A common current misconception prevailing amongst the showjumping community is that feeding oats as the primary energy source to show jumpers will cause them to be hyper and less amenable. But is there any basis to this argument?
Capt. Michael Kelly & Drumillier Lough (ISH)
Prior to 1957, (when the formulation of the first equine pelleted feed by the Cistercian monks in Gethsemani, Kentucky emerged on the market), horses were fed mostly oats as their primary energy source with flaxseed as their omega-3 / protein source. The advent of modern compound feeds (pelleted / sweet feeds) saw many other ingredients introduced into the equine diet including but not limited to maize, barley, beet pulp, molasses and alternate protein sources such as soy bean, cotton seed etc. The impact on the modern equines diet, nutrition and performance has been immense. Buckley, Creighton, Fogarty's – ‘Analysis of Canadian & Irish Forage, Oats and commercially available equine concentrate feed for pathogenic fungi and micro toxins’ provides an interesting visual info graph to highlight the Historical (pre -1957) versus the Modern (post - 1957) impact in terms of moisture content and the critical nutrients of starch, fibre, Omega-3 & Omega-6. The key component of chemical fertilizers, nitrogen is identified by David O'Connell, B.Agr.Sc, OCAE as an iodine antagonist.
Fundamentally, the ability of the horse’s digestive system to handle these new ingredients which provided high starch / low fiber / foreign protein sources remains questionable particularly as grass, the natural diet of the horse does not contain any starch (Grange Institute, Dunsany, Co. Meath, Ireland – personal communication).
For performance horses, nutritional support is paramount and no one is suggesting that horses fed solely on grass could be competitive in the showjumping arena. Indeed, in considering the optimal feed supports, oats as the lowest starch / high soluble fiber grain is the safest energy source to feed relative to other grains such as barley / maize etc. See chart below.
High starch diets (under bacterial fermentation) have been documented as causing lactic acid production and hind gut acidosis. (Reference:The Effect of Diet on Acid-Base Status and Mineral Excretion in Horses. Sarah L. Ralston, VMD, PhD, ADVN. Equine Practice July / August 1994, Vol. 16, No. 7). Research notes that three hours after ingestion of a high starch diet, the neutral blood pH (7.4) becomes acidic (7.3). This new blood acidity causes excesses calcium excretion in the urine. When reviewed one hour later, the urine samples noted the release of parathyroid hormone. The result of which is leeching of calcium from the bones and resultant fractures.
Pellet / sweet feeds have higher moisture content than oats which results in more issues with mould (e.g. aspergillus) in feed. Aspergillus produces toxins which cause liver damage. Research suggests that up to 54% of sweet feeds / pellet feeds are contaminated with mould as against up to 40% of oats. (Reference: Buckley, Creighton, Fogarty – ‘Analysis of Canadian & Irish Forage, Oats and commercially available equine concentrate feed for pathogenic fungi and microtoxins’)
Leading Professor of Pathology at Cornell University Lennart Krook attests that “Horses should, in my opinion, be fed Timothy hay, oats and whatever trace minerals may be needed.” (personal communication, August 7th, 1992, ).
Additionally, in clinical practice and various research sources it is noted that hind gut bacterial fermentation of fiber yields acetic, proprionic and butyric acids.
In November 2014, with the above information available, this author was invited to formulate and provide a diet for the Irish Army international show-jumper 'Drumiller Lough (ISH)' – a 12-year-old Irish Sports Horse and one of 24 horses owned by the Irish Minister of Defence (stabled at McKee Barracks, Dublin, Ireland). A diet consisting of rolled oats, Champion Oats Balancer® (a multi vitamin, mineral, amino acid supplement formulated / patented by the author) and roasted flaxseed was formulated. The above ingredients were supplied in November 2014 by Belmont Equine Products Ltd, Woodville, Dunboyne, Co Meath, Ireland – www.belmontequineproducts.com –
Drumiller Loughs performance while on the Belmont feeding 'protocol' was documented with the following results: (Ref. https://data.fei.org/Horse/Performance.aspx?p=DA3D7FE319FF40D0ECDDDCF06A1F2E60)
In November 2015 with the departure of Captain Michael Kelly from the Irish Army Equitation School to Team Karlswood (Cian O’Connor) and the arrival of a new Commanding Officer to the Equitation School, the diet was discontinued and an alternative feeding regime put in place. The results of 2014 and 2016 compared to 2015 speak for themselves. While some may feel this is an isolated case, similar equine performance successes (avg. 'Strike Rate' increase to 26%) have been achieved with this diet (Belmont 'feeding protocol') in the thoroughbred racehorse population in the USA.
Does history guide us as we strive to provide nutritional support to the competitive equine athlete? We only have to look back to the legendary Irish Army showjumping team of the 1930's (Capts. Aherne, Corry, Neylon et al ) who rode horses who were most certainly fed oats and they won competitions at prestigious Show Jumping shows at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Toronto etc. Modern compound feeds (pelleted / sweet feeds) deliver on convenience but their reliability on meeting the nutritional needs of the equine performance horse are questionable.
So to respond to the initial question posed: Can oats be fed successfully to show jumpers?
The facts say yes!