Starch Levels in Feed

In my previous blog post on this topic, we explored the role starch plays in the horse’s diet.  After (hopefully) warming you up to the idea of how useful this nutrient can be, I’d like to now dig in to how you can compare and contrast the varying levels of starch (and sugar*)  in feeds and hopefully this information will  help you compare and contrast to choose the best option for your horse.

Contrary to what you may have been told or read, most horses can tolerate a moderate level of starch each day.  If you have a horse that has been diagnosed with a form of equine metabolic disease, you will need to limit your horse to a ‘low’ controlled starch and sugar diet….which includes forage (hay and pasture).  Fructans, the sugars in forages, are too often overlooked when assessing the total diet of an EMS horse.  

Even if your horse has not been diagnosed with EMS, it is still important to understand the starch level in his diet and take it into consideration for your overall program. Think you know how to compare starch levels from one feed to another?  You might be surprised to find out that a bit of math is required. Simply comparing the percentage of starch on feed tags doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  To get to a true comparison, it is important to factor in the recommended feeding rate, which is, after all, what the horse experiences.

Let’s compare two feeds that are marketed as ‘low starch’; one has a starch maximum guarantee of 7% while the other has a maximum of 11%.  Pretty easy to tell which one is the lowest, right? 

Look beyond the percentage to find what's really in the feed

Not quite.  For our example,  let’s say we have a 1,000 pound horse at maintenance level activity.  Feed A, with 7% starch is recommended to be fed at a rate of 6 pounds per day, meanwhile, Feed B has a starch maximum of 11% and is recommended to be fed at a rate of 2.5 pounds per day.

Here is the formula to use:  Starch % * pounds fed/day *454 (converts to grams) = grams of starch fed/day


Applied to our example scenario, here’s how the math works out:

Feed A:  7% starch x 6 pounds fed x 454 = 190.68 grams of starch per day.

Feed B: 11% x 2.5 pounds of feed x 454 = 124.85 grams of starch per day.

Wow – a big surprise!  Not only is the 11% starch feed actually lower in grams of starch per day than the 7% product, the difference is actually rather significant given how different the percentages were.   It is important to keep in mind that it all comes down to what your horse actually ingests, so understanding the recommended feeding rate in pounds and then weighing your feed to hit that mark is what will make the difference.

It’s also important to understand that horses who do not experience a form of EMS have a higher tolerance for starches and sugar in their diet…and in fact, the performance horse will actually need those nutrients to support their activity levels.  It all comes to down to understanding what’s in your feed and how much you’re giving them.

*Though this blog article addresses ‘starch’ the same principles apply to determining the amount of other nutrients in a feed. 

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.

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.

Feeding the “Easy Keeper” Horse

Most every horse owner has had, or knows of a friend’s horse, which could “live on air”. Sadly, air has no nutritional value. So, what do we do with these horses that look at a bag of feed and start to pack on the pounds? Care must be taken to ensure that they receive nutrients needed to stay healthy, while keeping calorie count under control.

As always, start by taking a Body Condition Score and determining the current weight of the horse, and tracking those two elements over time, so you can know for sure if you are making progress or not. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of trying to remember what the horse was like a couple months ago, so a tracking program will help give a fact basis to your feeding program.

Ensure that the easy keeper is receiving sufficient forage – maintaining gut health through plenty of long-stemmed fiber intake is key. Then, evaluate what else to feed – often times, access to high quality hay or pasture that contains ALL of the nutrition a horse needs is limited, and the need exists to get more protein, vitamins and minerals in to the horse. There are a number of low-inclusion horse feed products on the market that provide needed nutrition without extra calories.

Finally, evaluate the exercise program. Just like humans, exercise goes hand-in-hand with diet in a weight loss or weight control program. Even a daily walking program can help some of those easier keepers maintain a trimmer profile.