Are They Feeling Their Oats?

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In the horse industry, traditions are well entrenched and often coveted as absolutes. We often want to emulate successful role models to capture their magic. If an equestrian “Michael Jordan” endorses a product or practice, we tend to follow, but when equine science challenges the art of feeding horses, intense arguments can ensue. On the subject of oats, traditions and opinions are legendary and arguments can be volatile. Simply put, oats are a wonderful feed ingredient; they are not a wonderful feed.

Why then has feeding oats been common practice for so many years? The answer to this question is two-fold: Oats are palatable and relatively safer than other grains. Horses appear to relish oats and, according to numerous trainers, horses consuming oats “stay on feed,” even in hard competition. Others justify feeding oats because, oats being readily available when they travel, feed changes are minimized. In reality, however, oats are the least consistent in quality and nutrient values of all the grains.

Why are oats considered a safer grain than corn and barley? Years ago, horsemen noticed that colic and founder appeared to be less common in horses consuming oats than in those consuming corn. We attributed this to the fact that oats have less energy (calories) and more fiber. So, it was thought, if equal volumes of grain were consumed, the horse would ingest fewer calories and more fiber. Indeed, one scoop of oats contains about 50 percent fewer calories than one scoop of corn.

Recently, scientists have unraveled what may be the real reason oats have an advantage over other grains: It is the starch in grains—specifically where this starch is digested—that dictates the relative impact on gastrointestinal health. Excess starch digested in the hindgut (cecum and colon) can be a risk factor for colic diarrhea and founder. Starch in the hindgut will negatively affect the microbial balance and cause a chain reaction that leads to problems.

“If you choose to feed straight oats, make sure you also feed a supplement...”

The structure of oat starch is different from other grains and this can drastically affect the site of digestion. For example, some studies have shown that as much as 90 percent of oat starch is digested in the foregut (small intestine). By comparison, only 30 percent of whole corn, and less for barley, are digested in the foregut. This discovery may explain why oats appear safer than other grains. Does this mean other grains should be excluded from your horses’ rations? Absolutely not; each grain has its own attributes and, together in a balanced ration, they can complement each other. However, given a choice of feeding corn only or oats only, the latter would carry less risk.

Another hotly debated topic is feeding crimped versus whole oats. It was gospel for years that horses must be fed crimped oats, else they would pass through in the manure. The fact is, there is only about a five percent increase in digestibility when oats are crimped. Thus, if crimped oats cost five percent more than whole oats, whole oats could be a better economic value. Horses have a built-in crimper: their teeth. Crimped oats may have a marginal value for horses with very poor teeth or for the young weanling.

I have had spirited discussions on crimped vs. whole while standing over a manure pile. A horseman will point to the “oats” in the manure and inform me this wouldn’t happen if the horse had been fed crimped oats. On closer examination, the oats seen in manure consist only of the oat hull. Most of the important nutrients are located on the inner portion of the oat kernel (oat groat). The hull of an oat is relatively poorly digested and can commonly be seen in manure of horses fed larger amounts of grain. The hull is a protective cover for the important inner nutrients of grains. Cracking a grain’s hull may increase spoilage and accelerate the loss of nutrients; however these effects are less with oats than with other grains.

“...oats are the least consistent in quality and nutrient values of all the grains.”

The biggest reason I do not support feeding straight oats involves nutrient balance. Oats are deficient in many macro- and micronutrients and we cannot depend on our forages to balance the deficiencies of oats. Many horsemen swear by the combination of oats and alfalfa. They point to all the champions they have raised on this magical duo as validation of their simplified recipe. What they don’t consider are the incidences of bone problems and infections as caused by nutrient imbalances. The high calcium in alfalfa will complement the low calcium in oats, but many minerals and vitamins will be deficient in this combination.

If you choose to feed straight oats, make sure you also feed a supplement that accurately balances your ration. The best way to ensure balance is to have your entire ration evaluated by a veterinarian or nutritionist. The company selling you the supplement should show you how their product balances your oat and forage ration. The primary problems with offering an oat-balancing supplement are the varying amounts of supplement needed for different horses and the difference between horses in their willingness to consume it. If you are feeding horses with different lifestyles, is each consuming enough of the supplement to meet their individual requirements? I question whether feeding oats is a true value if you factor in economics and management constraints.

After convincing horse owners of the benefits of feeding a commercially balanced ration, another tradition emerges: They purchase a high-quality ration and then mix it with straight oats. The logic for this practice escapes me. The apparent rationale for diluting a balanced ration with oats is based on economics and tradition. In reality, with a weight scale and a sharp pencil, an astute manager will determine they are not saving any money. More importantly, they are destroying the nutrient balance of the commercially-prepared ration. Then, when a horse develops a particular malady, they want to add a costly supplement to correct the problem. Many talented nutritionists with Ph.D.’s go to great lengths to insure proper nutrient balance with commercially-balanced rations. How can we justify diluting this with oats?

Recently, there has been renewed interest in feeding “naked oats.” The provocative name for this variety of oats merely means the oat is missing its hull. When these oats are harvested, the hull falls off, leaving the nutritious center of the oat. Pound for pound, naked oats are higher in protein, calories and fat when compared to standard oats. With these improved nutrient densities, some people proclaim naked oats to be a magical ration, though economics and availability are limiting factors. In a balanced ration, I can find no economic or nutritional advantage to naked oats compared to other commonly used ingredients.

Oats have many great attributes and, together with other grains and ingredients, they represent an important part of a balanced grain ration. However, there is little logic or science to support either feeding straight oats, crimped oats, naked oats, or mixing oats with a balanced grain ration. Tradition and habits are hard to change. With the facts at hand about feeding oats, you can make more informed decisions on your feeding program.