What is a Low-Starch Diet for Horses?

What is a Low-Starch Diet for Horses?

horse feeding

If you’ve ever wondered what is a low-starch diet for horses, and more importantly, should my horse be on one, then you’re not alone.  However, it isn’t ideal for all horses. Ultimately, it will depend on their caloric requirements, the work they’re in and existing health conditions..

Forages should of course be the basis of any diet and are 75-90% carbohydrates. Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and some fibre. These carbohydrates found in pasture and hay fall into two broad categories: nonstructural and structural.  So horses actually rely on carbohydrates as the largest portion of their diet.  Especially soluble and insoluble fibres that make up forage.

Carbs, sugars and starches in forage.

Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) in forages are simple sugars and fructans and can be readily digested or fermented by horses. They are produced in plants during warmer weather, and are higher in more immature forages. Pasture is usually lowest in NSCs in the early morning unless overnight temperatures are cold.  However, these carbohydrates can affect some disease processes, so you need to monitor how much your horse eats.

Carbs, sugars, and starches in your horse’s hard feed

Grain based hard feeds contain carbohydrates, including simple sugars and starch. Grains such as barley, maize and oats are high in NSCs, mostly starches. Starches are long chains of attached sugar molecules. These sugars get broken apart during the digestive process and the simple sugars (glucose) readily absorbed. Most horses can digest and absorb sugars and starches in the small intestine through a process called hydrolysis. From there, glucose in the bloodstream triggers the pancreas to release insulin.  Then the glucose molecules move into cells for storage as glycogen.  This is the fuel for the working muscles.

If there’s more starch in a single meal than the horse can digest, starch will enter the caecum, (the first part of the hindgut after the small intestine). Any undigested starch here is rapidly fermented creating lactic acid.  This lowers hindgut pH, killing the good bacteria that live there. The endotoxins released from microbial death can then contribute to both colic and laminitis.   

So, just how much starch is in a low-starch diet for horses?

 A “low-starch” feed usually contains less than 15% starch, but some feed companies might classify low-starch as any feed below 20%.  Compare this to a traditional hard feed with grains such as barley, maize and oats as its base.  These types of feed might be as much as 40-60% starch.  A “mid-level” starch content is usually between 20 and 25%. Whilst many horses are fed high starch feeds seemingly without problems, the key consideration that still remains for any horse is how much starch is fed in any one meal.

Ultimately, there is no single definition of a “low- starch” diet as both sugar and starch concentrations are important. Therefore, it’s better that feeds are referred to as ‘low-sugar and starch’ or ‘low nonstructural-carbohydrates (NSC).  NSC is a laboratory measure containing starch plus all water-soluble carbs (sugars and fructans). The recommendation for horses with metabolic issues therefore is not actually low-starch but low-Non-Structural Carbohydrates.  So, if f low starch/low NSC is a primary concern for your horse and it’s not quoted on your bag of feed, then contact the feed manufacturer directly to find out.

Starch Content of Common Feed Ingredients

Feed Ingredient  Starch %
Legume hay (besides lucerne) 1.56
Grass Hay 1.65
Lucerne Cubes 1.51
Oaten Hay 4.03
Mixed, Mostly Grass, Pasture 2.00
Grass Pasture 2.08
Beet Pulp, Dried, No Molasses 0.99
Maize, Whole Grain 69.44
Oats, Dried 43.96
Oat Hulls 14.90
Rice Bran 22.85
Wheat Bran 23.59
Soybeans, Dried 2.27
Soybean Hulls 1.20
Soybean Meal 1.65
Carrots, Wet 2.18
Lucerne Hay 2.50
Lucerne Pellets 2.08
Mill Run/Mix 26.20

Data collected from Equi-Analytical Laboratories

When should your horse have a low-starch diet?

For some horses with certain health conditions, vets and nutritionists might recommend a low-starch diet to help maintain blood glucose at a steady level. These are conditions that cause horses to become more sensitive to sugars and starches. This then means that owners will need to reduce these levels in both forages and concentrates. Individual horses have variable responses related to a variety of factors, including age, body condition, fitness, metabolic status, and disease status.

Obesity and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS)

These metabolic conditions are of major concern and there needs to be an overall reduction in calories consumed, not just from starches. Some breeds, especially pony breeds are “metabolically thrifty”, so they’re able to readily convert glucose into fat for storage. They will benefit from a lower-quality forage and no hard feed.  This is where a quality feed balancer supplement such as one from the Fibregenix range, is ideal.  It will  provide vitamins, minerals, protein, fatty acids and other essential nutrients to bridge nutritional gaps in forage.

Insulin dysregulation (ID)

Insulin dysregulation is considered a component of EMS.  In affected horses or ponies, insulin is not effective at transporting glucose from the bloodstream into cells, so both remain elevated. This can increase susceptibility to laminitis. Horses with this condition are extremely sensitive to starches. Ideally, they should be on as low a starch and, specifically, soluble-carbohydrate diet as possible.

Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, formerly Equine Cushing’s)

This  endocrine disease mostly affects horses or ponies over the age of 15. Some, but not all, PPID horses will require a lower-starch diet. PPID horses that are also insulin-dysregulated are the ones which will benefit.  However, some PPID horses are thin, non-insulin-dysregulated, and they need calories.  In such cases a more traditional NSC level is fine.

Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM)

Horses with this muscle disorder often have a normal glucose/ insulin metabolic process. They’re unable to use the form of glucose stored in their cells as energy and are also susceptible to tying-up (exertional rhabdomyolysis).  This is the breakdown or destruction of skeletal muscle cells associated with exercise.


