Enquiries to the Dengie feedline about Equine Faecal Water Syndrome (EFWS) are increasing but very little is known about this interesting phenomenon. Inevitably this means many myths perpetuate about causes and possible solutions.
EFWS is a condition in horses where faeces are passed as normal but before, during or after this, the horse passes faecal water. The phenomenon is also referred to as Free Faecal Water or Free Faecal Liquid. Whilst the condition isn’t necessarily associated with weight loss, colic or other digestive issues, it may cause management problems such as soreness around the horse’s bottom and on their back legs. It can also result in significantly increased use of bedding materials which increases costs and work for the horse owner.
Frustratingly the cause has not been established and so it is hard to determine treatments. Some research has been carried out using faecal transfers from healthy horses, as has been researched in humans with inflammatory bowel conditions, but in practice this has not been widely implemented. As with many nutrition-related diseases in horses, it is likely that there are a variety of causes all resulting in similar symptoms. Until more is known the following tips are what we would recommend for horses with EFWS:
A recent study carried out in Sweden and Norway tried to establish whether there is a link between wrapped forages such as haylage and free faecal water in horses. Data was collected over a year long period from horses and ponies that were over two years of age and had a history of free faecal water.
The study found that any breed or type of horse can be affected, and it is not always associated with a drop in weight or body condition score. The researchers didn’t find a definitive link between wrapped forages and free faecal water although some horses improved when changed to hay. Equally, some horses improved when changing from one wrapped forage to another so it doesn’t appear to be the case that the wrapped forage per se is the cause of the problem. Interestingly there was also no link between the feeding of alfalfa and Equine Faecal Water Syndrome.
One finding suggested there may be a possible link with horses turned out on soil as opposed to grass paddocks. The researchers suggest that horses may pick up soil as they eat off the ground and this is an area that requires further research. It is likely that, as with many other issues affecting the digestive system, equine faecal water syndrome is a multi-factorial problem. The best approach is certainly to implement good feeding management and practices, but it is also worth considering that if a horse is turned out on a very sparse paddock, additional forage should be provided off the ground.
For further information or friendly feeding advice, contact the Dengie Nutrition Team on 01621 841188 or click here to complete our Feed Advice Form.
Symptoms including itchiness, over-excitable or irritable behaviour and loose droppings are often described as allergies by horse owners and are attributed to various different ingredients including molasses and alfalfa. But can horses have allergies? Are they truly allergic reactions and if so, how do we best manage them?
A food allergy is defined as “an immune-mediated adverse reaction to food”. In practice this means that the body has a reaction to a food which would normally not cause a problem for most individuals. Food allergies are triggered by allergens such as specific proteins found in some foods. Horse food allergy symptoms range from a mild condition such as urticaria (lumps and bumps on the skin that may or may not be itchy) to very serious conditions such as anaphylactic shock caused, for example, by peanut allergy in humans.
In contrast to an allergy, food intolerance is a non-immune mediated adverse reaction to food. This type of reaction does not involve the immune system and tends to illicit milder symptoms than a food allergy. An example would be lactose intolerance in humans.
Food allergy and intolerance is a poorly researched area of equine nutrition with most texts stating that true food allergy in horses is rare. Horses with a food allergy are likely to exhibit symptoms such as urticaria all over their body and not just within one location such as under the saddle where contact allergies may occur.
When it comes to food intolerance, the definitions of this in horses is much hazier. The reason for this is that many people would describe a change in their horse’s behaviour, such as becoming more excitable, as an intolerance to a type of food when in fact there are many other issues that could be involved. For example, excitability in horses may be related to the amount of energy consumed in relation to workload, variability in exercise level and even environmental factors such as how windy it is.
