In Defense of Starch

Like a celebrity on a downward spiral, starch has been getting a lot of press in the last few years…and most of it negative.  Unlike celebrities, starch doesn’t gain anything from the media exposure.  Although it may be unpopular, I’d like to take a moment to say a few words in defense of starch; a (recently) under appreciated, yet useful nutrient in horse diets.

But first, let’s start with what it is.  Starch is a complex chain of sugar molecules, which is the main source of energy for plants.  It is stored within the cell walls of the plant and therefore, considered a nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC).  Starch in horse feeds are most commonly sourced through grains such as oats, barley, corn, rice or wheat and the co-products of these grains such as corn distillers grains, rice bran or wheat midds. 

Glycemic response of oats and controlled starch diets, in horses

When ingested, starch molecules are broken down into smaller sugar molecules (glucose) that are readily absorbed. With the help of insulin, the glucose in the bloodstream is ‘picked up’ by muscles and other tissues to either be used to support activity or stored (as glycogen) for future energy needs.  Hard working and active horses need glucose and glycogen to support their activity levels and recovery from activity.   It’s also worth pointing out that NSC’s are a very efficient pathway to providing energy to the horse and to aid in muscle recovery (glycogen repletion), particularly in horses performing athletic activities.

Most horse owners know that too much starch at one time can overwhelm the horse’s digestive system.  That excess, undigested starch could leak into the hind gut where it can rapidly ferment, leading to an overproduction of gas and lactic acid, which in turn, could cause gas colic and/or acidosis which could then lead to laminitis or other issues.

You’re probably wondering, if it’s needed by horses for energy, but also potentially dangerous then how does the horse get what he needs without wreaking havoc?  The answer lies in the QUANTITY of starch consumed in each meal.

The majority* horses can tolerate a moderate level of starch each day.   This is not to say, all at one time.  There is a big difference!  Consider the digestive system of a horse to be like a waterway – it can tolerate a certain quantity of water running through it (or in this example starch) but if there is too much at one time, the water overflows and goes where it is not supposed to go.  Same with starch in the digestive system – the body can handle a moderate quantity of starch released at a controlled rate, but too much at one time (or from too big of a meal) and the whole system gets out of whack. 

I offer up one last nugget to consider: oats – the long-time staple of ‘safe’ feedstuffs for horses, actually contains approximately 40% starch. Now there’s something to think about…

So, in defense of starch, I’d just like plead the following.  When consumed in moderate amounts/meals,  frequently over time, starch is a useful and practical source of energy for most horses. 

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to evaluate starch levels in feeds.  Stay tuned for more….

*Horses diagnosed with a form of Equine Metabolic Disease (EMS) require a diet that is closely managed to control and limit the amount of NSC (including fructan from forage) in their diet. 

What Makes it ‘Premium’ Nutrition?

Aside from price, how do you know if a feed that is advertised as premium nutrition, really is? Here are some tips to help you decode the premium puzzle.

First, a word about forage….Forage, being hay and/or pasture, should make up the majority of your horse’s diet.  Therefore, the amount of effort and investment you make in your feeding program should be heavily weighted toward offering your horse the best quality forage you have access to.  Your feed selection should complement your forage. Feed or supplemental fortification should fill gaps in forage nutrition, but the most important aspect is the quality of forage, as that makes up the majority of your horse’s source of energy.  Always consider your horse’s forage first and foremost.

What is on a tag?  Onto the feed concentrate; the most important aspect of your feed choice is the nutrients the feed will provide for your horse.  When you buy premium nutrition, you expect to get premium results…but, what you pay for may or may not be what you get.  So how can you tell?

First, check the tag for guaranteed analysis of nutrients.  A premium feed will be formulated to deliver your horse the optimal nutrition for their age and activity level.  Each horse varies to some degree in their metabolism and requirements, but in most cases, optimal nutrition will be formulated to provide the most digestible nutrients in levels that ensure your horse makes the most of every meal. 

