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Carbohydrates In Equine Nutrition


By Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States Cooperative, Inc. A horse eating from a feed bucket

The term "low carb" has become ubiquitous when talking about human nutrition. The Atkins and South Beach diets focused attention on low carbohydrate diets for people, and many horse owners are concerned and confused about carbohydrates in equine, or horse nutrition.

Recent research is starting to address the area of carbohydrates in equine nutrition. When determining low-carbohydrate diets for horses, we need to look at sugar and starch levels in equine feeds. These feedstuffs include forages (hay and pasture), as well as ingredients that make up concentrate feeds for horses, such as oats, corn, barley, beet pulp and soybean meal.

The Science Of Carbs In Horse Nutrition

Nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) are the sugars and starches found inside the plant cells of equine feedstuffs. This is in contrast to the structural carbohydrates that compose the cell wall of the plants that horses eat. The two main cell wall components are cellulose and hemicellulose, also known as fiber. Plant fiber is digested because of the work of bacteria and protozoa in the large intestine or hindgut of the horse.

The horse receives some of its energy supply by absorbing organic acids in the large intestine. The bacteria and protozoa in the hindgut produce these organic acids from fermentation of sugars that are released when fiber is broken down by enzymes secreted by these same bacteria and protozoa. NSC equals sugars and starches that were thought to be completely digested in the small intestine of the horse. However, another group of sugars, called fructans, has been found that complicates our understanding of carbohydrate digestion, and further explanation is needed.

Sugars found in forages include glucose, fructose, sucrose and fructans. Starch, which consists of chains of glucose and fructose molecules, is the major carbohydrate stored in legumes like alfalfa, warm-season grasses such as coastal bermudagrass and cereal grains (corn and oats).

Fructans are water-soluble sugars (chains of fructose molecules) that are stored as the major carbohydrate in cool-season grasses such as orchard grass, fescue and timothy.

Starch and sucrose can be broken down into glucose and fructose molecules in the horse's small intestine and absorbed because there are enzymes capable of breaking these types of molecular bonds. Fructans are not digested into fructose and absorbed in the small intestine of the horse, as there are not enzymes present to break these types of bonds. However, bacteria and protozoa in the horse's large intestine can ferment fructans into lactic acid.

Limit Your Horse's Intake Of Fructans

Research has shown that excessive consumption of fructans from pasture grasses or excessive intake of sugar and starch from feeding too much grain will cause colic and laminitis. If large amounts of sugar, starch or fructans are consumed, they can pass through the stomach and small intestine of the horse in an undigested state. Fructans cannot be digested in the small intestine, and feeding too much starch and sugar at one meal will overwhelm the horse's upper digestive system (stomach and small intestine) because of the rapid passage rate of concentrate feeds.

When large amounts of sugar, starch or fructans are present in the hindgut, they are rapidly fermented. Excessive fermentation in the hindgut results in large amounts of lactic acid that can lower the pH to the point at which most of the bacteria are destroyed. These bacteria then break apart and release toxins that are absorbed into the bloodstream. These toxins are believed to cause laminitis in the horse.

The greatest danger of founder and laminitis for horses are consumption of cool-season grass pasture and hay, which may contain high levels of sugar, especially large amounts of fructans. Legumes, warm-season grasses and grains contain little or no fructans.

Tips On Pasture Management

Horses feeding in a fieldGood management of pasture for grazing and hay production including maintaining proper fertility levels and prevention of overgrazing and weed establishment will keep the sugar content of the forage at a lower and safer level. Pasture and hay made from small grains (wheat, rye, barley and oat) and perennial ryegrass, fescue and bromegrass under certain environmental conditions can have extremely high sugar levels. For more information on NSC and fructans in grasses go to www.safergrass.org.

Tying up disease or exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER) can exist in horses as sporadic and chronic forms. Sporadic forms can affect any breed and can be the result of overwork, inadequate conditioning and muscle fatigue or nutritional deficiency (potassium, vitamin E, selenium, etc.). The genetic forms of ER have been divided into equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (EPSM), polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), and recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER). The incidence and severity of both forms of ER can be lowered with a reduction in the dietary NSC.

Horse Nutrition Recommendations

Dietary recommendations for horses with all types of ER includes increasing dietary fat to contribute 15 to 20% of the horse's daily energy requirement and reducing dietary NSC levels to below 20%. For example, a horse diet containing 10 pounds of 10% fat feed and 15 pounds of hay would contain approximately 5% total dietary fat, and this amount of fat would provide 11.25% of total daily calories.

Large amounts of dietary fat would be appropriate for performance horses, but not for horses with lower activity levels, especially horses that are overweight or "easy keepers." This same recommendation of controlling dietary NSC to below 20% of the total diet can be applied to the feeding management for other problem horses afflicted with Cushing's Disease, insulin resistance and equine diabetes.

Tables illustrating these facts accompany this article. Table 1 shows sugar, starch and NSC values for selected feedstuffs typically provided to horses.

Horse Feed Recommendations

The lowest NSC values are for soybean hulls, beet pulp, alfalfa and the feedstuffs with highest NSC values are corn, barley and oats. It is obvious that grain-based horse feeds will contain significantly higher NSC values than feeds based on beet pulp, soybean hulls and alfalfa meal. For more information about NSC content of forages go to www.equi-analytical.com.

Sugar, starch and NSC values for all Southern States horse feeds are listed in Table2. Several feeds that are beet pulp based have the lowest NSC values, including Triple Crown Complete, Senior and Growth. Also, there are two horse feeds based on soybean hulls--Triple Crown Lite and Triple Crown Low Starch--that have the lowest NSC levels of any Southern States feeds. Triple Crown Lite is recommended for ponies, miniature horses, overweight horses and "easy keepers."

Triple Crown Low Starch Horse Feed is the latest horse feed in the Southern States line (see "The world's first low starch feed could give new meaning to 'healthy as a horse'"). Triple Crown Low Starch, with 15% total NSC, has been developed to provide a low dietary NSC feeding program for problematic horses with ER, Cushing's Disease, laminitis, insulin resistance and diabetes.

A low NSC feeding program for problem horses would start with estimating the NSC content of your pasture or hay or having an actual sample analyzed for NSC content. Sampling your hay would not be practical unless you had a uniform supply from the same cutting and field that would last you for several months. If pasture is available for a horse with these types of problems, the most prudent feeding management to reduce NSC levels in the diet would be to eliminate or reduce grazing. This can be accomplished by moving the horse to a barren lot for activity only or the use of a grazing muzzle to lower or eliminate pasture consumption. Then provide hay that is selected for a low NSC content.

One surprising finding concerning NSC levels of various hays was that alfalfa hay and alfalfa cubes had lower values than grass hay, so alfalfa hay may become the first choice for problematic horses because of lower NSC content and the absence of fructans.

The next step is to select a horse feed with a low NSC level and an appropriate fat level. For a problem horse with little activity or that is an "easy keeper," Triple Crown Lite with only 3% fat would be suitable.

For a problem performance horse, a horse in poor body condition, or "hard keeper," feeds such as Triple Crown Complete and Triple Crown Senior, both with 10% fat, or Triple Crown Low Starch (6% fat) would be a better choice.

Table3 accompanying this article contains feeding examples for problem horses using Triple Crown Complete, Lite, Senior, & Low Starch to provide dietary NSC levels below 20%.

Providing carbohydrate values for Southern States horse feeds will enable horse owners and veterinarians to better treat problem horses, and the continuing nutrition research that Southern States is conducting will allow safer horse feeds in the future.

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