2009-02-14 / Columnists

Horses Respond Well to Grains Like Oats, Corn, and Barley

by Candice C. Dunnigan

A long, cold winter, and this February groundhogs in both Pennsylvania and Michigan saw their shadows, meaning six more weeks of winter. For horses pastured outside, like so many of our draft fleet, as in the Upper Peninsula, the best thing to do these days is keep moving and keep chewing.

A horse, after all, is an herbivore, and gets his main nutrition from grasses. Wild horses graze on other things too, such as bark, brush, lichen, and even certain types of cacti. Horses spend most of their lives moving and eating.

Ever since the horse was first kept by man for work, his needs changed in the form of feed. Open lands shrunk to the size of pastures, pens, or stalls, and the amount of energy the horse was required to expend increased. Horses responded well to being fed grains, and thus grain has been fed to them for centuries.

Many horsemen call the most common horse feeds cob, corn, oats, and barley. A question arose the other morning at the breakfast table, while I was concocting my own bowl of hot oatmeal, "Why don't horses eat wheat instead of oats?" Good question. As it turns out, horses have been fed wheat, but mainly it's the bran, which is a byproduct of wheat after the flour has been taken out. Cob feeding came about because grains are cheaper and have been easy crops to grow, as well as harvest.

Oats have good nutrition. They have a fibrous husk, as well as a nutty seed that horses like. Horses that eat oats tend to keep their weight up. Oats can be fed rolled, or split, or whole. There are some negative factors, such as being low in calcium, and in some cases, oats can make a horse "heat up" and become too full of energy, hence the phrase, "He's feeling his oats today."

Barley is cheaper to grow than wheat for horses. It has high energy, but it's lower in fiber. Barley comes from the mill either in flakes, cracked, or rolled, much like oats. Whole barley soaked with boiling water, and then allowed to cool, is often fed to horses in a porridge like consistency called mash. Many horses are fed a mash when it's damp or cold outside. Some barns that I know of with performance horses feed a barley mash once a week to their animals in the winter.

Corn, or maize, as it's called by the rest of the world, has high sources of starch and natural oil. It's low in fiber, but good for a horse to help maintain skin condition and weight. Corn also is milled, cracked, or flaked.

It was not until America entered the scene in the 19th century that horse grain changed in dramatic form and content. Until then, all grains were grown locally. Arabs fed wheat berries to their Arabians in the Middle East, and in India, rice was fed to horses. But in the 1820s, the United States was the first to engineer grain bundlers and reapers. After the Civil War and America's own industrial revolution seriously began, America surpassed all other nations in grain production. No country before that could keep up with growing both enough grain for the population, as well as its agricultural consumers, and then have enough left over to export to its neighboring countries.

The real connection between horses, horse feed, and oats comes from no other place than Akron, Ohio. There, in 1856, a miller from Germany named Ferdinand Schumacher opened his mill to process oats, as well as barley, corn (cob), and wheat. Oats grown in the Akron area were, however, his largest production crop. Mr. Schumacher was the first to manufacture and distribute oats commercially for horses, and Quaker Oats was born. The other branch of the business concerned itself with rolled oats for humans, as oatmeal was eaten often for lunch and dinner, as well as breakfast. He then conceived of the idea of taking the by-products from these oats and other cereal grains and bagging them together as a feed for horses and cows. Quaker Oats became a significant player in the American Cereal Company.

A few years later, his company combined with another, the Cleveland Linseed Oil Company. They were distributing linseed for horses and making a by-product, linseed oil, for paint. (Later they became part of the Sherwin Williams Paint Company). Linseed has been widely used for horses when cooked with water and salt and served as a tepid gruel. The two companies merged (American Cereal) and further grew as parts of the Great Western Cereal Company. Vast acres of land were cultivated north and west of Chicago, Illinois, and in the city, huge mills were operating. In a very short time after the 1860s, American's industry production boomed. The location of Chicago became ideal for the rail and water connections needed to distribute horse feed.

Few people realize that during this time, not only masses of people were living and working in these expanding cities, but so were horses. The horse population was huge; thousands of horses were needed for commerce and transport. Stabling was at a premium. There was no grazing space, so the horses needed large amounts of grain to keep them fit. They were consuming tons of grain weekly. Good feed, in the form of good grain, was not a universal commodity. This is the reason why good feed, such as that from Quaker Oats-American Cereal, was important to horse owners.

In 1894, over in St. Louis, Missouri, the Robinson-Danforth Companies were producing horse and mule feed, too. They invented the idea of crushing the grains, adding molasses and sugar beet pulp to enrich it, and Purina Mills was born from their best selling pelleted horse chow. In 1902, a local horse veterinarian, Dr. Ralston, endorsed the "purity of the product - Pure-e-na" and invested in the company. In 1904, at the World Fair in St. Louis, the "checkerboard square" logo was first displayed. St. Louis was a convenient location for transport and reached many young towns in the expanding west. Eventually, Purina began setting up processing mills in these younger states. By the early 1900s, horse grain could be obtained nationwide, as well as locally.

Horses eat other things, such as dried peas and beans. Some are fed sugar beet pulp that has been soaked in water. These feeds can be used as a change for a horse, or to help his diet or weight, but they're not really sustaining. Some horses are also fed daily carrots, Swedes (rutabagas), turnips, and apples. The Russians, in both World Wars, fed their horses a diet of cut potatoes and what grain they could find.

No matter what grain you feed your horse, remember to feed in small quantities, and often. Don't work hard right after a grain meal, and provide plenty of fresh, clean water.

Candice Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and the Mackinac Horsemen's Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

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