In theory horses can be allergic to a range of different ingredients including alfalfa. Horses may be allergic to a particular protein in an ingredient which could trigger an immune reaction which means the ingredient should be avoided. Symptoms such as grumpiness or loose droppings are more likely to be due to an intolerance which is often correlated to the amount of an ingredient that is fed. For example, some people say they can’t feed Alfa-A to their horse because it contains alfalfa but are using Hi-Fi which contains around 45% alfalfa, without problems. As avoiding some commonly used ingredients altogether can be tricky, it is advisable to differentiate between an allergic reaction and an intolerance in the first instance and then determine whether the horse can cope with smaller amounts in their ration.
An elimination diet is really the only way to determine which ingredient is causing the issue and it is important to consider other variables that could be contributing to the problem too and that may not be visible such as stress and pain.
Our recommendation is to start with a clean slate or an empty feed bucket and reintroduce different ingredients. Mono-component feeds such as Dengie Pure Grass Pellets are a great way to get started – reintroduce one feed at a time to be sure you know which ingredients have no effect. Straights such as micronized linseed, unmolassed sugar beet and grass pellets can make a great combination for horses with allergies or intolerances to feeds such as barley, molasses and alfalfa.
In addition you will need a source of vitamins and minerals which can be fed in the form of a powder supplement or a balancer. Balancers will contain a range of ingredients and so supplements are often easier to use as they are just vitamins and minerals with a base carrier ingredient usually included at low levels. Both Dengie Leisure Vits & Mins and Performance Vits & Mins are cereal and alfalfa free and so are the ideal complement to a straights ration.
Dengie Pure Grass Pellets, Pure Grass chopped fibre and Meadow Grass with Herbs & Oil are all free from alfalfa, molasses and cereal grains. As their names imply, Pure Grass Pellets and Pure Grass chopped fibre contain just grass and nothing else so can be a great basis to an elimination diet. Dengie Meadow Grass with Herbs & Oil contains both pelleted and chopped grass with a rapeseed oil coating and a selection of herbs for palatability.
If your horse is allergic or intolerant to grass but not alfalfa then the Hi-Fi range, which combine alfalfa and straw, can be used as forage replacers. Feeds like Dengie Alfa-Beet which combines alfalfa and sugar beet are also ideal for providing more fibre without using grass. It is possible to use oat straw as long as it is introduced gradually as a partial forage replacer too – it is recommended to use approximately 30% of the horse’s forage requirement as straw each day. Straw wouldn’t be ideal for those with dental issues and so please do contact our Feedline team for more guidance if you’re not sure what to do for the best.
When it comes to food allergy and intolerance there are a lot of common feeding myths to be dispelled!
This is a very common misunderstanding often due to the fact that some allergic conditions in horses such as urticaria are also called protein bumps. An allergy is not caused by the amount of protein found within the diet, but instead by a specific allergen, which is a specific type of protein, found in some foods. For example, if a person was allergic to the protein in peanuts they could still eat meat which also contains protein.
Molasses is often said to be the cause of allergies and because it has a high sugar content horse owners assume that all sugar is going to have the same effect. This is not the case as sugar is present in all commonly used plant materials for horses such as grass, cereals, alfalfa and sugar beet, albeit at low levels. If a horse was allergic to sugar there would literally be nothing they could eat.
It is possible for some individuals to be allergic to cereal grains as some are known allergenic foods and this may result in symptoms such as urticaria and itchy skin. Rice is often referred to as hypoallergenic and so may be a suitable alternative to other cereals.
A mash refers to a feed that is soaked prior to feeding. Mashes are often made from fibre based ingredients but can also contain cereals and other ingredients such as herbs.
Historically, bran mashes for horses were fed irregularly after harder work such as a day’s hunting, as it was believed that it helped prevent digestive upsets by acting as a laxative. It is now much less popular as findings from research show that there is little or no laxative effect and making a sudden change to the diet is not desirable at any time and arguably least of all after a period of hard work when the aim should be to aid recovery by replenishing what has been used up.
Bran mashes for horses also have an inverse calcium to phosphorous ratio and so can unbalance the ratio in the total diet which can be counteracted by supplying other sources of calcium but, as there are better feeds widely available, bran has fallen out of favour.