Laminitis prone horses and ponies  should also have diets low in soluble carbohydrates and starch. Elevated levels of starch reaching the hindgut can lead to hindgut acidosis, killing off the good microbes. This releases endotoxins, which can negatively affect enzymes involved in maintaining the integrity of the laminae in the hoof leading to laminitis. Susceptible horses should not be allowed to graze immature or lush, rapidly growing pasture routinely found in spring and early autumn.

Gastric ulcers (EGUS)

Signs of this condition include poor performance, poor attitude, and mild colic. Horses prone to ulcers and hindgut acidosis benefit from a low-starch/high fibre diet. This is because chewing and consuming fibrous carbohydrates produces more saliva which in turn helps reduce acidity in the stomach.


Anxious or hyperactive horses may also benefit from less starch in their diets. Multiple studies (Bulmer et al., 2019; Destrez et al., 2015) have focussed on the diet’s effect on behaviour. But more recently, they’ve focussed on the “why” behind this. The latest studies have revealed that glucose is a sugar that easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. Elevated glucose levels are associated with increased dopamine production.  And this can lead to elevated awareness or hyperexcitability.

Should you change your horse to a low-starch diet?

If your horse doesn’t have any of the aforementioned conditions, then he probably doesn’t need a low-starch diet. In fact, performance horses benefit from a diet with readily available carbohydrates needed to replace the stored glycogen in skeletal muscle.  Especially those that do anaerobic exercise (short bursts of high-intensity training) during work.   When muscle glycogen is low, the muscle adapts by slowing contraction rate and power to conserve fuel (glycogen). This is obviously not desirable in a competition horse. Traditional hard feeds with grains such as barley, maize and oats as its base might be as much as 40-60% starch. A “mid-level” starch content is usually between 20 and 25%. Whilst many horses are fed high starch feeds seemingly without problems, the key consideration that still remains for any horse is how much starch is fed in any one meal.

Similarly, hard keepers might not be good candidates for low-starch feeds either, unless you increase the fat content in the diet. These horses need more readily available calories than the fibrous ingredients often used in low- starch feeds.

The table below shows ideal targets to follow when considering how much starch your horse should have.

% starch in your hard feed IDEAL TARGET
To avoid starch overload,rapid fermention in the h/gut 50-65% for sweet feeds, 45-75% for straight grains <2g/kg BW/meal
To avoid risk of gastric ulcer syndrome


For metabolic disorders such as IR, Cushings, laminitis etc



Making Changes To a Horse’s Diet Safely

Any changes MUST be slow and gradual so as not to upset the hindgut microflora. Gut microbes must have time to adjust to a new diet, so it’s generally accepted to make the complete transition over about two weeks.

For horses needing a low-starch concentrate, transition them the same way you would to any new diet. Start with a meal that is ¼ of the new feed and ¾ old feed and stay at this level for four days. Move up to ½ and ½ for another four days. Then switch to ¾ new feed and ¼ old feed for another four days. By the end of this period, you should be able to feed a full meal of the new feed. If you are concerned about NSC levels in forage, then limit pasture access when they’re elevated (e.g. during spring grass growth).  Soak hay before feeding. Just remember to discard the soak water, so the horse doesn’t drink it.​

What if a sudden change can’t be avoided?

Sometimes, the transition to a low-starch diet has to happen suddenly. For instance, after a metabolic event (e.g., laminitis) where the horse is moved from lush pasture to being yarded. Or begins to wear a grazing muzzle. In these cases, you don’t have days or weeks to make the change. So watch your horse carefully for signs of digestive disturbance such as diaorrhea. If signs develop (and if possible), back off the transition rate and make the conversion more slowly.

What if you have more than one horse and only one requires a low-starch diet? You might be tempted to think you could feed all the horses the same feed.  However, whilst it may make feeding more convenient, you still have to consider each individual horse’s needs and feed accordingly.

Feeding for individual needs

What if you have more than one horse and only one requires a low-starch diet? Tempted to feed all the horses the same feed? Whilst it may make feeding more convenient, you still have to consider each individual horse’s needs.

5 Take-home messages

  • A low-starch diet might be a suitable option for your horse, but it depends on his health status.
  • Horses in good body condition, fit for their discipline, with high caloric demands can cope on a more traditional feed containing higher starch levels. Even so, care must still be taken with how much starch is fed in any one meal.
  • Before making any changes, talk to your vet or an equine nutritionist.
  • Find out how much starch is in your horse’s feed when the term “low starch” is used. This will ensure you are making decisions based on the best information available.
  • Always make any changes to the diet gradually so as not to upset the digestive microbes.
Reduce Feeding Costs

Reduce Feeding Costs

Reduce Feeding Costs

Feeding horses can get really expensive. Are you worried about the cost of your horse’s supplements and hard feeds?  Are you looking to reduce feeding costs?  How will you do this without it impacting on your horse’s condition, topline or coat and hooves? 

Maybe you’ve had to make cutbacks in your horse’s diet due to a reduced workload or to simply save dollars.  If you’ve had to opt for a simpler fibre-based diet, what should you feed alongside it?  A vitamin/mineral supplement?  An additional gut supplement?  Extra protein plus something for hooves and coat? All or some of these things?

If you’re currently feeding any of the above supplements, why not consolidate EVERYTHING into just one product?  But which product should you choose for the most effectiveness, ease of use, dollar saving, peace of mind and the best results?

To help you choose, we explain the most common types of feed products and what they do for your horse.

