Reading time 6 minutes

And if so, then grain-free please! Or not? What do you mean?

Mash is a traditional horse feed that our ancestors, even great-grandfathers, would provide in specific situations. These situations included instances when horses were seriously ill, such as during colic. It could happen that they survived the colic but were too exhausted to eat afterwards. However, horses with a tendency to colic were also provided with mash as a preventative measure, for example, when the weather changed. Horses that were ridden to the point of total exhaustion, such as in wars or similar situations, were also administered mash. So, it was mostly life-threatening conditions that prompted the preparation of mash.

A traditional mash comprises only four components:

Wheat bran, rolled oats, linseed and salt. And of course plenty of warm water.

Wheat bran

Each of these components has its own significance. Wheat bran, for instance, is essentially the outer covering of the wheat grain. It is rich in fiber, protein, as well as various vitamins and trace elements. It is also highly regarded for its high phosphorus content, making it the perfect ‘appetizer.’ However, it should only be fed soaked and never dry – making it ideal for use in mash.

Wheat bran is highly digestible in crushed form, allowing for the quicker breakdown of nutrients. It contains easily utilizable starch, which is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream as sugar, providing energy very rapidly. It also has a very good fatty acid structure, which can be directly utilized in metabolism, for example, to repair damaged cells. However, fats only play a secondary role as a source of energy in such a situation.

Dried cereal grain
© photocrew / Adobe Stock


Linseed also contributes high-quality fatty acids to the metabolism and boasts a high protein content, crucial for regeneration processes. Similar to oats, linseed also contains a significant amount of mucilage, beneficial for the stomach and enhancing overall digestibility.


Lastly, salt is essential not only for restoring the disturbed electrolyte balance in such situations but also for facilitating the removal of water from the digestive chyme, thereby normalizing the water balance.

As evident, mash serves as a ‘power feed,’ and this is precisely how it should be utilized. Mash was never designed for owners to prepare a warm soup for their horses every evening. Especially with horses that already have weight issues, one should exercise extreme caution with such ‘calorie bombs’.

Alternatives to traditional mash

Hay pellets soaked in warm water

If you have a horse that tends to be round from all angles but still shivers and thoroughly enjoys its warm meal, what do you do? Or if your horse tends to drink too little in winter, causing constant concerns about constipation colic? Many of these horses can be made quite happy if you soak some hay pellets and mix in some boiling water before feeding, so they are nice and lukewarm.

Hay pellets usually have a similar composition to regular hay, offering a high fiber content with low to moderate nutrient levels. The fiber length in hay pellets promotes effective peristalsis. This is because both excessively short fibers, known as ‘hay meal,’ and overly long fibers, referred to as ‘structured chaff,’ can pose issues for the intestines. The length of hay pellets falls precisely in between, making them an ideal choice. If soaked, they can also provide ample liquid intake for the horse, and you can enhance this ‘pre-chewed hay’ with various flavorful additions.

Additionally, many horses enjoy the occasional herbal tea during the winter. Whether it’s a herbal mixture for coughs, immune support, kidney detoxification, or bitter herbs for the liver, herbs can be mixed into the hay pellets, adding not only a healthy touch but also a new flavor..

Horses with stomach problems also appreciate it when you mix the hay pellets with boiled linseed or, in a slightly lower-calorie version, with psyllium husk, which can then soak together with the hay pellets. Be careful not to use too much: psyllium seeds (husks) have an incredible swelling capacity, and it can happen that the whole bucket contains nothing but jelly afterwards! The mucilage supports the stomach, and the warm water ensures that these horses drink more fluids This occurs because horses experiencing stomach issues often tend to consume insufficient water when it is cold from the trough.

Sainfoin pellets fed warm

If a horse is lean and you aim to add a bit more weight around the ribs, there’s no necessity to resort to starchy feeds, as a daily mash throughout winter can be unhealthy.

In this case, you can boost the quantity of hay pellets and incorporate sainfoin pellets to the mix. Sainfoin, closely related to alfalfa, boasts an amino acid profile that is ideal for horses. Contrary to some claims, the condensed tannins in sainfoin are not fatally toxic. On the contrary, in the right dosage, they contribute to stabilizing the intestinal environment and enhancing the utilization of all feedstuffs. Between 1 and 3 kg (dry) of sainfoin can be fed per horse per day. It’s advisable to increase the amount gradually, starting with a handful.

Bowl with sainfoin pellets
OKAPI Sainfoin as an alternative to starchy mash © OKAPI GmbH

This serves as a healthy alternative to traditional mash, even for healthy horses, if you want to treat them to something tasty on cold winter evenings. Due to its composition, this should be reserved for horses that have a clear health indication for it.

This means after colic and similarly serious illnesses that are accompanied by high fever and loss of appetite. For horses susceptible to colic prior to impending weather changes. After long journeys or during hospital stays. In other words, whenever horses require a significant boost of quick energy due to illness or stress, necessitating easily digestible nutrition.

For all other horses, a warm hay pellets mash with some flavorful additions is generally sufficient. This might occasionally involve adding some linseed or a handful of wheat bran. As is always the case, the key lies in the dosage!