There are now a wide range of mash feed for horses available on the market and range from those that can be used to promote weight gain which are often based on highly digestible fibres such as alfalfa, sugar beet or grass, to those that are low calorie which usually contain less digestible ingredients, such as straw.
The increase in the number of horses of all ages with dental issues such as diastemas, means that many horse owners are seeking alternatives to chopped fibre feeds. As forage should make up the majority of a horse’s diet, it is no surprise that when they simply can’t eat it as easily anymore, issues such as weight loss and colic can occur. Providing forage in a form that horses and ponies can easily manage, such as a high fibre mash, ensures that they are still receiving the fibre they need to keep them healthy. Some mash feed for horses can be fed in large quantities and used to entirely replace a horse’s hay or haylage.
Feeding a mash, such as a high fibre mash for horses, can also increase the water intake in the horse’s diet, helping to aid hydration. This can be particularly beneficial over the winter months when horses are in for longer periods of time eating conserved forages such as hay which have a significantly lower water content compared to fresh grass. Horses are also often reluctant to drink when it’s colder; research has shown that horses tend to drink 6-14% less in colder weather so feeding a mash can help increase water intake.
Travelling and competing can also increase the risk of dehydration which can compromise both performance and recovery. In addition to this, some horses can become fussy about drinking when away from home. By feeding a high fibre mash for horses, you can get moisture in without requiring them to actually drink from a bucket.
Alfa-Beet – a high-fibre, low sugar and starch, conditioning feed. The combination of alfalfa and unmolassed sugar beet pulp provides ‘slow release’ energy in the form of highly digestible fibre.
Grass Pellets – 100% naturally grown meadow grass with no added sugar. Naturally sweet they are ideal at tempting fussy feeders!
Alfalfa Pellets – simply 100% alfalfa – rich in calcium and other naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. As alfalfa is naturally low in sugar, Alfalfa Pellets are ideal for those that require a low sugar diet such as laminitis prone individuals including those with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID).
For further advice and guidance on what to feed your horse or pony please contact the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to fill out our Feed Advice Form.
In the UK, feeding straw to horses as the sole forage source is rarely done and some people are put off using it at all because they believe it is one of the causes of impaction colics in the horse. This is a shame as straw for horses can be a really useful feed ingredient particularly for diluting more nutritious fibre sources so the combination can be used to maximise chew time for good doers. A recent study investigating feeding barley straw to horses together with hay to those who were overweight, found the group on the straw/hay diet had a significantly greater weight loss compared to feeding hay alone. Although the study didn’t match the volume of forage between groups, one thing that we can take away from the study was that there were no impactions, providing further support that straw is safe to use.
Straw is high in fibre and has a very low calorie level compared to other forages as it contains higher proportions of indigestible materials such as lignin. It is great for mixing with good quality hay or haylage to dilute the calories supplied to good doers especially in situations where it is hard to buy in separate forage such as on a livery yard where forage is provided as part of the livery arrangement.
Another benefit of a horse eating straw is that it can also be part of the bucket feed and at Dengie we use straw as a key ingredient in our Hi-Fi range to provide a lower calorie ration helping to promote weight loss and reduce the risk of issues such as laminitis. Although straw has very little buffering capability itself, it is still beneficial for gastric health in the sense that it increases chew time and therefore greater saliva production. This is important as saliva contains bicarbonate which helps to buffer acidity in the horse’s digestive tract.
Straw often gets “bad press” in the context of gastric ulcers as one study by researchers in Denmark, found that a horse eating straw as the sole or predominant forage source was 4.5 times more likely to have gastric ulcers. What often gets lost when people read this research is the proportion of straw in the ration. There is no evidence that straw included at levels up to 30% of the total diet causes any issues in relation to EGUS.
Although straw is often not the most palatable source of fibre, most horses will eat it, particularly if they are on a restricted diet. It can easily be mixed in with hay and soaked or steamed if necessary. At Dengie we add herbs or coatings to help with palatability and the straw is also dust extracted. Horses on a straw bed are very likely to tuck in if they are on restricted quantities of other forage and so are consuming straw that way too!
