Cavalor Equine Nutritionist, Fien Demeyere discusses the issues around sugar in the horse’s diet.
Laminitis is often associated with obesity or metabolic problems in horses and ponies. However, it can also be caused by excess sugars and starches, often in connection with too much protein.
All horses need sugar for general good health and performance. Sugar delivers energy that the muscles need to work properly. No sugar, no performance. For healthy horses, normal quantities of sugar present no problem. However, too much sugar is not good for anyone. Balance is the key.
Sugar is found in every feed ration, even one that consists entirely of roughage, because sugar is present in grass. Therefore, every type of roughage and concentrate feed will contain some sugar. Sugars are short-chained carbohydrates, as are starches. Carbohydrates are a horse’s major natural source of energy.
So what’s the deal with sugar and horse feed?
A horse’s body converts sugar (carbohydrates) into energy in several ways. We know, that horses need sugar to have enough energy for physical activity.
Sugar in and of itself is not dangerous for horses. The presence of carbohydrates in your horse’s feed is therefore logical and natural, but too much sugar can lead to health problems. An important rule of thumb: don’t give your horse more energy than it needs.
What are sugar sources for my horse?
A major source of sugar for horses is from cereals in concentrate feeds. These are full of starches which are converted into glucose. Another sugar source in concentrate feed is molasses, which can be a source of glucose depending on how much is added (5-10%). Don’t forget that roughage also contains sugar.
The largest part of your horse’s feed ration is made up of roughage. Roughage’s sugar content is something often overlooked in the attempt to design low-sugar rations. Horses actually get their basic sugar requirement from roughage.
Many horses don’t need any additional sugar for normal work. However, if your aim is achieving optimum athletic performance from your horse, you may need to supplement his roughage with concentrates. And concentrates are an essential part of a high-performance sport horse’s diet.
Feed your horse no more than 2g of sugar and starch per kilogramme of body weight and per ration – don’t give your horse more energy than it needs.
How much sugar should my horse consume?
Most sport horses can eat a certain amount of sugar and starch – in fact, they need this energy source. Studies show that 1-2 grams per kg of body weight and per feed ration can be easily digested in the small intestine. This means that a healthy 600kg horse should be given a maximum of 1.2kg sugar and starch per concentrate feed ration.
It is also worth noting that a horse can take in a relatively large amount of nutrients without this leading to problems. However, digestion takes time, so give your horse’s small intestine the time it needs to absorb all nutrients, including sugar and starch. You can ensure this by feeding your horse several small meals daily.
Fructan, the energy source of the grass plant
Grass naturally contains fructan. At certain times, mainly in spring and autumn, but also at certain times of day, the fructan content of grass is quite high. Grass obtains energy for growth from non-structural carbohydrates. Depending on the type of grass, these non-structural carbohydrates are stored in the grass plant as starch and fructan. The grass plant uses fructan as its energy source for growth. The plant stores fructan during the day and grows at night. When the nights remain relatively warm (+4-5 °C), the plant grows. However, if the temperatures are lower than 4-5 °C, it is too cold for the plant to grow and it saves the fructan it has stored so that it can grow when the weather becomes warmer.
Good pasture management avoids high sugar content
Fructan usually accumulates in the lower part of the grass plant, just above the ground. Grass that is rather short (for example due to overgrazing) is therefore not ideal. When mowing the grass, care should be taken to ensure that it is not cut too short. Mowing stimulates grass growth. This means that the fructan is not stored, but is used for growth.
Fructan, the villain
In principle, normal quantities of fructan are not a risk for healthy horses. However, fructan can cause horses that are sensitive to sugar to suffer considerably. It is only partially absorbed in the small intestine. The rest passes into the large intestine, where it is fermented by bacteria. One of the by-products of this fermentation is lactic acid. Large amounts of lactic acid reduce the pH of the large intestine. This causes all kinds of problems, mainly harmful to the good bacteria, and these in turn can cause laminitis. However, colic and diarrhoea are also potential problems.
Does your horse have sensitive hooves?
Does your horse already suffer from sensitive hooves? Make sure your veterinary surgeon knows! And make adjustments to your feed and exercise plan. Feed your horse only low-energy and long-stalked roughage. First discontinue all concentrate feed and pasture grazing. Make sure your horse has a soft surface on which to stand. If not too severe, motivate him to move about. This will stimulate blood circulation and speed up the healing process.
Sensitive hooves may be caused by a metabolic imbalance. You can support your horse’s metabolism with Cavalor LaminAid. This feed supplement supports equine metabolism and digestion. It was specially developed to bring the body back into balance quickly. You can treat your horse’s hooves externally with Cavalor PodoSens. This soothing hoof oil provides relief and reduces pressure.
For further information contact Cavalor Direct FREE on (0800) 133 7483 or visit www.cavalordirect.co.uk