My experiment with oats and a rant against the feed companies (UPDATE)

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Nov 30, 2002
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So here’s my disclaimer: I don’t know hardly anything about horse nutrition and have no credentials whatsoever, but I do know horses and how they should look and act and live. This is only my opinion of horse ownership of over 40+ years.

My take on oats: I was mostly brought up around thoroughbred jumpers and race horses long before I settled into Quarter Horses. What were they fed? Oats. I worked as a human slave for a number of performing high school horses and circus horses and what were they fed? Oats and dry bran. So when I began to feed my own big horses, oats is pretty much what I fed with my vitamin of choice, which at that time was Vita Plus, Source, or Drive. My quarter horses worked, played and showed hard and were just fine and dandy on my oat food. Time marched on and then I began to feed sweet feed from a number of companies, but mostly from Purina and Nutrena. Back then, if the contents were in the bag, it was supposed to be in my horses’ stomach. No questions asked.

From time to time I re-evaluate my feed program and make changes if needed. So last year I began to examine yet again what I was feeding the miniatures because some of them began to look a little “off” so I switched up feeds and did another one of my experiments. In doing so I put 4 horses on oats. Yes I know oats are on the sugary and starchy side and it’s carbs but they get so little of it, it didn’t seem to matter. Truth be told, my horses don’t even need food. They are idle, don’t work, don’t show, don’t do anything but employ me as their general caretaker and buttwiper, and eat a minimum of processed food. I know they can survive quite well on just their hay and minerals. But it’s something with me, etched in my brain, my maternal instinct and way I always did things, that says I have to feed my children horse food! I always felt I have to have something to offer them besides their hay. I only use a little food to get them into the barn at night and for something to give them as I greet them each morning so they will like me. LOL- just cup or two per feeding if that much. So why all the hub-bub about what to feed them? Its way out of control.

I first purchased the lowest cost bag I could find at about $15.00 or so. Crimped oats. It was very dusty, way too dusty for me to bother with. The horses would cough as they ate them, so I got rid of that bag. The next bag was whole oats and a couple dollars more. The oats weren’t nice and plump at all but it was “something” to give them.. After that I tried the steam crimped, rolled oats and triple cleaned. No complaints except the price was getting higher and higher. As it turned out, the horses on the oats were fine. Since I have easy keepers and some who are too fat, it reduced the neck and fat pockets on two of the four horses. I did not expect that, but it was a bonus. The hair coats were good, the energy level was there, and no one looked the worse for wear. I double checked with my brother in laws’ vet clinic in Kentucky who work on the most valuable race horses in the world and was also told oats is still also the choice of food after all these years for most of the race horses. It also is good for horses who are prone to ulcers and the easiest food a horse can digest but I already knew that part.

I think feeding horses has gotten way too complicated, scientific, and emotional for us and the feed companies have us on a guilt trip. I need to uncomplicated things. Frankly I’m getting too old to keep buying into the fancy propaganda of the feed companies who are desperate to sell their over priced over packed feed, when they know the horse industry is in the tanks. They can blame the farmer or politics, I don’t care who they blame, but its shameful what they are charging for a bag of horse food. They are forever changing up their recipe and being inconsistent and adding all kinds of newfangled nuggets and the like in a 50 lb bag of feed and will do anything to convince you of it, and don’t forget the recalls. If you let it boggle your mind it surely will. I’m at two points in my life: #1: I am on a fixed income now and stuck on a budget. I can very well still afford my horses but I cannot afford to be stupid and throw good money after bad. The other point I’m at is being fed up with getting so far away from nature and adding all this crap into my horse’s guts when they don’t need it. I think of it this way: There was once life before MacDonald’s’ luscious Big Macs. Now a days people are fat and the obesity problem in our country is at an all time high so its like “If you build it they will come” but in this case its “If we sell it power packed in a fancy wrapper, they will buy.” Did your mother need a special rocket scientist to make you a healthy homemade bowl of soup? Anyhow, disgusted with the whole thing my honest feelings on it is, if the horses aren’t shinny, it doesn’t mean you have to buy a more expensive food or add bird seed and special additives to it. It means to get out a dad gum brush and buy a wormer. And now they need yet another special nugget or pellet to help them digest the food you just paid how much money for? Then why they heck are they processing this stuff if they know your horse needs help digesting it in the first place? They just keep adding more and more stuff. Do these itty bitty equines really need it and are they getting enough of it in the bag? I don't know, so I provide minerals and I fix my own beet pulp so I know they are getting the amount of that stuff I want them to have. That makes the emotional part of me feel better. I really feel at times the feed companies are making fools out of us horse owners because as long as they keep making it, we’ll keep buying it at any price. They are making us feel if we don’t spend twenty bucks or more a bag we aren’t good horse owners and that is not the case here. So feeding my horses everything from soup to nuts and yes plenty of oats over the decades with no horrible results, I think we all need to smarten up.