Oat straw is what we use at Dengie. It is usually favoured over feeding wheat straw to horses as wheat straw tends to be less digestible but in moderation, eating any type of straw doesn’t usually present a problem as demonstrated by horses eating their straw bedding.
The nutritional value of different straws will vary according to the type but also the growing and environmental conditions. On average, straw would have a starch level of around 2.5% and WSC (water soluble carbohydrate) of 6.5% (Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition, 2013).
For further advice on feeding straw to horses or to receive a personalised ration plan for your horse call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to complete our Feed Advice Form.
If you often feel that you’ve been working harder than your horse, you may be thinking that a change of diet could solve all of your problems; but can feeding help to improve your horse’s energy levels?
Before making changes to your horse’s diet check the following first:
When it comes to feeding the following questions are important to ask:
The easiest way to determine whether your horse has sufficient energy for the work they are doing is to assess their bodyweight using body condition scoring. Ideally your horse should be a 3 on the 5 point scale for optimal body condition. Click here to learn how to assess your horses body condition score.
A horse that is above 3 on this scale is receiving excessive amounts of energy or calories and is carrying too much weight. Encouraging weight loss by decreasing overall energy intake and increasing exercise to improve fitness levels will ultimately help to improve your horse’s energy levels.
A horse that is well below 3 on this scale is receiving insufficient amounts of energy or calories in their ration. Increasing overall energy intake to promote weight gain and achievement of optimal body condition may help improve overall energy levels. It is important to note that very fit horses may maintain their weight and have an optimal body condition and health at just under a 3 on the condition scoring scale.
If your horse is in optimum body condition this suggests they are receiving the correct amount of energy in the diet for the work being done. At this stage, looking at the type of energy supplied may also potentially influence behaviour. Fibre and oil provide slow release energy whereas sugars and starch provide quick release energy. For lazy horses where more sparkle is required, cereal grains are usually fed as they provide lots of starch and therefore quick release energy. There is however, no certainty as to how the introduction of cereal grains will affect your horse’s behaviour; it may have no effect, or result in spooky, silly behaviour rather than helping them to be more forward-going. Recent research found that horses fed a cereal-based concentrate mix were more reactive to new situations and equipment than those on a high fibre and oil diet. They were less consistent in their behaviour and had higher heart rates compared with horses fed the fibre-based feed.
If feeding cereal grains does provide the desired increase in energy levels then research has suggested that time of feeding is important. Within 2 hours of eating a starchy feed the horse’s blood glucose levels rise, followed by a rise in insulin to store glucose. If the horse is exercising whilst the body is also trying to store glucose, this could potentially affect performance due to low blood glucose levels. Cereal based feeds should therefore not be given within 3-4 hours prior to exercise. Feeding fibre does not have this effect and can be fed prior to exercise.
As too much starch can contribute to problems such as colic and laminitis, it is important that cereals are used in moderation. For horses that haven’t been fed cereals before they should be introduced gradually, literally a handful at a time to give the digestive system time to adjust to the new feed. Oats tend to be the cereal that is most commonly used to try and give horses more energy although all cereals provide quick release energy and so may have the desired effect. Feeding cereals to an overweight horse would not be beneficial as it is likely to encourage further weight gain which will compound the problem of lethargy further.
If your horse runs out of steam towards the end of a ride then the feeding strategy should focus on improving stamina. Research has shown that feeding additional oil helps to improve stamina in the horse which is why relatively high levels of oil are fed to endurance horses. If your horse lacks stamina then the oil content of the ration can be increased by introducing high oil feeds such as Dengie Alfa-A Oil if it is appropriate for the horse’s bodyweight. Horses will need to be trained on a high oil ration for two to three weeks before improvements are seen.
Vitamins and minerals are integral components of energy metabolism and a shortfall of these in the diet can result in poor performance. If you are feeding the recommended quantities of a compound feed that is intended for the level and type of work your horse is doing, the diet should be balanced. Using straights with a balancer or supplement at the recommended levels should also provide a balanced ration.
