Monday, June 6, 2011

The grain-free experiment

Remember when I said that learning horse nutrition was going to be my next adventure? Well I've had a bit of a crash course in it since the Quarters moved last August.

The two horses that they moved in with, Butch and Rocky, don't get any grain- they eat grass in the summer and hay in the winter and that's it. When I moved the Quarters in they adopted the same diet, from August to April they didn't eat anything other than forage.

After I wrapped up my hoof series I began some preliminary nutrition research at and started learning about mineral deficiencies. As soon as I knew what to look for I started seeing signs of it all over the Quarters. Coriander's mane and tail showed drastic sun bleaching and his coat just didn't look right. Plus his frogs JUST WEREN'T GROWING despite repeated oxine soaks and No Thrush treatments. Gwen was even worse: her hoof walls were losing integrity and going SPLAT, she wasn't shedding and her hair coat had developed hooks at the end. Not good. Not good at all.

What I didn't realize when I stopped feeding them grain is how mineral deficient upstate NY is. The grass and  hay they were eating was markedly deficient in trace minerals like selenium, copper and zinc. Want to know what your area is like? You can check the average NGS geochemistry by county in the US here.

It was time to get some minerals into the Quarters, but what was the best way to do it? I'd been reading barefoot trimmers rhapsodize about the benefits of California Trace, and decided to give it a try. When it arrived I measured out a serving in my hands and fed it to the horses. "Oh, what's this?" They said. "Nom, nom, no... PHhhbbttt!" So much for the company's claim that horses love their product. I tried mixing in some anise seed powder to make it more palatable (they love licorice), but they weren't fooled. It appeared I needed to find something to mix the CA Trace with so they'd eat it.

I recalled that Gwen had done well on my Father-in-Law's "Cornell Mix," so I decided to get some of that. When I went to buy some we ended up talking about pellets and I ended up leaving with a bag of Nutrena Empower Balance too. I don't really understand how it works, but that "Cornell Mix" makes coats shine like mirrors and helps keep weight on hard keepers. The Nutrena feed is specifically designed to supplement grass diets and has pre/probiotics in it to support their digestive systems.

I've been feeding these three mixed together since the beginning of April and have noticed marked improvements in the Quarters. Coriander's frogs have FINALLY started growing and his coat looks better than ever (and feels like crushed velvet). Gwen finally shed out and her coat is looking good as well, even better, her hooves have improved immensely. You can actually see the line where her hoof wall has grown in better and tighter since I added the minerals to her diet (Amazingly she's been rock crushingly sound the entire time, I don't know how she does it.).

Gwen's left hind

Gwen's left fore

Here's a picture of Coriander looking awesome in his ungroomed shiny-ness.
It appears that genetics plays a part in this. Even though they're half-siblings, Gwen showed more acute symptoms of deficiency than her brother did. I wish I had a clue why that happened. Butch and Rocky haven't had grain in forever and neither of them shows the marked mineral deficiencies that mine did after only a few months. They may be helped by their breeding, Rocky is a mustang/morgan (I incorrectly called her a quarter horse a few months ago) so it's possible that her mustang heritage makes her hardier. BUT, her coat has barely any shine and her hair feels like straw. Butch shows a bit of shine in the picture with Coriander but he lacks the sheen that Coriander has and he still hasn't shed out completely. To help them out a little I bought a salt block with added selenium and other minerals for the pasture and hung up Gwen's old Himalayan salt block where they could get at it. They might get a bit more of what they need this way.

Obviously I still have a TON to learn about nutrition, right now I feel like I'm throwing everything at them but the kitchen sink hoping that they're getting what they need. To remedy that, I'll be taking Dr. Kellon's nutrition course over the winter and boning up on knowledge from Getty Equine Nutrition.

In short, the grain-free experiment failed completely. I feel awful that I did this to them and am keeping my fingers crossed that I didn't do them any lasting harm. My poor horses, they had no idea I'd turn them into guinea pigs...


