Nutrition Strategies for the Metabolic Horse

Nutrition Strategies for the Metabolic Horse

Horses, much like people, are all individuals. Some are naturally lean and some are prone to packing on extra pounds due to their genetic make-up.

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Horses, much like people, are all individuals. Some are naturally lean and some are prone to packing on extra pounds due to their genetic make-up. Depending on the horse, it can be a tricky balance to keep them in good body condition. Another factor to consider is if there is an underlying condition that contributes to a horse being overweight. Here we examine the ins and outs of Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and how to best prevent and manage it.

What is Equine Metabolic Syndrome?

EMS is a hormonal disorder in horses, similar to metabolic syndrome in humans, that is characterized by obesity, insulin resistance, and abnormal fat deposits, which can predispose affected horses to chronic laminitis.

What types of horses are affected?

First and foremost, most horses do not suffer from EMS. The majority of horses tolerate dietary carbohydrates such as starch, sugar and fructan, quite well, and thrive on this important and readily available source of energy. Performance horses in particular need sufficient non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) in their diets for work and recovery after exercise. Too little starch and sugar in the diet can diminish athletic performance over time in non-EMS horses.

EMS can occur in any breed and it should also be noted that not all obese (fat) horses are insulin resistant, and not all insulin resistant horses are fat.

How do I know if my horse is insulin resistant (IR)?

You can start by doing a quick assessment of your horse and determining their body condition score. Here are some other classic signs of insulin resistance in horses and ponies:

  • Horses with regional deposits of lumpy or dimpled fat pads behind the shoulder, around tailhead, and/or over the loin are suspect of being IR.

  • A classic sign of IR is a “cresty neck”, of which a clear correlation between neck circumference and IR has been documented.

  • Horses that seem to gain weight rapidly, or blow up easily, particularly in spring with new pasture growth, relative to other horses may indicate IR.

  • Horses that are tender footed, and/or that demonstrate rings on the hoof wall, expanded white line and blood spots on the soles of their feet, suggests mild, chronic bouts of laminitis and IR.

EMS is sometimes confused with other clinical disease such as Cushing’s Disease and hypothyroidism due to similar clinical signs, despite different underlying causes. It is very important to work with a trusted vet to ensure an accurate diagnosis if any of these conditions are suspected.

Traditional Grain or Ration Balancer?

When it comes to feeding a horse with EMS, it’s vital to pay close attention to their starch and sugar intake.