In the beginning the horse lived on grass, ambling along, only lifting his head from his food source for unfamiliar sounds or herd discord. Given the variety we humans as omnivores eat, the seemingly simplistic diets of the much larger herbivore horse seems like it must be deficient. However, when observed fending for themselves in a natural pasture, one that may not reflect the idyllic manicured fields of “horse country”, a much broader range of plants is eaten, driven by their personal needs. Such free choice is not always available to the domesticated animal so our role as caregiver means we must provide the best diet possible to fulfill their needs. As we humans continue to learn about our own diets and what benefits us, research is also studying the nutritional needs of the domesticated animals in our lives, giving birth to a whole industry of formulas and supplements. There are a few pioneers in the industry who have looked more deeply and found closest to nature is best. In this article we first briefly touch upon what a trickle feeder’s digestive system looks like, and then see how we may complement this complex system with close-to nature feeds to best support the horse’s overall health.

The Horse’s Digestive System

The horse’s stomach and 70-foot small intestine comprise only 38 percent of the animal’s digestive tract’s capacity. However, when the food reaches the cecum and large intestine, the work begins and we won’t see Monday’s meal until Wednesday. The stomach and small intestine prepare the food (enzyminatic digestion) for the massive absorption that occurs in the cecum and large intestine. It is in the cecum, a 4-foot long vat that holds over eight gallons, where most of the fermentation process happens. Next, the food travels to the hind gut for further fermentation and maximum absorption. In short, nature has created a system that can glean fiber, protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and enzymes from a blade of grass. So how is it that we are seeing more and more special needs diets out there for equines? Could the over-processed (kills enzymes), synthetic (lacks animal grade), by-product-based (unfit for humans), sugar-filled commercial feeds and our unnatural feeding schedule be the culprit? Most likely.

The Role of Supplements for Horses

Realizing the benefits of eating food closest to its natural form, equine nutritionists have backed away from commercial feeds and gone back to the basics with a new awareness of content based on what we have seen in humans. These whole food diets served alongside the unending hay bag give the horse what they need daily. Any supplementation required by the horse’s particular exercise schedule or work load is also given in the whole food form as well. Here are the most beneficial and why.

Whole oats: Excellent amino acid profile and supports the proper function of the gut with beta glucan

Rice bran oil (GMO-free): Supports the gut with gamma oryzanol, a powerful anti-ulcerative and helps build lean muscle

Ground flax: Provides omega 3 fatty acids for a healthy coat and hoof, supports the immune system and is anti-inflammatory

Rosehips: This mega dose of vitamin C for the immune system also works to build healthy capillaries

Green cabbage: Delivers the enzymes L-glutamin to aid in the repair and health of the intestinal lining

Sunflower seeds: Tendons, bones and the immune system benefit from the copper found in these seed while the high essential omega 6 fatty acids benefit the coat and hooves

Peas and lentils: Support the topline with added lysine for the system

Papaya: Contains papain, an enzyme that aids in the digestion of proteins

Spirulina: A powerhouse as it contains every essential amino acid as well as vitamins and minerals

Organic yeast: Aids in the feeding of good bacteria in the gut

Chia Seed: A potent antioxidant that is high in potassium, calcium niacin and omega 3 fatty acid in addition to being a healer and preventer of ulcers

Coconut meal: Great for metabolic issues and the only natural, GM-free, low NSC (non-structured carbohydrate) feed high in trainable energy available

Coconut oil: Nature’s richest source of lauric acid, which has powerful antimicrobial effects. Great for the insulin-resistant horse as it metabolizes differently than other oils by providing non-glucose ready energy

Quite simply, the key with the whole food source is the increased bio-availability of vitamins and nutrients and the reduced stress on the digestive system. Would these seeds, oils and foods be the available choices of our horses’ wild ancestors? Some yes, some no, but evolution dictates we grow and change with the times. We now know through scientific research what our ancestors felt and learned anecdotally through the ages. We must now use this information again so that our horses thrive.

Sources for more information:

Digestion: NRC Plus Nutrition, Eleanor Kellon, VDMFeeds: BioStar (, Crypto-Aero (, Genesis (

Jennifer McDermott’s exploration of horse energy began while rehabilitating horses in Fairfield County over 14 years ago. With her equine Reiki practice and passion for preventative health, she has embraced the three-pronged approach of foundational rehabilitation: nutrition, bodywork and positive reinforcement teaching. She now lives in Guilford and devotes herself to the rehabilitation of the Off the Track Thoroughbred. Connect with her at