  1. THe best way to learn is to experiement. A few missed nutrients for a few weeks will not bother them!!! Regardless of breed, the other horses in their field eat only grass and they are apparently still sound...I bet the Quarters will come out of this unscathed and happy that you have learned all that you needed to about their nutrition!!

  2. Well I certainly learned quite a bit, that's for sure. Considering how much better they look already, you're probably right and they're just fine.

  3. The fact that you tried and acknowledged that it didn't work is a good thing. Don't be too hard on yourself. I don't think any permanent damage has been done. Coriander looks fab!

    I do think that genetics comes into play. The Canadian is considered an easy keeper. They had to survive winters on tree bark when they were first introduced 200 years ago. I think having to live on next to nothing has made their bodies evolve over time to be able to suck any nutrition out of anything they eat! :-) Having said that, although Gem was given only top quality hay for the first 8 years of his life (and he looked good), he now gets a little "taste" of grain when the others get theirs. He has never looked better.

  4. That's an interesting experiment. I don't grain or supplement when they're on pasture except selenium salt blocks, but mine all seem to do great. We have lush pasture. It seems spring though, when they're coming off hay, and before the grass is established, is always tough around here for mine.


  5. Wolfie- I tried to respond to your comment this morning but the computer ate it :(

    What I wanted to say was how interesting genetics can be and how amazing it is that animals can adapt to such different environments.

    Linda- Lucky you, you seem to be in a part of the country that has more nutrients in the ground and grass than I do. I think that grass has more nutrients than hay, the drying and storage process tends to lose some nutrients.

  6. Love the photo at the top - what a pair of cuties!

    This winter was our first grain-free winter - I fed grass hay, plus soaked beet pulp and alfalfa pellets, and mineral block. They did fine, but of course once the grass started coming in, they began blooming.

    Thanks for the handy links - I've put them on Bookmark. I think I should get the Extension to test our soil for trace minerals.

    We used to live in upstate NY - near Syracuse.

  7. p.s. we reseeded last fall in one pasture and in the hay lot - a mixture of low-sugar grasses with 25% alfalfa. I can't believe how much alfalfa has come in. I guess it'll make the hay more protein-rich.

  8. Hi June, you're welcome for the links. I added them hoping somebody would find them handy.

    I've heard some good things about alfalfa but I need to avoid it like the plague because of a genetic condition that Coriander has. He needs to avoid potassium and alfalfa has a lot of it.

    You used to live pretty close by then :)

  9. We're always changing feed to accommodate different
    medical or maybe behavioral situations with the horses. Who's got PSSM, who needs this special supplement or not etc. My daughter took the Dr. Kellon course and it's very good. I'm so lucky to have my daughter as their nutritionist because she does so much in-depth research on everything to do with our horses.

    Love a shiny coat, it looks so healthy.

  10. Very interesting post! My mares have been grain free for a year, but I have been playing around with different supplements. Genetics play a part too, chestnuts and black horses need more copper, Minnie had sunbleached mane last year as well and when I started giving copper it disappeared.

  11. Love the new header photo!

    If you lived in the west, I'd be pushing LMF Super Supplement at you. It made Dixie go from dingy to BRIGHT WHITE, and it's a 1 lb a day supplement. My problem with feeding grain isn't the grain per se, it's the quantities of grain required to get the recommended amounts of vitamins/minerals. If you can find something that works for your area's deficiencies and doesn't require 5+ lbs a day, don't sweat the fact that you're feeding grain.

  12. GHM- I love a shiny coat too, they just look healthier.

    twohorses- what do you supplement with?

    Funder you hit my concern on the nose. How do I feed my horses grain to get them the minerals they need without triggering laminitis? So getting more bang for my buck, nutrient wise, makes sense to me. Approximately a quarter cup a day of California Trace is enough to get them their daily dose of minerals which means I don't have to feed as much grain, just enough to mask the taste.