The array of feeds available for your horse today, all claiming to be the best of course, is absolutely staggering. Even if your mill only stocks one or two brands, odds are you still have 3, 4 or more different feeds to choose from. One option that confuses many people is pelleted versus textured feeds. Which is best?
“Textured” feeds are a blend of grains and pellets, usually with a molasses coating. The term textured just means that there are different textures in the mix. You can recognize oats and corn, with pellets of varying colors that are usually vitamin/mineral supplements or protein sources like seed meals, byproducts from the brewing industry, soy meal or alfalfa. Pelleted feeds contain exactly the same ingredients, but they are first ground to a very fine powder, then compressed into pellets.
One advantage of pelleted feeds is that they are not sticky like sweet textured mixes, less sticky build up in feed tubs in warm weather and no frozen, clumped bags of feed in winter. They are easier to chew and can be soaked into a mash consistency for older horses with poor teeth. Because the contents are finely ground, and the pellets break up easily inside the horse’s intestine, they are easier to digest. For your horse to absorb the nutrition from his grains, they have to first be broken down by the acid in his stomach and enzymes in the small intestine. The smaller the particles, the easier it is for them the stomach acid and enzymes to work on them. It’s like the difference between how quickly thin slivers of ice will melt compared to a large block.
There are drawbacks though. Whole, unprocessed grains (no cracking, crimping, etc.) contain essential fatty acids and vitamins buried deep in the heart/germ of the kernels.
When the grains are ground and exposed to air and heat, these fragile nutrients are lost.
Because pellets don’t require as much chewing, some horses will bolt them down very quickly and if this is combined with little to no effort to chew, or poor ability to chew, the pellets can become lodged in your horse’s throat and esophagus, causing choke. In pigs, which have a digestive tract set up similar to a horse, pelleted feeds are known to increase the risk of gastric ulcers.
You can also run into problems if the horse is given a large amount of pellets at one time and the whole meal is not digested in the small intestine before it reaches the large bowel. The small particles are very easy for the bacteria in the large intestine to ferment, which will lead to rapid increases in acid and potential bloating or digestive upset. Feed molds also have an easier time growing on finely ground particles so you have to be on the look out for molding of pelleted feeds in warm weather, especially when humidity is high. Finally, the pelleting process generates heat and if this is not properly controlled it can damage the amino acids in the feed, decreasing the nutritional value of the protein.
Bottom line is that pelleted feeds are most appropriate for horses that are unable to chew their meals well, or have trouble gaining/holding weight on whole grains. They are therefore most useful for older horses with bad teeth or poor feed utilization. Otherwise, stick with whole grains.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD