Corn in Horse Feed: Good or Bad?

With some measures in place, corn can be a valuable calorie source for horses in heavy work, our nutritionist says.

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Corn in Horse Feed: Good or Bad?
In its natural state, corn starch is not particularly digestible in the equine small intestine. However, both steam flaking and extrusion can increase corn’s digestibility. | Photo:

Q. A friend recently recommended that I switch my horse to a different commercial feed because his current one contains corn. She said horses cannot digest corn so to look for a product without it. Is this true?

A. Corn has been fed to horses for decades in a number of forms, often either cracked or steam flaked. Traditionally it’s been a popular feed ingredient because of its easy availability, low cost, and high calorie content (about 1.76 Mcals per pound). Steam-flaked corn was often combined with oats and barley, then coated with molasses to make a feed known as COB, which some owners still feed. Modern corn processing includes extrusion, and it’s sometimes ground so it can be mixed with other ingredients to form pellets.

Today, however, corn is a less common horse feed ingredient for a number of reasons, one being that a lot of corn is diverted away from livestock feed in favor of use for ethanol production. Another is that, overall, horse feeds today typically have lower starch contents than their predecessors. This is because research has shed light on the negative implications of feeding horses too much starch, especially those used in disciplines where high-starch diets are not necessary

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Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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