One thing that many horse owners are concerned about if their horse is lethargic is anaemia. This can be diagnosed with a blood test carried out by a veterinarian. Unlike humans, anaemia in horses is rarely due to low levels of iron in the diet as grass and forage are naturally abundant sources. If your horse’s anaemia isn’t caused by blood loss, an unbalanced diet with insufficient levels of copper in the diet could be the culprit. Copper is important as it is involved in haemoglobin synthesis and the mobilisation of iron stores. Haemoglobin is the pigment that carries oxygen within the body to the tissues where it releases it for aerobic respiration to occur which ultimately produces energy. Copper is typically low in UK pasture and forage and so should be supplemented as part of a balanced ration.
Electrolytes are minerals that are found in fluids in the body and their concentration in fluids found both in and around cells affects neuro-muscular function. Electrolytes are also found in sweat and horses in prolonged work such as endurance can lose considerable amounts. Electrolyte losses and dehydration are linked to fatigue and ultimately compromise performance. Excessive losses can have serious repercussions for health. Horses that appear to get tired towards the end of their work may well be doing so as a result of electrolyte losses, particularly if they are working in hot conditions. Electrolyte supplements can be used before, during and after a busy work period or routinely every
day if the horse is in hard work or sweats profusely.
For personalised feeding advice call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to complete the Feed Advice Form.
Rising temperatures, strenuous work and the physiological stress of travelling and competing can cause an electrolyte imbalance in horses as they sweat more which is the main way electrolytes are lost from the body.
Electrolytes are minerals that are found in fluids in the body and their concentration in the fluids found both in and around cells affects neuro-muscular function. Electrolyte losses and dehydration are linked to fatigue and can ultimately compromise your horse’s performance. Excessive losses that create an electrolyte imbalance in horses can have serious repercussions for their health. Horses that appear to get tired towards the end of their work may well be doing so as a result of electrolyte losses, particularly if they are working in hot temperatures.
Both electrolytes and water are needed for re-hydration so adding salt or electrolyte supplements for horses to their water is ideal. If you find this puts your horse off drinking then they can be mixed into the bucket feed. It is recommended to make the feed wet and slushy to promote efficient absorption.
Table salt is a combination of sodium and chloride and so electrolytes for horses should include potassium and possibly magnesium in addition to make it more effective than simply using table salt! Potassium is abundant in fresh forage and conserved grass forages such as hay and haylage make a reasonable contribution to the horse’s overall requirements. Horses with no access to grass and those on limited forage intakes are likely to benefit even more from electrolyte supplements for horses.
For further advice on electrolytes for horses or to receive a personalised ration plan for your horse call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to complete our Feed Advice Form.
Water is essential for life and the composition of your horse’s diet can have a significant impact on water intake. There can be around 50 litres of water in the digestive system but this is significantly influenced by diet. Horses at grass for longer periods usually consume far higher levels of water than stabled horses as grass is around 80% water, hay is only about 15% water and haylage typically between 30 and 50%.
Meal feeding can also affect fluid balance in the body with research showing considerable shifts in water out of the digestive system when meals are fed. Feeding a few large meals each day can cause sufficient dehydration in the colon to result in impaction which could initiate other forms of very serious colic such as large colon displacement.
There are many factors that contribute to dehydration in horses including:
Dehydration in horses not only affects their performance, but it can also have serious implications for their health and potentially be life-threatening. Symptoms of dehydration can be confused with other things but the typical signs to look out for are:
In a serious case of dehydration veterinary attention is required to administer fluid therapy to rehydrate the horse. To reduce the risk of dehydration in horses there are various things you can do:
It is important to have fresh clean water available to your horse at all times of year but you may find the sunshine and warmer weather means you’re having to wash out and change the water in your field more frequently than you would do normally.
