Your veterinarian just told you that your overweight, insulin-resistant horse is going to develop laminitis if you don’t put him in a dry lot with a very small amount of hay. You don’t want to restrict his hay, but you feel wracked with guilt. What if your vet is right? How would you forgive yourself if your horse became ill?
The truth is your horse is already ill. And his history will tell you just how ill he has become. If he has always had free choice forage (hay and/or pasture) then you have an easier job ahead of you. But if he hasn’t had a steady supply of forage 24/7, often for years on end, the impact on his metabolism and his brain is tough to reverse.
If you think the solution is to continue down the destructive path of forage restriction, you’ll only make things worse. He may lose weight, but it will be mostly muscle loss. His insulin resistance will remain and continue to promote the inflammation that is causing oxidative stress throughout his entire body including the hypothalamus portion of the brain, leading to leptin resistance, and even Cushing’s disease.
The only way to fix your horse is to help him return to his natural state. Feeding your horse in a manner that is contrary to his innate physiological needs is making his body scream for help. His hormones are raging. His brain is telling him to hold on to body fat to protect himself from the perceived threats to his survival.
Quality of Life
I believe quality of life is what matters most. But how do we achieve it in a domesticated setting? We certainly try—seeking advice from others, investigating the next fancy supplement, analyzing the diet, consulting with veterinarians, chiropractors, massage therapists, animal communicators, and yes, even equine nutritionists, all in the never-ending quest to help our horse.
But I have a secret for you. It’s simple to understand, makes perfect sense, and yet very few horse owners know about it (or choose to ignore it). You may use this secret for your own health to create balance in your life by eating well, establishing priorities, and tapping into your inner self. But what about the horse’s “inner self,” where his body and mind are in sync and health comes naturally?
There lies the answer—honoring and respecting the way a horse is designed. It means quality living. It means a life without daily suffering and fear. And it means a life where your horse can make choices.
If you want this for your horse, you need to learn what your horse requires to be whole. Once empowered with this understanding you can weigh his needs against what you hear from well-intentioned friends and equine professionals.
What causes obesity and why is forage restriction a factor in keeping your horse overweight?
To help you with this, please start by reading my articles and listening to recordings on Overweight Horses and Free Choice Forage Feeding Concepts in the Resource Library on my website gettyequinenutrition.com.
“Free-choice” means that forage is always available. It doesn’t imply that the horse will eat 24 hours a day. Instead, it means that the horse gets to choose when to eat. When forage isn’t around, the horse can’t relax and will eat everything in sight and eat it quickly. A wild horse will experience this during the winter when forage is scarce. His insulin level rises as a natural response so that his body can hold on to fat during the food shortage. We duplicate this scenario in a domesticated situation when we restrict hay. The horse goes into “winter mode” and holds on to body fat!
How to Make Changes
Test your hay. You need to know if your hay is low in sugar and starch, as well as its caloric content, so you can allow him to “graze” on it.
When you get your hay analysis report, look at the “dry matter” column and add up two numbers: ESC + Starch. ESC refers to simple sugars. Along with starch, they impact insulin levels. The familiar “NSC” includes fructans which do not raise insulin levels, so it’s not as accurate to look at WSC (which is ESC plus fructans). The ESC + starch should ideally be no more than 10%.
Also look at the digestible energy (DE), which measures how caloric the hay is. A value no higher than 0.94 Mcals/lb (2.06 Mcals/kg) is favorable for the overweight horse.
If these values are too high, you may need to soak your hay. Soaking can be labor intensive and not feasible in freezing temperatures. In that case, keep searching for another hay that you could possibly use to “dilute” your current hay.
If your barn brings in new hay every week or so, you may not be able to have it tested. In this case, consider bringing in your own supply of hay and paying for storage space.
Once you’ve determined your hay is appropriate, offer it free choice. There should be some left over in the morning, so you know your horse didn’t run out during the night. At first, your horse will overeat. In his mind, spring is here, after a long, brutal winter!
Don’t make the mistake of just increasing the amount. If you just give your horse more hay, but he runs out, even for a few minutes, he will always assume that forage is scarce and will never reach the point when he can walk away from it. Yes, walk away from it – that’s the magic moment! It can take a week to occur, or it can take months.
Test your pasture. If you have pasture, consider testing it. Every two weeks will give you an idea of how it’s behaving. However, during the fall and spring when there are warm, sunny days and cold nights (typically below 40 F), the grasses will hold on to the sugar and starch they accumulated throughout the daytime, making the grasses more dangerous for your insulin resistant horse. Test the sugar and starch level of pastures in various conditions.
