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Does concentrated feed really provide power? Or can it harm my horse as well?

For most horse owners, feeding concentrated feed in the form of muesli, pellets or grain is a natural part of the diet. Only very few people question the purpose of this feeding.

Nevertheless, the rise in horses with metabolic disorders, ranging from overweight EMS ponies to potential laminitis candidates, is prompting a reevaluation. It’s time to delve into the pros and cons of feeding concentrated feeds.

Plant fibers constitute the primary diet of wild horses. Through the aid of microorganisms in their large intestine, wild horses have developed mechanisms to break down these fibers and utilize them as an energy source. In contrast, humans cannot derive much energy from such fiber; our reliance is on nutrients that can be digested in the small intestine.

When humankind socialised the horse, they themselves still lived as nomads from the fruits, berries, nuts and herbs they found and from the milk and meat of their animals. The earliest domesticated horses were nourished in a manner similar to their wild counterparts: by foraging for food in the wild.

When humans became more settled and increasingly obtained their food from agriculture, horses continued to be fed in the same way as their wild ancestors. This was due to the labor-intensive nature of cultivating fields, and the value of grain was deemed too high for horses to be fed rather than used for human consumption.

Working horses were provided with grass and hay, and during the day, they would graze by the roadside on their way to the field or while awaiting the farmer. They were also led into the woods to graze on the undergrowth. Only the esteemed riding horses of the upper classes received (limited amounts of) concentrated feed, serving as a symbol of wealth for those who could afford to provide these horses with valuable grains.

© Adobe Stock / Happy monkey

Fundamental changes in horse feeding emerged only with the onset of industrialization. With the growth of cities, supplying ample roughage to meet the needs of horses pulling trams and lorries became increasingly challenging.

The demanding workload of horses, laboring 12-14 hours a day without the chance to graze along the roadside, also meant they lacked sufficient time to chew an adequate amount of roughage. To maintain their performance, horses required a quick source of energy.

Simultaneously, the emergence of food factories in cities resulted in the production of substantial amounts of food waste that needed to be managed. At that time, the military stood as the largest horse owner, overseeing millions of cavalry horses that demanded attention. Hence, the military spearheaded research into alternatives for horse feeding, specifically exploring the use of food waste as feed.

The objective was to streamline and economize horse feeding, ensuring optimal performance while minimizing the need for bulky and cumbersome roughage.

This feeding approach persisted until the late 1940s, marked by the decline in the horse population, exacerbated by the dissolution of cavalry schools and the subsequent mass slaughter of military horses. Until that point, the understanding of species-appropriate nutrition for horses had faded from the minds of many, as the emphasis had long been on economical and practical feeding rather than adhering to species-appropriate practices.

The rise of the horse feed industry further popularized this feeding method. As a result, numerous horse owners have adopted the belief that concentrated feed is essential, assuming it to be the primary source of energy for athletic performance in horses.

In certain stables, there’s even a practice of limiting hay to control weight while simultaneously offering ample concentrated feed. Following the mantra: I require three meals a day, so it must be beneficial for my horse as well. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Horses eating hay together
© Adobe Stock / acceptfoto

On the contrary, hay stands out as the most crucial energy source for horses. On the flip side, substantial quantities of concentrated feed exert considerable stress on the blood sugar balance due to their sugar and starch content, significantly contributing to conditions like insulin resistance, EMS, pseudo-EMS, and laminitis.

Furthermore, excessive amounts of concentrated feed can disturb the digestive process in the large intestine, causing dysbiosis (incorrect fermentation). This, in turn, may contribute to a diminished energy yield from hay and metabolic disorders such as cryptopyrroluria (KPU).

Only now, with insights from new research on species-appropriate nutrition, are we realizing that the conventional feeding practice — regular concentrated feed meals combined with 2-3 small hay servings per day — may contribute to the widespread occurrence of civilization-related diseases in horses. These diseases include EMS, insulin resistance, laminitis, sweet itch, and more. A reevaluation is underway, bringing about a ‘back to the roots’ movement — a return to a diet that aligns with the natural needs of the species.

Nevertheless, our horses typically don’t have the chance to graze in the manner of wild horses. Their diet encompasses a wide range, consisting of grasses, various herbaceous plants, leaves, bark, roots, berries from bushes, and seeds from selected plants.

To meet their dietary needs, they cover extensive distances, wandering through a variety of vegetation and encountering a diverse array of plants set on their ‘table.

In contrast, domestic horses source their food from pastures, where the usually high number of horses on a small area can eventually lead to monoculture. Each year, stress-resistant performance grasses and plants scorned by horses, like sorrel, buttercups, and the like, are spreading more and more. Even hay fails to offer the biodiversity that wild horses encounter in their natural surroundings.

© Canva / Kamchatka

A mere 50 years ago, botanical analyses consistently identified over 50 different plant species in hay. Nowadays, it typically ranges from 6-9, a considerable decrease compared to the more than 50 plant species found in hay just half a century ago. This shift has altered the nutrient composition of basic feed, deviating from what horses are naturally adapted to.

Hence, it is valuable to strategically supplement the standard feed with hay and pasture.

Energy suppliers

A significant number of horses no longer possesses the ideal environment in their large intestine to fully exploit the nutritional benefits of hay, often stemming from years of improper feeding practices. This situation can result in an energy deficit, especially when facing consistent sporting demands, even with generous hay intake. The effects often manifest as subpar performance and muscle loss.

