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Feeding horses with laminitis

The basis of feeding horses with laminitis involves formulating a balance diet high in fat and fibre whilst avoiding sugars (i.e. grains and carbohydrate-rich pastures).

Below is a guide to help manage and prevent laminitis through correct feeding.

1. Hay – The base of a laminitis diet

Base the diet on forage feeds that are low in sugars and fructans (collectively called Water Soluble Carbohydrates or WSC). This can be achieved by feeding mature Lucerne hay that is typically lower in fructans and higher in protein than other hays. Avoid hays containing high amounts of fructan such as ryegrass, oaten, wheaten or barley hays.

Hay can also be soaked in double its volume of water for 60 minutes to help reduce the sugar content. Using more water will increase the amount of WSC removal. Remove the water and allow the hay to air dry prior to feeding. 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 grasses to laminitic horses

Pasture fructan levels are lowest in the morning so horses can be allowed to graze until about 1am. Limit pasture access to 90 minutes only in spring and autumn. In one study, it was estimated that ponies consumed 40% of their daily (dry matter) intake during three hours of pasture turnout1. “Starvation” paddocks, strip grazing and grazing muzzles can also be used to limit pasture intake. Shaded pastures have lower sugar levels compared to pastures subject to full sun.

Do not allow laminitic horses to graze on stressed short grass, frosted or drought recovering pastures as these may contain high sugar, starch or fructan levels referred to as NSC (non-structural carbohydrate) levels. 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).

Two types of grasses in particular pose a risk of causing laminitis in horses known as C3 and C4 type plants. C3 or ‘cool season’ grasses grow better under cool, temperate climates (10-25˚C temperature) and form fructans as their storage NSC while C4 or ‘warm/tropical season’ grasses do better in 15-40˚C temperatures and form starch as their storage form of carbohydrate. Any changes to the normal conditions for these grasses can cause a dramatic change in carbohydrate storage levels. For example, horses at higher risk of laminitis during times when temperatures fluctuate out of this range. Numerous studies have also shown that drought-stressed forage is high in NSC2.

Avoid ryegrass, phalaris and phescue dominant lush pastures which are considered high risk pastures, as well as rapidly growing clover in spring.

3. Supplements for laminitic horses

If your pasture or hay quality is poor, a supplement providing a good balance in protein, vitamins and minerals such as FERAMO® with CHROMIUM can be given. Additional protein from soybean, canola meal, cracked lupins or faba beans can also be 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.

Feed up to 2% of your horse’s body weight (10 kg/day for a 500 kg horse) per day as low quality, low sugar forage. If your horse requires supplemental feeding, use a feed containing sugar and starch levels of less than 12%.

Cut out 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, millmix, bran (rice or wheat), pollard
  • Any form of steam flaked, micronized or extruded grain

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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