Complete feeds, Hard Feeds, Fibregenix balancer supplements – What’s the difference?

Reduce Feeding Costs with a Complete feed – What is it?

A feed that contains everything your horse needs in his diet including the forage.


It can be fed as the sole ration—no need for hay or pasture –  just provide water and the complete feed.

High fibre and is ideal for senior horses that can’t chew or fully utilise hay or pasture


Tends to have very large serving sizes, often around 1.5% of the horse’s bodyweight so a bag won’t last very long.

People often provide additional forage/grazing, so your horse can be getting too much for his daily needs.

Adding additional forage or supplementation defies the purpose of a complete feed making it cost-ineffective.

Reduce Feeding Costs with a Hard feed – What is it?

A processed feed that’s generally cereal-based and is fortified with a vitamin and mineral premix. It may or may not also contain some lower quality or least cost digestive aids. It needs to be fed alongside an appropriate amount of forage, (usually recommended as no less than 1% of bodyweight)


It provides energy and calories, plus essential nutrients in one feed.  Just add forage and you’re good to go.


Because the concentration of vitamins and minerals per kilogram is quite low, your horse must be fed the recommended daily feed rate. This is to ensure he gets adequate levels of nutrients. It also inevitably means feeding multiple kilos.

The high levels of starch/sugar and energy that the horse will be getting to satisfy his essential nutrient requirements, can often mean horses put on weight. They may become hyperactive/excitable. Worst case scenario can cause digestive issues eg stomach ulcers or ‘acid guts’ from over-consumption of starch in any one meal.

Not ideal for grain sensitive or metabolically challenged horses or ponies.

High starch meals will need to be broken down into several smaller meals per day which isn’t time effective for anyone who can only feed twice a day.

A bag won’t last very long if fed at the recommended daily feed rate, so it can be expensive. Eg a feeding rate of 3kg per day for an average 500kg horse means a bag will last just over 6 days.

Reduce Feeding Costs with a Fibregenix Feed Balancer – What is it?

Think of it as an all in one multi-supplement. In essence, a heavily fortified feed product containing fibre, protein and fatty acids, superior digestive aids and essential nutrients. It’s designed to be fed alongside forage and complements common forages’ nutrient profiles. A Fibregenix feed balancer may seem more expensive than other feed products, but being concentrated, only a small amount is fed.  This makes it versatile and far more cost-effective long term.


  • Gives your horse a healthier digestive system with specific digestive supplements.  These can help process his fibre more efficiently extracting the most nutrients out of it, and help reduce the risk of digestive upsets
  • Keeps your horse in great condition
  • Maintains that precious topline you’ve worked so hard to build
  • Promotes the shiniest and glossiest coat
  • Promotes healthy hooves
  • Provides all the essential nutrients needed on a daily basis in the most absorbable form.  We’ve made no compromise in the selection of the ingredients for Fibregenix feed balancers. Only the best has been selected irrespective of the premium price some of them carry.
  • Low feeding rate, palatable and can be fed by hand at the paddock gate or those on spell that doesn’t need an additional bucket feed.
  • Save dollars too as NO OTHER SUPPLEMENTS needed and can reduce or eliminate the need for additional hard feed.
  • Whole cereal and molasses free so Non-heating
  • Very low in starch and sugar
  • Low feeding rate and cost-effective – just 100g per 100kg of bodyweight meaning a bag will last an average 500kg horse 30 days.
  • A range of balancers are available, so there’s a solution for every horse and pony whatever the dietary dilemma.


Not calorie providers. However, the specialised digestive aids in a Fibregenix balancer supplement have been proven to double fibre digestibility and enable an improved nutrient absorption.   This improves calorie intake and is the reason why Prime Original and Platinum Pro can be fed alongside fibre to provide the sole source of energy and calories. Especially in the case of good-doers and even those in light to moderate work.

To summarise:

The simplest solutions are often the best. Fibregenix is the balancer product range that will revolutionise your horse’s diet and keep him healthy for his lifetime.

Helpful guide to cut cost | not care

Helpful guide to cut cost | not care

Owning horses – How to Cut Cost not Care

Prolonged drought conditions around Australia compounded with the recent horrific bushfires has meant that horse feed prices have soared. Owning horses is at an all-time high, leading to some tough choices. But with a little planning and tweaking, there are some ways to help reduce those spiralling costs.  The key, of course, is to ensure you’re not compromising your horse’s health and welfare. So, here is a guide to help cut cost, not care when owning horses.

  1. Agistment / location

If your horse is on agistment it’s one of your biggest expenses.  Here are a couple of ways to consider saving on your bill.

  • Review the facilities you’re paying for and check you need them all. If you’re paying for someone else to provide all or part of your horse’s day-to-day care, you could reduce costs if you did more yourself, even on a temporary basis.
  • Look for suitable grass agistment or rent a paddock, which can be even cheaper if it’s shared. Just remember you’ll need to consider if this offers suitable facilities e.g. water supply, electricity, shelter, secure fencing, storage, the amount of grazing and the quality of the grass.  Try and put in place a paddock maintenance programme which could help ensure you have adequate grazing all year round.
  1. Feeding to cut cost, not care

Are you unnecessarily over-feeding your horse? Could he do better on less feed?Two important points to note here are:

  • The vast majority of horses manage very well on a forage-based diet and a Fibregenix horse supplement balancer if necessary. (Check out our Fibregenix range) Your vet or nutritionist can advise whether your horse really needs additional feed depending on their nutritional requirements.
  • Fortnightly weigh taping and body condition scoring (fat scoring) will help you monitor your horse’s weight fluctuations and prevent obesity. Horse weigh tapes aren’t completely accurate, but they do give an indication of the weight and are useful for monitoring.  NOTE: Weigh tapes aren’t effective for donkeys so use a heart-girth measurement instead.
  1. Bedding

We have a lot more choice these days when it comes to bedding. So do your research to find the best and most affordable options for you and your horse.