So fast forward to today: The time has come for me to make the switch so I went to Tractor Supply to see about their oats. They had three kinds of oats, but I about fell over when I saw their whole oats was a whopping $20.99 a bag. Yes I shall now complain about the price of oats! Someone please justify that price? There is absolutely nothing anyone can do to a lousy oat to make it cost $20.99 for a 50lb bag so I left it sit right there on the shelf. Give me a break people, its an oat, not the Hope Diamond. I came back home and stopped at the mountain general store where they sell some cheap off brand horse food from some no-name mill someplace and inquired about their oats. They carry whole oats at $12.50 a bag. At that I said “Gimmee it”. I got home and low and behold, the oats are not dusty as I expected and are relatively plump. Amazing. They would do fine. Let’s face it, oats are as back to nature as we can possibly get. I realize they lack nutrients so I do keep my mineral stations full and always have. I may be adding a vitamin if I think we need something else like I used to do back in the day, but I’m doubtful that will be warranted. I’m getting back to basics, less complications, and going to save a good buck at the same time. Maybe I’ll be back here in 6 months ranting that my oat plan didn’t work out but that remains to be seen. Now if I can just figure a way to lower my bedding cost…….that’s next.
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Thank you for sharing.

I'm in some what the same boat, why am I paying for and feeding bagged feed, when most of my horses are normal and healthy, and need little more than hay, water and salt. I do have 3 with special needs; two with Cushings and a senior stallion, so they will get specialty foods; but the others are looking to get back to basics: hay/pasture, vit/min supplement and maybe oats as the carrier. [And, the growing yearlings will stay on their current diet for now.] I'm starting my trial stage as soon as the vit/min shows up; when it does half my normal horses will be going to the vit/min supplement and we'll see how they do on that over the commercial feed (which when you feed the very low end of the recommended amount, and some are fat on that, you might as well go with a vit/min supplement and their hay/pasture).

I'm with you, how can plain old oats cost so much just because its in a bag. Farmers get like $4-5 per bushel, and I think oats are in the 30#/bushel range; so 50# is about $7-8.50. Cleaning and bagging shouldn't run more than a couple dollars per bag, add a couple dollars for profit, and oats shouldn't cost the consumer more than $13-15/50#. So, why do they cost $17 and up for basic oats?
Marty, did you like feeding rolled oats versus whole or crimped oats? I have never fed the rolled, need an opinion please.
The rolled oats or steam rolled are my oats of choice. They are at the pricey end of the oat group for $20.99 here and for that reason only I'm feeding whole oats. . .
Supply and demand. You have more and more feed being shipped over seas, drought nationwide, and more fields turned into ethanol corn fields because there is more money in it. To make it worth while for the farmers they have to up the prices. Believe me, living in farm country I can tell you that no farmer is getting filthy rich off of oats. Also factor in the rising cost of fuel which all the harvesting equipment uses. The cost of everything is just going up and up.

I'm a believer of not feeding sweet feeds. The last thing horses need is more sugar. Why put molassas on it? They'll eat it without just fine. My grandfather raises TB racers and has fed oats and grass/alfalfa hay for 30 years. His horses look great and have high energy. Bright coats, good feet. I think it makes many horse owners feel like they love their horses more if they buy fancy bagged feed that costs $$$. My pleasure riding horses get grass hay and salt/mineral blocks. They get a scoop of oats as a reward after a hard ride or as supplemental feed if I'm legging them up for a big ride or hunt. It's worked for me. And it doesn't cost me an arm and a leg. I couldn't afford to feed anything out of a bag every day.
I have always used oats as the basis for my 'grain' and it has served us well. I always liked whole oats but it is too hard to get here now--the feed mills do not sell it, at least not the ones here in our city--and I don't care to drive 40 miles to one

that does--and so I buy steam rolled oats instead.

