Interest in organic feeding is growing in popularity as horse owners recognize the potential for enhanced performance and optimized health for their horses. However, before you jump on the bandwagon (or in this case, haywagon), here are a few common myths and pitfalls to avoid.

1. Feeding organic hay is healthier.

True, but feeding nutritionally unbalanced organic hay is not. As hay is the largest portion of the equine diet, it will have the greatest impact on overall health. Finding a nutritionally-balanced source of organic hay can, however, be a bit of a challenge. The first reason is because there aren’t as many providers; the second is because some hay producers label their hay as ‘organic’ when in reality it just comes from an unmanaged field which coincidently means it is chemical- and pesticide-free. Hay from an old field that is abandoned and just left to grow up on its own “naturally” will most certainly contain weeds that are detrimental to health, outweighing the benefits.

Prior to purchase, always request a hay analysis. Nutritional imbalances are not visible and the only way to access the nutritional value is to have it tested.

2. Feeding organic grains is healthier than commercially-produced feeds.

Not necessarily. Grains are extremely high in sugars and starch and can have inversed calcium and phosphorus ratios which can be extremely detrimental to health, especially if fed in large amounts. Equine metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, laminitis, colic, ulcers and other digestive disorders have all been linked to high sugar and starch diets. Would organic cookies be considered a health food just because they’re organic?

Nevertheless, a small amount of grains (oats, barley, corn, etc.) in a balanced ration can be beneficial for certain horses such as high-level athletes that burn lots of calories and need the extra energy. It’s all a question of balance; good quality hay with lots of digestible energy and calories will help you limit concentrates to a minimum. Also consider adding organic vegetable oil to increase calories and boost energy in a healthier way than increasing grains.

3. Free-choice supplements ensure a natural and balanced intake of vitamins and minerals.

Although horses will generally adjust their sodium intake according to their needs, this is not true for other nutrients. Allowing horses to self-regulate their vitamin and mineral intake via ‘organic’ mineral kits will surely result in deficiencies or excesses that can have negative consequences in the long run. Vitamin and mineral supplements were created by humans – they don’t occur naturally in the wild – and horses will not instinctively know how much to eat. Taste and salt content are what regulate their consumption. Feeding a calculated portion to each individual horse is the best way to ensure horses receive the proper amount.

4. Organic selenium is better assimilated.

True. However, in this case the term ‘organic’ doesn’t mean that it’s pesticide- and chemical-free, but rather that it comes from plants (derived from living matter). Inorganic selenium, such as selenate and selenite, is a by-product of the mining industry and is a mineral salt. Studies have shown that the organic form is better absorbed and utilized. When reading a supplement or feed label, verify the ingredient list: organic selenium will generally be labelled as organic selenium or selenium yeast. Feed companies sometimes use a mix of both, so make sure it’s 100% organic selenium. (For more on selenium, see “Supplementing Selenium” in the August issue.)

5. Pasturing horses in a natural environment allows them to have a more natural diet.

The romantic ideal that free-roaming feral horses are the picture of perfect health is a fairly inaccurate one. In truth, they suffer from laminitis, nutritional deficiencies, and other health conditions just like domestic horses.

‘Natural’ generally implies that the grasses have not been sown. A natural environment that has been taken over by brush and weeds will definitely allow horses to exercise and interact with companions, but relying on it as a source of quality food will most likely result in nutritional imbalances. Horses will eat the best plants first, but the reality of it is they are stuck with what’s between their fences. They can’t travel 30 kilometres in search of something better the way feral horses would. When there’s nothing much good left to eat, they will forage on the not-so-good plants, and sometimes even toxic ones.

Just like hay, pasture quality is essential. This doesn’t mean having the most lush and richest grass possible, but rather a nutritionally sound pasture. Consider having an assessment done by a local agricultural specialist.

6. Natural products are a better choice than chemical wormers.

This subject is a touchy one and always makes me feel like I’m opening a can of worms. Although some owners are dead-set against the potent effects of chemical wormers, the efficacy of natural products is debatable and may not control all types of parasites efficiently, potentially leading to parasite overload. Improperly managed, internal parasites cause massive damage to the digestive tract and can lead to life-threatening health issues.

Fecal egg counts need to be a priority in order to establish the efficacy of a wormer and establish an individualized parasite control program. This will limit the use of chemical wormers to a minimum. Focusing on preventive measures such as manure and fly management will also decrease the need for wormers. The idea is not to ban them completely, but to use them only when necessary.

7. Health issues or poor performance are the best reasons to call an equine nutritionist.

The truth is, nutritional imbalances aren’t necessarily visible until health issues arise, sometimes several months or even years later. Prevention being the key, all horses can benefit from a nutritionist’s expertise. The organic and natural options available on the market are not always as nutritionally-balanced as commercially-produced feeds (especially if you’re making your own mixes) and having your rations calculated is a great investment in your horse’s well-being.

You may not be able to achieve a 100% organic diet at first (the market and availability of nutritionally-balanced feeds and supplements is still in its infancy), but it is a great first step towards providing better health for your horse.