  • Despite the initial outlay, rubber matting can help you get the most out of your bedding and reduce costs.
  • Muck out wet and droppings regularly to maximise your bedding and protect against ill health.
  1. Horse share

Sharing your horse with someone else can reduce costs in all areas.  However, there are two vital things to remember when considering horse share:

  • Signing an agreement and setting expectations with a sharer is vital to ensure you’re both happy.
  • Don’t agree to anything you aren’t comfortable or happy with –best to get your agreement checked by a qualified legal advisor.
  1. Working together to cut cost, not care

If you share a yard with other people, why not club together to save money and time?  Consider these cost-cutting ideas:

  • Many feed, forage and bedding suppliers offer reduced rates if they can deliver in bulk.
  • Ask your vets, farriers and other professionals if they can reduce rates for group visits
  • Save fuel by sharing transport wherever you can, or consider if it’s safe and possible to walk or cycle to the yard.
  • Share daily duties, e.g. one of you doing the morning duties and another doing the evenings. This will save time, money and fuel.

 Owning Horses and Routine preventative health care 

Prevention is always better than cure so there are some simple protocols to follow if you really want to cut cost, not care.

  • Have the fundamentals in place and it should save costs associated with preventable disease later on.
  • Discuss worming, dental checks and feeding routines with your vet to ensure you’re applying the most effective and economical regimes for your horse.  Eg Getting faecal egg counts done can save on expensive worming strategies.
  1. Farriery

  • Don’t delay trimming and keep to a regular foot hygiene regime, even if your horse is unshod.
  • Discuss shoeing options with your farrier. Depending on workload or health status, your horse may not need to have a full set of shoes. If there isn’t much wear on your horse’s shoes, your farrier can usually refit them.
  1. Resist marketing and over supplementing to cut cost, not care

Think carefully about what your horse really needs to keep him happy and healthy. Does he really need all those supplements? Is there some way you could consolidate these into one product? Take a look at a Fibregenix horse supplement balancer to see how it can save dollars in the long-term.

  • Don’t overload on unnecessary supplements, rugs or equipment. Does your horse really need 20 plus rugs or the latest ‘matchy-matchy’ set? There’s plenty of good quality second-hand equipment out there.
  • Look after your existing equipment so it lasts longer. Making sure you spend money on necessary equipment at the right time can save you money in the long term.
  1. False economies

There are some things you just shouldn’t compromise on when owning horses. Short-term savings that may affect the quality of your horse’s care and welfare will just cause you more problems in the long term.

  • Proper veterinary care: DO NOT be tempted to diagnose and treat conditions yourself, ALWAYS seek veterinary guidance if there’s a problem. Most vets can give you basic advice over the phone.  Discuss disease prevention with your vet and yard owner to ensure suitable procedures are in place.
  • Vaccinations: Lapsed vaccinations leave your horse vulnerable to disease.
  • Regular hoof care: Taking shoes off to save money without consulting your farrier or vet could lead to lameness and additional expense.
  • Worming and dental checks: These essentials can be reviewed, as outlined above – but not avoided. Getting faecal egg counts done can be an easy way to save on the cost of expensive wormers.
  • Professional services: Don’t use a cheaper, unqualified person to do a professional’s job.
  • Keep up with repairs to damaged property and equipment.  These are vital to safeguard your horse’s safety and security and avoid unnecessary vet bills.
  • Insurance: If you’re not insured against veterinary fees, you must be confident that you have enough money for an unexpected bill.  Third-party liability cover is highly advisable for all horse owners, as claims for accident or injury to people have been known to run into millions of dollars.
  1. Be realistic

Look ahead and budget effectively to meet your horse’s needs.  Remember, horse care costs can increase in the dry months when there’s no grazing and you have to start paying for hay. So be prepared for this if taking a horse on in the winter when there’s usually more green pick available. Ideally, put a little money away every month or when you can, so you’re prepared if an unforeseen circumstance arises.  Not having a contingency plan can greatly reduce the options available to you once the problem has become too overwhelming to ignore.

Feeding Horses in Drought

Feeding Horses in Drought 


Jane is based in Rockhampton, Queensland. She has a wealth of experience in feeding horses in drought conditions and feeding horses correctly.

Firstly, it’s best to explain how much a horse should eat every day.  An average horse needs 2.0-2.5% of its body weight to maintain good condition and proper gut function.  This means a 14.2hh horse will need around 8kg of food daily, and an average 16hh horse will need 10kg daily.  Usually, this comprises of forage in the form of grass. During drought however, it’s very important to feed conserved forage (hay) to replace some or all of the horse’s diet.

Hay Suitability When Feeding Horses in drought conditions

Hay comes in many different forms, and depending on local differences and availability, it varies in energy content and palatability. Generally, hays are grouped into grass hays, legume and cereal hays.

All hays have an energy value, or as it’s commonly known –  DE (Digestible Energy). This indicates how much energy an average horse can extract from a kilogram. As a rule, the older the hay, the less energy and nutrient content it has.

There’s another big consideration to take into account – the NSC level. Simply put, this is non-structural carbohydrates (starch and sugars).  Most cereal hays are high in NSC as they’re made from partially developed seed heads and unripened stems of grain-producing plants.

