With the recent cold snap that hit South Texas, I decided to research and challenge an old wisdom that has been ingrained in me since an early age. At the barn where I rode at growing up, we always used warm bran mash for horses at signs of drastic weather changes. We also gave them at horse shows or when trailering a long distance. It was just what you did to help your horse deal with the stress and get their gut moving, thus minimizing the potential for colic. Right?
Well, maybe not.
Just because we did something one way for years does not mean that it is right. New research or technology can definitely challenge these old wisdoms. I have come to this realization that giving a bran mash for the reasons above is precisely one of these practices that need to be left in the past. I am not a vet, nor am I here to offer guidance to anyone reading this.
However, I want to share key points from my research that has led me to change my practices around bran mashes. I will also share what I did to prepare my horses to successfully get through the tragic deep freeze we recently saw in Texas. All my sources are listed below so that you can do your own research and work with your vet to make your own decisions.
A bran mash for horses consists of wheat bran and hot water. The mash should be of a consistency where it clumps together but doesn’t bleed out water when squeezed. Bran mashes are fairly palatable for horses. That said, I found that in the past, Dolce and Oakley gave me a side-eye look when I fed it to them. Often people will add carrots or apple pieces to make it more interesting.
We have all learned that changes to a horse’s diet should be made gradually over several days, so why would giving bran be any different? So, when you see the loose stool and more volume and think that is a good thing, it is not from the bran “cleansing the gut.” When the microbial load gets off balance, bacteria die off, releasing endotoxins and resulting in a loose stool. Also, the increased stool volume is directly tied to the fact that the fiber in wheat bran is not very digestible by horses, so this mass passes through the intestinal tract.
Horses get better conversion of heat by eating hay. Feeding ample hay (free choice if possible) is the best solution to keeping your horse warm during frigid temperatures.
The normal Calcium to Phosphorus ratio ranges from 1:1 to 2:1, while bran has a range of 1:10 to 1:12. Further, 90% of the Phosphorus in bran is in a form called Phytate, which interferes with calcium absorption and reduces the absorption of Copper, Zinc, and Manganese. Additionally, bran mashes are relatively high in vitamins such as Niacin, Thiamin, and Riboflavin but much lower in B vitamins.
Thus, using bran to displace everyday foods and associated nutrients can lead to other problems, including a metabolic condition known as Secondary Hyperparathyroidism (commonly known as Big Head). For this reason, there are several articles that do not recommend bran as a steady diet without discussing it with an equine nutritionist.
As many of us have become concerned about high levels of starches and sugars in horse diets, adding wheat bran in large amounts can contribute to growth and metabolic disorders.
The storm that hit Texas was a once-in 125-year event, and it was not fun. Everyone I know in Texas was impacted in some way. Planning in advance and continuing to learn from your experiences will improve your ability to survive storms unscathed.
And, the moral of the story… stay open to new research and be willing to change the foundational principles of your horse care if it warrants.