Rising temperatures and harder work can cause your horse or pony to sweat more resulting in the loss of electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals that are found in fluids in the body and their concentration in and around cells affects neuro-muscular function. Electrolyte losses and dehydration are linked to fatigue and ultimately compromise performance. Excessive losses can have serious repercussions for health too. Horses that appear to get tired towards the end of their work may well be doing so as a result of electrolyte losses, particularly if they are working in hot conditions. Click here to read more about feeding electrolytes to horses.
Walking can help to cool your horses, by increasing the movement of hot air from the body and replacing it with cooler air. Ensuring the horse is in the shade and out of direct sunlight will also increase convection cooling. It is also important to physically cool the horse down after exercise. Cold water applied all over the body has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to keep horses cool. It is important to ensure the water temperature is cooler than the horse so that heat can be lost through both evaporation and conduction (transfer of heat from the body to the air).
The cool down period helps to bring the horse’s temperature and respiration rate down but it has another important function. The lymphatic system is crucial to the horse’s health, performance, and recovery. It consists of an extensive network of vessels and nodes that help to maintain fluid balance and cellular health. After exercise, the lymphatic system clears the waste generated by cells that have been working hard to supply the fuel that powers performance. A cool down for around 20 minutes helps the lymphatic system to work efficiently.
For personalised feeding advice call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to complete the Feed Advice Form.
Review many horse feeds marketed towards the ulcer prone horse and you will notice that they are typically for the working horse or those that don’t hold their weight. However, there are many horses with ulcers that are good do-ers which can make selecting the right feed trickier; what’s the priority with these individuals and the best feed for horses with ulcers – managing the ulcers or promoting weight loss?
Whilst the mainstay of any horse’s diet should be forage, in the form of either fresh pasture, or conserved forage like hay or haylage, even good do-ers can benefit from a bucket feed for the following reasons:
To provide a balanced diet; UK pasture and forage lack a number of key trace minerals including copper, selenium and zinc as well as vitamin E in conserved forage. Topping up these nutrients helps to ensure a balanced diet is supplied. Most frequently this can be achieved by adding a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer to a low calorie chopped fibre feed to act as a carrier.
As a lower calorie alternative to hay; hay and haylage can easily supply more energy or calories than the good do-er in light work requires and so the amount fed may need to be restricted. Alternatively, it is possible to replace a proportion of the forage ration with something even lower calorie such as a low energy chopped fibre feed. Overall this may mean the horse can have a larger amount to eat which supports digestive health.
As a pre-exercise feed to reduce the risk of acid splash; whilst this could be hay or haylage, many people will be aware that research has shown that feeding alfalfa as a fibre source is a superior buffer in the digestive tract. Feeding a double handful of a chopped alfalfa based fibre feed in the 20-25 minutes before you ride is recommended to help prevent ‘acid splash’ in the non-glandular region of your horse’s stomach. The fibre ensures the stomach isn’t empty and suppresses the movement of the acidic contents when the horse moves.
Yes you could, but there are other suitable alternatives when looking for horse feed for good doers. These feeds all supply 11.5MJ/kg or more digestible energy which makes them higher calorie feeds that are less suited to the good do-er and those in light work. Whilst the overall calorie intake could be controlled by limiting the amount fed, it is more beneficial for your horse to have more of a lower calorie feed for more chew time. Suitable options would be Healthy Hooves Molasses Free, Hi-Fi Molasses Free or Hi-Fi Lite.
Back in 2009, a study that looked at the incidence of gastric ulceration in a population of horses found that those that were fed straw as the sole or predominant fibre source were more likely to have ulcers. The reasons given related to the structure of straw and the fact that straw contains low levels of calcium and protein. This makes sense given that it is alfalfa’s naturally high protein and calcium levels that are thought to make it a superior buffer.
However, the key here is that straw was used as the sole or predominant fibre source which is something we simply don’t tend to practice in the UK. Furthermore Dengie Healthy Hooves Molasses Free, Hi-Fi Molasses Free and Hi-Fi Lite all still contain a proportion of alfalfa as well for extra buffering potential alongside the straw. Given how valuable the addition of straw can be to the ration of a dieting horse, as it enables us to increase overall intake with minimal calories, the current advice even for ulcer prone horses is that it can be included, typically up to 30% of the total daily ration. Using Dengie products that contain straw at the recommended feeding rate will be well within these guidelines and is an appropriate choice of horse feed for good doers and ulcer prone horses.