Not all our horses get grain--some are on hay only. The show horses, though, and those we are working do get oats. So do the youngsters--weanlings and yearlings if we have any. This past winter I had very poor quality hay--prairie and marsh hay that doesn't keep the horses rounded out nicely, so I have several on a mix of oats and pellets. One stallion tends to lose weight off his top line if he gets only oats and hay, unless it is fairly good alfalfa--so I have him on pellets. The two year old stallion gets oats and just enough pellets to flavor the oats so that he will eat it (very fussy eater!!). A couple fatter mares get 2 lbs of grain, another mare that needs some condition over her top line gets one lb of oats and one lb of pellets per feeding. A couple thin mares were each getting 1 lb of oats 1 lb of pellets and 1 lb of alfalfa pellets per feeding (2x per day). I currently feed Frontrunner pellets, either 12 or 14%. One bag was a mystery--the label was torn off so they did not know which kind it was--it was horse feed but they couldnt sell it without a label--so they gave it to me free! Good deal--the horses are it and I suspect it was the 14% variety, just guessing by smell.

I pay about 8.35 for a bag of oats and $16-something for the pellets. TSC does sell whole oats I believe...but they are at least $13 or $14 (last time I looked) and I refuse to pay that for oats.
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I am blown away by the cost of oats! I fed them many years ago, for about $3.50 a bag lol. Like Marty, I've been through a number of different feed regimens over the years... Some good some not so good. I'm happy with what I feed now, a Bluebonnet 14% pellet, but I fall into that same trap of feeling like I should give them every possible goody.

My neighbor has recently switched her big horses to oats.. They are ridden almost daily and worked pretty seriously, and they look great on just oats and hay plus 24/7 turnout. Sure makes me think about it but I'm paying less for a premium pelleted feed than some of the oat prices. Wonder what .Purina Race Horse Oats are running now?

The last thing horses need is more sugar. Why put molassas on it? They'll eat it without just fine.
I totally agree about not needed more sugar, but from a manufacturing standpoint molasses, oils, and the like are used to reduce dust, improve absorptive capacity of many carriers, and improve the handling characteristics of a premix.

Just something I learned in my Feed Manufacturing class.
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I totally agree about not needed more sugar, but from a manufacturing standpoint molasses, oils, and the like are used to reduce dust, improve absorptive capacity of many carriers, and improve the handling characteristics of a premix.
Good point.
I do not feed oats, I feed barley but is the "same difference" in the end. With this make my own mix. We are told a lot of horse hockey by manufacturers I am afraid, it has ever been so. I have here, in my feed bins, loose cooked flaked barley that has stood for over eight months without a single sign of mould or dust or anything else wrong, so just how long have those bags you buy stood, before they ever got their "best before" tags on them, to get them dusty and yucky? Of course, then, they will need to spray them with expensive preservatives to make them saleable . I do not buy into it, I never have, I have been making up my mix myself for twenty years. Not that many horses, true, but then when we had more, and they were big horses, I used a small cement mixer to mix the feed up. As to special needs, I kept Rabbit alive to nine years after his teeth went merely by putting the normal mix through a blender and putting hot water on it to make it int a porridge. Whatever they tell you, it is NOT "Rocket Science"!!
Totally agree Jane, it is not rocket science. I had a huge mental barrier to get past when making a simple food for my dog that she was not allergic to. So many massive issues with her food allergies, way beyond the normal food allergies. Most owners would have put her down. I know that her food may not be up to parr by many a peoples standards, but she is doing great on it. Let's face it, animals get by in the wild on much less than what we have ourselves brainwashed into thinking they need.
I've been feeding oat groats for nearly 10 years. I buy it at the warehouse that mixes bird food, such as for parrots and carrier pigeons. I am their only horse customer, however.
I've enjoyed reading this thread. I used to feed oats and then do my own supplements mixed in and my horse (full size) was the picture of health. When the minis arrived, I switched to a horse feed. I think I'll go back to oats and my own mix of supplements again.
Wow, Marty, we are on the same wavelength at the same time. Over the last 2 years, I've gone back to more forage based ration for my horses. Now I'm looking at the ridiculous number of very expensive bags I've got in the feed room. Just read a great article on equine nutrition, which discussed (where in the horse) different types of feed are digested and what they do to blood sugar levels and equine ulcer symptoms. I'm going to use up the expensive bags and buy oats, some hay pellets, beet pulp shreds without added molasses, flaxseed meal and a good basic vitamin/mineral supplement. My hay supply contains alfalfa and 2 types of grasses. For the youngsters, they will get more alfalfa to get the protein levels where they need to be. This "simplified" ration should be cheaper and get back to basics.