With regard to nutrient levels, is more actually better? Not always.  Sometimes more is just more.  Take into consideration minerals.  Mineral fortification of a diet is only as good as the amount that is absorbed, so having more copper, zinc or manganese listed on the tag doesn’t mean that your horse is making use of it all.  Look for key words that indicate digestibility; for minerals, ‘organic’ means the mineral is tied to an amino acid and is readily absorbed.  For proteins, look for guaranteed levels of ‘lysine’, ‘methionine’ and ‘threonine’.  These are the protein components that matter most to your horse.  Sometimes more is just…well more.

In the scoop…Another way to compare feeds is to determine y how much you have to feed to give your horse the optimal level of nutrients guaranteed on the tag.  Most feed companies formulate their rations to provide an amount of digestible energy (DE) which determines the rate (or amount) which they recommend you feed.  All other nutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals, are concentrated based on that feeding rate.

For example, you have two different feeds you are considering for your horse who is at a ‘maintenance’ level energy requirement (meaning to keep his body condition score at or about a 6).  Feed A recommends you give him 2.5 pounds per day, while feed B recommends you feed a minimum of 4 pounds per day.  Keep in mind that  if you feed less than the recommended 4 pounds of feed B, not only will your horse not get the DE for his activity level, he will also not get the optimal amount of vitamins, minerals and amino acids (if they are guaranteed). Keep in mind percentages on the tag are only as good as the rate at which they are fed.

Functional Ingredients…..There are ingredients that provide the diet with big nutrients such as fat, fiber and protein.  There are ingredients that provide micro nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins.  And then there is a whole other class of ingredients are called ‘functional’ ingredients.  These items are intended to enhance the efficiency or digestibility of the feed, meaning your horse gets more out of every bite.  Consider prebiotics and probiotics for example.   Through research, both of these functional ingredients have shown to enhance the digestibility of many nutrients and improve overall gut health.  The addition of prebiotics and probiotics to a diet is intendedto aid your horse in getting that optimal nutrition for a premium result!

Valid Research… One last thing to take into consideration; a feed brand or company that has a research program is far more likely to understand the digestibility of ingredients and the nutrient requirements of the horse, versus a company that does not conduct research.  Many aspects of optimal nutrition, such as understanding digestibility, aren’t found on a tag, but are proprietary to the researching company.  Before you consider a feed that is advertised ‘just as good as, only cheaper’, consider what makes the real deal.  In most cases, a company that copy-cats a popular product doesn’t get you to the same level of quality, premium nutrition as the original.

So, is it really a premium feed?   Check the tag to find out.  Armed with this information, you can answer this question for yourself!

Feeding Tips for Stall Rest

Regardless of the diagnosis, when stall rest is on the treatment list, adjusting your feeding program to match your horse’s lack of activity can improve the experience for both you and your horse.

Horse on stall rest

As a curious 2 year old, Toby injured himself and landed in stall rest-land.

Whether recovering from an injury, surgery, or other, stall rest is generally prescribed to limit the movement of your horse to aid in the body’s natural healing process.  Often times, when a horse’s activity level moves from work or competition to that of quiet stall rest, it takes a period of adjustment for him to settle into the new routine.

Altering his feeding program to match this now sedentary lifestyle will help him make the transition.  Please note: all feed and forage changes should be made gradually through a period of 5-7 days so as not to disrupt the digestive system.

For the horse sentenced to a period of stall rest, the name of the game is energy management.  If he is an athlete who is used to getting high calorie feed and plenty of exercise, transition him to a lower calorie feed or ration balancer, with a high quality grass forage.  Reducing the energy he receives from his feed will help manage his weight and behavior.