The following list of hays provides useful details to help you choose what will best suit your horse or pony.

1.       Rhodes Grass – the most common type of cut grass hay

Energy value approx  9MJ/kg. NSC content (starch 0.34% plus WSC 7.5% = NSC value 8.14%)

Considerations: Easy to feed to most horses. However, if coarse or musty smelling, then it’s unpalatable. It’s safe and cost-effective to be fed ad lib to all horses.

2.       Lucerne/ Grassy Lucerne – Pure legume or a mix of legume and grass

Energy value approx 8-9.3MJ/KG. NSC content oflLucerne Hay or chaff mean average of 11%. Grassy Lucerne NSC% mean average of 13.6%

Considerations: This type of hay is highly palatable so can lead to gorging. Scouring may occur in horses when feeding prime (green) lucerne. Contains a higher digestible protein content which is often incorrectly perceived as increasing energy levels. It’s best fed in addition with other grass hays, not as the sole forage replacement to pasture.  I’ve found if mixed with other hays, it increases palatability and encourages consumption of less desirable fodder products.  In some horses, lucerne has been known to cause skin photosensitivity.

3. Cereal Hays (Barley/Oat/Wheat)

Energy value of oaten approx 7MJ/kg – barley and wheat higher. NSC content is 22% on average but can be up to 33%. NSC content for barley is 12.1 to 26.3%,.  Wheat 10.5-24.8%

Considerations: Palatable with a very high NSC level which can increase energy levels in some horses.   Long-term feeding has been cited as causing dental issues and metabolic issues due to its high sugar content. It’s not suitable for laminitis prone or insulin resistant horses. Issues can occur if the product is baled too early and when it’s too green.  For example, mouldy product in storage and the possibility of mycotoxin development.

Crucially with barley hay, check that it’s been baled young and is a beardless variety. Barley barbs can get stuck in the horse’s gums and teeth causing big issues.

4.       Lab Lab/Diolichos Lab Lab

Energy value unknown but is suggested to be similar to lucerne. NSC content unknown

Considerations: Palatable. Can be a good substitute for Lucerne but is prone to being coarse and not well preserved. Stems are thick and leaf matter is lost in the drying process. It’s fed overseas as a cattle and silage crop. No negative side effects reported with use in horses, however, the coarseness of the hay could cause digestive issues.

5.       Sorghum Hay/ Forage Hay (another cereal hay)

The energy value is variable according to the species. It’s thought to be around the same as oaten ie 7MJ/Kg. NSC content unknown but it’s considered high, similar to cereal hays.

Considerations: Sorghum is palatable with a high NSC level which in some horses can increase energy levels. Its high sugar levels mean long term feeding can lead to dental issues and metabolic issues. Sorghum is not suitable for laminitis prone or insulin resistant horses. Again, manufacturing issues can be prevalent with the product being baled too early and too green.   This can lead to mould forming in storage and the possibility of mycotoxin contamination. I’ve also noted that horses’ manure can become smelly when fed Sorghum.

Sorghum – buyer beware! 

Another issue is the manufacturing process.  When cut too early, stressed in dry conditions or isn’t the correct variety, it can be high in Prussic Acid (Cyanide). This is really bad for horses – an indication of high levels of Prussic Acid is redness on the leaves and stems. Grain hays comprised of sorghum grass and Johnson grass hay should NOT be fed to horses due to the toxicity levels of these plants. Sorghum grasses include Sudan grass, Johnson grass, hybrid forage sorghums, and grain sorghums. All classes of Sudan grasses and associated hybrids have toxicity levels that make them unfit for horse feed.

Further Issues have been reported with long term use including urine infections and abortion and deformities in foals.

6.       Millet Hay (another cereal hay)

Energy value unknown. NSC content unknown

Considerations: Some varieties are not palatable so it’ll often take time to adjust to a new type of hay. The greener it is, the sweeter it is. Excessive selenium levels found in some varieties can become an issue long term. There are reports of mouth ulcers from certain varieties as well as mineral imbalances. If foxtail millet hay is fed to horses, additional calcium supplementation will be required as it is high in oxalates. These are substances that make it difficult for the horse to absorb dietary calcium.

Planning Ahead when Feeding Horses in Drought Conditions

Given the current drought conditions, some owners may be forced to use less desirable hay type to feed their horses. With soaring costs and diminished availability, good hay is far more difficult to source. Hence, the importance of planning ahead is paramount. If a change to hay type needs to be made, then this should happen over at least 2 weeks to avoid colic or gut disruption.

Other Useful Horse Feeds for Drought Conditions 

Other fibre products are useful when feeding horses in drought conditions. For example, soaked feeds can be used as part replacement for chaff and hay. These include speedibeet, micrbeet, fibrebeet, and maxisoy. Providing a source of  quality digestible fibre, they can help increase digestible energy of inferior hay products. It’s possible to feed them at quite high levels – up to 1kg dry weight a day (check the individual product for details).

Balancer supplements

Essential Nutrient Supply

When feeding horses in drought conditions, you must ensure your horse is getting the correct levels of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Hay can be deficient in several major nutrients the longer it’s stored for, so a balancer is the ideal accompaniment.  A Fibregenix balancer supplement also assists with fibre digestion helping to improve calorie intake. Ensuring your horse gets his correct daily quota of nutrients will mean a healthy, happy horse for when the rains come.

