Feeding and nutrition can play significant roles in both the onset and the severity of a laminitic episode, and also help in managing laminitis – whether the cause of the laminitis is mechanical, inflammatory or metabolic such as endocrine disorders, including EMS and PPID (Cushings). In particular, excessive total dietary calories, especially the calories from sugars and starch, are known to be implicated, particularly where insulin dysregulation is involved. High dietary levels of these Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC = water soluble carbohydrates or “sugars” including fructans + starch), may overwhelm the normal site of digestion in the horse’s small intestine, so they are passed through to the hind gut, where they can cause disruption to the gut microbiome.
Even though the fibre-digesting microbes in the hindgut can digest NSC including fructans, excessive levels will disrupt the gut microbes, resulting in a drop in pH which kills the beneficial fibre-digesting microbes, and allows other, undesirable microbes to increase, causing further disruption to the delicately balanced microbiota. Consequently, toxins are created which trigger metabolic changes and, although the exact mechanisms are not clear, these changes in the gut microbiome can trigger or exacerbate a laminitic episode.
The main things to look out for in your horse’s diet are:
- Excessive daily overall calories
- Excessive intakes of grass high in high water soluble carbohydrates (WSC) consumed during spring and autumn grass growth flushes, as well as stressed grass.
- Concentrate feeds that are high in sugar and starch.
- Large cereal-based meals offered infrequently.
- Imbalances or deficiencies in key minerals and vitamins.
How to Manage Laminitis with Careful Feeding
Should form the basis of the diet for all horses and ponies. It is vital to accurately assess forage intake, focusing on the amount of forage as well as the type of forage. If your horse is prone to laminitis, make sure they do not overindulge on forage even though this should form the highest proportion of their diet. This is likely to mean restricting access to grazing during spring and autumn. Strip grazing, track grazing or a well-fitting muzzle can all be helpful to restrict intake. Forage selected should be clean, not dusty, and have as low a level of WSC and overall calories as possible, for most affected horses and ponies. The forage proportion of the diet should form no less than 1.5% of bodyweight, on a dry matter basis, only reducing below this level under expert supervision.
Soaking hay will further reduce the WSC, or, for those horses and ponies who are not overweight, are working harder, and require slightly higher calorie intakes, or those with respiratory issues, choose carefully fermented haylage for horses rather than air dried hay as this will have lower NSC levels due to the fermentation process. Clean straw is also another good option as it is lower in NSC than most grass hays and, when carefully introduced, can provide a useful low NSC, low calorie, high fibre forage, and can be mixed with haylage to reduce the overall calories Providing a proportion of the daily forage allocation as straw can help meet both the psychological need to chew and to help maintain gut motility in horses and ponies on restricted diets.
Concentrate Feeds and Key Minerals and Vitamins
Many horses and ponies can maintain body condition and moderate levels of work on a forage-based diet plus supplemental minerals and vitamins. As mentioned above, many concentrate and cereal-based feeds contain high levels of sugars or water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC) and starch, so these should be removed from your horse’s diet. Instead, choose a fibre-based feed, low in sugars and starch, and make sure vitamins and minerals are provided through suitable intakes of these high fibre, chaff-based concentrate feeds. Alternatively, you can include an additional powdered or pelleted supplement, mixed in a small amount of low sugar chaff, to ensure vital minerals and vitamins are provided.
In addition to meeting basal requirements for minerals and vitamins, elevated levels of key micronutrients such as magnesium, biotin, zinc, certain B vitamins and amino acids such as methionine can help support both gut health and provide additional nutritional support for hoof health.
Monitor bodyweight and the importance of exercise regimes.
The use of condition-scoring and weight tapes can help to prevent obesity, and to monitor weight loss programmes if required. Research has also confirmed that developing and maintaining a suitable exercise regime is vital in helping to manage horses and ponies prone to laminitis, once the vet and farrier have confirmed that they are able to undertake controlled exercise.
Low Sugar & Starch Options from HorseHage
HorseHage High Fibre and Mollichaff HoofKind Complete have been designed to support horses prone to laminitis. With low levels of starch and sugar and high fibre levels, as well as a broad spectrum mineral and vitamin supplement, containing elevated levels of key micronutrients to support gut and hoof health, are both great options for horses and ponies prone to laminitis.