Grains; What’s in the Mix? - by Lisa Clyne

Commercial grain mixes are a popular way to feed, but do we actually know what’s in them, or if they’re right for our horse? Popular commercial grain mixes or ‘complete’ feeds are usually palatable and enticing for your horse. Most are spearheaded by a great ad campaign; but fancy commercials and salesman’s patter doesn’t mean that a particular brand and blend is the right one for your horse.

What Does My Horse Need From His Diet?

  • Forage is the first answer and lots of it. Remember equines are grazing animals; their guts function best when they are constantly eating hay/haylage or grass.
  • Energy: the more work and the higher intensity the more energy your steed will require. The easiest components for a horse to convert to energy are fats and simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs come in the form of barley, corn, oats, molasses, wheat and rice or ‘grain product’ as you may sometimes see on food ingredient lists. Good fat sources come from vegetable oil, corn oil and soy bean oil and by-products.
  • Protein is made up of amino acids. Essential amino acids (as opposed to non-essential which can be formed inside of equines) are muscle builders and repairers. But protein is not an effective source of energy. Amino acids are digested in a more complex process in the hind gut; they do not hold the same values as an equal amount of fat, in terms of energy. Therefore a high protein feed isn’t necessarily giving your horse the energy or nutritional support he needs.
  • Vitamins and minerals are generally present in commercial grain mixes; some even state they contain 100% of an equine's required daily nutrients. When this is the case, study the label; it should not be necessary to add extra supplements or additional grain mixes with another 100% of your horse's required vitamin and mineral intake. Overloading a horse’s diet with excess supplementation is not only a waste of money but can be damaging to his health. It is especially important in young and old horses. Take into account all the factors of his diet; forage intake, grass etc., before a final decision for a certain coarse mix.


A commonly overlooked addition to any equine's diet, especially those in hard work during summer months that will be exerting effort daily and most likely sweating a lot, is salt. Salt is best fed on a free to take, readily available basis. Just like water, a fresh clean source should be available for your horse to feed from at any time.

What Does My Horse Need From Me?

Planning, commitment, a constant feeding regime and time to digest. Take care of your horse's nutritional program whether you enjoy trail rides together or winning at national horse shows. Taking care of his future success and your enjoyment involves a lot of hard work, planning and careful choices. Feeding malpractice and laziness with regards to your horse’s daily program can not only cause anxiety and discomfort, but horses, not being able to vomit, can experience stomach pain and very serious colic when their gut has not been allowed to work properly. This can be caused by the removal of regular meal times or a stressful situation such as physical effort or travelling when he has not been allowed adequate time to digest grains. Colic can be fatal; it can also require extensive veterinary attention which will be very expensive. Being prepared for this kind of cost and choosing and sticking to a feeding program can help lessen the risk of huge vet bills.

The ‘look’ of a product

Commonly coarse mixes use a combination of pellets and grains to establish a ‘complete’ feed. This may appear moist and sweet by the use of molasses. Some worry about the effect of excess sugar, but in general, when you feed equating to the work load, mixes containing molasses should be palatable and beneficial to your equine. Sometimes the best way to ascertain a coarse mix choice is to simply open the bags and look at the mix. The pellet to grain ratio, and ‘sweetness’ or quantity of molasses will be a good guide to whether it’s suitable for your requirements.

What’s in a label?

The variety of coarse mixes produced by America's most popular horse feed brands today is excessively vast. It’s important to be able to read the ingredient and guaranteed analysis labels with some idea of what they actually mean.

Energy values may not be listed in the analysis because there is no official calculation for measuring energy for horses. As this is one of the most important reasons for choosing a feed or not, you need to know what to look for on the ingredient list.

Coarse mixes for performances horses typically include straight grains such as oats, corn and barley. These feed stuffs can be deficient in vitamins minerals and protein, so they’re most effective when fed in a high quality mix with a complex balance of other ingredients.

Mixes for growing youngsters can be of similar ingredients to performance mixes but without the high quantity of oats and corn. Be careful to assess your youngster's breed and weight level before gaily choosing a youngster mix; over feeding a young horse can have an adverse effect on his growth and cause him to become too lively and difficult to handle. This in turn can lead to accidents and injury. If, for example, you have a young horse that is developing well and looks happy, healthy and shiny, look for a coarse mix that can be fed in small quantities without the ingredients such as oats and corn, as he will not require extra fat and energy in his feed. The best thing a young horse can have is simply the time he needs to grow and develop.

Senior and pleasure horse mixes tend to be minus the extra energy factor ingredients such as oat and corn grains. They should have greater amounts of ingredients that are key to keeping the condition of an older horse, or the vital proteins, vitamins and minerals minus the fat for horses that do well and enjoy an easy life. Alfalfa is a good source of calcium, fiber and minerals. Omega-3 and omega-6 are a popular way to include fatty acids and aid condition. An important point: look at the ingredients, get a feel for the feed and don’t just buy because you read a feed company's blurb!


You know your horse breed type and workload; you also need to weigh your horse to establish the quantity of coarse mix he’ll need. Using a weight tape is the easiest method and then it’s a case of consulting your chosen feed’s recommended quantities for the weight of your horse. There are feeds on the market now that offer ‘concentrated’ energy so that the amount of grain you need to feed is lessened. It’s crucial to be aware of what and how much you’re feeding. If the horse’s workload increases, he may not need just an increased quantity of grain, but instead a coarse mix with a slightly different set of ingredients and potential energy increase. Feeding equines, especially those in high performance roles is a science; use trusted brands and listen to what your horse tells you. Is he fit, happy, calm and confident? If he is, chances are you got it right!

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