The primary source of energy for horses is cellulose and hemicellulose, the fiber content in hay, which undergoes digestion in the large intestine. While thoroughbreds and most warmbloods can adeptly compensate for and convert sugar and starch (found in grain, muesli, pellets) into work, other horse breeds generally exhibit a poorer tolerance to the significant blood sugar fluctuations induced by this feeding.

Fatty degeneration, lymphatic deposits, EMS, diabetes, laminitis, and various other diseases can manifest as unsightly outcomes. Their diet is not in harmony with the natural adaptation of horses, as sugar, starch, and oils (incidentally) are only found in minimal amounts in the natural diet of wild horses.

In cases where the fiber supply falls short of meeting their energy needs, horses resort to utilizing proteins as an alternative energy source, given the relatively common presence of protein-rich plants in nature.

To sustain the weight of heavy feeders or meet heightened energy demands during activities like sporting performance, pregnancy, lactation, and other special requirements, incorporating protein-rich plants—specifically legumes—is advisable. Sainfoin is especially well-suited for this purpose.

© Adobe Stock / meyerfranzgisela

Sainfoin boasts an even superior protein profile than alfalfa and, thanks to its condensed tannins, plays a role in stabilizing the intestinal environment, enhancing the overall utilization of the feed ration. Soaking sainfoin pellets is an option, especially useful when there’s a need to administer essential but less palatable therapeutic feed discreetly.

In cases where soaking poses logistical challenges or when a horse should receive its ‘psychological handful’ during group feedings, OKAPI Ready-to-Use Sainfoin provides a convenient alternative. The pellets have a suitable diameter for dry feeding, and most horses readily enjoy them without any need for coaxing.

Mineral and salt supply

Ensuring a constant presence of a salt lick is crucial in any case. Natural salt licks are often the preferred choice for most horses over blocks of pressed, white evaporated salt. The decision to choose between natural salt from the Himalayan outcrops of Pakistan and local rock salt (mountain salt) is left to the ecological conscience of each individual.

Regularly offering a well-balanced mineral feed is also essential.

When selecting a mineral feed, it’s advisable to ensure that the composition includes as few ingredients with sugar and starch as possible. This encompasses ingredients such as apple pomace, wheat semolina bran, beet pulp, dextrose, sucrose, soya (meal), and molasses that should be monitored in mineral feeds.

The proportion of ingredients in the mineral feed increases the closer they are listed to the beginning of the declaration. You can personally assess the sugar content by tasting a small sample of the mineral feed. It can be surprising how sugary-sweet some mineral feeds taste, considering they should ideally have a salty/mineral flavor (and no, as a human, tasting horse feed won’t lead to immediate harm; it just might not be the most enjoyable experience for our taste buds).

Brewer's yeast on a wooden spoon
© Adobe Stock / barkstudio

For this situation, it’s recommended to leave out brewer’s yeast from the mineral feed composition. It encourages the colonization of lactic acid bacteria in the large intestine, potentially contributing to the development of colonic acidosis and dysbiosis (incorrect fermentation). It’s crucial that additives consistently incorporate selenium in its inorganic form as sodium selenite, avoiding the use of organic selenium yeast. Horses can incorporate organic forms of selenium into their endogenous proteins, potentially causing significant disruptions in protein metabolism.

It’s advisable to administer mineral feed in cycles, providing it for 4-6 weeks and then allowing a break of 2-3 weeks. As mineral feed is provided, the horse accumulates the minerals in its body’s own reserves. During the breaks, minerals are drawn from these reserves.

This approach ensures the continued regulatory capacity of the stores, as a constant oversupply (daily administration according to the manufacturer’s recommendation) can eventually disrupt this function. To steer clear of synthetic vitamins in mineral feed, consider using OKAPI Pure Minerals G – a blend of pure minerals and trace elements with grape seed flour as a carrier. Grape seed meal has a beneficial side effect on horses, stabilizing the intestinal environment and aiding in blood sugar regulation.

Diversity of herbs and species

For a diverse range of plants with various active ingredient properties and nutritional values in the feed, OKAPI Four Seasons feed is a suitable option.

These comprehensive herbal blends found in OKAPI Four Seasons feed deliver essential active ingredients to support the metabolism tailored for each specific season. With a diverse array of plants in each mix and a change every two months, OKAPI Four Seasons feed makes it effortless to replicate what nature offers wild horses in your horse’s diet.

Enhance the herbal mix with regular leaf and bark blends, and consider adding a handful of dried berry mix or oil-containing seeds like sunflower seeds (commonly found as ‘bird food’ in feed shops) or fresh rose hips (collected during autumn walks or directly picked by horses from bushes, which many of them enjoy).


For a nutritious boost, consider adding linseed or wild seed mixtures occasionally, especially in winter. Ensure to soak them in warm water for 15 minutes before placing them in the feeding trough to enhance nutrient absorption and prevent a sticky mess in the turnout.

Moderation is key, and a diverse approach is essential. In nature, horses don’t stumble upon an ‘all you can eat’ buffet daily; instead, they encounter different plants on different days. Opting for a variety in diet ensures a wide range of nutrients and active ingredients that the body can effectively utilize.

This diet, coupled with continual access to top-quality hay, customized summer grazing, and the option for horses to nibble along the path during trail rides or walks, ensures that every horse receives everything it needs in a species-appropriate manner.