About bran and your horse

Kim Dyson remembers with fondness how, as a little girl, she made a warm bran mash for her horses when it was cold. But is this practice good for equines?

About bran and your horse
Photo: Kim Dyson
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A wheat byproduct, bran is the large pink brown flake of the outer husk removed so that the softer inner kernel can be ground into flour. In horses, bran can be used for poulticing a tendon, drawing out an abscess and feeding a fussy eater. It helps colic and adds roughage to a diet.

My favourite bran mash recipe is bran, chopped- up carrots, Epsom salts and a generous hand-full of molasses. But, as with everything in life, we always need to be open to change. And much controversy currently surrounds bran, with some saying it may do more harm than good.

Big head – an unsightly problem
Owning a horse is a costly business. Feeding a bad ‘food choice’ to save on your feed bill will only increase your vet’s bill.
Unfortunately, horses love the taste of bran and millers are delighted to sell bran cheaply. And horses fed large amounts of bran over long periods of time develop a serious skeletal problem known as ‘big head’.

So what’s the problem with bran? In bran, the calcium-to-phosphorous ratio is 1:12. For horses, the ideal calcium-to-phosphorous ratio needs to be 1:1 or 1:2. With the bran ratio so badly out of whack, the body copes by stealing calcium from the bones to achieve the right metabolic balance between the two minerals. Soft connective tissue replaces bone and skulls become enlarged and lumpish – hence the name ‘big head’ disease. It seems we’re unknowingly causing our horses distress by giving them the occasional weekly bran mash.

Avoid a sudden change
A sudden change in diet also causes digestive disorders in horses, and makes them cranky, anxious or sluggish. A change in feed can involve anything from switching to a new load of hay, substituting a different grain mix for one you’ve been feeding, or turning a horse wintered on hay out on a lush green spring field. The horse’s various gut microbes, which are essential for good digestion and vitamin synthesis, must be given the chance to adjust the size of their respective populations to the shifting ratios of carbohydrates, fats, protein and fibre they must process.

When a sudden change is made, a proportion of these beneficial micro-organisms die. The dying microbes are not only unable to assist in proper digestion, they also give off toxins that can be absorbed into the horse’s bloodstream – to the detriment of the animal’s well-being.

Stick to ordinary grass
The truth is that horses do better on good quality grazing and hay nets at night than buckets full of concentrates. Grass is relatively cheaper than concentrate. So bulk up on good quality grass. Only supplement under supervision of a nutritionist.

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