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Is Feed Low in Starch and Sugar Right for All Horses?

Having shared the 101 of low starch, low sugar feeds, Jeanne van der Veen, equine nutritionist for Sentinel Horse Feeds and Kristyn Sturken, equine product manager for Sentinel Horse Feeds, are sharing what horses can actually benefit from this type of nutrition plan.

Q: What types of horses can benefit from a low starch and/or low sugar diet?

“Many horses can benefit from eating a low starch and low sugar diet, but not all horses require this type of diet or even should be fed this type of diet,” says van der Veen. “Some horses, in fact, will perform better with higher levels of starch and sugar.”

Van der Veen explains that horses that can benefit from a low/lower starch and/or low/lower sugar diet include:

  • Horses with ulcers or Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS)
  • Horses with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)
  • Horses with Insulin Resistance (IR)
  • Horses with a history of Laminitis
  • Horses with Digestive Disease or a history of colic
  • Horses with Leaky Gut Syndrome
  • Horses with Cushing’s Disease (PPID)
  • Horses with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) or Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM)
  • Some young horses predisposed to Developmental Orthopedic Disease (DOD)
  • Horses in an environment where management is less than ideal
    -Examples:  group feeding, random feeding times, single meal feeding, varied feeding personnel, limited daily exercise/movement

Q: Does a low starch and low sugar feed help prevent gastro-intestinal issues such as colic, ulcers and choke?

“There are many different types and causes of colic and most are not related to diet,” explains van der Veen. “Good feed management, however, is critical in trying to prevent some of the more common types of colic in horses. Also, feeding a diet low in starch and sugar may reduce excess starch fermentation and gas production in the digestive tract and minimize gas related colic, keeping your horse healthier for the long term.”

Ulcers are also caused by a variety of factors,” van der Veen continues. “These include the type of diet, feeding management, feeding high levels of grains or concentrates, withholding of feed, stress of training, stress of travel, other environmental stressors, as well as long-term use of certain medications. To prevent or manage ulcers, paying close attention to feed management and feed type will help tremendously. Feeding smaller meals more often, especially when large amounts of grain or concentrates are needed and decreasing the level of starch and sugar in the diet may help with ulcer prevention or management.”

Sturken adds “There are also some supplements that are extremely helpful for a horse with ulcers or prone to ulcers. Some supplements may also be beneficial for horses with digestive-associated colic. For maintaining total digestive and gut health, look for a supplement containing Bacillus subtilis probiotic, Yeast extract, Marine-sourced calcium and Butyric acid with zinc. Sentinel Care Gastric Support supplement contains a proprietary blend of these ingredients, known as gutWise™ Technology, and is specifically designed for improving gastro-intestinal health and maintaining a healthy gastro-intestinal environment.”

van der Veen explains, “Choke occurs when food or a foreign body blocks the horse’s esophagus. Horses that eat too fast, swallow feed without complete chewing or don’t produce adequate saliva for feed lubrication may have a greater tendency for choke. Feeding a low starch and low sugar feed will not prevent choke in horses, however the feed form can have an impact on managing or reducing the incidence of choke in a horse. An extruded feed like Sentinel’s 100% extruded line, has not only been shown to slow the rate of feed intake but to also break down more completely with less pressure compared to a pelleted feed. The airy, low density of the extruded form is the primary reason for this and with slower intake and more complete feed breakdown, the incidence of choke is reduced.”

“When looking to prevent or manage gastro-intestinal issues, feeding Sentinel 100% extruded horse feeds with its low starch and low sugar content, built-in fat and fiber, and added gutWise Technology, will provide multiple nutritional and digestive support mechanisms to help keep your horse’s gut healthy,” says van der Veen.

Q: What life stages benefit from lower starch and lower sugar feed?

In general, horses at all life stages may benefit from a lower starch and lower sugar feed depending on the individual horse and health issue or challenge. And the definition of what is considered “low” may vary for different life stages says van der Veen.

“Young, growing horses in fact may need a more moderately low level of starch and sugar for proper development as found in Sentinel Safe Start extruded horse feed while senior horses with their aging digestive systems and potential metabolic issues may benefit from an even lower starch and sugar diet as found in Sentinel Senior horse feed.”

Q: Can horses in varying levels of activity — from heavy work to retirement — eat lower starch and lower sugar feed?

“Horses in heavy work through retirement can eat a low starch and low sugar feed, however, the level of starch and sugar needed to support optimal performance or activity may vary,” says van der Veen. “For example, horses competing in events where short-term bursts of quick energy is required, such as racing, may need a feed with a moderate to high level of starch and sugar to perform optimally. Endurance horses on the other hand, may need a feed with starch and sugar levels ranging on the higher end of low”.

van der Veen continues, “For many older retired performance horses that have been fed diets containing higher levels of starch and sugar over the years, a low starch and sugar feed may be highly beneficial in helping to support digestive health. In addition, older horses in general may have inefficient, challenged digestive systems or metabolic concerns that would benefit from a low starch and sugar feed.”

Q: If my horse does not have a metabolic condition like EPSM and Insulin Resistance, why should I consider switching to a low starch and low sugar feed?

If your horse does not have a metabolic condition like EPSM and Insulin Resistance, you do not have to switch feed, however a low starch and low sugar feed may still be beneficial over the long term explains van der Veen.

“A low starch and sugar diet helps maintain a healthy digestive system and microbiome,” says van der Veen. “Since over 70% of the immune system is located in the gut, keeping it healthy through a low starch and sugar diet helps support and maintain the overall health, performance and behavior of the horse.”

Q: If a feed is lower in starch and sugar, how does the feed provide necessary energy to the horse?

“While starch and sugar are sources of energy or calories, there are other sources that can be utilized effectively by the horse.  One primary source is fiber.  The horses’ hind gut fermentation system is designed to convert fiber ingredients into usable energy.  Highly fermentable fiber sources such as beet pulp and soy hulls are often included in a feed product as a natural and safe form of calories.  Fat, typically from vegetable oil, is another source of energy or calories for the horse.  Fat is a highly efficient source of energy, providing over twice as many calories per pound than carbohydrates like starch and sugar.

Another way feed can provide the necessary energy to horses on a low starch and sugar diet is through digestive efficiency.  Improving the digestibility of the feed through extrusion will increase the energy or caloric potential of the feed.  Extrusion is a manufacturing process that combines moisture, heat, and pressure to cook the ingredients.  In the cooking process, starch and protein components are broken down into smaller units making them more available for digestion and utilization by the horse.  As a result, the horse gets more nutrition out of an extruded feed, including energy.

Q: Will low starch and sugar feed make my horse hot? And conversely, will low starch and low sugar feed make my horse have less energy?

A low starch and low sugar feed should not make a horse “hot” nor make a horse have less energy. A diet lower in starch and sugar should result in a more even and controlled blood glucose and insulin level promoting more focused and calm horse behavior. A diet high in starch and sugar on the other hand has been associated with making some horses appear “hot”.

Keep in mind, the level of starch and sugar in the feed can affect how the horse performs in certain activities. For example, a racehorse may need a higher level of starch and sugar for optimal performance.

Q: Are low starch and low sugar feeds palatable or easy to feed to picky eaters?

The level of starch and sugar in a product does not necessarily impact palatability and the ingredients typically found in these types of diets are palatable. Ease of feeding is related to horse and owner preference and product form. Low starch and sugar diets are available in various forms such as extruded, pelleted and textured.

Low sugar and low starch feeds can be a great option for horses in various life stages with different activity levels and health concerns. As you adjust your horse’s nutrition program, consider how a low sugar and low starch feed may help improve your horse’s overall health and performance.

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