Benefits of Grazing
If your horse is currently in a dry lot with hay and not doing well, and you have access to pasture (especially one with a variety of grasses and edible weeds and not fertilized), you may want to consider gradually switching him from a dry lot to pasture. The more dangerous times are typically in the late afternoon after a sunny day, or during the early spring and fall seasons. Other risky grasses are those that are drought stressed, over-grazed, or experiencing excessive rainfall.
If you’ve determined that your pasture is low enough in sugar and starch to allow grazing, consider the pluses of giving your horse this opportunity:
Movement: Researchers at Louisiana State looked at horses who were fed hay in a dry lot versus those that were able to graze on pasture and found that the horses in the dry lot were more insulin resistant than the horses in the pasture.
Healthy microbiome: Grazing horses pick up a variety of beneficial organisms to help them maintain healthy microflora in the hindgut.
Higher nutrients: Fresh pasture grasses offer antioxidants, vitamins, and essential fatty acids that are not found in hay in sufficient quantities.
Socialization: Horses who are accustomed to grazing effortlessly, interacting with other horses, and moving about will exhibit stress-related responses when suddenly confined to a space that doesn’t allow them to enjoy behaving naturally.
Lower forage consumption: Interestingly, horses who graze on pasture 24/7 will eat far less grass than those who are only allowed to graze on pasture for a few hours each day with hay provided the rest of the time. Researchers have confirmed this in controlled studies.
If you’ve tried this approach without success, take a closer look:
Fixing the damaged horse takes effort, money, and patience. Sometimes it takes as long as a year for the horse to gain back his instinct to maintain a normal body weight.
Creating a stress-free environment is paramount to creating a balanced hormonal response that supports weight loss. Start with the foundational truth that horses are meant to graze at will, while providing opportunities for movement, exploration, and companionship. Stalling should be limited as much as possible, or even eliminated.
The basis of the diet must be low sugar/starch/calorie forage that can be fed in a manner that allows for 24/7 grazing. Consider a Paddock Paradise type set-up (paddockparadise.net); it’s a wonderful way to provide horses with an environment that simulates a natural habitat. Also consider using slow feeders in a variety of locations to encourage movement and slow hay consumption.
Diets that offer specific supplements will help reduce inflammation, normalize insulin and leptin, and offer enough nutrients to feed the entire body. The following supplements have been used with great success:
Comprehensive vitamin/mineral supplement. If the diet is hay-based, this is necessary to fill in nutritional gaps that exist with hay.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is an omega 3 fatty acid that is powerful at reducing inflammation caused by excess fat.
Butyric acid. Butyric acid is one of the three volatile fatty acids that are naturally produced by the microbes in the hindgut during hay fermentation. At higher levels, it is helpful for metabolic syndrome.
Gymnema sylvestre. This herb has been used for years with people suffering from type 2 diabetes to help lower insulin.
CBD. Studies with horses are just beginning, but CBD has been shown to help with weight loss in people. Many of my clients have seen declines in blood insulin and leptin levels in their horses.
Hemp seeds. Hemp provides high-quality protein plus its fatty acid content helps alleviate the inflammation caused by excess insulin.
Lipoic acid. Alleviates metabolic syndrome symptoms.
Added iron. Forage is already high enough and excess iron exacerbates insulin resistance.
Soy. This includes soybean meal, soybean hulls, soybean oil, etc. Most soy grown in the US is genetically modified to withstand being sprayed with glyphosate. This has been shown to negatively impact the microbiome, increase toxicity to cells, and reduce absorption of key minerals.
Added sugar and starch. This includes cereal grains, grain by-products in large quantities, rice bran, and molasses.
High-sugar treats. Most commercial treats contain oats and molasses. Check the label. Carrots and apples may not be appropriate except in extremely limited quantity.
Establish a Baseline
As your horse progresses assess his improvement with certain measurements:
Measure the neck, halfway between the poll and the base of the wither. Divide this number in inches by the horse’s height at the top of the wither. A value of greater than 0.63 likely indicates insulin resistance.
Blood tests: Measure insulin, glucose, and leptin. Test while your horse has access to hay, but at least three hours after offering supplements.
Test for Cushing’s disease if you suspect that this could be an issue.
Your horse brings you so much joy; respect his need to be a horse. If your insulin-resistant horse has endured years of being fed forage only intermittently throughout the day while waiting hours for more hay, he is damaged. Bring him back to a healthy state. It is well worth the effort.
To see the author’s full version of this article including all sources please visit Dr. Getty’s website: www.gettyequinenutrition.com.
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices. Dr. Getty’s goal is to empower the horseperson with the confidence and knowledge to provide the best nutrition for his or her horse’s needs. Learn more at www.gettyequinenutrition.com.