Selecting a feed that is balanced for amino acids will offer the body aid in the development and repair of tissues, especially muscle and connective tissue. Fortified, balanced levels of vitamins and minerals will aid in immune response as well as minimize bone density loss.  Feed that is fortified with prebiotics, such as yeast culture, and probiotics can aid in the balance of the gut bacteria, overall absorbtion of nutrients and supports the immune system. Omega 3 fatty acids in the feed can also provide support for the immune system as well as help manage inflammitory response in tissue.

Monitor his body condition score and weight throughout stall rest and make feed amount adjustments as needed.  If he begins to gain weight, reduce his feed amount to the lowest advised amount from the feed manufacturer.

If he drops too much weight, slowly increase the feed amount, making sure to stay within the feeding directions.  Increasing the amount of hay can also provide benefits, though keep watch that he doesn’t start wasting.  Health complications or hay quality concerns aside, uneaten hay is an indication that he is being fed too much per meal.

In addition to providing much needed fiber and calories, hay in the stall can also provide a distraction,  curbing destructive behavior such a cribbing, weaving and pawing.  Consider providing stall toys, such as a ball or treat roller to keep his mind occupied and prevent bad stall habits from forming.

Pending the doctor’s orders, hand walking is a common method of providing limited exercise while reducing the chances of further damaging the injury or wound.  Hand walking is also a great way to spend time with your horse, especially if stall rest has taken him away from his normal job.

Once the period of stall rest is completed and he goes back to ’work’,  transitioning his feed back to the ‘normal’ energy levels should be done with even more caution than transitioning the energy down.  For advise on your specific situation, please discuss with a qualified feed consultant or your veterinarian.

Pre and Probiotics in Horse Feed

While scanning information about various horse feeds, you may have come across the phrase ‘contains prebiotics and probiotics’….Hmmm, sounds impressive, but what are they, what do they do for your horse, and why are they important?  Pre- and probiotics are considered “functional ingredients” that are added to horse feed to provide benefits to your horse. Here is some information about them and what they can mean for the digestive tract and overall wellbeing of your horse.

Healthy, inside and out
Rosie shows a dappled coat, indicating good health shining from the inside out.

It starts with the gut. The environment of the intestine (a.k.a. gut) contains naturally occurring beneficial microorganisms commonly called  ’bugs’. Gut bugs are found in all species, including humans, and are essential to the digestion process. For the horse, gut bugs work to break down components of forage and feed as they pass through the digestive tract.  The bugs deconstruct complex molecules within feedstuffs, which releases nutrients and allows the synthesis of energy substrates and important vitamins. Those nutrients are then absorbed through the intestines into the bloodstream, where they become available to cells in the body to support basic maintenance, growth and activity.

Feed that is broken down and digested more completely allows for more nutrients to be readily available for absorption.  This is essentially what probiotics do. Adding probiotics to a horse feed means adding more beneficial bugs to the existing population in the horse’s gut. Probiotics such as yeast culture, work with the naturally occurring bug population to enhance the digestive process, further breaking down complex protein and fiber fractions in the gut and making them more available for absorption into the blood stream. As a probiotic, yeast culture has also been shown to balance and stabilize the digestive microbial ecosystem in the cecum of the horse, as well as help prevent the colonization of bad bacteria in the gut.  A stable microbial ecosystem is beneficial to the horse beyond improvements in digestive and absorption efficiency, it also reduces the risk of digestive upset, such as gas colic, that a horse might experience with changes in feed or hay, or while under stress from transportation, shows, changes in weather or other.

Prebiotics can be thought of as an energy jolt for the gut bugs.  Prebiotics are a rich nutrient source for the gut bugs (e.g. lactobacilli, bifidobacterial) which in turn stimulates their growth and activity, making them more effective at their job. Research has shown that prebiotics help stabilize the population of gut bugs even through sudden changes in the diet, which helps to reduce incidents of digestive upset.  For performance horses who require energy dense diets that include higher levels of starches and sugars, prebiotics can help reduce the incidence of digestive disorders and support optimal performance.  Prebiotics such as inulin and oligofructose are selectively fermented by the gut bugs, stimulating their growth and activity, which benefits the horse by enhancing the absorption and retention of certain minerals, which in turn can support the immune system, skeletal tissue, and more.