Overweight Horses – Feeding Mistakes

Overweight Horses – Feeding Mistakes

Overweight Horses – Common Feeding Mistakes

When it comes to feeding overweight horses, there are many common feeding mistakes that could be a contributing factor. You think you’ve got your horse’s diet sussed. The problem is he’s still carrying too much weight for his own good. Where are you going wrong?  Check our definitive guide of common errors to see where you might be slipping up.

1. You’re feeding too much for his workload

Calorie-counting in overweight horses is the same as it is with humans. If they take in more calories than they burn off, they’ll put on weight. A 500-kilo horse in hard work will burn nearly twice as many calories as his mate who weighs the same but in light work. ie 34,500 calories as opposed to 20,000. So make sure your horse is receiving the right amount of feed for his weight and workload.

2. You’re feeding incorrectly for his breed

Native breeds have evolved to be good-doers, making the most of poor quality grazing. They generally require feeds of a lower-calorie level as they maintain their weight easily.  However, they still need lots of fibre to maintain digestive and behavioral health rather than being starved to keep weight down. While native types don’t tend to require concentrate feeds to provide calories, they do need is a balanced diet. A quality feed balancer eg Fibregenix, with a small amount of fibre, is all they need plus grazing and hay.

3. You’re feeding incorrectly for his age

Feeding young horses correctly is important to ensure they grow at an appropriate rate. It’s also highly important to ensure that the diet is completely balanced at all times. The majority of growth and development problems occur when there’s too much energy/calories going into the diet. Especially in combination with insufficient levels of vitamins, minerals and quality protein. Ideally, you’d want to keep youngsters in relatively light condition (4-4.5 out of 9 on the body scoring scale). This reduces the amount of pressure and strain on growing joints and limbs.

Veterans, however,  may need more calories to maintain condition as their ability to chew may be impaired by dental issues. The digestive system of the older horse also tends to be less efficient at processing feed. However, not all aged horses need a ‘veteran’ mix. Instead, monitor the condition and speak to a nutritionist if advice is needed on what best to feed your older horse.

4. You’re feeding too much for the time of year

In spring and summer, the grass is richer. In winter, it’s poorer and sparser. In winter, your horse can use up to 80% of his feed energy to keep warm.  So if he doesn’t get enough feed his weight may drop accordingly. Most horse owners prefer their horses to maintain a steady weight throughout the year. This doesn’t always follow the horse’s natural metabolic pattern of losing weight in winter and gaining in spring. If a horse comes out of winter already in good condition, he’s likely to stack on more weight when grazing becomes plentiful. Condition score your horse regularly so you know whether he needs more or less feed. Remember, tis is because the level required will fluctuate with the seasons.

5. You don’t know what he weighs

Horses in light/medium work need to consume 2% of their body weight in mainly forage (70-100% of their food intake) a day.   So if you don’t know how much he weighs, how do you know if he’s getting that, too much, or too little? Invest in a good weigh tape or take advantage of the weighbridge services that some feed companies or vets offer.

6. You’re not weighing his feed

If you have a good doer that’s prone to piling on the pounds, don’t just throw some feed into a bucket and hope for the best. You need to be strict with him — and yourself — and weigh his feed. A 500-kilo horse needs 20,000 calories a day in order to maintain his weight. There are approximately 7-8 MJ (or 2,000 calories) in a kilo of good quality hay. So if you’re stuffing his haynet with 10 kilos of hay each night, he’s already receiving all the calories he needs just for maintenance.  And that’s before you include any grass or hard feed!  You may be concerned he’s scoffing his hay ration too quickly and having nothing for the rest of the night.  If this is the case, invest in a trickle net to encourage him to eat more slowly.

7. You’re feeding too much hard feed

We should all know by now that many diseases are linked to high starch diets.   These include laminitis, colic, gastric ulcers, Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD), Equine Rhabdomyolysis Syndrome (ERS) and Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM).   Does he really need all that hard feed?  The majority don’t. We’ve been telling you this for quite a while now!

8. You’re buying the wrong hard feed

Work out how many calories your horse needs for his weight, breed, age, and level of work. Then check the calorie intake he’ll receive from his hard feed and consider honestly whether or not he really needs it.  If he has enough energy for work, then it should be obvious that he doesn’t.

9. Your grass is too good

Grass can contain a lot of sugar and calories, particularly in Spring and Autumn. Or indeed any time after drought-breaking rains.  So, when feeding overweight horses, restrict grazing in the danger periods. Alternatively, yard with hay. A Fibregenix balancer such as Prime Original OR Lami Low-Cal alongside hay provides his daily nutrient quota for health without the guesswork..

10. You’re buying the wrong hay

When feeding overweight horses, you need to choose the most suitable forage possible. A late cut, coarser hay will typically be less nutritious than an early cut forage.  Good doers don’t need cereal or legume hays – look for simple grassy hay instead.  If you can’t find a more suitable forage, soaking the hay for several hours can help to leach out sugars.

11. You’re trying to starve him into being skinny

Horses can’t do ‘crash diets’ any more than humans can. They’ve evolved to trickle feed.  This means they need an almost constant supply of forage for their digestive system to work correctly. If you withhold food from them, they may develop ulcers, and may also gorge quickly on food when presented with it. All dietary changes should happen gradually and over a significant period of time to be effective especially in overweight horses.

12. He’s a good doer

Feeding overweight horses can be a nightmare. Some just seem to get fat on thin air. If your horse is putting on weight despite taking all the precautions above, then speak to us. He may need to have a special feeding program devised for him. Being a good doer can also be problematic for competition horses. Feeding them for their level of activity can provide too many calories and cause them to gain weight. One solution is to feed less hard feed and provide a good balancer such as one from the Fibregenix range.

