“Do cowboys supplement horses with bran mash to improve winter performance?”
During the cold, dreary days of winter, a common discussion is whether or not horse owners should provide their horses with a bran mash daily, weekly or at all, according to Dr. Tom Lenz, renowned equine veterinarian.
“Wheat bran is a fluffy, low-density feed that is similar in nutrient content to oats,” explained Lenz, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
“It has one-half the density of whole oats, around one-fourth the density of corn or wheat and about four times the phosphorous content of most grains,” said Lenz, lifelong advocate for the welfare of the horse.
Bran mash is relatively high in vitamins such as niacin, thiamin and riboflavin, but much lower in B vitamins.
“A horse ration with bran mash is palatable once they’ve become accustomed to it, but it’s expensive for the nutritional value it provides,” Lenz pointed out.
Bran mashes have traditionally been provided to horses by their owners because they think there is high-fiber content in the bran.
“However, some horse owners feed bran because they simply want to give their horses a warm, comforting treat,” he added.
There are a variety of bran mash recipes commonly used. Most involve mixing warm water with roughly four to eight cups of bran until the bran is well saturated, the horse doctor explained.
“The mixture should cling together when you squeeze it,” Dr. Lenz described. “If you can squeeze water out of it, it’s too wet, and more bran should be added. Then any number of ingredients can be added.”
Most horse owners add one tablespoon of salt in winter, or electrolytes during hot weather.
Steamed oats, molasses, flaxseed, chopped carrots, sliced apples or a combination can also be added. “These increase the nutritional value of the mash and often make it more appealing to the horse,” Lenz said.
Pelleted feeds are not routinely added, as they make the mash “mushy.”
Many veterinarians recommend providing horses with a bran mash once a week during cold winter months.
This is generally when the horse is not drinking enough, following stressful work, during long trailer transport or after foaling.
“They think providing a bran mash supplement stimulates the horse’s intestinal tract and provides an alternate water source,” Lenz evaluated.
Nutritionists point out several potential problems with feeding bran mash too often. “Horses require more calcium than phosphorous in their feed, and wheat bran contains 10 times as much phosphorus as calcium,” Dr. Lenz explained.
As a result, horses fed bran daily, without correcting the mineral imbalance, can develop a metabolic condition.
“Known as nutritional secondary hyperthyroidism, often called ‘big head,’” Lenz said. “This condition used to be referred to as miller’s disease common in horses fed the bran byproduct of milling wheat.
“The disease is characterized by enlargement of the facial bones and weakening of all other bones in the body,” the veterinarian continued.
To correct the calcium-phosphorus ration, some horse owners mix alfalfa cubes into their bran mash.
Another concern expressed by some nutritionists is that when an owner feeds a meal of bran mash, it is a dramatic diet change. “The original bacteria population that developed to digest the horse’s normal hay and grain diet is destroyed,” Lenz described.
Intestinal bacteria thrive in a steady, unchanging environment. “Therefore, nutritionists recommend that if you’re going to feed your horse a wheat bran mash,” Lenz clarified, “it should be supplemented with digestive-aid products to help maintain healthy fermentation patterns in the intestinal tract.
“Bottom line is that bran mash provided no more than once a week is a good treat for your horse,” the equine expert said. “It can provide some benefit to the animal’s intestinal tract, but avoid feeding a mash daily.”
If you have questions regarding bran mashes, talk to your local equine Extension nutritionist or an American Association of Equine Practitioners veterinarian, Lenz suggested.