Carbs & Horses: Separating fact from fiction

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The gal at one of the feed stores is making this BIG deal out of controlled starches. I always thought that only horses with certain issues [i.e. insulin problems, EPSM, and laminitis] required carb consistency. Any issues with malnourished horses? Also, if this is an issue with malnourished horses, is there a certain hay that tends to provide for more carb consistency than others? – via AAEP Ask the Vet

I love the new term you’ve coined: “carb consistency!” It seems like we’re learning more and more about carbohydrates and how horses handle them every day, so right now yes, controlling sugars and starches is kind of a big deal. In addition to horses with equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), polysaccharide story myopathy (PSSM), and laminitis needing lower levels of simple or non-structural carbohydrates (sugars and starches), add to this list horses with gastric ulcers, horses with hindgut acidosis, and horses who simply get too “hot” behavior-wise on high sugar/starch feeds. Does this mean every single horse needs a low-carb diet? No, plus I’m not a fan of the term “low-carb” for horses, as they require a minimum 1% (preferably 2%) of their body weight each day in high-quality forage which is primarily complex or structural carbohydrates. But it does mean owners need to figure out if their horses are in one of these high-risk groups then feed appropriately.

Many horses do quite well on a hay-only diet with a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement or ration balancer to help meet all their protein, vitamin and mineral needs. It gets tricky, though, when a horse’s nutritional needs aren’t met by forage alone, such as a horse in heavy work or as you mention, a malnourished horse. Dr. Carolyn Stull from the University of California-Davis has done some excellent research on bringing the starved horse back to health, which includes dealing with “refeeding syndrome.” Basically, emaciated horses shouldn’t be fed concentrates with lots of simple carbs, nor should they be fed bulky hays or straws with little nutritional value. She found the best way to recover a horse with an extremely low body condition score was to feed small amounts of alfalfa hay every few hours, gradually working up to larger amounts over longer intervals. She doesn’t recommend traditional grain for the super skinny, rescue-type horses for many months.

So while there’s no blanket recommendation about avoiding simple carbs in all horses, definitely speak to your veterinarian about your horses, their medical conditions, and the best way to feed them.

Lydia Gray, DVM MA, is the Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other events. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr. Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association. She enjoys training and showing her Trakehner, Newman, in both combined driving and dressage, and is a USDF “L” Program Graduate (with distinction). Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet

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3 comments on “Carbs & Horses: Separating fact from fiction
  1. Pam Petroselli says:

    My horse is a large boned 16 hands 1/2 Arab/ Paint /Quarter Horse. He is my first horse and I like to feed him “healthy” treats like apples , carrots, sweet potatoes and some other fruits and vegetables when I have them .He loves dates, watermelon etc. I know there is sugar in these items ,but are they healthy for horses for the vitamin and fiber content? I don’t give him large amounts, either. Also because I feel he is a little round barreled ,(no ribs showing) I have them feed 1/4 scoop pellets (Nutrena is given at our barn), and 1 to two flakes hay depending on the size of the flakes. How does this sound nutritionally to you? There are lot’s of opinions about the grain necessity and sugar in fresh fruit and vegetables. I appreciate your honest opinion . Thanks, Pam P

  2. Pam Petroselli says:

    I forgot to mention the hay is given 3 times daily and the grain is given two times. Also, he is grazing most days for several hours, weather permittting.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Pam, thanks for your question. You are correct that some of the treats, such as apples and carrots can actually have a fairly high concentration of simple carbohydrates (sugars and starches). An apple here or there is probably no problem, but in some cases horse owners might refrain from, or at least limit, these types of treats in favor of something specially designed to have a low percentage of simple carbs, such as Hilton Herballs (http://bit.ly/18kDa7n) or Wither’s and Wither’s Insulin Resistant Horse Treats (http://bit.ly/18kDfrw). Like many things in life, moderation is key! In regards to your question about your horse’s specific diet, I think you’ll really enjoy an article focusing entirely on strategies for building a better diet for your horse. I’ve included the links below, and I hope you find them helpful! – Dr. Lydia Gray

      Building a Better Diet: http://bit.ly/18kCZJ0
      The Inside Scoop – Is my Horse’s Grain Enough? http://bit.ly/18kD1Rd

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