A Guide to Sugar in the Horse’s Diet


A lot of myths and misinformation circulate about sugar which leads to confusion about what sugar is, where it comes from and which feeds are suitable for different types of horse and pony. Common questions include “can horses eat sugar?” through to “is sugar bad for horses?” The first key fact to be aware of is that grass and grass-based forages are the greatest source of sugar in most horse’s rations. The table below highlights the levels of water soluble carbohydrate (WSC) provided in a ration that is typical for a good doer. WSC includes simple and storage forms of sugar. It is important to note this is not a balanced diet as too little of the Pony Cubes is being fed to supply the correct levels of vitamins and minerals but it is, nonetheless, a common approach. By far the biggest source of WSC is the hay. Even if a lower WSC hay is used it is still going to be the greatest source of sugar in the ration.

level of sugar in ration

Sugar Levels in Forage

The level of sugar in grass will vary according to a number of variables such as time of day, season, climate and the variety of grasses present in the sward. The level of sugar is usually highest in the afternoon of bright sunny days when the plants have been photosynthesising for longest. This is why it is recommended to turn those at risk of laminitis out overnight and bring in by mid-morning at the latest.

How much sugar is safe for your horse depends on your horse’s condition and physiological status. It is recommended that horses that are overweight, suffering with insulin dysregulation, prone to laminitis or with PPID should be fed less than 12% non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) in the total diet. NSC is the total amount of simple sugar, storage sugar and starch. This would effectively mean very little, if any, pasture can be consumed and a mature, highly fibrous forage should be used. Finding a low sugar hay for horses can be very difficult and although some types of grass such as Timothy, tend to be lower in sugar, it isn’t always the case. Click here for more information on choosing the right forage for horses prone to laminitis.

Sugar free horse feeds – do they exist?

Most fibrous materials, including straw, contain some sugar and so sugar free feeds don’t exist. No added sugar is a more accurate term and in the context of chopped fibre feeds it means the fibre either has no coating added at all or an oil coating has been used which doesn’t contribute any sugar. The base ingredients will naturally contain some sugar. Some supplements may be sugar free if they don’t contain any plant material but these are very much supplements and not feeds.

Sugar analysis and declarations

Analysing forage is recommended when seeking low sugar feeds for horses, but the results are only as good as the sampling methods used. Taking samples from a selection of bales is the best way to get a better impression of the sugar levels in a forage, but it isn’t always possible to do so. In these situations the analysis is giving an indication or a guide and it is worth taking samples on a number of occasions if it is only possible to sample one bale at a time.

Horse feeds that are based on cereals are most likely to declare a simple sugar level as they don’t typically contain a high proportion of grass and so analysing for WSC is less relevant. The sugar analysis will pick up simple sugars from ingredients like molasses. When it comes to chopped fibres and other high fibre feeds then WSC is a useful value to have especially if the feed contains dried grass. If a company gives a sugar value on a grass based fibre feed it is worth contacting them to be sure if they have also analysed WSC as this will present a very different picture to a simple sugar value.

Inevitably there will be some variation in levels for every product no matter who produces it. A difference of 1 or 2% in declared levels between products makes very little difference as the actual level in the bag could easily vary that much between batches. Seeking feeds that are well below the 10-12% NSC recommended for horses and ponies prone to laminitis is therefore key. For more information please click here.

What about molasses – is it safe for horses?

Molasses is a dark brown syrup produced as a by-product from the sugar industry and can come from either sugar cane or sugar beet. The first point to note is that molasses is from plant origin and so is a natural feed ingredient. It is also worth noting that it is a co-product from another industry which means a valuable resource is being fully utilised rather than going to waste. With sustainability of food and fuel production of ever-increasing importance, this is an important factor to consider.

What is molasses used for?

Molasses is primarily used to naturally sweeten feeds to enhance their palatability; the sweetness comes from its sugar content. A recent study analysed 32 samples of molasses from around the world and found that sucrose was the greatest form of sugar in both cane and beet molasses. Sucrose is a disaccharide (2 sugar) made up of glucose and fructose. The table below shows the range of sugar levels from the different molasses analysed in the study. Although the sucrose level in beet molasses is higher, it contains very little of the glucose and fructose in their single sugar form (monosaccharides) whereas cane molasses contains less sucrose than beet molasses but more of the sugars in their single form. When all the sugar levels are added together, the totals are very similar between the two types of molasses.

Source of MolassesAverage Sucrose %Average Glucose %Average Fructose %
Cane48.88.15.3
Beet60.90.30.3

How does sugar in molasses compare to sugar in grass forages?

Data from a study in Sweden showed that in grass pasture allowed to mature to make hay, the sucrose content was 3.3% of dry matter (DM), glucose was 3.6% DM and fructose 2.6% DM. The total water soluble carbohydrate (WSC) content was 10% which is relatively low compared to many grass based forages produced in the UK. So, what we should take from this information is that the same forms of sugar are found in molasses and grass so we shouldn’t view the sugar in molasses as unnatural.

What matters about sugar in molasses?

What matters is how much is fed in total and how much is consumed at one time which can also be viewed as the rate of intake. The levels of sugar provided by the hay made from the grass in the study in Sweden are shown in the table below. The total intake from 7.5kgs dry matter, the minimum amount recommended for a 500kgs horse, would supply around 650grams of sugar.

SugarLevel in Hay %Grams provided if feeding 7.5kgs Dry Matter
Glucose4300
Sucrose1.4105
Fructose3.2240

To put this into context, to supply the same total amount of sugar from molasses it would be necessary to feed just over 1kg of pure molasses. Clearly this is never likely to be done intentionally! In reality, molasses is added at very low levels to feeds which are then fed in much smaller quantities than grass-based forages and so the actual amount of sugar supplied from molasses is very low. A scoop of Alfa-A Original which weighs about 400grams would provide about 40grams of sugar.

Of course, for horses and ponies that require as low levels of sugar as possible in their diet, then our range of molasses free feeds are the low sugar, high fibre horse feed that these horses need but a reduction in grass based forage intake is often also required. For horses and ponies that are in work and of a healthy weight with no underlying health issues, molasses is an acceptable ingredient when included in moderation.