Why cereal-free feeds?

Cereal-free feeds for horses have become very popular in this day and age. This, however, is not a new trend, but corresponds to the natural diets of horses over millennia. Horses are designed for constant consumption of fibre-rich and low-energy food, and in nature they consume only small amounts of grain through seeds. In their original habitat on the steppes they fed on grasses, herbs, foliage and, to a lesser extent, grass seeds.

The horse is anatomically designed for the digestion of crude fibre. Horses have wide, big cheek teeth with rough chewing surfaces for grinding even hard grasses finely.

Digestion takes place mainly in the large intestine, particularly in the voluminous fermentation chambers of the appendix and colon. Here, the crude fibre of plants is broken down with the help of microorganisms in the large intestine. These microorganisms form volatile fatty acids, lactic acid, protein and water-soluble vitamins such as B vitamins and vitamin H (also known as biotin). These nutrients are then made available to the horse.

In contrast, sugar, starch, protein and fat are digested by enzymes – partly in the stomach but primarily in the small intestine. Sugar and starch provide energy quickly (for more information on sugar content in horse feed, click here). Fat is also an important energy provider and delivers important essential fatty acids as well. Fatty acids affect many vital body processes including the cardiovascular system, hormone system, the supply of cells to the skin and mucous membrane, and brain and nerve function. Sufficient protein is necessary for hormone and enzyme formation, for muscle function and for the immune system. The feed should therefore provide appropriate quantities of all the important nutrients the horse's body needs.

While the feed mash remains in the large intestine (appendix and colon) for 33-44 hours, it passes through the small intestine in about 1.5 hours. Cereals that have not been digested during this time then move on to the large intestine where they can create a significant imbalance in intestinal flora and lead to serious health problems such as laminitis.

Why are or were cereals used as feed?

Ever since horses were first domesticated, little has changed with regard to horse nutrition. It wasn’t until farming increased and higher work performance was demanded from horses that more energy-rich feeds were provided. In addition to leaves, grass, hay, straw and lucerne, man began feeding horses beta plants and cereals such as barley and wheat, as well as vetches, peas and chickpeas.

Then as now, cereals were used to supply energy quickly. A maximum quantity of 0.3 kg of concentrated feed per 100 kg of body weight per meal should not be exceeded. This recommendation applies for mixed feeds with a starch content of 30–40%. With regard to starch, it is recommended that the horse be fed no more than 1 g of starch per kg of body weight per meal. For a horse weighing 500 kg, this would mean a maximum of 500 g of starch per meal. According to Table 1, this corresponds to a maximum amount of 1.068 kg of oats per meal. The daily ration should be divided over several meals. We at AGROBS recommend that the proportion of cereals in feed be kept as low as possible, as few horses work so hard as to require such large amounts of cereals or concentrated feed; otherwise, excess weight and metabolic problems may occur.

Table 1: Starch content of different species of cereals in relation to the original matter  
Cereal Starch content (g/kg OM)
Oats 468
Barley 604
Maize 732

Is cereal in feed bad?

No – cereal as a feed is not a bad thing. In nature, horses consume small quantities of cereals in grass seeds. However it’s important that they don’t eat too much of it and that the quantity of concentrated feed in general is adapted to the horse’s physical condition accordingly. Horse feed should always primarily consist of sufficient roughage (at least 1.5 kg of hay per 100 kg target body weight).

The types of cereals normally used for horse feed, such as oats, barley and maize, have high levels of starch, moderate levels of protein and modest levels of fat. Differences amongst these cereal types are found particularly in their starch structures, which have an effect on their digestibility. The starchy grains of oats decompose more quickly, leading to a high digestibility of oat grains. Maize and barley, in contrast, are harder to digest and therefore should be processed (ideally thermally) before being used as feed.

AGROBS makes the following cereal-containing products which also have a high percentage of structure-rich crude fibre and no molasses:    
  • HaferWiese Sportmüsli - a natural müsli with a high percentage of structure in combination with wild oats    
  • Maiscobs, which contain whole maize plants    
  • Kraftpaket, a combination of protein-rich meadow grasses and herbs, lucerne and whole maize plants    
  • Horse Alpin Senior, a complete single feed for older horses or horses with chewing difficulties.

However, cereals should not be used in feeds at all in cases of typical 'affluent diseases' such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) or laminitis. It is also recommended that no concentrated feed be fed to horses suffering from gastric ulcers. A significantly higher pH level in the stomach can be obtained through feeding hay alone rather than a combination of hay and concentrated feed. If the pH value drops further into the acidic range, this can result in an attack on the stomach lining. Furthermore, horses with the congenital muscular disease PSSM (polysaccharide storage myopathy) should not be given starchy feeds if at all possible. It is also advisable to refrain from using feed containing starch if the horse suffers from equine Cushing's syndrome (ECS) with existing insulin resistance or laminitis.

Cereal-free concentrated feed alternatives

AlpenGrün Müsli is the first müsli feed to combine all the characteristics of natural and species-appropriate feeds without using cereal or molasses. It provides a variety of natural vital substances and minerals through high-quality dried grasses combined with flower blossoms, raspberry and blackberry leaves, root vegetables and fruits. Its high crude fibre content promotes intestinal health and prolongs feeding periods. AlpenGrün Müsli moderate starch and sugar content also makes it suitable for horses with metabolic ailments for sensitivities. A very popular cereal-free concentrated feed alternative is lucerne. Rich in high-quality protein, lucerne is particularly suitable as forage during winter months when grazing is not an option. 

Luzernecobs and Luzerne+ are good supplements to lucerne. The latter consists of a combination of lucerne and green oats (in a 4:1 ratio).

Very good eaters and overweight horses can be fed LeichtGenuss, a fibre-rich feed which requires more chewing activity. This low-energy feed is also an especially good way to keep injured horses that are confined to their stables from getting bored.

Grünhafer is also a tasty alternative to concentrated feed that’s high in crude fibre. Whilst green oat is a cereal crop, it is harvested shortly after flowering and before starch is stored in the seed. Green oat therefore has low levels of starch and sugar.

Dr. med. vet. Katharina Boes
January 2017  ©AGROBS GmbH

  • Meyer H., Coenen M.: Pferdefütterung. Enke Verlag Stuttgart, 2014    
  • Bender I.: Praxishandbuch Pferdefütterung. Franckh-Kosmos Verlags-GmbH & Co. KG Stuttgart 2009    
  • Kienzle E., Fritz J.: Fütterungsbedingte Rehe - Rezidivprophylaxe beim übergewichtigen Pferd. Tierärztliche Praxis Großtiere 4/2013    
  • Damke, C.: 24-stündige intragastrale pH-Metrie beim Pferd während der Fütterung verschiedener Rationen. Universität Leipzig, 2008    
  • http://www.feed-alp.admin.ch/#    
  • van Ost, S.: Eine Feldstudie zu Energiebedarf und Rationsgestaltung bei Hochleistungsspringpferden. LMU Munich, 2015  

Dr. med. vet. Katharina Boes
January 2017  ©AGROBS GmbH