The dietary and metabolic issues concerning the horse of today are not necessarily the same as those of
yesteryear, as a result of our change of lifestyle, and greater reliance on mechanical means for industry and
transport. Horses are now fed either an improved pasture, which contains genetically selected, digestible plant
species, or they are stall fed, and given a range of fiber and concentrates that are selected by humans. In general,
most horses are under worked and overfed, resulting in a range of horse health issues, which are a major
economic loss to the horse owners and the industry. Put simply....are you killing your horse with kindness?
These metabolic disorders include fizzy or hot behavior, obesity, laminitis, colic, tying up, insulin resistance,
cushings, equine metabolic syndrome, developmental orthopedic disease, to name a few. Some of these disorders
have been linked to the high levels of sugar and starch (non structural carbohydrate, NSC) in the diet.
Feeding horses has become over complicated, with the large number of feeds and supplements being promoted to
the horse owner, often leading to information overload, and fad feeding.
The horse evolved as a herbivore designed to graze predominately prairie pastures, and small shrubs and foliage.
These prairie grasses typically produced grains with small seed heads, which contained low levels of starch. In a
quest to improve animal production, these old prairie grasses have been replaced with genetically selected plant
species that contain high levels of sugars and starch (NSC) both in the leaves, and in the seed heads. Most
modern horse pastures are based on plant species that were developed for intensive production of beef, dairy
cattle and sheep. These plants are known to cause disorders such as laminitis. For further information see
Basically horses need the following:
Both digestible and slowly digestible fiber for energy and gut mobility
Balanced minerals and vitamins
Digestible protein (amino acids)
The quantity of each ingredient is determined by bodyweight, and the physiological condition of the horse (is it
growing, exercising, pregnant or lactating). The key is to keep these ingredients in balance, and not to overfeed
any one component.
Horse feeds vary from hay to provide fiber, through to concentrates, to provide digestible energy, protein, minerals
and oil. Most concentrates contain a grain or grain byproducts, which in turn contain digestible sugars and starch,
ie . The level of NSC in a feed can be determined in a laboratory (eg Dairy One), and helps rank feeds. It should
be stressed that not all horses react the same to high NSC feeds, however the discerning horse owner should be
aware of the potential effect of high NSC feeds, and select lower NSC feeds if you are concerned about dietary
related disorders (bad behavior, laminitis colic, etc).
As a result of recent information from university studies, and observations from practical horse owners, new feeds
have been developed which have a low NSC content, and yet provide energy in a NSC form to support peak
Stay tuned for more informative articles by Dr. Tim Kempton.
Article written by and printed with permission from Dr. Tim Kempton. Dr. Tim Kempton is a native of Australia. He
has a degree in Agriculture and a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry, specializing in developing feeds, feed
supplements and feeding programs for horses and other livestock. Special thanks to Rhonda Davis for organizing
and making available this article and a series of articles for C. Jarvis Insurance Agency to use in future
newsletters. This article is for informational use only. Always consult your veterinarian with all your equine
questions and concerns.