Q.I recently learned that feeding honey to horses is a common practice in some Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries. Why would you feed honey and is it safe?
A.One tablespoon of honey (21 grams) contains 17 grams of sugar. Therefore, the main reason behind feeding honey to horses is that it’s a readily available energy source. Honey’s sweetness might also entice picky eaters to consume their rations.
Like table sugar, honey is made up of glucose and fructose; however, where table sugar contains almost equal amounts of glucose and fructose, honey is about 40% fructose and 30% glucose. Honey also contains small amounts of other more complex sugars, as well as trace amounts of protein, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals.
As an unrefined food source, honey contains more antioxidants, flavonoids, and alkaloids than refined sugar and raw honey contains small amounts of pollen. These differences, combined with the higher fructose content, lead to honey having a lower glycemic index (GI) than sugar, meaning blood sugar levels rise more quickly after sugar consumption compared to honey. However, both compounds have high GI making them unsuitable for horses with poor insulin sensitivity or that are sensitive to readily available carbohydrate, such as those with polysaccharide storage myopathy.
Other Sugars in Horse Diets
In human nutrition, the mix of different compounds within honey makes many believe it a healthier option than sugars, and I assume the case is the same when it is fed to horses. While feeding table sugar to horses isn’t common, except in cube form as treats, molasses and corn syrup are sometimes added to feed or given to horses directly.
Molasses is obtained from raw sugar during the refining process and is a common livestock feed ingredient, because it increases palatability and suppresses dust. It can also be used as a top-dress to entice the picky eater. While it’s high in sugar, molasses also provides a broad range of minerals.
Corn syrup is most commonly used by veterinarians to test insulin sensitivity in horses suspected of insulin resistant, but some endurance riders and veterinarians also use it as a source of rapidly available energy for horses during rides.
There is research looking at the impact of feeding fructose and glucose mixtures to horses that suggests there should be no expected issues when feeding sensible amounts of honey to healthy horses with no metabolic problems. Certainly, there are perceived health benefits for humans in eating honey that are likely being extrapolated to horses. However, no data on feeding honey to horses exists.
Feeding Honey to Horses: The Bottom Line
When purchased in supplement form for horses, honey is often combined with garlic oil. Garlic is considered to improve respiratory and circulatory function and has also been shown to improve horses’ feed intake. If circulatory and respiratory system function are increased, it could result in improved oxygen passage to muscle tissue, which could benefit performance, especially when combined with honey’s readily available energy. However, the benefit of these two ingredients might be solely their ability to entice picky eaters.
Feeding honey to mature horses that don’t suffer from metabolic disorders and can, in fact, be helpful for enticing picky eaters or hiding medication in feed. However, keep amounts small to ensure that all sugar is fully absorbed in the small intestine.