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.

4 Replies to “Carbohydrates in Horse Diets”

  1. We have a 9 year old walker who is a “hard keeper,” he also cribs/sucks air. We have limited his avaiblablity to practice his cribbing habit which seem to have assited with weight gain. His stomach can make some very strange and loud “rumbling” noises. What foods do you suggested that could help with both or either the weight maintances and his “rumbling gut”. He is on pasture and given modest amounts of grain since the weather has improved

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thank you for your question about your 9 year old Walker that is a hard keeper and also cribs/sucks air. Limiting his opportunity to crib is a great step in the right direction.

      The “rumbling gut” you hear may be due to some air moving thru that has been taken in during cribbing as well as higher than normal peristalsis (muscle contractions of the smooth muscles of the intestinal walls) to keep the gut moving.

      1. Consider using a high fat supplement to add some Calories to help body condition without increasing risk of digestive disturbances. The fat (from vegetable oil sources) might also have a calming effect on the gut.
      2. Consider using a probiotic (Direct fed microbial) to also help maintain normal gut flora. Might also consider a prebiotic (such as yeast culture or comparable products) for optimum benefit from the probiotic.
      3. Some horses crib because they have stomach ulcers. You might want to discuss this with your veterinarian.

      There are multiple probiotic/prebiotic supplements in the market and a number of fat supplements.

      In our feed product line, you might consider SafeChoice Original or SafeChoice Perform as they have added oil, added probiotics and prebiotics as well as controlled starch. If you wanted a high fat product that also contains probiotics, you might want to try Empower Boost.

      Best wishes,
      Roy J.

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