Why Do Horse People Feed Wheat Bran Mashes?
One of the most prevalent myths in the realm of horse nutrition today is that bran mashes are good for horses. Horse folks have long fed bran mashes for a variety of reasons: to act as a laxative and prevent constipation, to increase water intake, to add fiber to the diet, and everyone’s favorite, to warm their horse up on a cold night. Unfortunately, the negative effects of an irregular bran mash greatly outweigh the perceived positive ones.
Wheat bran mash does not act as a laxative.
Extensive research has proven that wheat bran does not have a laxative effect; in other words, it does not add moisture to manure. What the occasional bran mash does do is disrupt the balance of the sensitive microbial population in your horse’s gut, causing watery stools and diarrhea, which leads people to believe it has a laxative effect. Purposely disrupting the gut is certainly not healthy for your horse and can lead to a long list of other problems!
A horse consuming adequate fiber and water will not need additional laxatives to ward off constipation. The golden rule of feeding horses is to feed a consistent diet and make all feed changes slowly over a week to 10 days. The occasional, or once weekly, bran mash breaks the golden rule. Even if you feed a mash once a week, every week, it is not often enough to acclimate the microflora in your horse’s gut to the wheat bran.
A wheat bran mash only slightly increases a horse’s water intake.
While horses eating a mash containing a quart or so of water do consume additional water, the small amount does not significantly affect your horse’s hydration status. A belly full of hay, access to clean water that isn’t too cold (about 40 degrees F in the winter), adequate salt, and electrolytes are better strategies for keeping your horse drinking and hydrated.
A wheat bran mash does not warm up your horse in the winter.
Who hasn’t heard that mixing up a bucket of warm water, wheat bran, molasses, apples and carrots on a cold evening will warm their horse up—what a treat, right? Not really. While it is warm and very tasty, mash only warms your horse for the 5 to 10 minutes they are eating it. If you really want to get serious about warming your horse up, feed him or her additional hay. Just five extra pounds of hay will raise your horse’s body temperature a little above 1 degree F for four hours. Keeping horses dry and out of the wind also increases their ability to stay warm.
A wheat bran mash does add some fiber to the diet, but alternatives are better for your horse.
Wheat bran does contain some fiber, but most of it is indigestible fiber that will bulk up manure but add very little energy to the diet. Wheat bran contains about as much fiber as oats and not near as much as hay or beet pulp. Wheat bran is also very high in phosphorous, having a nearly 1:12 calcium-to-phosphorous ratio (you should aim for a Ca:P ratio of 2:1 in the total diet). Wheat bran can be fed as a fiber source if it is fed daily and in small amounts. Feeding substantial amounts of wheat bran daily can lead to mineral imbalances. Nutritionists recommend no more than 1 lb per day and emphasize that it is very important to feed adequate calcium when adding wheat bran to the diet. If your goal is to add fiber to your horse’s diet, there are better sources, such as additional long hay (the No. 1 choice), alfalfa pellets, hay cubes, beet pulp, or soy hulls.
What can I replace wheat bran with?
If you really like the idea of serving your horse a sloppy meal that you can warm up, consider adding beet pulp, hay cubes, or Equi-Jewel stabilized rice bran (or any combination of the three) to his daily diet. Plain beet pulp is a great source of fermentable fiber that contains moderate amounts of calcium, protein, and energy. Hay cubes vary in calcium, protein, and energy content depending on variety, so you can pick the type that is best suited for your horse. Equi-Jewel is a great source of high-fat energy, calcium, and soluble fiber. You can soak both hay cubes and beet pulp to add some water to the diet or feed them dry. Yes, even beet pulp can be fed dry. Equi-Jewel rice bran can be fed wet or dry, and it can be added to any ration without the risk of grain overload or mineral imbalances.
In the winter you can add warm water when you want to treat your horse. If your horse is used to eating carrots and apples or other treats, there is no harm in tossing some in. Beet pulp and hay cubes are great feeds for horses that don’t get a lot of grain. You can soak them for a while, add your supplements, then mix and serve. Equi-Jewel rice bran is good source of calories for starch/sugar-sensitive horses.
While the occasional wheat bran mash makes you feel good, it does not benefit your horse and may even be detrimental to his health. It makes better nutritional sense to develop a daily ration that you can easily add warm water to when you want to give your horse a little extra TLC. It makes everyone feel great, both you and your horse.