Reviewed and updated Feb 2020

Horse feeding practices

Horse feeding practices

A few days ago you brought your gelding in from the pasture where he’s been living 24/7. You decided to stable him during the day so you can get him prepped for an upcoming show. Today, however, he seems dull and is off his feed, with mild colic signs. The sudden change from pasture to hay and hard feed  must have upset his digestive system. To avoid such scenarios it’s vital you’re aware of what constitutes good or poor horse feeding practices.

The above example demonstrates how our horse feeding practices can greatly affect our horses’ gastrointestinal (GI) health. In order to refine our management techniques, we need to first look at the diet horses evolved to eat.

Horse Feeding Practices following The Horse’s Natural Way

OrlandoHorses evolved in an environment where they grazed more or less ­continuously—about 14 to 18 hours a day. And for good reason.  Digestion in horses is less efficient than digestion in ruminants.  Therefore, the horse’s feeding strategy is to eat a lot of forage to get the necessary nutrients required on a daily basis. Forage has a relatively rapid rate of passage through the digestive tract, producing lots of faeces. As long as the horse has plenty of forage, this rapid rate of passage doesn’t matter.

So this strategy works well for horses which wander, graze, and eat continually except when resting. However, a study showed that stabled horses maintained a lower (more acidic) pH in the stomach  than those allowed to move around in paddocks. Movement also helps gut motility and this is why confinement is one of the risk factors for colic.

In natural settings, social contact also affects digestion.  It gives horses a sense of security so they can settle down and eat. Being herd animals, the comfort of being together reduces their stress levels, ­promoting normal grazing behavior.

The three aspects (free movement, foraging, and social interactions) of normal equine behavior are disturbed when we confine horses in stables.  By limiting free movement and feeding at set times, foraging behavior is lost. Even if they can see other horses when they stabled it’s not the same as having continual social contact. This also adds stress to their daily lives.

These changes can affect horses in ­several ways. Some of them adopt abnormal stereotype behaviour such as cribbing, weaving, and stable-walking. Additionally, health issues such as gastric ulcers, colic or laminitis can develop.  And all these are down to the unnatural conditions, feeds and feeding practices of modern horse-keeping.

The horse’s small stomach is designed to handle continual modest amounts of high-fibre food. This is why horse feeding practices work best if the horse is trickle-feeding throughout the day and night. It can’t hold a large meal eaten all at once. Not only that, the horse’s gut also works differently from ours. Humans, like other predatory species, eat nutrient-dense meals (such as meat) and don’t have to eat again for quite a while. Horses are prey animals, eating a large proportion of fibrous material continuously to gain an equal amount of nutrients.  They are constantly on the move, and on the lookout for predators.

By imposing our type of eating on the horse, thinking a horse can eat meals like us, we forget this is unnatural. It’s also detrimental to his well-being and gut health. We adopt a regime of  feeding our horses just twice a day.  We may even be restricting his forage, feeding in such a manner. Yet we don’t stop to think about the horse’s natural feeding behavior and how the digestive tract works.

Best Horse Feeding practices – Increase Chew Time

Horses grazingForaging behavior— ie, grazing for 50 to 70% of the day—translates into heaps of time spent chewing. The horse spends a lot more time chewing forage than eating grain/hard feed.  Studies have shown that for 1 kilogram of hay, a horse chews 3,400 times and takes 40 minutes to eat it. If a horse is chewing 1 kilogram of oats, he only chews 850 times and finishes it in 10 minutes.

In another study, researchers looked at how many times horses chew per day when given constant access to hay: 43,000. By contrast, a horse consuming a pelleted diet chewed only a quarter of that amount, around 10,000 times per day.

Chewing is so important because the saliva it produces helps buffer the stomach from ulcer-causing acid.  Therefore, we can increase chew time by making appropriate  feeding adjustments. Feeding more fibre makes our horse chew more. The solid and liquid portions readily separate with he fibre floating on top forming a mat and the liquid underneath. There are also varying particle sizes.

By contrast, if a horse consumes a 100% pelleted diet, there’s not much physically effective fibre.  This leaves the particle size very small in his GI tract . The horse doesn’t have to chew pellets as he would fibre,  and there’s a very uniform mix of food within the tract.  That uniform mixture will increase the risk for ulcers.  It won’t move through the GI tract in the same way that a non-uniform mixture would.  Primarily,  because there’s not enough bulk to help keep things moving along properly.

Related Content: Journey Through the Equine GI Tract

Studies were undertaken at Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center, at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.  They studied feedstuff characteristics in the caecum of cannulated horses.  (Those with surgical portals created through the abdominal wall through which researchers can access the caecum).

High-grain diets resulted in more  material in the cecum that lacked good solid and fluid separation. The researchers noted that this mixture was also frothier and trapped more gas. A potential for colic.

Findings showed the caecum and colon come together at the pelvic flexure which is geared toward high-fibre forage that horses eat naturally. The more uniform mixture of modern diets might not fit as well,  increasing the risk for gastrointestinal disturbances. In fact, more feed impactions occur at the pelvic flexure than anywhere else in  the digestive tract.

So horses with minimal chew time are prone to not only gastric ulcers but also colic due to gas, impaction, or other issues.

Importantly, chewing also has a calming effect. Horses that chew more during the day are less likely to develop stereotypical behaviour. If they’re happily eating, they’re content, less stressed, and healthier.