I, too spent years on healthy full-sized horses fed hay and oats with a vit/min supplement.

Thanks for addressing the owners emotional influences and horse rations!

Julie Mc
I know I already posted, but just keep thinking about this.

when I had just the saddle horses, they lived on hay/pasture, salt block and water with occasional treat of grain of some sort, they did just fine on that diet (they are mostly pasture puffs with just leisure rides - the three we still have live on hay/pasture, salt and water and look great, shed out before everyone else too). I got the minis, and for some reason thought they had to have everything under the sun in the feed room; the only thing that changed was the size of my wallet. I'm going to work on getting back to the basics and not have all the extras in the feed room, except for the horses with special needs. I'll pick up oats my next time in town, so they have a little something in their dish to go with their vit/min supplement. I'm anxious to see how this works out. I was going to start with just a couple, but I think I'll start with the six mares that essentially share a paddock, so I don't have to remember who gets what in that pen, nor upset someone cause they don't get anything. [i'll just let them out to pasture, then mix up the other horses meals.]

the owners emotional influences and horse rations! I think this is the big reason my feed room is so loaded full of stuff.
At this point I'd like to address sweet feed also. I have no use for it although yet again, I used it for years and nobody died but yes I had horses founder. Maybe or maybe not that was the cause back then, I'm not sure.. But since we have all this newer research in regards to founders etc. these past 15 or so years, I realize the dangers of sugars in the feed and in the grass.

I've had plenty of sweet feed in my tack room, yes.

But how many times have you opened up a bag to find it had an unusual amount of molasses content from time to time? For me, many times I opened up a new bag and there it was dripping with so much molasses that it was too goopy to dig into it with my plastic feed scoop. Maybe this is way off base, but I had my suspicions for a long time it was used to weigh the bag down to acheive the 50 pound goal.
Never have fed sweet feed. Any animal nutritionist will tell you the "sweet" is put in there to make the owner feel better, and has absolutely no additional or needed food value. I used crimped oats - simply because I have found kernels of whole oats in some of the manure - that some of it may pass through without being digested. I don't find any kernels of the crimped in the manure. And my horses receive regular certified equine dental care.
After doing a lot of feed research over a number of years, I came to the conclusion that horses are best on a forage based diet. Horses are meant to digest forages and the less grain we feed them, the better. Grains are high in NSC and sweet or textured feeds are way over the top. I currently am feeding a high quality, alfalfa based pellet to all of my breeding herd. My show horses are on a similar pellet. No other additives are necessary. Just hay products. Fewer digestive upsets, rarely ever a colic case. I like what I feed and it works.

As with humans, I don't think you can make huge, sweeping disclaimers about one feed program or another without evaluating the individual horse.

While I agree that a non-working "pet" horse of most breeds can get by without grain (concentrates) and subsist on hay only... That might not be the route to go for a Grand Prix dressage Hanoverian in intensive training.

Nutrition CAN be a science. You can break feed down in to calories, fats, fibers, vitamins and everything in between. It very well may be possible that the available hay in your area might lack in protein or something.

When we make blanket statements like "I'm feeding just plain oats and my horses are fine..." Does this mean you're feeding a negligible amount per day such as a cup or are you feeding a substantial caloric amount such as four pounds?

Personally I don't mind "feed from a bag" because it is formulated for my horses that get zero pasture and do moderate work to make sure they are converting calories into muscle... You can contact the companies' nutritionists and they can take your hay analysis and their feed analysis and help you maximize your horses' performance.

But sure, if you've got pets standing around they will look relatively healthy if most of their basic needs are met. Most Americans can get by eating fast food and can live normal, healthy lives. But I'm guessing people who are heavy into athletics or need to watch their appearances like actors can't get by with the same food choices. Many of them will choose supplements and such for the convenience of making sure their dietary needs are met after going to the gym regularly.

By the way, my horse gets far, far more regular exercise and attention to diet than myself... Isn't that the case?


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