Healthy Hooves Molasses Free – for horses in regular work that maintain their weight easily, use Healthy Hooves Molasses Free as a complete feed. When fed at the recommended quantity of 500g or 1 Stubbs scoop per 100kg of bodyweight, no additional vitamin and mineral supplementation is required. Healthy Hooves Molasses Free can also be fed at less than the recommended quantity alongside a supplement or balancer.
Hi-Fi Molasses Free – for good do-ers in light work, simply feed alongside a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement such as Leisure Vits & Mins or balancer such as Leisure Balancer. Use as much or as little as your horse’s condition allows.
Hi-Fi Lite – feed as per Hi-Fi Molasses Free, or alternatively to partially or totally replace the usual forage ration. At 7.5MJ/kg digestible energy and 7% sugar, Hi-Fi Lite is lower calorie and lower sugar than average hay.
For personalised feeding advice call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to complete the Feed Advice Form.
Read any article regarding equine digestive health and you will be advised to feed a low starch horse feed. But what is starch, why do we feed it to horses and why do we need to be careful with high starch horse feed?
Starch is a carbohydrate and storage form of energy for plants. Plants store varying amounts of starch and it is typically found in much higher concentrations in the seeds or grains of cereal plants. Oats, barley, wheat and maize are the cereal grains most commonly used in horse feeds and contain high levels of starch. Grasses and alfalfa would typically supply 2-3% starch, compared to cereal grains like oats that supply in excess of 50% starch. Interestingly, alfalfa stores the sugar it produces as starch but it moves it into its roots which is why the parts that are used in horse feed are so low.
Traditionally starch in horse feed has provided a concentrated source of energy that horses find very palatable. Horses that are working very hard have high energy demands and as forage has a low energy density a lot would have to be consumed to meet the horse’s needs. There are ways around this such as pelleted forms of high-quality fibre such as Alfalfa Pellets and using oil alongside the fibre which are becoming more popular alternatives to cereals.
Starch is broken down in the horse’s small intestine to the simple sugar glucose which is a readily available source of energy for the horse. When produced in excess of the horse’s immediate energy requirements, glucose is stored as glycogen in the horse’s muscles and liver. Having a sufficient store of glycogen is particularly important for the performance horse, like the racehorse, as when they are working at fast speeds their body uses anaerobic metabolism to break down glycogen to glucose to use for energy. Insufficient glycogen stores will limit performance and result in fatigue. Starch from cereal grains tops up the horse’s glycogen stores faster than other energy sources such as fibre, which may be particularly significant for horses that are competing with little rest time between competitions. It is interesting to note that compared to humans, horses are quite slow at replenishing their glycogen stores regardless of the energy source.
Firstly, as the amount of cereal based feeds in the diet increases, typically the amount of fibre offered or consumed decreases. Fibre is vital for the maintenance of digestive health and digestive disturbances, such as gastric ulcers and colic, are more likely to be experienced in horses on a low fibre, high starch diet. Secondly, horses have a limited capacity to digest starch in their small intestine. Starch escaping digestion in the small intestine ends up in the horse’s hindgut where it is rapidly fermented. This results in a more acidic environment and a change in the intestinal microbiota. This change has also been linked to an increased risk of colic, laminitis and even behavioural changes.
When feeding starch to horses we therefore need to be mindful of the amount used and consider whether, for horses in lower levels of work, we actually need to feed cereal based concentrates at all. If too much starch is fed, then the risk of digestive disturbance increases. Current advice is to restrict starch intake to less than 1g of starch per kg of bodyweight per meal and less than 2g of starch per kg bodyweight per day.
Click here to use our Starch Intake Calculator to ensure you are feeding the correct amount of starch to your horse.
