In Defense of Sweet Feed

I'm NOT an expert obviously, and I'm not someone who enjoys spending hours reading the latest horse feed research and comparing feed analysis labels. I do consult our equine vet about feed though, and I'll do the analysis comparisons, to make sure the horses are getting good nutrition and that we're getting good value for our money. 
Also, I want to make clear I'm not advocating sweet feed for easy keepers and horses that could be prone to laminitis - there are some very good reasons to keep them on low sugar diets. What's led me to write this post is the results I've gotten over the past few months in feeding Rogo a product that contains molasses. 
Since coming back to riding seven years ago I've noticed that no one feeds sweet feed. When I was a teenager decades ago, it was standard procedure where I lived (rural Nova Scotia) that horses got pasture only in summer and hay and sweet feed in winter. There's some logic to this, but I won't go into it here. However the 'no sweet feed' mantra became so quickly ingrained when I got a horse again, that I didn't even think about feeding it. 
When I struggled with Rogo's lack of energy and forwardness, for years, I was told that's just his natural personality. I consulted the vet about it on several occasions and fed supplements he ordered in for me. I consulted with an equine nutritionist and fed as she directed for awhile, fed a high protein diet, etc. At one point he was on 16 litres of feed a day. Nothing made even the slightest difference in his energy level.

I did get him forward in the past without it, through weeks / months of training with a very experienced, level 3 instructor who pushed us hard three times a week. When Rogo has time off though, we're right back where we started and honestly I just don't think I could go through that building phase on my own. It's completely physically and emotionally draining and I'll tell you that it literally gives me nightmares and leaves me feeling shattered. 
I've tried every trick in the book - hacking out, cavelleti, treats and positive reinforcement, hill work and it always comes back to the same thing - put the weeks / months into a brutal grind of forcing fitness training or have a horse that lives behind my leg. Neither option was / is palatable to me anymore.
Then, .... I rediscovered sweet feed. I might call it life changing, but that could sound flip. Let me just say I'm in love with it. Rogo is a different horse when getting it. He isn't hot or spooky, and he still needs to build fitness after time off, but he's there with me - a happy partner going forward in his work. 
I first tried it this past June and was very impressed - a happy forward horse even though he'd had most of May off and it was getting pretty hot out. Yeah! 
Okay - I'm going to back up a step and describe the feed - it's a pelleted feed with lots of good ingredients, but it includes molasses. It's billed as a foal, lactating mare and performance horse feed and it claims to be low sugar. I'm here to call the low sugar part bullshit. Molasses is high in the ingredients list (impossible to tell what percentage) and honestly, it's delicious. I could eat it for breakfast with a little yogurt on top. It smells wonderful, is packed with omegas and is a sweet, fatty treat :). 
Rogo LOVES it and he is much more forward when he gets it. While he was off in the summer / early fall with a stone bruise I switched him to a performance version from the same company, that had almost the same analysis but no molasses, and he was dead again when I brought him back to work. Back to the molasses version and back to a horse much more willing to work. He / we still need to build fitness, so the forward has staying power, and as we build it I may decrease the sweet feed and increase the non-sweet feed, but it's been a great thing for us.
Sweet feeds wouldn't be a good option for many horses - most / all readers here know more about feed than I do, so I won't go into too much detail.  I'd definitely say proceed with caution and do your research if you think it might be helpful for your horse. It can be associated with increased laminitis risk, i.e. drafts and ponies may be at higher risk. Also, I'm not happy with the idea that it may increase susceptibility to tooth decay (I'm not sure there's proof it does - many horse feeds as well as grass have high sugar levels). 
I'll conclude with saying we feed a very small amount to our draft cross Savanah (she's one I wouldn't give very much too) and when I posted pictures of her on Facebook recently we got comments that she looks the best she'd ever looked. At fifteen years of age her gaits are the best they've ever been as well - uphill jumping canter, big trot, marching walk. Also, our sweet Appaloosa Dan is back to work after several years off, is also getting a very small amount of sweet feed, and is also going better now than when we stopped work three years ago. 
I googled sweet feed before writing my post to see what pros and cons I'd come up with, and here's the first thing that came up: Sweet Feed Whiskey. So if you buy it and decide you don't like it, there's no down side. You're all set for a batch of whiskey. 
There's my anecdotal information on sweet feed. A decent researcher, let alone a scientist, would shoot holes in my conclusions like shooting trout in a demitasse cup, but I'm sold.


