lack several vital nutrients for the horses. Therefore, if feeding oats as the sole concentrate portion of the diet (in addition to hay, which is always the most important), you will need to supplement the diet with calcium, salt and likely other vitamins and minerals – either individually or by using a ration balancer. This is in contrast to feeding commercially manufactured diets (that often include large amounts of oats as their ingredients), where the feeds are fortified with additional protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals as needed to formulate a diet that specifically fits the needs of the horse it is intended for.
Many horse owners will top dress or add oats to a horse’s diet in addition to a commercial feed. This can pose problems though, as oats can alter the key ratios (notably calcium/phosphorus) that have been provided by the commercial feed. Knowledge of your horse’s hay and an easy diet evaluation can help you determine if adding in some oats will do more good than harm.
*Note: Many horse owners do not believe their horses efficiently digest oats because they see parts of the hull in the feces. If you were to inspect these, you would find that all of the good stuff from inside the hull has, in fact, been used by the horse.Take it from someone who has spent too many hours inspecting horse poop!