Oats and OTTBs

Fed as a concentrated calorie source, oats have been the go-to grain for horsemen for generations, especially on the track. But should a Thoroughbred continue eating oats after retirement?
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Oats and OTTBs
Fed as a concentrated calorie source, oats have been the go-to grain for horsemen for generations, especially on the track. | Photo: iStock
Q. I recently acquired an off-track-Thoroughbred who at the track was fed a large amount of sweet feed and oats. Why are oats so popular with horsemen over the years, and should I keep feeding them?

A. Fed as a concentrated source of calories, oats have been the go-to grain for horsemen for generations. They have a reputation for being a safer choice than other common grains, such as corn, barley, and wheat. This has to do with the fact that at about 45% starch, oats contain significantly less starch than the other grains, which have a starch content between 55-70%. Oat starch is also more digestible, due to its chemical structure. Both factors mean undigested starch has less risk of reaching the horse’s hindgut, where it would disrupt microbial fermentation. Should oats reach the hindgut, they provide more fiber than the other grains, potentially causing less damage to the hindgut environment.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can feed horses unlimited amounts of oats. Large amounts of oats can still overwhelm the small intestine and its ability to digest and remove that starch, resulting in hindgut disruption. Keep meals containing oats small—less than 5 pounds per meal for an average-sized (1,100-pound) horse—and wait at least six hours between grain meals.

Another quality that makes oats favorable is their relatively high fat content for a grain, at around 6.5%. The next highest fat content in a common grain is corn, at around 4%. Oats also provide oat beta glucan, a dietary fiber that might help support gastrointestinal mucosa and stimulate the immune system

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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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