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The What, Who, Why and When

The What, Who, Why and When of feeding Lower Starch, Lower Sugar, Lower Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC) feed to your horse.

We sat down with Jeanne van der Veen, equine nutritionist for Sentinel Horse Feeds and Kristyn Sturken, equine product manager for Sentinel Horse Feeds to get the scoop on low starch, low sugar and low NSC feeds, what horses need these feeds and how they can be used as part of a balanced feeding program.

Q: There has been a lot of hype around low starch and low sugar feeds. Is it all worth it? And what is considered low starch, low sugar or low NSC?

“Over the last decade or more, the equine industry has learned much more about the horse’s health through additional research and innovation,” explains Sturken. “In particular, with certain diagnosed medical conditions found in some horses, there are some adjustments that can be made to a horse’s nutrition program that can help the horse live healthier and perform better. Many horses have benefited by changing certain nutrient levels, such as decreasing starch and sugar, in the total diet.”

“The key words here are TOTAL DIET. This includes the forage portion of the horse’s diet as well as any commercial feeds or supplements fed. Since the majority of the horse’s diet is forage, such as hay and pasture, and forage contains starch and sugar, this component should also be considered when looking to decrease starch and sugar.

Q: So, is all the hype around low starch and low sugar feeds worth it?

Sturken says it really depends on the horse and the health concern.

“For horses with diagnosed health issues or concerns that can be related to or helped by monitoring their overall starch and sugar levels, adjusting their diet is absolutely ‘worth the hype.’ Just keep in mind that certainly not all horses have these health concerns and depending on the age, activity level, and desired performance goals, they may need more starch and sugar in their diet.“

Q: What is considered “low”?

Jeanne van der Veen states “The definition and degree of ‘low’ is a moving target and dependent on many factors such as life stage, activity level and health condition. Low starch and low sugar diets are not meant to be ONE SIZE FITS ALL! The degree of low(er) starch and low(er) sugar for a foal is different than that of a senior horse with metabolic concerns which is different than that of a lactating mare.

Keep in mind, it is the total amount of starch and sugar in the diet in pounds that is important, not just the percent. The amount of feed, including forage, multiplied by the percentage of starch and sugar in the complete diet determines the actual level being consumed at a given time.

See chart below with general guidelines on NSC Levels

NSC LEVELS – General Guidelines
NSC Level
(Starch + Sugar)
Level Type of Feed*
<14% Extremely Low
(Serious Challenges)
Hay/Forage/Fiber Products
Special Formula Feeds
14% – 24% Low Pasture/Hay (certain conditions and times)
Higher Fiber Typically with Higher Fat Feeds
25% – 35% Moderate Moderate Fiber Pellets
Textured Feeds with Added Fiber
>35% High Textured/Sweet Feeds with Molasses and Grains
High Grain Pellets
*Feeds that typically contain NSC level indicated.

Q: Are low starch and low sugar feeds considered “diet food” for horses? And are they fed for a horse to lose weight?

Low starch and low sugar horse feeds should not be considered “diets” in the way we humans view “diets” meaning low calorie or promoting weight loss. When we talk about providing low starch and low sugar diets to horses, this is done for specific health or management reasons and that does not include weight loss.

If a horse needs to lose weight, that is an issue of managing their caloric intake and exercise levels. Managing their calorie intake can be achieved by adjusting the amount and/or type of feed along with increasing exercise.

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