Several things, however, can diminish a horse’s ability to chew. Poor tooth alignment, tooth loss, or arthritis in the jaw can all happen in older horses.  He will chew less, with a higher risk for gastric problems. If the horse can’t chew fibre effectively, then you have to make dietary changes. Provide something that’s easier to chew, such as hay cubes, pellets, chaff, beet pulp, and/or a complete feed.

A Paper Trail of Feeding.

Keep precise records of what and when you feed your horse.  This makes it easier to  determine any causative factors if there are gastrointestinal problems.

This might include the type and amount of hard feed. Hay type and weight, feeding frequency, and diet changes.

Know the body condition of your horse and vital signs. Take these periodically so you’re familiar with his normal temperature, pulse and respiration rate when he’s healthy.  It’ll help you to recognize problems early— for instance, if he goes off feed and his heart rate is increased. If any of these things are abnormal for that horse, it can be indicative of a gastrointestinal problem. You may think you know what’s going on, but a diary note is better evidence than a recollection.

Best Horse Feeding Practices – Reduce Meal Size

Remembering a horse’s small stomach size, concentrate meals should never be too large. Generally, a 500-kg horse should consume no more than 2.3 kg of concentrate feed per meal.

However, the new way of thinking for feeding horses correctly focuses more on the amount of starch in any one feed. To decrease the incidence of gastric ulcers yet still provide a high-starch meal to horses needing lots of energy, limit grams of starch per kilogram of body weight. Ie. no more than 2g of starch per kg of horse’s bodyweight. Ulcer prone horses should have no more than 1 gram of starch per kilogram of body weight in any single meal. For horses in less demanding work, some studies advocate no grain at all.

This means if your feed is 20% starch, your 500 kg horse should consume 2kg of feed per meal. If the feed is 40% starch, his meal should be half that size. This helps reduce gastric ulcer risk. Feeding more than this in one meal, increases the risk of  hindgut acidosis or colic. Hindgut acidosis occurs when we overwhelm the small intestine with too much starch. It doesn’t get enzymatically digested and ends up in the hindgut. There are bacteria in the hindgut that love to digest starch and the end product of their starch digestion is lactic acid. This makes the hindgut more acidic which increases the risk for colic and indigestion.

Such horses might lose weight and develop stereotypies. Keeping a concentrate meal under 2 grams per kilogram of body weight may prevent hindgut acidosis.

Best Horse Feeding practices – Feed More Frequent Meals

Hay weighingIncreasing the number of meals per day is a management strategy that helps reduce gastric ulcer and colic risks.  However,  it can be a challenging practice for people accustomed to only morning and evening feeding—before and after work.

Many horse owners put a pile of forage in front of the horse first thing in the morning or at night, thinking he’ll feed on it until the next feeding. The problem is most horses eat it all at once and by mid-morning or late evening the hay is gone.

Instead, try grouping smaller, more frequent fibre-rich meals closer together. Use a slow feeder for hay and incorporate some kind of chopped fibre (or chaff) into the grain or concentrate feeding. This will slow eating and make the horse chew more. If this is combined with some pasture access during the day, the horse will probably have less risk for gastrointestinal problems.

In fact, if you’re trying to get more calories into a horse, you’re better off feeding smaller meals more frequently. If you’re trying to feed just 1 gram of starch per kilogram of body weight, and the horse needs 5 kilograms per day (to keep weight on or provide energy for hard work), you should be feeding several meals. For example, feeding oats, which are about 40% starch,  means you would feed four meals per day to keep it under 1.25 kilograms per meal. Not always a viable option of course!

Some of today’s commercial concentrate feeds can be helpful if they are high-fibre, or high in fat and fibre and relatively lower in starch and sugar.  (around 20%)

Many stabled horses spend as little as 30% of their time eating. Dividing food into more meals so they can eat more often, is healthier for the GI tract than going so long between meals. Abnormal behaviors such as eating manure and bedding, or stereotypies eg chewing wood, are primarily due to the horse’s inability to graze.  This means lack of chew time, insufficient fiber in the diet, and not feeling full. When a horse doens’t get his daily gut fill he’ll resort to trying to eat or chew other things.

Best Horse Feeding Practices – Make Diet Changes Slowly

As we mentioned earlier, when making any changes to your horse’s diet, do so slowly and gradually. Make any change over a couple of weeks. Eg. from hay to pasture or pellets and vice versa.  From one kind of hay to another. Or in a concentrate ration, content, or quantity.

Related Content: Switching Horse Feeds Safely

Even moving from one part of the country to another, where feedstuffs might be different, can be a challenge for horses. Many people on the East Coast go from north to south every year for showing, racing, etc. When making these moves, bring a little feed (both the hay and concentrate) that the horse is accustomed to eating.  Thereafter, make a gradual change after the horse arrives in his new environment.

Some horses adjust readily, others don’t, so always err on the side of caution when it comes to feeding practices. Horses are a lot like humans in that there are variations in how different horses handle change or different foods. This is down to a combination of genetic factors, microbes in the gut and differences in ability to handle different foods.

Take-Home Message

For optimum gut health, our horse feeding practices should mimic nature as much as possible. Unnatural conditions can adversely impact horses’ GI tract health and function. This means paying attention to what we feed (nutrient and fibre levels). Plus, how we feed in terms of meal size and frequency.  We should always be mindful of trying to find ways to increase his eating and chew time.

If you’re unsure about your horse’s diet please feel free to contact us.  Alternatively, try our free diet audit. Our Equine Nutrition consultant will thoroughly review your horse’s diet with the experience gained from over 30 years of practical, hands-on and common sense knowledge.