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Health Care

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Feeding Horses with Laminitis

Understanding how to feed a horse or pony to prevent laminitis or what to feed a pony who is suffering from a bout of laminitis is incredibly important.

In this article, we’ll discuss the key points to consider, however, we must stress, it’s important to seek veterinary advice for your horse’s individual circumstances.

The key to feeding horses or ponies with laminitis involves formulating a diet that:

  1. Reduces intake of sugar, starch and fructans
  2. Encourages weight loss (if required)
  3. Contains appropriate supplements that support hindgut health

Essentially, we must minimise their intake of non-structural carbohydrates. We can do this by:

  • Not feeding grains,
  • Reducing access to grass especially during times of the year when grass is stressed or has high nsc content
  • Provide access to grass at a time of the day when non-structural carbohydrates (NSC)content is low
  • Leaching sugars from hay
  • Feeding Founderguard to prevent hindgut microbial production of lactic acid.

Feeding The Laminitic Pony

A horse or pony experiencing an acute laminitic episode needs to be removed from pasture immediately.

No one needs reminding that the quality of grass production in our pastures has drastically improved over the years.

While this is a success story for the dairy, sheep and beef industries, it has meant that many pastures and hay are completely unsuitable for horses and ponies susceptible to insulin resistance due to equine metabolic syndrome.

These pastures can be incredibly high in sugar, starch and fructans (non-structural carbohydrates or NSC), requiring extra special care when feeding.

1. Hay – The Core Feed For A Laminitis Diet

The basis of any diet for a horse or pony prone to laminitis or suffering acute laminitis is hay.

The best choice of forage is one that is low in sugar, starch, and fructans (non-structural carbohydrates or NSC). Ideally, all forage that you intend to feed should be tested for NSC level and be below 10%.

Safer-type forages include Timothy, Teff, and Rhodes grass hays. Avoid hays containing high amounts of fructan such as ryegrass, oaten, wheaten, or barley hays.

If you are unsure of the NSC level of the hay or chaff, you will need to soak it in water to leach the sugars out. It’s important to soak hay in double its volume of water for a minimum of two hours (if using hot water) or 10 hours (with cold water). The greater the volume of water you use for soaking, the more NSC will be leached out of the hay.

It’s not essential to air-dry hay prior to feeding, most horses are quite accepting of wet hay.

As starch is not soluble in water, forage that contains high starch levels is not affected by soaking.

Silage produced especially for horses or lucerne haylage can also be fed as these are also low in sugars.

Hay should be offered prior to turning the horse out in order to fill its stomach and limit the amount of pasture ingested while grazing.

2. Pasture – Tips for feeding grass to laminitic horses

The process of photosynthesis is what produces the sugars and fructans within the plant that pose a danger to our horses when consumed. When days are sunny photosynthesis is increased and more sugar is produced within the plant.

It’s interesting to note, that grass grown under the ‘protection’ of foliage was lower in NSC due to less light (Burner and Belesky, 2004). At night the plant doesn’t photosynthesize and instead consumes the sugars for its own growth via respiration, lowering the sugar content. However, during times of stress, this may not occur and sugar content may remain high.

Therefore, in general, pasture fructan levels are lowest in the morning. The ideal time for grazing laminitic-susceptible horses is early morning before dawn to around mid-morning 9-10 am.

When new pasture growth is occurring, it’s wise to acclimatize your pony to this change in grass composition so that gut dysbiosis does not occur.

In one study, it was estimated that ponies consumed 40% of their daily (dry matter) intake during three hours of pasture turnout1. To encourage them not to gorge themselves, it is worthwhile giving them a feed of low NSC hay prior to grazing.

“Starvation” paddocks, strip grazing, and grazing muzzles are recommended to limit pasture intake.

At high-risk times it is recommended to initially limit pasture access to 15 minutes per day increasing by 15 minutes every 5 days to a maximum of 90 minutes.

Types of Grass

The two types of grasses frequently found in Australian and NZ pastures are known as C3 and C4 type plants.

C3 or ‘cool season' grasses grow better under cool, temperate climates (5-32℃ temperature) and form fructans as their storage NSC.

C4 or ‘warm/tropical season’ grasses do better in 15-40℃ temperatures and form starch as their storage form of carbohydrate.

It may sound bizarre, however, grass can become stressed and when this happens, the amount of NSC increases. The type of stress that affects a grass will depend on the type of grass.

Some grasses (C3) will find a sudden drop in temperature (frost) as stressful, while other grasses won’t be affected by frost at all. Conversely, numerous studies have also shown that drought-stressed forage is high in NSC2.

If you own laminitis-prone horses, it is worthwhile consulting an agronomist to determine what type of grass your property grows so that you can learn more about what conditions cause stress and when levels of starch/fructan are likely to be high.

Rules For Grazing At-Risk Ponies

As a rule of thumb, do not allow laminitic horses to graze on stressed short grass, frosted, or drought recovering pastures.

Avoid grazing in full sun during the day and as much as possible during spring and autumn, especially after a dry summer (i.e. times of high pasture growth).

Avoid ryegrass, phalaris, and fescue dominant pastures which are considered high risk, as well as rapidly growing clover during spring.

3. Supplements for laminitic horses

A hay-only diet will often lack crucial nutrients, it’s important to add a balancer supplement (with an NSC<10%) to ensure your laminitic horse is consuming a balanced diet.

FERAMO® with CHROMIUM is an excellent option at XXXNSC and contains 9 essential vitamins, 8 essential minerals, 4 amino acids.

Additional protein from copra meal, soybean hulls, cracked lupins, or lucerne meal can also be carefully added to the horse’s diet.

For performance and show horses, beet pulp with added oil is also a relatively safe source of energy and if fed carefully, can help achieve show condition without the need to feed cereals or grains.

The vast majority of laminitic ponies are overweight. To encourage weight loss, feed up to 1.5% of your horse’s body weight per day (5.25 kg/day for a 350 kg horse) as low quality, low sugar forage.

Always weigh the hay and supplements that you provide. If your horse requires supplemental feeding, use a feed containing sugar and starch levels of less than 12%.

Cut out all treats such as apples, carrots, bread, weeds of any kind and do not add molasses or honey to feed.

Always avoid giving cereal grain-based feeds to laminitic horses. These include:

  • Oats, corn, wheat, rice, or barley
  • Millrun, mill mix, bran (rice or wheat), pollard
  • Any form of steam flaked, micronized, or extruded grain

Use Founderguard To Lower The Risk Of Laminitis

Studies have shown that the greatest risk of laminitis occurs when horses and ponies consume high NSC diets.

Founderguard reduces that risk of laminitis by manipulating the microbial population in the hindgut to reduce lactate production and subsequent drop in pH.

Horses and ponies that are particularly sensitive to increases in NSC content of pasture will benefit from the addition of Founderguard.

References

  1. Gear, R.J. and Harris, P. (2009) Dietary management of obesity and insulin resistance: countering risk for laminitis. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 25, 51-65.
  2. K.A Watts and C.C. Pollitt (2010) Equine Laminitis, Managing Pasture to reduce the risk. Rirdc Pub. No. 10/063

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