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Understanding of feeding grains to horses - Oats

Understanding of feeding grains to horses - Oats

Oats (jaee) Avena Sativa 
they are commonly grown as Rabi crop in india.

The benefits 

  • oats are source of low calorie high protein and high fiber diet for horses.
  • oats regulate the blood sugar level by improving the insulin sensitivity .
  • good source of quick release energy in the form of starch and some sugar for horses in work.
  • good source of the mineral phosphorus
  • provides protein about 13 % and fiber plus B vitamins.
  • horses ideally require a ratio of calcium to phosphorus of 1.5-2 parts calcium to one part phosphorus

Role of phosphorus

phosphorus is important for healthy bones, teeth joints, and hooves. 
imp for healthy metabolism,
an electrolyte and hence important in the diet of all horses more applicable to horses which are under heavy work and extra electrolyte losses through sweat.

How oats are healthy for horses?

  • Oats contain an highly digestible form of starch that does not require heat treatment or processing. hence can be fed whole and unprocessed. 
  • They are the only grain easily digested unprocessed by horses. other grains like barley, corn, wheat should be boiled, slow cooked, steamed, rolled extruded or microionised to improve the digestibility of the starch and help avoid hindgut issues.
  • Digestibility of starch in raw oats is around 90% while the digestibilty of the starch in corn , wheat and barley is just 35% which improves to 90% on heat treatment.
  • These are highest in fibre and lowest in sugar and starch of all cereal grains given to horses. hence they are least likely to cause insulin spikes and blood sugar fluctuations, and hind gut fermentation issues and also behavioural issues.

Contains Beta-glucan

  • Oats are good source of beta -glucan, which is a polysaccharide that has numerous health benefits for horses. 
  • Beta glucan boosts beneficial gut microflora, lowers, insulin resistance and reduces blood sugar fluctuations and slows the rate of passage of hard feed through the GI system allowing greater enzymatic digestion of the starch in small intestine thus reducung the risk of hind gut acidosis.
  • Oats are highly palatable for horses and easy to manage horses feeding to make them eat when converting from living on pasture or hay.

What are concerns in feeding oats
  • High in phosphorus low in calcium 0.3% phosphorus and only 0.07% calcium can be a problem if the complete diet it takes doesn't supplement calcium in right quantities or like if the horse is grazing on high oxalate pasture like setaria and buffel grass causes calcium deficiency.
  • excess P inhibits Ca absorption.
  • According to NRC nurtient requirement a 500 kg horse in maintenance only require 14 grams of phosphorus per day and 20 grams of calcium per day.

Protein quality of oats

  • Oats contain 13 % P and it is low in the essential amino acid lysine which is essential for pregmant , lactating and growing young stocks and sports or work horses. therefore this protien is not a high quality protien. (common for cereal grains).
  • Draw back can be compensated by feeding lucerne which is a good source of lysine with the oats.and improve the overall amino acid profile.
  • Unless horses are in heavy work they don’t really require grain in the diet at all because a diet high in digestible fibre from feed sources like pasture, hay, haylage, hay cubes, beet pulp, legumes and legume hulls etc provides more than enough digestible energy (in a slow-release sustained form). 

  • These high fibre feeds are also healthier for horses because they boost beneficial gut microflora and discourage the overgrowth of pathogenic microflora, and therefore boost overall health and immunity.

Perceived disadvantages

Sensitivity or allergy to the protein in oats (although this is more likely to occur with barley or wheat due to the gluten they contain – gluten is a known common allergen).

The horse has trouble chewing the hard seed coats (hulls) of the oats. In this case, soaking, steaming or cooking the oats for a few hours before feeding them out, or feeding crushed or steam-rolled oats is a better option than feeding whole oats.

Oats and their digestion by Amylase and their individual differences in digestion

Volume of oats fed matter ? Horses produce amylase enzymes in their pancreas, which are required to digest starch in the small intestine. Compared to other mammals horses only produce relatively small amounts of amylase (because their natural diet is usually low in starch). Individual horses also vary in the amount of amylase they produce. Horses that produce more amylase than others tolerate larger amounts of oats (and other grain) better than horses that produce smaller amounts of amylase.
If a particular horse is fed oats (or other grain) and becomes colicky or uncomfortable, scours or develops ulcers and/or hindgut issues, or becomes irritable and difficult to handle or ride then chances are that this particular horse only produces small amounts of amylase and isn’t tolerating the starch in the diet well (assuming the issues aren’t due to parasites, infection, injury or some other source). If this is the case then reducing the amount of oats (or other grain) fed, or eliminating them from the diet altogether, should resolve the issue. Or alternatively, the horse can be supplemented with digestive enzymes (containing amylase), which will improve small intestinal enzymatic digestion of the oats (or other grain). If a horse is fed more oats (or other grain) then can be digested by enzymatic action in the small intestine then the grain will arrive in the hindgut undigested. There it will be rapidly fermented by acid-producing microflora, which results in the lowering of the pH of the hindgut, which can lead to gut dysbiosis (an imbalance between beneficial and pathogenic gut microflora), damage to the hindgut lining, pain, inflammation, ulceration, scours, colic, irritable and excitable behaviour, and even severe illness in the form of laminitis.


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