Carbohydrates in Horse Diets

There is a lot of discussion these days about carbohydrates, the good and the bad.  In reality, they are all related.  Carbohydrates contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in varied chemical relationships. 

  • Sugars are the simplest of the carbohydrates and can be simple sugars such as glucose or more complex sugars. 
  • Starches are strings of sugars linked together in such a way that most starches can be broken down into glucose by the action of enzymes, primarily amylase. 
  • Fibers (lignin, cellulose, hemicelluloses etc.) are also chains of sugars that cannot be broken down easily by enzymes and must be fermented by the animal to release the energy. 

Starches and sugars are produced by plants as a means to store energy, so they contain energy that is more readily available than the energy in fiber.

Because horses produce less amylase, the enzyme used to break down starch, than some other animals, say perhaps pigs, they are more limited in their ability to digest large quantities of starch. However, they digest smaller quantities very efficiently and very effectively! 

Starches and sugars are a fairly concentrated source of Calories to be used as a source of energy when extra energy is required to maintain body condition and do more work.  In the wild, horses would consume seed heads (grain) when available in the fall to help them gain weight (added Calories) to be ready for winter, so starches and sugars are a part of the diet in horses in the wild.  Today’s working horse requires Calories, and a combination of fiber, starch, sugar and fat can be the best way to support the horse to maintain the balance of optimal health and optimal performance.

Conditioning Your Horse: 5 Types of Fitness

Spring is officially here and you’ve probably got a season full of shows, races, trail rides, and more planned for you and your horse. But before you put your horse back to work, take a minute to think about the importance of conditioning. Conditioning is a huge part of your horse’s health and well being. Taking time to prepare for an event by gradually increasing speed and distance over several weeks is essential to keeping your horse healthy and safe.

Conditioning directly relates to five types of fitness in the horse:

  1. Cardiovascular fitness refers to how well the blood can circulate through the muscles. As the horse gains more cardiovascular fitness, his heart does not have to beat as hard to transport oxygen.
    1. Normal Resting Heart Rate:
      1. 36 BPM or less (the more fit the horse, the lower the Resting Heart Rate)
      2. Moderate Work: 75-105 BPM
      3. Heavy Work: 200 BPM or higher
      4. The heart rate of a working horse should recover to 60 BPM or lower after 10-15 minutes of rest; if the horse is in poor condition it may take 30-45 minutes for recovery
  2. Respiratory fitness is how oxygen is introduced into the blood. The more fit the horse, the less acidic the blood will be (from CO2 and lactic acid), making respiration easier since the horse doesn’t have to breathe as hard to get rid of excess CO2 and take in more oxygen.
  3. Thermoregulation is simply the horses need to cool itself, which happens through breathing heavily and sweating. Fat horses and horses that are extremely muscular are not able to cool themselves as well as leaner, less muscled animals. Too much heat production can lead to serious problems, such as lethargy and becoming uncoordinated.
  4. Muscular fatigue is also a serious indication of poor condition. Muscles that are worked hard create lactic acid and metabolic wastes. If too much lactic acid builds up in a certain area, soreness will result. Conditioning will help your horses’ muscles burn fuel more efficiently and with less waste; another important way to reduce muscle soreness is to be sure to allow adequate cool down time (at least 30 minutes walking after a hard workout).
  5. Skeletal fatigue can occur in your horse’s bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. Horses with skeletal fatigue are more likely to suffer sprains and strains. As you ride, your horse’s bones are constantly compensating for your weight as well as the type of work being done. For this reason improper preparation in a certain event may lead to skeletal fatigue. For example, a western pleasure horse taken on an endurance ride without the right preparation may lead to problems with the bones, ligaments, joints and /or tendons.

A conditioning program should be based on what you want to achieve with your horse. A dressage horse will have a different conditioning program than a barrel racing horse, so keep your long term goal in mind. The most common method of conditioning includes alternating between slow speed and fast speed conditioning, continually increasing the amount of work done as the horse becomes more fit until optimum condition is reached.

Supplementing Horse Diets with Omega Fatty Acids

As you look at your horses’ diet, it is important to remember that horses need a balance of both omega-3 and -6 fatty acids for optimal health and performance.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they simply have different roles in the body and must be in balance with each other for optimal health. 

As herbivores and nomadic grazers, horses are naturally adapted to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) compared to omega-6 fatty acids (LA).  The little bit of fat found in forages, particularly fresh pasture, is naturally high in ALA (omega-3) whereas oils from grains and seeds tend to be higher in LA (omega-6).  

Diets that include supplemental fat along with grain concentrates may have a skewed ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, and may not be as beneficial as a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.  Dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to provide numerous benefits to horses, pets, and humans including:

  • Improved skin and hair coat quality
  • Decreased joint pain in arthritic individuals
  • Improved bone formation
  • Reproductive benefits
  • Prevention of gastric ulcers
  • Anti-inflammatory effects:
    • Alleviate allergic hyperactivity
    • Support horses in heavy work
    • Reduce exercise-induced bronchiole constriction

Unfortunately, scientists have not yet pinpointed the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids for horses, however, fortifying a diet with these fatty acids to achieve a ratio of 2 – 5:1 omega-3 (ALA, EPA & DHA)  to omega-6 (LA) may provide some key benefits to your horse.  

As always, when adding dietary supplements to the diet, make sure the total diet stays balanced and that changes are made gradually so the horse’s digestive track has time to adjust.  Benefits from providing omega fatty acids in the diet are not realized immediately, but take 30 – 90 days of supplementation before benefits are detectable, so be patient and make sure your expectations are realistic.