Oak Creek Ranch said…
We don't feed our horses a steady diet of sweet feed but there isn't anything better for mixing with supplements and meds. ...add a little sweet feed and there's no fight over the bute or whatever. I had the same energy problem with my Friesian and found that oats did the trick (another thing that isn't fed often anymore).
Carol said…
Hi Annette, great idea for helping the medicine go down! I didn't know oyu had that problem wiht your Friesian. Funny you mentioned oats - I fed Rogo a mix of oats, bran and ground flax seed for quite some time. It did nothing for his energy although I've read it can help. Good to know it worked for you.
You're right that no one feeds sweet feed anymore. I happen to only have had good experiences with it in the past. We fed it to our best horse Lifeguard for years. It's the only thing he would eat and tolerate. Once we moved to a different boarding barn and they refused to feed it. He got really sick with diahrerra.

As for tooth decay, here's another tidbit: had Lifeguard at yet another barn and they refused again because it would rot his teeth. So I asked the vet and dentist if that was true. No it's not I was told because the hay they eat is like natures toothbrush and water they drink rinses it out. I can say he never did have cavities and good check ups.

So that's all I can add but like you say everyone heeds to do their own research and make their decisions based on what's good for them. We don't feed it anymore because it's not right for all the members of the herd.
(Im a certified Equine Nutritionalist.) Are you referring to true sweet feed or extrudent. By your explanation that it is pelleted it makes me think you are meaning extrudent with molases.

Molases isn't bad for horses. You obviously don't want to feed them a tonne of it but mixed with feed it is fine.

The issue with true sweet feed is that the oats and corn are not extruded and fed whole. Horses digest this with a much higher "bad" starch rate and thus it is very prone to make horses colic and cause temperment issues. Feeding true sweet feed is a waste of money, your horse gets little to no nutrition. A complete feed like something Brooks carries is much better.

Michelle said…
Can you share which feed you're using? My five-year-old mustang is very laid back like your Rogo. A little alfalfa added to his grass hay ration seemed to add some energy, but he could use more. We feed our daily dewormer and HorseGuard with whole oats, but I do have some Strategy Healthy Edge on hand that we got for our old-timer (gone now) who needed more calories but couldn't handle protein. It is high fat, but also has molasses.
Carol said…
Wow - thanks guys! I was a little hesitant to write this post because I feared there would be strong negativity, but I've learned so much from the comments.
GHM - thanks for telling me about your experiences and also about the teeth decay question. It makes perfect sense and now I feel much better about that.
T Myers - I hadn't understood that aspect of sweet feed. I have so much to learn! I do know enough to understand what your saying when I read it, but hadn't 'put it together'. Thanks!
Carol said…
Michelle - it's Blue Seal, Sentinel, Safe Start. I fed soaked alfalfa cubes too, and I think it may have helped a little, but not as much as needed. Good luck with your mustang - he sounds wonderful!
Michelle said…
Not familiar with that brand, but will do some research.

I think my mustang is very special; the whole, long tale of how he came to be mine says it's meant to be. I put much of the tale here: I've had him here for almost a full year now.
Val said…
When I think of sweet feed, I think of the mix which had corn, like the comment above described and all the horses that I took lessons on as a kid were fed sweet feed. What you are describing doesn't sound that different than Ultium (no corn but high fat and extruded nuggets, relatively low NSC), which is the only feed that has ever kept weight on Harley. Energy was never an issue, but burning tons of calories was.
Interesting. I feed Val Triple Crown Senior for the little bit of concentrate he gets. (1 lb TCS + 1 lb ration balancer)

I wonder if that's the type of feed you're talking about. Pelleted feed with molasses high on the ingredient list, which still claims to be low starch, and is supposedly nutritionally complete.

Basically I feed it because that's the best I can get locally - three hour drive otherwise - and my trainers tb's thrived on it.
Carol said…
Michelle - I just read your story of acquiring Lance, and some recent posts. I can't wait to hear about your upcoming training and competitions! He's lovely.
Val and CFS - thanks for the feedback. I called my feed sweet feed after looking up pictures and definitions, but you're correct that it isn't the old style mix of grains and corn with molasses mixed in. As you note, it's an extruded pellet. Given my recent experience and interest I need to learn more about the whole topic. Thanks very much for the info!
TeresaA said…
I have no issues with the sweetfeed and it sounds like it's working for Rogo. I got away from it for Irish but it had more to do with ulcers than anything. I think that it comes down to knowing your horse and determining the best fit.
Can't wait to see what you get up to this year with your fabulous new facility Carol!

Merry Christmas and best wishes for a happy, healthy, prosperous New Year!