The population of bugs in the gut are sensitive to changes in their environment brought on by stress, illness or the ingestion of undesirable materials .The addition of pre- and probiotics to a diet has been shown to be beneficial in reducing the incidence of digestive upset, namely diarrhea. For senior horses, the use of pre- and probiotics in feeds has been shown to improve the digestibility and absorption of nutrients, which can translate into an enhanced quality of life.  In summary, pre- and probiotics work with the naturally occurring gut bugs to support optimal gut health, aid in the digestion process, as well as provide a buffer against negative bacteria.

Selecting the Right Feed

Browsing through the aisles of your local feed store, it’s likely you have noticed the variety of horse feeds available.  National brands, regional brands and local manufacturers all crowd the shelves, adding to the confusion.  Which feed is right for your horse?  Here is a quick guide of what to consider when you are contemplating your feed selection.  Start by assessing your:

  1. Horse’s life stage
  2. Horse’s activity level
  3. Any health issues your horse may have
  4. Feed budget

Most feeds are designed to meet the specific nutrient requirements of life stages and activity levels of horses, and generally will specify on the packaging what they are designed for.  When estimating your horse’s activity level, be reasonable in your classification since over feeding energy can make him ‘hot’ and he may gain unwanted weight.  Generally when people see this happening, they tend to reduce the amount fed below the recommended feeding rate instead of changing to a lower energy feed.  This is not advised, as dropping below the recommended feeding rate means your horse is not getting the essential micro-nutrients he needs.  Try switching to a lower energy feed such as a maintenance feed or balancer.  Most maintenance feeds are formulated to provide mid to low energy levels.

If your horse has a specific health issue that can be influenced by his feed, make sure to seek out the information from the bag, your veterinarian or directly from the manufactor.  For example, horses with a history of feed-related laminitis are often best suited to a diet feed or ration balancer which provide much needed minerals and vitamins while keeping starch levels under control.

Complete feeds such as this textured one, are balanced on all nutrients.

Finally, consider your budget.  The features and benefits of feed typically drive up the cost; so ask yourself, can I afford to feed this product at the recommended feeding levels?   Note that feeding rates vary between products and this can influence the cost to feed your horse per head, per day; it is not enough to consider the price per bag alone.  If you are feeding an inexpensive feed but loading it with supplements, it may cost you more than purchasing a commercial complete feed and cutting out the supplements.

Complete feeds are formulated with all the necessary nutrients to meet your horse’s needs in the proper ratios.  When feeding a complete feed, be sure to follow feeding directions closely and monitor his weight through assessing his body condition score and calculating his weight periodically.

This is a very quick guide to help you navigate the increasingly complex decision of how to select the feed that is right for your horse. For more in-depth information, refer to a feed selector or ask a qualified equine nutritionist.

Overweight Horses: Winter Management

Feeding the overweight horse can be tough, but winter poses an even greater challenge with managing a delicate balance between providing enough energy to stay warm, yet not so much he is unable to shed those unwanted pounds.

When considering the feeding program for your overweight horse, first take into consideration the forage type, quantity and frequency he is being fed.  The overweight horse benefits most from grass hay over legume hay due to it’s reduced calorie content.   Most overweight horses do best on grass hay with a ration balancer to provide balanced levels of necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Consider how frequently he has access to his forage.  Is he limit fed or allowed free access anytime of the day or night?  Generally speaking, limit feeding the overweight horse is one half of a critical equation to helping him shed those pounds.  Forage should make up the bulk of any horse’s ration and the overweight horse is no exception.  His forage ration should be between 1.0-1.75 lb. hay per 100 lb. body weight, per day.  For a 1,000 lb. horse, this would range from 10-17.5 lb. of hay each day.