Omega-6 fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids
Corn oil (LA) Flaxseed (linseed) oil (ALA)
Safflower oil (LA) Fish oil (EPA, DHA)
Rice bran oil (LA) Soybean oil (ALA)
Sunflower oil (LA) Canola oil (ALA)
Borage (starflower) oil (LA) Mustard oil (ALA)
Cottonseed oil (LA)  
Grapeseed oil (LA)  
Peanut oil (LA)  
Primrose oil (LA)  
Sesame oil (LA)  
Soybean oil (LA)  

Omega Fatty Acids: What do they do for horses?

Adding supplementary fat in your horses’ diet is a great way to provide concentrated calories as well as some other functional benefits to your horse; but what sources of fat are best? 

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are a hot topic in human, pet, and equine nutrition alike, and for good reasons.  With such a wide array of information and products out there, it can be confusing and difficult to make decisions, so let’s break down what the omega fatty acids are, and how they can play a role in a healthy balanced diet for our equine counterparts. 

What are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)?

All fats are made up of chemically linked chains of fatty acids.  Polyunsaturated fatty acids are a category of unsaturated fats which include:

  • ALA – alpha linolenic acid (Omega-3)
    • Alpha linolenic acid (Omega-3) can be further converted by the body into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), although some species are more efficient at this than others
    • EPA/DHA can be found themselves in fish/marine co-products like fish oil and fish meal. 
  • LA – linoleic acid (Omega-6)

Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are considered essential, meaning that the body can’t make them itself, so they must be obtained in sufficient amounts from the diet. 

What do omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids do?

Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids play important roles in:

  • Immune system regulation
  • Cell membrane stability
  • Development and maintenance of the central nervous system
  • Oxygen transfer

Specifically, omega-6 fatty acids are used by the body to make pro-inflammatory mediators for the immune system, while omega-3 fatty acids are converted to less inflammatory products. 

Because omega-3 fatty acids compete against omega-6 fatty acids to produce these mediators, higher levels of omega-3 can offset pro-inflammatory responses, and are generally considered to have anti-inflammatory properties. 

It is important to remember that inflammation is an important process the body uses to fight infection and mediate tissue repair, therefore a balance between pro-and anti-inflammatory mediators is the goal.  Omega-6 fatty acids do not cause inflammation, rather they provide the substrate needed to mount an inflammatory response if and when it is needed making them a very important part of the diet, along with the omega-3 fatty acids.

Poisonous to Horses: Plants

As a horse owner, I have come to realize that horses have an uncanny ability to get themselves into trouble.  Whether it be messing with the fence, making play-things of their stall or breaking into the feed room to grab an extra snack, if we don’t want them to get into it, horses seem to find a way to get into it!  If lucky, the vet doesn’t need to be called, but there is usually some upgrading of hardware, the perpetual fixing of the fence or continuously beefing up security around the feed room.  But what about the things that we as humans haven’t built?  What naturally occurring perils of danger will my horse find and get himself in to? 

Pasture grazing is ideal for horses

Cooper as a yearling, grazes in the pasture

As Winter fades and Spring makes a welcome entrance, thoughts turn from feeding hay to blissfully sunny pasture turnout.  Now is a great time to educate yourself about plants that can harm your horse.

March is poison prevention month and as horse owners, knowing what plants are poisonous to your horse can go a long way in preventing trouble.  To help get you started, here is a good resource of information about poisonous plants that grow in the Midwest, from the University of Minnesota Equine Extension Office.

If you find plants of poisonous varieties where your horse can access them, please work with your local extension office on methods of controlling exposure.  Also remember to check your garden and landscaping as many plants listed are popular decorations.

It is also important to note that plant variety growth varies by geographic region so be sure to check with your local extension office for information specific to the area in which you live.

So while you may not be able to keep them from breaking the fence, breaking into the feed room (despite the keypad lock on the door) or dismantling the components of their stall, you can be aware of and have a plan to manage the poisonous plants that dare grow near your horse.

High-Fat Horse Diets: Performance Horses

A high-performing horse can have up to twice the calorie requirement as the same horse in a maintenance stage. Owners and trainers of performance horses often give more feed to meet that calorie need. Because horses can use fat as a calorie source efficiently, and fat contains more than double the calories of starch, high-fat horse feeds make perfect sense to increase the energy intake without greatly increasing the quantity of feed needed. 

Feeding higher-fat, controlled starch level feeds can play a role in lowering the chance of colic and laminitis by reducing the amount of starch (carbohydrates) in the ration.  Here’s why: 

  • Horses with a very high grain ration are often at risk because high levels of grain feeding can cause a starch overload in the small intestine and cecum.
  • Overloading the small intestine with starch allows that extra starch to pass in to the cecum and large colon, which is where forage is digested.
  • Fiber digestion is accomplished by the bacterial and protozoal populations residing in these organs. When starch enters the cecum the pH drops and this bacterial population dies.
  • This can result in a cascade of events that may include colic, laminitis and death.

Keep in mind that starch is still a crucial part of a horse’s diet, and is required for proper muscle function.  As horse owners, it is best to work towards an optimal balance of all nutrients in the diet, not the use of one to replace another.   A proper balance of controlled starch levels, along with increased fat levels in the horse feed, will help deliver a horse that is ready to go and has the fuel in the tank to keep on going.