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A Beer for Our Horses

A Beer for Our Horses

Photo: iStock

It is the latter part of September, which means that Munich’s beer halls are in full swing celebrating Oktoberfest. You might think that your Oktoberfest is just for humans, but then why does Willie Nelson have a song titled “Beer For My Horses"? It turns out that giving horses beer has been a practice amongst equestrians for many years, especially racehorse trainers. Famous horses Tapit and Zenyatta are known to have enjoyed a Guinness on occasion. But other than wanting to celebrate Oktoberfest with your equine partner, what are the reasons for giving your horse a “cold one,” and is it safe? Let’s take a look, starting with why you might want to share a beer with your horse.

Anhidrosis

Giving horses beer as a traditional treatment for anhidrosis isn’t uncommon, with the thought that beer provides as a source of yeast and B vitamins. Anhidrosis is a condition that causes horses not to sweat properly, and some stop sweating all together. This can lead to overheating, which has dangerous consequences.

Anhidrosis is most common in hot climates, especially where humidity is high. No medication or supplement has been shown effective in research trials. However, some people believe that giving the affected horse a can of beer every day solves the issue. Certainly, if this works it’s a relatively easy solution and worth trying. If you suspect your horse has anhidrosis, have him checked by a veterinarian before attempting any treatment on your own.

Vitamin B

B vitamins are vital for the correct functioning of metabolic pathways. The eight B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, folic acid, B6. and B12) are involved in everything from building blood cells, maintaining nerve cells, generating cellular energy, and metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins to maintaining healthy skin and a shiny coat. A quick search online unearths large volumes written about beer as a rich source of these vital nutrients for people, as well as other nutrients, including nonessential amino acids and some minerals. While no longer recommended due to the negative effects of alcohol on fetal development, doctors used to prescribe Guinness to pregnant women for its high vitamin B content.

Thanks to the process of microbial fermentation, B vitamins are actually generated in the horse’s hindgut. Signs of B vitamin deficiency in horses have only been generated in experimental settings, so it’s generally assumed that their typical daily diet combined with microbial production meet their needs. However, the National Research Council only has requirements set for thiamin and riboflavin, and it’s possible that providing additional levels of B vitamins might offer benefits. For example, studies have shown providing extra biotin might benefit some horses. So, beer’s B vitamins might also offer your horse nutritional benefits—just keep in mind that levels in beer are likely very low for horses and probably nonexistent if it’s been filtered. Therefore, if providing B vitamins and other nutrients such as yeast and soluble fiber are the main reasons for giving your horse a beer, make sure you choose one that is unfiltered and unpasteurized.

The Possible Benefits of Yeast

Brewers add yeasts to beer to ferment sugars released from grains, typically barley, resulting in alcohol development. There are two main types of yeast used in brewing those used for ales and those used for lagers, and the strains used for brewing ales are probably the most appropriate for horses. Manufacturers often include Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast strains in equine pre- and probiotic supplements. Research on some strains has shown their ability to help stabilize the equine hindgut environment. Therefore, the yeast found in beer might have  gastrointestinal health benefits. Again, you are looking for unfiltered beer, as filtrated beers contain no yeast, and keep in mind that beer might not contain enough colony-forming yeast units to impact your horse’s digestive tract.

Convincing Horses to Eat or Drink

Because beer has its foundation in grains such as barley, these convey a flavor that horses often find attractive. Enticing a picky eater or encouraging a horse to drink are two very valuable reasons for sharing a beer with your horse, because you can add it feed or water for these purposes. If adding to water, make sure that plain water is always available in case your horse doesn’t actually like the beer flavor.

Final Thoughts

For the most part giving your horse an occasional beer or even a can a day appears nutritionally to not have any deleterious effects, but can giving your horse a beer make him fat and perhaps worse still could he get drunk?

While spending two weeks in the beer halls of Munich may have a detrimental impact on your waistline, giving your horse the occasional 12-ounce beer will likely have no such effect. Most beers come in under 200 kcals. This is about 10% of the daily calorie intake for an adult human; however, for an 1,100-pound horse at maintenance with a daily calorie requirement of 16.7 Mcals (16,700 kcal) of digestible energy, 200 kcals is fairly insignificant. For some perspective, a cup of rolled oats provides almost twice as many kcals as a 12-ounce dark beer.

As to getting drunk, horses have large amounts of alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme in their livers to process the by-products of microbial fermentation and therefore are surprisingly capable of metabolizing the alcohol present in beer. Additionally, their large body size means that they’d have to drink substantial amounts of beer before any risk of intoxication.

So, this Oktoberfest put on your lederhosen and feel free to share a Bavarian brew with your equine friend. Prost!

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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