Ask the Vet: Is Bran Mash Good for Horses?

branaskthevet

Can I overdo bran mashes? I’ve been giving more with the long spell of subfreezing weather. SH, Tennessee

Dear SH,

Unfortunately yes. As much as we love to prepare a warm, tasty bran mash with our horse’s favorite ingredients, this traditional treat may be doing more harm than good. Turns out bran mashes upset the nutritional balance of the diet and may not even prevent or treat the problems we’re giving it for in the first place.

One of the problems with bran mashes is the imbalance in the calcium to phosphorus ratio. Horses should get somewhere between 1 part calcium to 1 part phosphorus (1:1) or 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus (2:1). Bran has a ratio of 1:12, which means it has a lot more phosphorus than calcium. Creating an upside-down balance between these two important minerals can lead to a condition called “Big Head Disease,” where the horse pulls calcium out of its bones in order to rebalance the ratio.

Another problem with a weekly bran mash or an occasional bran mash before or after a trip is that it is a sudden change in the horse’s diet, something we’re taught never to do. The beneficial bacteria that live in the horse’s GI system need time to adapt to any new feeds. Bran is made up of complex carbohydrates that require bacteria to ferment them so it especially needs this “break in” period. Some of these complex carbohydrates are completely indigestible in the horse, so bran does tend to “bulk up” manure. However, research has shown that even when as much as 50% of the diet consists of bran there is still no laxative effect. Any stool softening or additional water you see in the feces after feeding bran is more likely diarrhea from a sudden change in the diet.

So if you’re feeding a bran mash to heat your horse up from the inside on cold winter days, try feeding more hay. If you’re feeding a bran mash to get more water into your horse, try adding electrolytes to the diet (and using heated buckets—studies prove horses drink more water when it is warmed). If you’re feeding a bran mash to bond with your horse, there are lots of other things you can do to remind him you’re his friend such as extra grooming, carrot stretches or clicker training.

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet, Nutrition

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25 comments on “Ask the Vet: Is Bran Mash Good for Horses?
  1. maryq says:

    I’m feeding a bit of bran mash 3x/day to get some medication (Ranitidine) into my horse – he gets about a cup of mash with a handful of sweet feed. He’s still getting his daily grain (the mashes are at “off times”) but a bit less because of the added mash. Vet said this would be OK, trying to keep his stress level down due to ulcers. Started a week ago and am supposed to continue a month….

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Mary, what a thoughtful question! It sounds like you and your veterinarian have worked out an excellent arrangement to get necessary medication into your horse. Since you’re feeding a small amount, you’re feeding it every day, and you don’t plan to continue past a month, all the issues pointed out above that have to do with long-term, irregular feeding of large amounts of wheat bran mash don’t apply in your case. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  2. karen mccurdy says:

    I’m feeding a wet mash of beet pulp/timothy grass pellets (1:1) plus 5 pounds Triple Crown Senior and 3 handfuls of chopped alfalfa to my elderly mare who cannot eat hay…she doesn’t have enough teeth left. She gets loose stools, but I’m thinking soft in….soft out??

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Karen, your mare is lucky to have you as a care-giver! Fortunately, the “mash” you describe doesn’t contain wheat bran, which is the culprit here, so have no worries about feeding a wet mix of beet pulp, grass pellets, senior feed, and chopped alfalfa. Yummy! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  3. Denise Stork says:

    I have been giving all the horses at my barn a warm bran mash with one cup of mineral oil once a week. The vets I have talked to said it is a good practice. And colic is not a problem here.

    • Ellen says:

      Our horses receive a daily scoop of hay cubes in addition to their hay, and on some of these very cold evenings when they come in from their “snow pastures,” we’ve been adding warm water and a handful of bran as well as some carrots and apples to their hay cubes. Would this be considered detrimental as well? Thanks.

      • SmartPak SmartPak says:

        Hi Ellen, thanks for your question. Call me old-fashioned, but I firmly believe that horses’ diets should not be abruptly altered by adding a new feedstuff on an occasional basis. Plus, research shows that changes in hay increase a horse’s risk of colic by 10 times while a change in grain raise the odds by a factor of 5, and that’s enough evidence for me to just toss extra hay for more warmth when the polar vortex strikes. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  4. Mary says:

    Is feeding warmed up beat pulp a good idea to supplement and how much dry product do I start with?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Mary, good question! While adding a delicious treat like this can make you feel like a Super Caregiver, really all your horse needs on colder days is more hay. Being high fiber, these complex carbohydrates make it all the way back to the cecum and colon where microorganisms ferment the hay to the end product of energy, which equals calories and warmth. So to make your horse feel warm from the inside out–and not risk disturbing his delicate GI balance by suddenly introducing a new feedstuff–just toss him an extra flake or two of his regular hay and he’ll thank you! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  5. SHERI FIRMAN says:

