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There are many ways in which low glycemic feeds can improve our horse’s health and I’m happy to have guest Mark DePaolo, DVM share how to do that below!
Good nutrition is integral to allowing a performance horse to achieve its highest potential. Thinking about food as energy and how various feeds affect the body is extremely important. Diet actually plays a critical role in many equine health issues such as ulcers, tying up, allergies, laminitis and a compromised immune system.
Complete feeds (commonly referred to as ‘grain’) are often thought to provide everything required by performance horses. Most of these offer the type of quick burning energy you get from a candy sugar high, rather than a steady supply of energy obtained from feeding rice bran, beet pulp, and forages like alfalfa.
The digestive system of the horse is designed to continually ingest fiber and use it as a slow burning form of energy. Unfortunately, many of today’s show horses are being fed a consistent diet of starchy carbohydrates and sugar because it is easy for the owner, rather than nutritious for the horse.
Complete feeds or ‘grain’ are high in non-structural carbohydrates (starch), which horses do not adequately process in high quantities. Therefore, some of it passes through the stomach and small intestine undigested before it can be broken down by fermentation in the cecum and colon.
Once starch reaches the large intestine, it lowers pH levels and provides a feast to bacteria. This creates lactic acid which causes discomfort and muscle soreness, as well as increases the risk of colic and hindgut acidosis. The change of environment can also cause ‘good’ bacteria to die. When that happens, endotoxins are released into the gut, to be absorbed by the bloodstream. Those endotoxins can lead to laminitis.
It is important to read the label on the feed bag to understand HOW MUCH is needed at each meal to achieve the stated daily requirements of vitamins and minerals. Some ‘grains’ require you to feed as much as 10 POUNDS a day for horses in moderate to heavy work. It is extremely difficult for the horse’s digestive system to process that large amount of starch while under stress.
Also, if you are accustomed to measuring grain rations with a two pound scoop, that is often less than the recommended amount. Your horse will not receive enough vitamins and minerals to meet his nutritional needs. This can lead to the inability to fight off illness and make your horse more prone to injury.
Avoid ‘grains’ that contain molasses, corn, soy, by-products or middlings. These can be hard to digest, usually contain high amounts of herbicides, and may induce an allergic response from the immune system.
The best way to evaluate feeds is by using the Glycemic Index. The GI will help you to determine if a particular ingredient will elevate the blood sugar level, creating an insulin spike once ingested. It is also helpful for ranking and comparing what you are feeding your horse.
Whole oats act as the standard glycemic index feedstuff with a value of 100. A feed with a glycemic index value over 100 produces more blood glucose in a given amount of time than whole oats, and a feed with a glycemic index of less than 100 produces a lower blood glucose response. Look for feeds with a value of 50 or lower to provide the best nutrition.
Think of the glycemic index as the ability to choose which road you want to trailer your horse. A high glycemic index feed is like a steep mountain pass, while a lower GI is a straight highway. The later is much easier to navigate and less stressful for your horse.
Non-structural carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream will have a higher glycemic index value. Always read the label and check to see if there are high GI ingredients.
Most grain concentrates are full of starch – that is any form of feed that is swiftly broken down and turned into blood sugar, creating an insulin spike. Both non-structural carbohydrates and sugar are considered starches. Comparing this to human food: non-structural carbohydrates (starches) are like potatoes and pasta; structural carbohydrates are more fibrous foods like black beans and broccoli.
Read your feed label and avoid these ingredients…
- Corn (whole, cracked, ground), corn gluten, corn germ meal
- Wheat, wheat bran, Wheat middlings
- Oats (whole, crimped, rolled), oat mill by-product
- Barley (whole, crimped, rolled)
- Processed grain by-products
- Brewers dried grains
- Distillers dried grains
- Cane molasses
Don’t be fooled by complete feeds that tout low non-structural carbohydrate stats. Although these have a lengthy list of vitamins and minerals, often the first 2-3 ingredients register high on the GI index scale. Additionally, these feeds usually have a sweetener additive such as molasses.
If molasses is included, that constitutes a sweet feed, and will certainly spike blood sugar. Molasses is the most common feed additive because it makes feeds more palatable and easier to package. It also smells good to the person feeding it. Be aware that these high-sugar feeds cause increased levels of acid production during digestion and promote ulcer formation.
Rather than offering your horse a starchy, sugary complete feed, consider a combination of hay pellets and rice bran or beet pulp (without molasses). If you are feeding grass hay, then alfalfa pellets are a great choice because they have a low GI and provide a lot of fiber. If your forage of choice is alfalfa, then use grass pellets instead.
Beet pulp is made from the fibrous portion of the sugar beet after the sugar has been removed. It is an excellent source of digestible fiber and is low on the Glycemic Index scale.
Rice bran is rich in dietary fiber and essential fatty acids. When your horse needs a little extra weight, increase the amount of rice bran to provide more fat. Additional healthy sources of fat include flax, olive and rice bran oils as a top dress over the alfalfa or grass pellets.
With this approach, you will also need to provide a good quality complete daily vitamin and mineral supplement. Also, feeding smaller meals more often is better for your horse than just twice a day. This ensures there is always food in the stomach to prevent unchecked acid from irritating the stomach lining, which can lead to ulcers and a sore back.
If you need to make a feed change to reduce starch in the diet, it is best to slowly transition over a two week period. This will allow the hindgut flora to adjust to the new food. An abrupt change in ‘grain’ or hay can slow digestion which causes increased fermentation, gas, diarrhea and sometimes colic.
While complete feeds may allow horses to look good in the short-term, over time horses are likely to develop metabolic issues and digestive health concerns due to the high starch and sugar content many complete feeds contain.
The Glycemic Index allows you to evaluate your feed program so that you can provide the best nutrition possible. It is an easy way to help prevent illness and will allow your horse to thrive both mentally and physically!
For more specific information on how to detect and correct mineral imbalances and metal toxicities with Horse Hair Analysis, click here.
Remember, nutrition is the foundation of health.
How will YOU be making your horse’s foundation stronger in the New Year?
Let’s hear it in the comments below!