Reasons to exorcise the 'demon' in grain


The International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), based in Norfolk, England, has long dealt primarily with cases of neglected and starved horses, but now there is a newer issue facing this organization.

The International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), based in Norfolk, England, has long dealt primarily with cases of neglected and starved horses, but now there is a newer issue facing this organization.

Fit and thin: This endurance horse not only can handle but actually needs high-energy food. (Photos: Dr. Kenneth Marcella)

"We have seen a 100 percent increase in people concerned about overweight horses since 2005 and have seen an equally dramatic rise in the number of reported cases of laminitis," says Samantha Lewis, coordinator of the ILPH "Right Weight Road Show" that travels around the country educating horse owners about correct ways to feed horses.

"Obesity is becoming more of a problem and an under-recognized one, too," says Dr. Josh Slater of the Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, UK. "People tend to see a fat horse as a healthy horse," he adds.

It is interesting that, while society views obesity in humans as a problem, most horse owners tend to keep their horses fatter rather than thinner. Though human-body perception may be driven by advertisers using thin models and entertainers with their personal chefs and trainers, equine body perception is driven by the show ring, where it's been said that "you won't win if you're too thin."

"The type of horse considered suitable to win in a show class today is in fact obese, and this 'ideal' filters down the line," says Dr. Robert Eustace, founder of the Laminitis Trust and director of the Laminitis Clinic at Wiltshire, UK.

Equine veterinary medicine, however, has done a good job recently of highlighting the problems associated with obesity and overfeeding in horses. Many of our clients can speak knowledgably about insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing's disease, and most have heard at least something about the problems associated with fructans and other sugars presenting a danger in the grass.

Overweight: An obese pleasure horse like this one should not need grain. (Photos: Dr. Kenneth Marcella)

Barbaro's saga brought laminitis into the general public's consciousness.

Horse owners are more aware that what their horses eat either can help or hurt. This scrutiny is focused on carbohydrates because they are the source of most of the previously mentioned problems as well as a host of other diseases and conditions.

Excess carbohydrates in grain can cause everything from colic to laminitis; carbohydrates in fresh green pasture can be equally damaging.

The take-home message is getting misinterpreted by many horse owners. They are coming away with a belief that all grain is bad and should be avoided under all circumstances.

It is not difficult to see why such a belief is taking hold.

"I'm here to stamp out grain," said Dr. Nancy Loving at an American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Healthy Horse Workshop last year in San Antonio.

Actually she was making a point about feeding healthier calorie sources, but added, "In any case you can eliminate grain, do so because it (grain) can really create problems, such as gastric ulcers, obesity, obesity-associated laminitis, insulin resistance and colic."

Dr. Amy Gill is an equine nutritionist who advocates healthier dietary choices. In a recent article on feeding myths she writes:

"Grain is not natural for the horse to eat." Then she adds, "There is hardly anything done with domestic horses anymore that can be considered natural."

Useful tool: Note the hanging scale at upper right. Nutritionists say the scale is one of the most important, yet underused, tools in managing the equine diet.

Feeding good quality, soluable fiber, Gill says, "is a much healthier way to provide energy to the hard-working horse."

It is easy to see why some clients are becoming confused and why grain seems to be "bad seed" in current equine nutritional recommendations.

But grain is not all bad and does have a place in some equine feeding programs. There are many, many horses that do not have genetic, hormonal or other predispositions to obesity or associated conditions and the vast majority of these horses can live full, healthy lives on appropriate grain-based diets.

Amount, type of grain are key

The operative word here is "appropriate" grain diets.

"Most cases of equine obesity are simply due to overfeeding," says Dr. Jonathan Foreman of the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

It is not grain that is problematic for horses, but rather too much grain or the incorrect type of grain.

For some horses, grain may be essential to the diet because of other "unnatural" demands placed on these equine athletes. Horses in show or heavy performance schedules are required to hold up to the demands of traveling and exercising at an elite level. "For many of these horses," says Dr. Marty Adams, an equine nutritionist with Southern States, "the amount of time allowed for pasture or hay intake is not sufficient to provide adequate calories to maintain adequate body condition when a high level of energy is required."

Often, even when there is adequate hay or pasture time given to horses, there may be too many horses for a given area and the amount of hay or grass may be insufficient or of poorer quality to maintain a desired body condition, Adams says.

Many areas of the southeastern United States experienced a severe drought last year and some locations are still recovering. These areas had poor pastures and limited hay supplies, making the correct use of some grain in the diet almost a requirement for many horses.

Additionally, there are many vitamins and minerals needed by horses that are poorly supplied by forage. Vitamin A, zinc, copper, magnesium, Vitamin E and selenium are all necessary for various phases of a horse's life, and adequate levels are unlikely to be achieved on pasture or forage alone.

Appropriate feeding of grain

Still, there are many intelligent choices that can be made by owners and trainers that will allow them to feed some type of grain, provide adequate vitamins and minerals, ensure appropriate energy for performance and still provide their horse with healthier carbohydrates.

Feed companies have recognized the needs of horses and the newer concerns of horse owners and have responded. Most now offer a "balancer" product designed to be added to the diet of horses consuming adequate grass or forage. This supplement adds appropriate vitamins and minerals, along with biotin, omega -3 fatty acids and other compounds that make this primarily forage-based diet complete.

Horses that do not have enough forage or hay access need a grain-based diet, but low to extremely low starch-based concentrates are available.

While traditional sweet feed grains have nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) percentages in the high 30s to 40s, the newer low-starch grains have NSC percentages in the lower teens to single digits.

Additionally, these low-starch diets have been shown to lower blood glucose and insulin levels after feeding, lowering the risks of metabolic syndrome and/or laminitis.

Certain low-starch diets have been shown to lower post-exercise heart rates, which may yield performance increases in certain equine sports.

Monitoring weight, exercise

Most nutritionists maintain that the scale remains one of the most important and yet most underused tools in equine feeding management.

Weighing a horse's feed and feeding it appropriate amounts of the correct type of feed will eliminate many of the problems typically seen in overweight horses.

Add to this the concept of adequate exercise and a majority of feeding-related problems will take care of themselves.

"Horses need to be exercised daily in meaningful ways," Slater says. "Owners should push their horses for more strenuous exercise. It is not enough to ride a horse three times weekly for 20 to 30 minutes a session."

There is some thought that even horses in show situations are working too lightly for their feeding programs. An ongoing study of hunter/jumper horses using GPS and heart-rate monitors has produced preliminary data showing that these horses rarely travel over three to four miles, or have heart rates that exceed 100 beats per minute during the course of what would be considered a "heavy" day of competition.

Such easy physiological workouts hardly justify the level of grain that most of these horses receive.

For them, more attention to designing an appropriate diet is necessary. Simply switching to a low-starch or reduced-calorie balanced feed may be all that is needed to provide some performance horses with enough energy to win while reducing enough sugar to stay thin.

Dr. Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.

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