    What supplement do you recommend for Navicular? My horse just got diagnosed with it.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Sheri, first off, it’s very good that you’re working closely with your veterinarian and farrier to correctly diagnose your horse. With this condition, prescription medication might be appropriate, so working closely with those two professionals is the best way to go. I’ve also included an additional blog article that focuses specifically on this condition: http://blog.smartpakequine.com/2011/12/navicular-heel-pain-giving-you-a-headache/. It’s full of good information, and I think you’ll find it helpful! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  6. marilyn jackson says:

    does rice bran carry the same inadequacies?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Marilyn, thanks for your excellent question! In fact, rice bran DOES have the same calcium to phosphorus imbalance as wheat bran so if you are feeding it, make sure it has been fortified (with extra calcium). Also, check the label to make sure it has also been stabilized to protect the high levels of fat it naturally contains. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  7. Kristin says:

    I’ve been giving my horse beet pulp for going on 6 months now cause no matter what I have done she will not gain weight and this seems to help her. I’ve had her wormed an a fecal done, teeth were done and she was treated for any ulcers which she has none. She gets all the hay she can eat and gets it in a slow feed net to slow her down. She is a 4 year old filly off the track. Right now she gets unlimited hay and my winter grass 3 quarts soaked beet pulp and 3 quarts of equistages. And she gets this twice a day.
    I can not do three feedings a day right now and I have tried senior feed and weight supplements.
    What else can I do? Should I stop the beet pulp?

  8. Pat Berrunger says:

    I have a friend with 2 miniature horses. Every day she mixes bran and water and pours it on their feed. Do you think it is necessary? After reading this article, I question the practice.
    Thanks!

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Pat, because bran mash is not correctly balanced for a few key minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus, it is not advised to feed this on a regular basis to horses. Depending on what your friend is trying to achieve with feeding bran mash daily, there are very likely much more suitable options to achieve the same end. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  9. susan smith says:

    Where i board my horse, its a handicapped program and they use my horse for the kids its awesome, they give wheat bran mixed with some water so it helps for sand or colic only in morning with feed does that hurt the horses? I read the article so now I’m a little worried .

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Susan, what a cool job your horse has now, he must be a very special guy. Because these bran mashes have an inverted ratio of calcium to phosphorus, it is not recommended to feed them to horses on a daily basis. Creating an upside-down balance of these minerals can lead to a condition called “Big Head Disease”, so I would encourage you to reconsider feeding the bran mash daily. There is no evidence that feeding bran mash helps to clear fecal sand, so if that is part of the goal, you’ll be better off looking into a psyllium-based product that is fed one week out of the month (called a purge). There truly isn’t a good reason to feed bran mash daily when considering the negative effects, especially when better and more effective options are readily available. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  10. Kathy says:

    I’ve been watching a sarcoid in my 12-yr. old AQHA gelding’s ear for almost four years. At first, it was a stalk that fell off on it’s own. Now, it is a round ball the size of a piece of jaw breaker candy. At present, it does not bother him, it does not bleed and he allows me to touch the ear. He wears a fly mask when outdoors.

    What should be done, if anything, for this sarcoid? I want to be prepared to give my horse the best treatment available with the highest possible chance of curing the sarcoid. Thank you.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Kathy, I applaud you for wanting to give your horse the best treatment possible for this benign skin tumor. Therefore the best thing to do is to work closely with your veterinarian who will know the most up-to-date treatment protocols for managing sarcoids and preventing their recurrence. Hopefully together you can develop a program of observing and taking action when necessary. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  11. Emily Castenze says:

    At the barn I board my horse they give a scoop of bran with oils once a week after regular feedings… Is this harmful?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Emily, thanks for asking! Because bran mash is not correctly balanced with the important minerals, calcium and phosphorus, it is not ideal to feed to horses on a regular basis. Also, when fed on a weekly basis, the bran mash can present a challenge for the bacteria in the hindgut to ferment, which can spell bad news for the horse’s hindgut. For these reasons, I encourage people to look for alternatives to bran mash whenever they can. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  12. Debbie Fry says:

    I have been feeding 4 cups of stabilized rice bran daily to keep my ‘hot’ horse’s weight up (without the frenzy) for about 6 months. Supplements included are Smartvite Thrive Senior Pellets (he’s 24) Cosequin, 1/2 c Omega Horseshine and Source (minerals)

    Is there enough calcium in the supplements to offset deficiency in Rice bran? (Smartvite has 3000 mg calcium)

    He really loves it and it seems to be keeping him in great condition.

  13. Debbie Fry says:

    Also free choice grass hay. Alfalfa is too hot for him.

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