The Truth About Sugar & Molasses
There is huge misunderstanding about feeding ‘sugar’ to horses. In human foods, the inclusion of molasses (treacle) is synonymous with the homeliness of unrefined sugar, as opposed to highly refined white granules. However, while some people draw this kind of parallel between our diets and those of our horses, others strongly associate molasses for horses with the “sugar is bad for you” message from human nutrition.
Molasses is traditionally added to chaffs & mixes to reduce dust and to increase palatability. Sourced from either UK grown sugar beet or tropically grown sugar cane, it is crushed and soaked in warm water into which the sugars dissolve and are then crystallised out. But not all the sugar is removed, what remains is a thick, brown, sweet liquid that is molasses.
Molasses roughly contains 40-50% sugar, and is typically added to coarse mixes at 8 -10%.
The horses’ natural diet of grass and other herbage often contains up to 20% sugar (on a dry matter basis) during the spring and autumn flushes and horses will consume large amounts whilst grazing, mostly with no harmful effects. In fact a 500kg horse may consume roughly 10kg dry matter (50kg fresh weight) of grass per day, thereby eating up to 2kg or 2000g (two full bags of sugar) every day!
However, the key point is that the “sugar” from pasture is ingested in small amounts at a time. The problems that arise from oversupply of sugar in concentrate feed tend to occur when the meal size overwhelms the ability of the small intestine to digest the sugar, resulting in undigested sugar entering the large intestine, and causing significant disruption to the delicately balanced microbial fermentation.
So although horses are very efficient at digesting mono, di and poly-saccharides or ‘sugars’, their digestive system is adapted to digest and metabolise sugars ingested in frequent, small amounts (trickle feed).
This is why meal or feed size is so critical to ensure the optimum digestion of sugar from concentrate feed. A typical coarse mix may have 10% molasses added, which will provide approximately 40-50g sugar per kg feed.
Indeed sugar is actually vital for horses as an energy source and the central nervous system (including the brain) specifically requires glucose for energy.
Other benefits of the addition of molasses to chaffs and mixes are the natural nutrients contained within, such as potassium, iron, calcium, salt and B vitamins. So, molasses is actually useful in moderation as long as the horses’ own natural ability to digest sugar in the small intestine is not overwhelmed.
Contrary therefore to the popular belief, the typical addition rate of molasses to chaffs or mixes means that grass usually contains more sugar than molassed coarse mixes!
Here at Balanced Horse Feeds we use these principles and apply them to our range of feeds, providing small, easily digestible amounts of sugar in each recommended meal size.
● 2kg of a Balanced Coarse Mix would typically provide 90g of sugar
● 2kg net of hay may provide typically 180g sugar
● 2kg fresh pasture (on a dry matter basis) would typically provide 120g sugar