Debunking 4 Popular Myths about Beet Pulp for Horses

Call them myths or old wives' tales, why do these fictions about the effects of beet pulp on horses persist in spite of research, experience, and nutritional reality?

Shredded beet pulp

Shredded beet pulp

Although anecdotal stories about individual horses may have lead to these myths or old wives' tales about beet pulp as feed, research and experience have largely discounted them and supplied information that horse owners can take to heart.
© 2016 by Sandstein New window.

Is it because of anecdotal stories about individual horses that at one time had an issue because of eating beet pulp. Is it because horse owners prefer to stay with the tried and true when it comes to their horse feed? Or is it that these stories continue popping up in internet and magazine forums and articles and anything written down has to be true?

Although anecdotal stories about individual horses may have lead to these myths or old wives' tales about beet pulp as feed, research and experience have largely discounted them and supplied information that horse owners can take to heart.

Over the past 15 years, beet pulp, a by-product of the sugar beet industry, has gained popularity as a supplement for horses. Nutritionists recognize it as a good source of fiber that ferments well in the horse's gut and note that it is fairly high in calcium and has moderate protein (8 - 10%).

Beet pulp is often sold in its "raw" form, which looks somewhat like ground-up old shoe leather, or in pellets. Traditionally, the raw form is soaked in water for 1-12 hr before feeding. In addition to the raw form, many commercial horse feed producers use it as an additive in "complete" concentrate feeds.

During winter months and in times of drought, hay becomes more expensive and many horse owners look to other sources for feed that can replace at least part of the bulk fiber in hay to keep horses healthy.

Without a source of roughage, a horse’s digestive system can’t function properly. That’s where beet pulp comes in: It can take the place of hay, at least partially, either helping horse owners stretch their supply or it may become a regular component of a horse's diet.

Myth #1: Unsoaked beet pulp will expand and rupture the horse's stomach.

Beet pulp will not cause your horse’s stomach to rupture. Yes, adding water to beet pulp does cause it to increase in size, but this does not affect what happens in the horse's stomach.

Feed beet pulp instead of cereal grains. It has as many calories as oats without the propensity for insulin production found with starch - Dr. Juliet Getty, Horse Nutritionist.

This fibrous byproduct of the sugar beet is dehydrated and sold in pellets or shredded in bags. The beet pulp is very dry when you buy it, and expands when water is added to the mixture.

However, the inside of a horse’s stomach is filled with acid, not water. The instant beet pulp reaches the stomach, the process of breaking it down begins so nutrients and fiber can go to work and it passes safely through the horse's digestive system.

Pennsylvania State University equine nutritionist Burt Staniar, PhD, dispelled the stomach-rupturing myth in a study where horses ingested up to 45 percent of their total diet from beet pulp. No adverse effects were noted.

Although feeding unsoaked beet pulp will not cause a horse’s stomach to rupture, valid reasons to soak it before feeding do exist depending on the needs of the individual horse:

  • Soaking increases palatability. Many horses prefer it soaked to a mash-like consistency
  • It’s easier to chew. This is a boon for older horses or those with dental issues
  • Soaking it creates a good consistency for the addition of supplements or medications
  • It helps hydration
  • Soaked beet pulp can help slow a horse down that bolts his food.

Myth #2: Your horse will choke on beet pulp unless it is soaked.

Beet pulp will not cause choke on its own. Esophageal obstruction can occur when a horse eats dry beet pulp, but is generally a problem that starts with a horse’s eating behaviors, such as bolting his food.

Experience by horse nutritionists and owners shows that unsoaked beet pulp is no more likely to cause choke than any other feed. Choke is caused by a horse bolting his feed or eating over-sized chunks of feed or treats that get caught in the esophagus.

If a horse has choked before, or consistently bolts his feed, all feeds including most hay should be soaked, not just beet pulp.

Myth #3: Beet pulp is too high in sugar.

Beet pulp is a product of the refining and making of table sugar. The sugar beet industry takes the sugar out of the sugar beets and leaves everything else.

Consider this

Beet pulp is often referred to as a “super fiber” due to its high digestibility and ease of fermentation. The reason is the lack of lignin in the fiber. It is unusual to have a fiber product that is easier on the horse’s digestive system and still provides the calorie content of a grain product.2

In fact, since it beet pulp has a low glycemic index, it causes only a very small rise in blood glucose levels resulting in a source of steady, slow-burning energy.

These qualities make it an excellent addition to a horse’s diet, but horse owners often need to skip beet pulp with added molasses, which can be detrimental to the horse’s digestive system.

In fact, most feed companies add a small amount of molasses to beet pulp to make it more palatable to horses and to reduce dust due to the lack of sugar. However, beet pulp with added molasses is still lower in sugar than most other components of the horse’s diet.

If a horse has metabolic problems including insulin resistance from metabolic syndrome or Cushing's disease, rinsing the beet pulp is especially important to reduce any sugar content left by the extraction process.

Draining or rinsing the excess water from beet pulp after soaking it for at least one hour before feeding will significantly reduce the amount of any left-over sugar.

Myth 4: Beet pulp is not a good substitute for hay.

Nutritionally, beet pulp is a natural source of concentrated energy. Beet pulp's nutritional qualities compare to good-quality grass hay and it’s an easily digestible supplement to your horse’s roughage intake.2

Horse eating soaked beet pulp

Horse eating soaked beet pulp

Feeding a pound or two (dry weight) of beet pulp will help maintain weight and 3 to 4 pounds or more will help with weight gain without increasing starch levels as grain, but it should be supplemented with a balanced vitamin/mineral supplement and perhaps protein. New window.

Although horses can be fed grain, they still need a forage substitute that provides the +20% fiber content that good pasture or hay provides. This is where the feeding of beet pulp comes into play. Along with its fiber content, beet pulp has as many calories as oats without the propensity for insulin production found with starch in grain.

Feeding a pound or two (dry weight) of beet pulp will help maintain weight and 3 to 4 pounds or more will help with weight gain without increasing starch levels as grain does. Because of its high fiber content, it can be used as 25-40% of the ration for horses who have difficulty chewing, but it should be supplemented with a balanced vitamin/mineral supplement and perhaps protein.

Since it is an excellent source of digestible fiber and has a calorie content similar to oats, but with fewer starches and sugars which can cause problems if they reach the hindgut undigested, beet pulp is usually an excellent choice as part of a horse's diet.

While beet pulp is an effective and highly recommended part of your horse’s diet, it doesn’t contain enough vitamin A or selenium for proper nutrition, and should be supplemented with other sources of forage and energy.

Horse nutritionists and veterinarians warm that beet pulp should not be fed to equines as the sole source of nutrition, but it is makes a great supplement to the horse's regular diet of hay when used in a balanced way.

1. Dr. Juliet Getty

2. Eric Haydt, RAS, Senior Vice President of Triple Crown Feed

Related products

Recommended For: Horses that are underweight, performance horses, senior horses, horses that are sensitive to carbohydrates and pregnant and lactating mares These 40LB Beet Pulp Pellets feature a high calorie, low protein, low sugar fiber source for horses.

This Fortex Feeder Pan for Horses, 3-Gallon is ideal for general feeding since it is crack and crush resistant, flexible to low temperatures and immediately bounces back to shape.

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