I have presented many talks on nutrition and usually afterwards I am surrounded by folks wanting to ask questions or voice their own particular spin on feeding horses. I will always remember one distinguished elderly man who proudly professed his rationale for not feeding horses pellets. He informed me that if God had intended horses to eat pellets he would have made a pellet plant. How could I argue with such pristine logic?
While it is true that pellets are not natural, pelleted horse feeds are manufactured from grains and grain byproducts. Their appearance may look unnatural but their nutrient content is very natural. In fact, the methods used to manufacture pellets may actually improve on Mother Nature. Let’s take a look:
The first step in manufacturing pelleted horse feed is to grind all the ingredients to smaller uniform particle size. Once ground and adequately mixed, the slurry is then forced through a pellet die and then cut to the appropriate length. When forced through the pellet die, friction raises the temperature to partially cook the nutrients.
Because it has been proven that pelletizing grains will improve digestion in many farm animals, researchers believe that the smaller particle size provides more surface area for digestive enzymes to go to work and thus improves digestion. It is also thought that the heat of the pelleting process will partially gelatinize the starch crystals so they are more digestible. To my knowledge this work has not be proven in horses but the logic is still valid.
In some horse circles it has been said the horses consuming pellets are more prone to choke—a blockage of the esophagus. Horses choke for one reason—they swallow before they finish chewing. Because pellets are dryer than most feeds and forage, a hurried horse can choke on pellets. That said, they can also choke on any other feedstuff if they swallow prior to chewing. With good management, dentition and hydration, I do not believe the risk of choke is any greater in pelleted feeds than other horse feeds.
There are also a few management advantages of pelleted horse feed. Anyone who has fought with frozen sweet feed in the winter will welcome the handling ease of pellets. In addition, if you are feeding a large number of horses, pellets may be delivered in bulk into a vertical bin. A molasses-based sweet feed will not flow in a bin and is more prone to spoilage.
Spilled pellets are more easily consumed off the ground compared to whole grains or sweet feeds. This means fewer pests in your barn or pastures looking for a free lunch. No one will argue with providing less food for rodents. And with West Nile Virus and EPM an ever-present threat, perhaps feeding pellets would result in fewer birds and opossums in the pastures.
“...it’s been proven that pelletizing grains will improve digestion in many farm animals”
Some farms claim they have fewer fly problems with pelleted horse feeds. There is no research to support this observation, but it may be that fewer flies are attracted to the feeding buckets because of less molasses.
It has been said that horses do not like pellets because they often eat around the pellets in favor of the sweet feed. The pellets that come mixed with sweet feed contain the vitamins and minerals needed to balance the ration, but these minerals are bitter. By concentrating them into a few pellets, many horses will sort through and eat the more desirable grains in sweet feed. In a pelleted horse ration, the minerals and vitamins are spread equally over the entire batch. Each pellet contains a smaller amount of mineral and is not as bitter as the pellets found in sweet feeds.
When all the evidence is weighed, feeding a pelleted horse feed vs. a similar sweet feed boils down to a personal preference. While there are a few management benefits with pellets, there is no definitive research to support a pelleted ration over a sweet feed. But it can be said that just because God doesn’t provide a pellet plant, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider offering your horses a high-quality pelleted horse feed.