How can we strike a balance for hard working horses that have high energy demands between meeting their energy needs whilst looking after their digestive health? As a starting point use more digestible sources of fibre such as early cut haylage, alfalfa and sugar beet, as these can provide significantly more energy than less digestible fibre sources such as late cut hay. Oil is also a useful addition to the ration as it is very energy dense. Dengie Alfa-A Oil combines highly digestible alfalfa with a rapeseed oil coating and supplies as much energy as a competition feed, but without the starch. Only then, if energy demands cannot be met as the horse is working very hard with limited rest between competitions, should a high starch horse feed be considered and care taken not to exceed recommended levels.
For feeding advice on low starch diets for horses contact the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or complete our Feed Advice Form.
Conserved forage, such as hay and haylage , is the cornerstone of the laminitis prone horse’s diet; as they typically spend longer periods stabled, or in a no-grass area. When it comes to food for laminitic horses, people often think about the bucket feed first. However, as it forms such a large part of the diet, it is just as important to ensure that the forage is appropriate.
This isn’t an easy question to answer. The current advice is that the best hay or haylage for laminitics is one with less than 10% non-structural carbohydrate (NSC), which is the sum of water-soluble carbohydrate and starch added together on a dry matter basis. How much NSC a forage contains is impossible to predict and is hugely variably according to the types of grasses, age at harvest, and environmental conditions during growth and at harvest. The key piece of advice when purchasing a forage is therefore to ask for an analysis, or get the forage tested if an analysis isn’t available. If well made, the NSC of haylage can be lower than hay, but this isn’t always the case.
When it comes to hay or haylage for laminitics, another factor to consider is your horse’s weight. Traditionally, haylage was cut earlier than hay, meaning that the grasses were more digestible. For good do-ers prone to weight gain, haylage was less useful for managing their waistlines and so hay was more frequently recommended. Today there are a number of commercial haylages available that are higher in fibre and lower calorie, making them more suitable for the good do-er and those that are laminitis prone; providing they are low NSC. These can be particularly useful when hay quality is poor, or for horses that additionally have respiratory issues.
Some sources have advised against using haylage for laminitis prone individuals, but the scientific evidence to date has been inconclusive. One study found a higher insulin response to haylage compared to dry and soaked hay. High circulating levels of insulin in the blood are of concern as it is thought to link to laminitis. However, the NSC of the haylage used in this study was higher than the hay which would explain these results; rather than simply being an effect of consuming haylage. Another study compared haylage with varying levels of NSC and found that the impact of insulin sensitivity was diminished when NSC was low. Whatever your forage choice, they key message remains: get it tested and select forages with low levels of NSC for laminitis prone individuals.
Another alternative to traditional long stemmed forages is to use a short chop hay replacer, which can be deemed one of the best forage based horse feeds for those with laminitis. This can be useful when the nutritional content of the forage is unknown, forage is in short supply, or when the horse struggles to chew long-stem fibres. Dengie Hi-Fi Lite can be used as a total forage replacement. Combining chopped alfalfa and straw with a light molasses coating, Hi-Fi Lite provides just 7.5MJ/kg digestible energy, 7% sugar and 1.5% starch. Hi-Fi Molasses Free can be used to partially replace the forage ration, up to 1kg per 100kg of your horse’s bodyweight daily, and provides 8.5MJ/kg DE, 2.5% sugar and 1.5% starch.
At Dengie, we pride ourselves on offering some of the best high fibre feeds for horses with laminitis. If you’re looking for information or advice on the best hay or haylage for your laminitic , please contact the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to fill out the feed advice form.
Carslake, H.B. Argo, C.McG. Pinchbeck, G.L. Dugdale, A.H.A. McGowan, C.M. (2018) Insulinaemic and glycaemic responses to three forages in ponies. The Veterinary Journal, 235, pp. 83-89.
Lindåse, S. Müller, C. Nostell, K. Bröjer, J. Evaluation of glucose and insulin response to haylage diets with different content to nonstructural carbohydrate in 2 breeds of horses. Domestic Animal Endocrinology, 64, pp. 49-58.