Evolution may be tough for some folks to swallow, but for people like Kevin Babington of Blue Bell, PA, evolution is the very first ingredient in a feeding plan for performance horses. Babington, the incredibly successful trainer, world class competitor in Show Jumping, Olympian, world champion gold medalist, spotter of exceptional horses and keen observer of equine lifestyle issues, has embarked on another extension of his successful business model. That model seems to be predicated on the belief that horses did a pretty good job of evolving before humans entered the picture. And Babington Mills is his answer to the question: what do horses want?
Robert Fowler spent many years in Europe working with top equestrians, ensuring that the horses competing on a global stage were fueled with the kind of diet that Nature very thoughtfully developed. Today he’s working with Babington to set up manufacturing and marketing of horse feeds that are designed with equine history in mind. “The whole premise of the way I like to feed horses is to go back and think about how they were evolved to feed. Not high starch, high sugar,” he says. “The horse is a trickle feeder rather than a conveyor belt like we are.” He says that horses need to spend about 18 hours a day on forage, whereas humans—okay, maybe we don’t just shovel food into our mouths, but sometimes it seems like that, right?—consume calories on random schedules whether the engine we’re fueling needs the calories or not.
“A horse only produces saliva when it chews, and that saliva is very important in buffering gastric acids in the horse’s stomach.” Thus, Babington Mills has developed customized feeds for several stages in horses’ lives. The range of products includes low-energy feeds for easy keepers to high-fat, high fiber feeds for performance horses. “It’s a very well thought-through feed program,” Fowler explains. “We have a simple range of low, medium and high energy feeds.”
The overarching goal, Fowler explains, is to respect and to reinforce the feeding regimens that are most consistent with equine nutritional needs. In other words, “to get a horse eating as he evolved to eat.”
The Equine Gut is an Extraordinary Machine
The carrots, grain and hay a horse eats today will travel 100 feet or more before they see the light of day again. When they do finally emerge, they will have been profoundly changed. In the stomach, enzymes and acids break down solid particles; then in the small intestine carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, which are absorbed to provide energy for the horse. The last stop in the trek from carrot, grain and forage to the great afterlife is the hindgut, where bacteria break down fibrous feeds into volatile fatty acids, another energy source for horses.
This complex chain of events begins the moment food enters a horse’s mouth. And everything—from the condition of the horse’s teeth, to the amount of fibrous forage, to the availability of fresh water, to the horse’s basic mental and physical condition—affects the outcome of that most basic activity: eating. A healthy equine digestive system is a finely-calibrated machine that will turn those carrots—along with the hay and grain and forage a horse consumes—into well-formed balls of manure. It’s a marvel of evolution thousands of years in the making.
But machines are not perfect, and sometimes they break down. Fowler says that Babington Mills feeds are designed to ensure that the machinery is not sidetracked by starches and sugars that don’t contribute to the efficient uptake and utilization of the calorie value of the food. “All our diets focus on the forage the horse gets and then we top off what the forage is lacking,” Fowler says. “The horse is presented with a fiber-based diet that is low in starch and low in sugar.”
He says that this type of diet helps eliminate excitability from sugar spikes and minimizes the chance of horses’ developing gastric ulcers. He describes the whole program as a holistic effort to keep horses doing the jobs they’re supposed to do, whether they’re trail horses, race horses, or mares with foals.
Location, Location, Location
From sunup to sundown, Babington Mills has solutions for horse owners, from food to bedding! Several years ago Babington introduced a product called BedEdge, a wheat straw bedding that provides a high-absorbency and virtually dust-free non-toxic bedding solution for stalls. The enterprise is headquartered on a farm that Babington purchased about five years ago. “Kevin bought a hay farm to base the production facility.” Fowler says. “Then he put a revolutionary mill in that allows him to chop fiber and forage.” Fowler says that the mill can chop and clean forage and remove all the dust. “What we end up with is a very clean sample of hay that we can mix other ingredients into.” Those other ingredients include oats, which are also grown on the Babington Mills farm near Hamburg, and chelated minerals.
Fowler says that most of the raw materials in the feed and bedding produced by Babington Mills come from the farm or from nearby farms. They also purchase some hay from a farm in the Finger Lakes area of New York. “We don’t use herbicide or pesticides,” he says, and neither do their suppliers.
Fowler says that after a few hiccups in production, Babington Mills is ready to start marketing their products. “We have been flying under the radar for the last two years,” he says. “We had some issues with production which we’ve sorted through. We’ve tended to go to high end barns. It’s been received well, but we haven’t launched it to the mass market at all.” He says that Babington Mills is now “raring to get it going.”