Types of Carbohydrates in Horse Feed Diets

The topic of carbohydrates for horses has gotten a lot of people asking questions and has created a certain amount of confusion, particularly when comparing carbohydrates in equine diets to human dietary recommendations.  Starches, carbohydrates, sugars, non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) and non-fibrous carbohydrates (NFC), among others, are terms thrown around for equine diets, and all those terms can get very intimidating, when it comes to what these nutrients mean to your horse  and how much your horse needs or doesn’t need.

Different Types of Carbohydrates in Horse Feed

Structural Carbohydrates

This category includes primarily the carbohydrates that are part of the cell wall in plants.

    • This will include the Neutral Detergent Fibers (NDF), primarily lignin, cellulose and hemicelluloses.
    • These carbohydrates are all fiber sources that give cell walls strength and shape.
    • Some types of fiber analysis, such as the Total Digestible Fiber (TDF) measurement used in human nutrition, will include the structural carbohydrates plus pectins, gums, beta glucans and some polysaccharides.
    • These are the carbohydrates that are not broken down by enzymes and need to be fermented in the hind gut of the horse.

Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC)

This includes the sugars and starches, and is a very important group of nutrients for horses because these are the carbohydrates that can be broken down by enzymes and absorbed from the small intestine into the blood stream as glucose and stored as glycogen in the muscles and in the liver.

    • Ideally, NSCs get absorbed entirely in the small intestine before they reach the cecum and large intestine, where they can be problematic for horses.  When people ask about a “low-carb” diet, they are frequently really asking about a low NSC diet.
    • Water Soluble Carbohydrates (WSC) – This includes ethanol soluble carbohydrates (ESC) which are primarily sugars, both monosaccharides and disaccharides.  WSC will include various oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.  Fructans in forages are included in the WSC.  When looking at a feed or hay analysis report, ESC should be a small proportion than WSC of the NSC.

Non-Fiber Carbohydrates (NFC) in Horse Feed

This is a different nutrient which is calculated in certain analytical techniques.  NFC is equal to (100-Water-Ash-Fat-Protein-NDF).  NFC is calculated by difference and is not measured by a specific analysis.  NFC will contain all of the organic acids, starch, sugars, oligosaccharides, polysaccharides, beta glucans, pectins and gums.  For this reason, NFC will be a larger number than NSC in a feed or hay analysis report.

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13 Replies to “Types of Carbohydrates in Horse Feed Diets”

  1. I have a horse that was foundered last year and he is dropping weight he is 11 yrs old and I was told I need something with High Fat and low starch. Which feed do you recommend?

    1. Hello Jim,
      Excellent question. In the case of founder, you need to be aware of how much starch is going in PER MEAL, not necessarily what the percent of starch is in the diet. You can use a controlled (not low, as many people insist) product, as long as you stay with a moderate amount of feed per meal – think no more than 3-4 lbs per feeding.

      That said, we have a couple of options for you. SafeChoice Original is a controlled starch product with a 7% fat level – about as high a fat level as you will get in a pelleted product. This has plenty of calories to help get his weight back up where it needs to be. If your horse isn’t a fan of pellets, you could try our SafeChoice Senior horse feed – has a nice wet finish to it, from vegetable oils, so is very palatable – this is a lower starch product, with a 6% fat level. We have a lot of people who love this product for putting weight back on a horse. Or, you could go with our Vitality line of products – is a sweet feed, but we’ve done our formulation on this product such that it has a significantly lower starch level than a traditional sweet feed you might pick up at your local feed mill. Also has 6% fat, so plenty of calories.

      Finally, you could opt to do a supplement – we offer a product called Empower Boost that is a great way to add a punch of calories to the diet, by adding it on top of your current feeding program. At 22% fat, you just need to add 1-2 lbs per day to his diet.

      Hope that helps, please do let us know if you have more questions!
      Thansk ~ Gina T.

  2. Hi,
    I have a horse that maybe insulin resistant. I was wondering what kind of feed would be best to put him on?

    1. A horse that may be insulin resistant may benefit from a diet that contains good quality forage and a controlled starch and sugar product to balance the nutrients in the forage to provide a balanced diet.

      Depending on the age and use of the horse, products such as SafeChoice Special Care, Empower Balance or SafeChoice Senior may be fed as directed to an potentially insulin resistant horse.

      Salt should also be available free choice and fresh clean water should be available.


  3. I agree horse need to be fed in a balance mineral program, but ultimately feeding is not the problem . It’s all about digestion and keeping the gut moving with natural enzymes breaking down the forage and absorbing the right minerals to digest the sugars such as magnesium

    1. Efficient digestion does indeed require a healthy digestive tract with appropriate motility and enzyme function as well as healthy gut wall for absorption. Balance of energy sources (fiber, fat and non-structural carbohydrates) as well as balanced intake of protein (including essential amino acids), minerals and vitamins and water are perhaps the best solution to help support efficient digestion. Efficient digestion is not likely to overcome a specific deficiency in intake. Conversely, adequate intake without efficient digestion will also not result in optimum health and performance.


  4. hi there i have a horse that has cushions, was just wanting to ask
    is pollard ok to feed or not. cheers

    1. Pollard, also called wheat midds in some areas, is a product of wheat milling to produce flour for human consumption. It is used very widely as an ingredient in horse feeds. The starch content can vary quite widely. If you have a horse that has Cushing’s syndrome or Equine Metabolic Syndrome, I would recommend checking the actual starch content of the pollard source that you wish to use and carefully determining how much you intend to feed in the total diet.

      Regards, Roy J.

  5. Help! Although this article is clearer than most on the subject, in general I find the information on hay analysis VERY confusing. What do I need to worry about for my EMS horse? Is it the percentage of NSC (i.e. WSC –all of it– + starch)? Or is it only the ESC — as a subset of WSC — + starch? What else do I need to worry about? Is high ADF and NDF really bad (my EMS horse also being treated for ulcers)? Or is it secondary? Thanks

    1. Hello Daniele,

      Forage analysis can be somewhat confusing because the definition of a “good forage” will depend on what you want the animal to experience. If you have a high producing lactating mare or a high performing athlete, you would want a relatively low NDF (Neutral Detergent Fiber) level and a higher Non-Structural Carbohydrate level for maximum energy supply. This is not generally what you would want for an EMS horse that is not lactating or in high athletic performance.

      If you have a horse that has Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), you do not need the highest energy forage and you will want a forage that has a higher NDF because you want a higher % of energy to come from fiber and a lower % from Non-Structural Carbohydrates. Unless you have a grass hay with seed heads, the starch level will be fairly low as forages store very little energy as starch. NSC = Starch + WSC, so you will want a fairly low NSC level, which also means a fairly low WSC (Water Soluble Carbohydrate) level. We hear a lot about fructans, which are estimated in grass hays by WSC-ESC (Ethanol Soluble Carbohydrates or simple sugars), so if you have a low WSC, you will also have fairly low fructan level.

      The short answer is that for an EMS horse, you want a hay that is fairly high in NDF, probably in the range of 50-65% and lower in NSC, below 10- 15% or so. Hay that is above 65% NDF is frequently not very palatable. As your horse is being treated for ulcers, the higher NDF forage, which will also tend to be a bit lower DE (Digestible Energy), will allow you to have forage in front of the horse either frequently or continuously, which is an advantage for horses with ulcers as it allows them fairly steady intake and avoids leaving them with an empty stomach.

      You also want to monitor the Body Condition Score of the horse and keep it at about a 5. You do not want to let the EMS horse get overweight as this increases risk. Feeding the lower DE, higher NDF hay may help in this regard.

      Roy J.

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