Rutgers – Ask the Expert – OK to feed my Horse Bread?

Question:  Is it okay to feed bread to my horses? If so, how much can I feed per 100 pounds of body weight?

Answer:  “Bread” is a rather wide category – just look at the aisles in the grocery store. Everything from high carbohydrate fortified white bread to rye and high fiber/low carb breads with a wide variety of flavors, nutritional contents, etc. is out there. That being said, most breads are grain-based, which is what we feed horses anyway. They tend to be high starch – indeed, the standard for determining glycemic index (blood sugar response) in human medicine is based on white bread.

However, because there are a wide variety of recipes out there, it is unwise to generalize over all types of breads for horses, since there have been no feeding trials conducted using even white bread in this species. “Bakery waste” (day old products or batches that didn’t come out just right) is frequently used as a mainstay of hog and cattle rations in some areas. Some commercial feed companies have even included bakery waste in their horse feeds in the past. The only reason it is not commonly done now is for fear of getting poppy seed or chocolate in the mix too, which can cause positive drug tests in performance horses.

Since commercially available breads are meant for human consumption, they will not contain known toxins or impure ingredients and frequently are supplemented with added vitamins and minerals (including safe amounts of selenium). They can actually be more nutritious than straight-fed grains commonly used for horses! Wheat is a grain not commonly used in horse rations due to price and concerns about potential problems with glutens in its raw form. Although wheat flour is a main ingredient in most bread, it is acceptable, especially in the baked, processed form of bread. Unless fortified with calcium, breads may not have a good calcium to phosphorus ratio, but this would not be a problem in most cases if they were fed with good quality hay or pasture. In very old horses the lower calcium intake might actually be good. Day old bread and bagels are commonly fed to horses in Europe as a treat or cheap supplement to their rations.

The main concern with feeding a lot of bread to horses would be the potential lack of fiber, leading to wood chewing and perhaps gastric ulcers and a possible calcium deficit. Before everyone starts raiding the stores for their day old bread and bagels, follow these recommendations:

  1. Avoid breads that contain poppy seeds or chocolate, especially if competing with the horse.
  2. Try to get the high fiber/low carbohydrate fortified types of bread.
  3. If planning to feed more than a few slices a day, start slowly. Restrict intake to 1-2 pounds a day unless there is a special case, like a toothless horse.
  4. If the horse is prone to laminitis or is glucose intolerant do not feed anything but high fiber/low carb breads in very limited quantities (no more than one or two slices a day, and not all at once).
  5. If feeding over 5 pounds of bread a day, consider getting a nutritional analysis of it (especially if feeding a mixture of “waste” bread) and consulting an equine nutritionist to make sure it is balanced.
  6. Stay away from the high sugar/high fat donuts unless you have a horse that:

Is not glucose intolerant
Is a bit thin and needs to gain weight.

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Dr. Carey Williams is the Extension Specialist in Equine Management for Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension. Her research focus is in equine nutrition and exercise physiology. She coordinates “Ask the Expert,” a feature of the Equine Science Center website.

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Medical Disclaimer

This material is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or treat any illness. Any recommendations are not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease. Mention or display of a trademark, proprietary product, or firm in text or figures does not constitute an endorsement by the Equine Science Center or Rutgers University and does not imply approval to the exclusion of other products or firms.

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Got a question? Ask the Expert at esc.rutgers.edu