How to start with a whole food diet

Getting Started With the Whole Food Diet

It can seem daunting to disconnect ourselves from commercial horse feeds and plunge into the world of the whole food diet. It was daunting for me too! But I realized that the cornerstones of nutrition are the same for horses as for humans: fiber, protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. No matter what the feed companies tell us, equine nutrition is not rocket science. There is a history of millions of years of equines living on the earth and simply eating what was available.

A brief history of the evolution of the horse

  • According to the American Museum of Natural History, the first members of the horse family — called Eohippus — were dog-sized creatures scampering through the forests that covered North America. They were forest browsers, nibbling on leaves, fruits and berries.
  • When climate conditions allowed grasslands to expand about 33 million years ago, the cooler weather displaced the fruity plants and leafy shrubs took hold. Horses’ teeth became sharper in order to deal with the new diet.
  • As grassland replaced the cool forests approximately 18 million years ago, horses had to develop longer teeth to deal with the new high-silica content of the grasses.
  • By four or five million years ago, horses were completely adapted to grasslands. Many migrated and expanded from North America across the Eurasian land mass. The last ice age brought about the extinction of the horse in North America. Luckily, the descendants of horses that crossed the Eurasian land bridge would return when Spain, England and France brought horses to the New World.

As you can see with this brief timeline, evolutionary changes such as teeth structure can take millions of years to happen.

Horses evolved to eat grasses
As horses evolved longer limbs and accelerated locomotion to live on the grassland, and as their teeth got longer, their GI tracts evolved into efficient “fermentation machines” to digest and utilize the grasses they ate. They have evolved to eat for 20 hours a day, while their saliva is activated by chewing forage and hay to provide a bicarbonate for the gut. Grasses and hays not only provide fiber but also protein, fat, carbohydrates, and some vitamins and minerals—all of the cornerstones of equine nutrition.

This is why the whole food diet is focused on components such as alfalfa pellets and timothy pellets. These forage foods, in addition to hay and grass, are essential for equines. It is what they have evolved to eat over the last 18 million years.

Fats in grass and forage
We don’t think of grass as having a fat content, but grasses typically provide the essential fatty acid omega-3. Hay also provides this, although the omega-3 content can be reduced depending on growing conditions, herbicide application, drying, and storage. In any case, fat is not a new phenomenon in the equine diet.

Protein in forage and hay
Forages and hays provide protein in various amounts depending on the kind of grass (orchard, timothy, fescue, Bermuda, native grasses, etc.) and the soil and growing conditions. Alfalfa is a member of the pea family, and was first cultivated in ancient Persia. It was introduced to Greece in 490 BC when the Persians invaded Greek territory. According to the fourth-century book Opus Agriculturae by the Roman writer Palladius, “a jugerum [Roman unit of area equal to approximately 0.623 acre] of alfalfa is abundantly sufficient for three horses all the year.” According to the World Heritage Encyclopedia, Spanish colonizers introduced alfalfa to the Americas as fodder for their horses in the 16th century, presumably aware that alfalfa was better than grass as food for working horses, because the horses had more energy.

Keep in mind, these Spanish horses were being ridden 8-10 hours a day so their energy requirements were significantly higher than the modern day sport or performance horse. Horses that were used for farming, transportation, and warfare had much higher energy needs than horses today. Oats, corn, and barley became foods for horses, particularly in Europe because of the availability of these grains and the caloric/energy needs of those horses.

Tigger’s tips on feeding the whole food diet:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  1. Remember that hay, forage and water are the most important foods for horses.
  1. Feed according to the energy needs of your horse. Most horses get plenty of carbohydrate energy from hay and grass and may not need the addition of grains to meet their energy needs. Remember: carbohydrates provide quick-burn energy, while fat provides slow-burn energy.
  1. The quality of fat sources matters. Highly processed oils like corn, soy, rice, and vegetable are solvent-extracted with the neurotoxin hexane. Seek quality fat sources like coconut meal or unrefined coconut oil, GMO-free rice bran, cold-pressed hemp seed oil or cold-pressed camelina oil. Horses that are easy keepers or have metabolic imbalances do best on medium-chain fat sources like coconut, rather than long-chain fat sources like rice bran.
  1. The whole food diet is incredibly flexible because it is based on “component feeding.” This allows you the freedom to feed your horse as an individual. With commercial complete feeds, if you don’t feed according to the manufacturer’s specifications, your horse is only getting a diluted portion of important nutrients.
  1. Don’t hesitate to use your intuition! It’s one of the ways horses communicate with us.
  1. If you need assistance or a little reassurance while starting a whole food diet, by all means call us at 800-686-9544 or shoot an email to
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2 Responses

  1. Lynn Hatfield says:

    Thank you so much for all of the information regarding the whole food diet. It is shockingly difficult to get this information from most vets and it is a challenge to find many resources online. You are definitely at the forefront of this movement and are improving the lives of many horses, particularly those with digestive issues like mine who were not thriving on commercial feeds. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and products!