Are You Killing Your Horse With Kindness?

Are You Killing Your Horse With Kindness?

The dietary and metabolic issues concerning the horse of today  are not necessarily the same as those of yesteryear, as a result of our change in lifestyle, and greater reliance on mechanical means for industry and transport.  Horses are now fed either an improved pasture, which contains genetically selected, digestible plant  species designed for cattle and sheep or they are stall fed, and given a range of fibre and concentrates (that are selected by humans).  Horses are designed to eat pasture at least 18 hours per day, ie they are "slow feeders". Pasture alone does not generally provide enough nutrients, and so the modern horse is supplemented with roughage and concentrate. The roughage can be slow fed, however our lifestyle means that we can only feed concentrates morning and night. This can result in "pulse" feeding high energy nutrients into a digestive system designed to receive and digest nutrients slowly. Some concentrates which contain high levels of sugar and starch (non structural carbohydrates or NSC) are called fast foods. In general, most horses are under worked  and overfed on high NSC feeds,  resulting in a range of horse health issues, which are a major economic loss to the horse owners and the industry.   Put simply ...are you overfeeding  "fast foods" and killing your horse with kindness?

These metabolic disorders include fizzy or hot behaviour, obesity, laminitis, colic, tying up, insulin resistance, cushings, equine metabolic syndrome, developmental orthopaedic disease  to name a few, which cause economic loss to the equine industry.   Some of these disorders have been linked to the high levels of sugar and starch (non structural carbohydrate, NSC) in the diet. 

Feeding horses has become over complicated, with the large number of feeds and supplements being promoted to the horse owner, often leading to information overload, and fad feeding.

The horse evolved as a herbivore designed to graze predominately prairie pastures, and small shrubs and foliage.  These prairie grasses typically produced grains with small seed heads, which contained low levels of starch. In a quest to improve animal production, these old prairie grasses have been replaced with genetically selected plant species that contain high levels of sugars and starch (NSC) both in the leaves, and in the seed heads.   Most modern horse pastures are based on plant species that were developed for intensive production of beef, dairy cattle and sheep.  For further information see

Basically, horses need

  • Both digestible, and slowly digestible fiber for energy and gut motility
  • Balanced minerals and vitamins
  • Balanced NSC
  • "Slow feeding" of nutrients
  • Fresh water
  • Digestible protein (and amino acids)
  • Digestible energy
  • Oils.

The quantity of each ingredient is determined by bodyweight, and the physiological condition of the horse (is it growing, exercising, pregnant or lactating). The key is to keep these ingredients in balance, and not to overfeed any one component.  FeedXl is an online nutritional calculator

Horse feeds vary from hay to provide fibre, through to concentrates, to provide digestible energy, protein, minerals and oil. . Most concentrates contain a grain or grain byproducts, which in turn contain digestible sugars and starch, ie NSC.   The level of NSC in a feed can be determined in a laboratory (eg EquiAnalytical in the USA), and helps to rank feeds.   This series of articles discusses some of the metabolic disorders in horses that could be influenced by high levels of NSC in the feed. It should be stressed that not all horses react the same to high NSC feeds, however the discerning horse owner should be aware of the potential effects of high NSC feeds, and select lower NSC feeds if you are concerned about dietary related disorders (bad behaviour, laminitis, colic, etc).

As a result of recent information from university studies, and observations from practical horse owners, new feeds have been developed which have a low NSC content, and yet provide energy in a NSC form to support peak performance. These feeds will be discussed in following articles.

Stay tuned as we introduce a series of articles to bring you up to date on the following topics

  • Horse nutrition made simple
  • Role of NSC
  • Fast foods and slow foods
  • The role and importance of fibre
  • Lamintis
  • Cushings
  • Colic
  • Selection of  simple and safe feeds for show horses.