I can remember as a kid making a large batch of bran mash filled with carrots and apples for the horses during the barn Christmas party so they could celebrate the holidays too. Of course, all they knew was they were getting a tasty treat and it turns out that this once-a-year treat may not have been the most beneficial to their nutritional program...
Bran mashes are made by combining warm water with wheat bran and allowing it to soak for about 15 minutes; things like apples, carrots, oats, or molasses may be added to make it even tastier. Unfortunately, on its own, wheat bran is not the most nutritious feedstuff, and actually may have some negative attributes.
The Calcium to Phosphorus Ratio for Horses
The recommended ratio of calcium to phosphorus in horse feed is 2:1. This is essential for many functions within the body, from nutrient absorption and transfer to proper bone development and more. However, wheat bran has approximately TEN (10!!!) times as much phosphorus as calcium, which can, if fed routinely, cause issues for your horse (1).
Myths about Bran Mashes
In the past, horses have been fed bran mashes to keep the digestive tract moving to, in theory, prevent colic. However, this seemingly laxative effect may actually be due to mild digestive upset caused by a sudden change in diet (hello, damage to the equine microbiome!).
Even further than just this mild upset, wheat bran is high in starch, and if it is not properly digested in the small intestine, fermentation of starches in the hindgut may actually lead to laminitis. Yikes! (2).
As we’ve discussed previously, chewing long stem forage to produce a buffer, in addition to a relatively constant stream of food into the stomach can help prevent ulcers. While bran mash may have more fiber than certain grains, horses will still consume this meal fairly quickly and likely with minimal chewing due to the sloppy consistency. It is unlikely that there is much, if any, benefit of bran mash for horses with ulcers.
Another traditional ideology behind the feeding of warm bran mash is that the hot water will help to keep the horse warm in the wintertime, like a warm cup of hot cocoa or soup will do for you. In reality, it is far more beneficial to provide your horse with plenty of forage during the winter. When horses ferment the fiber found in forage in the hindgut, the microbes in the digestive tract produce plenty of heat to keep the horse warm.
When to Feed Wheat Bran
If feeding bran mashes is being used as a way to provide more water to horses that may potentially be dehydrated in cold weather, good news! You can make a mash out of any pelleted feed or even soak your horse’s hay in order to increase water intake without introducing a new and foreign ingredient to your horse’s diet.
Every once in a while, a finicky horse that needs to be provided with oral medicine may be fed wheat bran to disguise a medicine (be sure to add the medicine AFTER cooking the bran mash). However, in this case it is beneficial to provide your horse with probiotics and prebiotics to ensure the abrupt change in diet doesn’t upset the delicate balance of the equine microbiome.
While wheat bran is a by-product feed that can be beneficial and cost effective as an ingredient in pelleted grains, on its own it does not serve as the most nutritionally beneficial feedstuff. As with any other feed, if you do decide to feed wheat bran be sure to introduce it into the diet slowly over time and be sure that the diet is balanced for the optimal nutrient ratios.
Rather than having to introduce new feedstuffs into your nutritional regimen, providing plenty of high-quality forage for your horse and giving probiotics and prebiotics is a great way to ensure equine gut health and solve many potential problems simply by avoiding them.