Next, consider his living arrangement: Is he kept by himself or does he share feed with herd-members?  If possible, put him in isolation from other members of the herd to help control his intake.  Overweight horses may be considered ‘survivors’ in the wild as they oftentimes bully their way into their herd-member’s food supply, but as domesticated animals, they need not exhibit this behavior when a consistent, good quality supply of food is provided.  Isolating him from those he can bully will keep his portion size to what you fed him.

Next, take into consideration how he is managed:   Is he kept in a stall, coat clipped in a heated barn?  Is he turned out on a regular basis?  Does he live outside with access to a run-in or loafing shed?  How he is managed can play into how to help him lose weight, yet stay warm during the oftentimes brutal winter months.  Horses that are most frequently stalled benefit from turnout, safe footing permitted.   Those  turned out full-time should be monitored for the need of a blanket should weather conditions deteriorate enough to warrant; moisture penetrating the thick winter coat as well as a biting winter wind can cut through the toughest of their protections.

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm

Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

Finally, consider his activity level.  Winter in most parts of the United States bring snow, ice and/or frozen footing which can pose a challenge for horse owners.  Good footing is essential for reducing the occurrence of injury during exercise and this is no less important than in the winter months.  Here are a few suggestions for exercising your overweight horse when the footing is less than ideal.

  1. Hand walking – up or down the driveway, on a trail or around an arena is good for him and a great time to bond.
  2. Pasture turnout – solid footing permitting, turn him out for time to romp in the snow and work off some energy.
  3. Time on the lunge line - provides better control over his activity level than turnout and he can work faster than a hand walk.
  4. Trailer to a near-by indoor arena (if there is one close by) for lunge-work, saddle time or just some quiet hand walking.

Helping your overweight horse lose during the winter can be a delicate balance, but with some effort and creativity he can start out the New Year on the way to being a trimmer, healthier horse.

Storing Horse Feed for Freshness

Welcome to July!  We are in the full swing of summer with heat and humidity in many regions of North America.  The higher temperature and moisture levels common this time of year can make feed freshness a challenge, requiring extra attention to how feed is stored.  Read on for a few tips on storing horse feed for freshness, and see how well your barn is set up to store feed. 

Many of us purchase feed by the bag and transfer the contents into a container which is kept in a feed room or designated area of the barn or shed.  The container that feed is kept in as well as the location of the container play an important role in how well the feed stays fresh. 

If possible, use of a waterproof, seal-able container to store your feed.  The container should be able to keep pests such as mice and insects from enjoying an “All You Can Eat Buffet” on your dime.  A waterproof container will insure the feed stays dry if there is unexpected water leakage into the area.

The location that the feed bin or container is kept is also important.  If you have a designated feed room or area in your facility, check to see that it is not exposed to unnecessary moisture such as a leak in the roof or sweating pipes overhead.  Elevating the bin off the floor will help keep feed dry should there be rain-in or minor flooding.  Also, check to see if your feed bin is sitting in the hottest part of your barn or shed.  For metal sided buildings, this could be the South or West wall which receive the strongest of the sun’s rays and tend to hold heat longer.  Relocating the bin to a cooler or dryer area will go a long way in keeping your feed fresh. 

Whenever possible, try to practice inventory management of feed in the form of FIFO; an acronym which stands for First In First Out.  FIFO is a method to manage the freshness of perishable goods such as produce, baked goods or dairy products.  The premise can also be applied to feed, where feed already in the bin is fed prior to the feed that was just purchased.  Also, between feed rotations, periodically wash and thoroughly dry the container to help get rid of build-up at the bottom.  Using this method can ensure that the feed you are scooping has not aged beyond its ideal shelf life.  

Taking some time to check these few steps will go a long way in keeping your horse feed fresh. Stay tuned for a future post regarding factors that impact the shelf life of your feed! Until then, happy riding!