Colic, Laminitis & Starch Levels in Horse Diets

diagram of horse digestion representing Colic, Laminitis & Starch Levels in Horse DietsMany horse owners are concerned about carbohydrate levels in their horses diet, particularly if the horse is prone to colic or laminitis. Learn about the relationship between colic, laminitis and starch levels in horse diets.

Looking Beyond Starch Percentage: Total Starch Intake Matters

Often, the owner will look to simply feed a product with a lower starch or NSC percentage.  But that’s often not the best, or only, solution, particularly if elevated levels of performance are expected of the horse, because the percent of starch in the feed isn’t what matters to a horse’s digestive system – what truly matters is the total amount of starch that enters the digestive system per meal.

The Impact of Excess NSC on Digestive System and Health

When a horse consumes too much NSC in one meal, the starches and sugars may not be completely broken down and absorbed in the small intestine.  Undigested starch getting to the hindgut may cause rapid fermentation by the microbes (gut bugs) that live in the cecum and large intestine, which  results in gas production & lactic acid buildup.  The gas buildup can result in colic, while the lactic acid accumulation drops the pH of the gut, starting a chain of events that may compromise the blood supply to the hoof, resulting in laminitis.

Balancing NSC Intake for Horses’ Biological Needs

Here’s the catch: all horses need some NSC in the diet to live and work for you – it is a simple biological need.  Hard working horses need higher, but still controlled, intakes of starches and sugars to provide readily available energy for work and to replace the glycogen (stored energy) that may have been used up during intense exercise.  NSC intake is important for horses to recover from hard work.

Meeting Energy Demands: Importance of Starches and Sugars

If higher total intakes of starch and sugar are required to maintain energy levels, but the potential for digestive upset or laminitic episodes is a primary concern, the horse may benefit from more frequent but smaller meals during periods when extra calories are needed to recover from hard work.  The higher daily intake, using more frequent feedings, will provide additional starch and sugar, as well as other nutrients your horse needs, while helping reduce the risk of digestive disturbances related to higher starch intake in a single meal.

At Nutrena, we believe proper nutrition plays the biggest role for a lifetime of health and happiness for every horse. That’s why Nutrena horse feeds are specifically formulated for every life stage and activity level. 
Ready to ensure your horse is getting the optimum nutrition at feeding time, every time? Find the perfect feed formulated specifically for horse’s needs with our Feed Selector Tool.
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8 Replies to “Colic, Laminitis & Starch Levels in Horse Diets”

    1. Hello Cyndi,
      Excellent question. Donkeys are less prone to metabolic issues than horses, and they are also somewhat more efficient, so require a bit less feed per 100 lbs BW to maintain body condition. They are also not as prone to overeating if they happen to get into a grain supply.

      If they are fed to maintain appropriate body condition, controlling starch and sugar levels is rarely a concern. Standard equine feeding directions, using the lower values or slightly less, based on body weight, work etc. should produce desired results.

      Regards ~ Roy J.

  1. Are mules any different? I have one who is half pony and half scilian donkey. She is about the size of a large shetland pony.She has laministis (but no insulin resistance or metabolic problems per the bloodwork) and is currently very sore. she did lose quite a bit of weight (looks good now)I feed her a mini feed (one cup in am. and one in a means of getting her to take her meds. )and she is not on grass. Do I need to be careful about starches with her too? Thanks.

    1. Hi Terri,
      Thank you for your question. Mules are, in general, slightly more efficient in utilizing nutrients than horses. I would expect a mule that is half pony and half Sicilian donkey to be both cute and quite efficient.

      You have already done the most important thing, which is to get her to the right weight/body condition. Any animal that has had laminitis should be kept on a controlled starch and controlled NSC diet. Because minis are very easy keepers as well, I would expect that product to be fairly low starch. As long as you limit quantity fed, do not allow excess weight gain and avoid lush pasture, she should do quite well.

      Best wishes,
      Roy A. Johnson

  2. We have a 28 year old mare who has chronic laminitis, is not a good keeper and only has 3 teeth. Our vet has instructed that she be fed 12lbs of a senior supplement each day.
    We have recently started her on Triumph by Nutrena. She receives 6 lbs at each feeding along with 5/6lbs of alfalfa pellets and Timothy Hay.
    Should I be concerned that the supplement may cause her laminitis to increase? It has 14% protein, 7% fat, and 16% starch.

    1. Hi DeDee,
      Thanks for reaching out! Depending on your mare’s current body condition and laminitis maintenance program, it’s not recommended to change from your veterinary recommendations. Another feed consideration might be SafeChoice Senior, (either a mash or multiple feeding times (3-4) throughout the day if your mare is able to chew the feed) and the Timothy Hay (chopped or soaked dependent upon the vet’s recommendations). Often horses with poor dentition have difficulty chewing their forage and pellets, so the mash is a great consideration. Monitor your horse closely as you change any feeding practices and work closely with your veterinarian to make the best decision regarding her condition. Every horse is different and will respond to changes and treatments differently. Here are a few additional resource blogs to check out as well:

      Best of luck!
      Heidi A.

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