Bran, to feed or not to feed

For many years feeding bran to your horses was a normal practice especially before a lot of the new premixed feeds were available. However now in the day of supplements and new advances in feeds, is this still a good thing for us to be doing, or is this now very much outdated, and is bran really that bad for my horse?

Bran has often been fed for various reasons.

  • A bran mash can be a tasty treat on cold wet days
  • You can add other things to it such as molasses, steamed grains (oats or barely), carrots, etc which all add nutritional value.
  • For hydration, adding salt to a bran mash can encourage drinking, plus the added moisture content of the mash.
  • As a mash, it can assist with fussy eaters and disguise medications.
  • For horses that have gone off their feed, whether it’s due to them being unwell or age-related issues such as poor teeth.
  • And one of the most common reasons it has been used over the years is the belief that it is a good source of fibre and can be used as a laxative, therefore making it helpful with colic.

With all-new advances and research into horse nutrition, we can now see why bran may not be as beneficial for our horses as we used to believe

Bran is the byproduct of flour milling. Bran has quite a high phosphorus level, 10 times higher than calcium. As a rule, horses require a calcium to phosphorus ratio of 2:1 (2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus), this mirrors the levels found in horses’ own bones and really should not drop below 1:1. The higher levels of phosphorus found in bran can decrease a horse’s ability to absorb calcium from their diet, and in doing so they will start to draw on calcium from their bones. This has the effect of weakening their bones, leading to what we call Big Head syndrome, or once referred to as Miller’s disease, (named for the fact that years ago horses that worked in the flour mills used to be fed the byproducts of the milling process).

As we all know any change to our horse’s diet should be gradual so that the bacteria in a horse’s hindgut can adapt, with minimal upset. Feeding bran at random intervals could therefore cause digestive upset and is potentially where the idea that bran has a “laxative effect” originated, leading to the thought that it is beneficial for horses that may suffer from colic.

Horses require a high level of fibre however bran is in fact, quite low in fibre. We all like to think giving our horses a nice warm bran mash on a cold day is a nice treat, but due to its low fibre content, bran actually won’t warm your horse up. Feeding hay or other forage will have a much better warming effect, due to the way a horse’s hindgut ferments fibre.

After what we have read above are there any benefits to feeding a little bran?

It can be palatable for sick horses that have a reduced appetite, or older horses with dental issues that can’t eat more traditional foods. Other ingredients can be added such as molasses and boiled barely to increase the nutritional value, and even some medications can be mixed in the feed for fussy eaters. It can also assist horses that are not drinking enough, especially in winter months, as salt can be added to encourage drinking, together with the additional moisture of the mash itself.

Before deciding to add bran to a diet it may be worth investigating many of the premixed feeds and supplements available as an alternative to bran. Bran is used in many of these, but manufacturers take into account the levels of phosphorus and calcium and adjust their feeds accordingly. Alternatively, you can feed a calcium supplement such as Ranvet’s Folactin range of products to help with any imbalances. As another alternative to feeding bran, you can dampen down the feed you are currently feeding your horse, therefore not making any dramatic changes to your diet, and you can easily add some salt as well if you are not already doing so.

If you do wish to give your horses a little bran, start adding it slowly and in small amounts to give your horse time to adjust to the new diet. Seeking the advice of a nutritionist would be well recommended to make sure you are feeding a well-balanced and nutritional diet, best suited to your horse’s requirements.

Written by Selena P.


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