Corny Thoughts on Feeding
We are a people who eat as a social function - as much or maybe more than for nutrition. And on the whole it seems we will eat almost anything except our friends, and them we feed.
We debate food; we honor food; we study food; we hoard food; we share food; we prepare food; we package food; we ship food; we express ourselves with food; we pay debts with food. If our enemies do something we dislike, we withhold food. If we want to make a friend we share a recipe. If we want to break the ice we buy a meal. If we want to prove our independence we go dutch treat. If we need a favor we offer a meal - maybe at even $1000 a plate.
We judge a man by his ability to eat what he pleases and then further by what he prefers. A meat and potatoes man is simple and strong; soup and beans are for the poor or stingy; caviar is for the rich and sophisticated; and anything expensive, hard to pronounce or difficult to prepare has class.
We are what we eat, so we say. We feed our athletes flesh to make them predators; our women friends candy to make them sweet; and our children vegetables which they should be happy to have because of the millions of starving children all over the world.
Some of us are junk food junkies, health food nuts, barbecue barons, microwave maniacs, gourmet cooks or just parents who have to bring home the bacon.
It is our fervent belief, because we have heard it so often, that coke is the pause that refreshes (pun intended); mountain grown coffee is better; and that wheaties are, in fact, the breakfast of champions. You have no doubt heard that grapefruit pills absorb calories (if you take them instead of eating); copper bracelets help arthritis (especially if you believe it for sure); and that regular exercise will add years to your life (or at least make it seem to take longer).
What in the world does all this have to do with feeding horses? Everything. Horses are our friends so we don't eat them - we feed them. We want love and affection; we need acceptance and respect; and we demand obedience and performance. We instinctively believe food is the key.
In my 30 years in the horse business I have known horses who would nicker their owners name in exchange for sugar cubes, carrots or apple chunks, oatmeal cookies - and one old gray gelding who could only be had for a swig of beer. Naturally, regular favors become routine dues so don't be surprised when your horse friend takes a nip out of you when there is no treat to be found.
But wait - I can see why treats work so well for dogs. After all they evolved hunting for food and then having to hunt for more, but not so with horses. They seem almost to have grown larger through history just to be able to see predators over the food they were walking through. There is an old saying that you can't sell a contented man anything. I wonder if that doesn't apply to horses.
Most articles written about horse feed involve statistics, averages, and phrases such as crude protein. The only figures I have may not sound as technical or academic, but here they are - and I guarantee that no feed company paid for this research!
I started riding about 1953. The first thing I learned was not to allow Ginger to eat as she walked through the woods or she would stop and make me look silly. Then I learned not to let her drink as we crossed the creek because she might just decide to lay down in the water and that would make me look stupid.
In 1954 I had learned not to give her grain while she was sweating because that made me look like an amateur.
Then in 1956 I bought my first registered Arabian filly - RAFSU, Registration Number 10464. This called for some sophisticated feeding. I wanted nothing but the best. Lester Rudder fed his horses nothing but corn, on the cob, and hay - but of course I wanted to be more expert; more modern; more up to date. I mean, he had been feeding his horses that way since the 1930's so it couldn't possible be the best. Besides, he didn't have REGISTERED horses.
Before long I was a real expert - making formula changes at the feed store; supervising the cracking and rolling and grinding and mixing with the eye of a concerned, capable authoritative - if somewhat youthful - expert horseman.
By 1969 I had been in the "horse business" half of my life and owned my own "place" complete with customers and their horses.
Since the less one really knows about a subject the more willing they are to discuss what they think; I spent hours expounding upon the reasons we made daily corrections in the amounts of additives each individual horse received. After all, isn't it every innkeepers dream to have a reputation for clean sheets and superb cuisine?
By 1977 our 10 barns housed about 300 horses, all being worked on a daily basis. To tell you the truth, I was getting nervous. It seems that if you have one barn and 30 horses a case or two of colic goes unnoticed. Or, if 10 people each have a 30-horse barn they will compare notes and decide if one is having more problems than another. However, if you have 10 barns and the resulting ten-fold amount of colic you have a big problem.
And how about all the noise? When you enter the barn to feed three horses and one gets impatient and kicks and frets it is almost amusing. After all, if their weight looks good you must be feeding them enough. But 300 horses created a completely different scene. Some are mad because they aren't being fed first; others are mad because they were fed first and their neighbor is kicking its stall wall. Others are mad because the grain wheelbarrow always runs out at their stalls; and the rest are furious at all the kicking, lunging and generally rude behavior while they are trying to eat. Now, you get three guesses what feeding mad and frustrated horses highly intensified feeds can cause.
That's right - COLIC, stall injuries, and frustration with the circumstances of their imprisonment. This all leads to a higher incidence of cribbers, stall walkers and weavers.
For the stall injuries I tried everything I could think of. We fed faster - that didn't help. We tried feeding more often - a little improvement. I tried to redesign stall walls to make them more flexible to cause less concussion when kicked. I tried anti-kicking devices on the horses. I tried moving the worst cases. Nothing seemed to help.
For the colic I tried no less than 50 different formulas of sweet feeds, pelletized grain, pelletized hay, more molasses, less molasses, sea weed and even refracted soybean hulls. Nothing made sense. The dressage horses had just as much colic as the cutting, reining or jumping horses.
The vets told me there might be something in the water. The feed man said it must be the barn design. Some people said the horses didn't get enough exercise. Others said they were overworked. Meanwhile, I was running out of room to bury the severe cases.
Then one day in 1978 as I was paying a traveling technician $20 per hour to float teeth, it hit me that maybe the horses weren't eating enough. I don't mean enough feed - I mean enough time. What if the concentrated, processed, sweetened, perfectly balanced, high protein, highly advertised, brightly packaged, socially and academically suitable ration was just not right. I suddenly remembered the quiet, comforting sound of Lester's barn at feeding time so long ago.
The decision was made. I would try whole corn, good clean hay, plenty of fresh water in clean buckets, block salt and free choice minerals. I made the change gradually, replacing one pound of other feed with one pound of corn. In other words, one pint of corn equals about one pint of oats.
Colic reduced at least 90%; stall manners improved to almost no injuries in the stalls (except when personality problems with the guy next door caused discontent). The number of stable vices developed by new horses coming in to work dropped to less than the average you would expect to see industry wide.
Now, I understand why - back in 1957 when I told Lester I thought there were much better ways to feed horses - he didn't bother to argue. And neither do I. After all, for the most part, we are a people who eat as a social function as much as for the nutrition and if it is that much cheaper and that simple, it can't possibly be better - can it?
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Updated: October 2005.