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Feeding your horse for great hooves





Another VERY important topic is feeding.


There is a new term called “Equine Grain Associated Disorders”, developed by Judith A. Reynolds of ADM Alliance Nutrition, (    This refers to all the different health problems that high starch cereal grains and molasses  can cause, including but not limited to, EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome, IR (Insulin Resistance), Cushings disease,  colic, gastric ulcers, founder, laminitis, and obesity, just to name a few.   

To understand why horses are suffering from sugar and starch associated disorders, we must first understand how a natural horse would eat and how the equine digestive system is different than ours.   First, a wild horse, who’s digestive system was developed over 50,000 year ago and is the same system our domestic horses have inside them today, eats fairly sparse vegetation over the course of 10 to 20 miles of travel a day.    That means the horses are eating mainly fiber, no grains, low starch, and small continuous meals and are getting miles of exercise daily.      The horse is designed to be a forager, meaning he picks and eats small amounts of food all day long.    The fibrous food travels slowly through the gut, taking nearly 6 hours to make its way from the mouth until it exits out the back.     The digestive system is basically split into 2 sections: the foregut and the hindgut.    The foregut consists of the stomach and the small intestine.    This is the area in which digestion first begins for the horse.   Enzymes begin to break down the food and begin to absorb the starch, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals.     What does not get broke down in the foregut makes its way to the hindgut, which consists of the cecum and the colon, also known as the Large intestine.    The hindgut uses bacteria and protozoa to further break down food and absorb nutrients and energy.   Starches that are not broken down by the enzymes in the foregut are subjected to a fermentation process in the hindgut.     

When excessive cereal grains are fed to horses, especially corn (which cannot be broke down in the foregut), the excess starch turns toxic in the hindgut.  This toxicity essentially can poison your horse, causing laminitis, colic, or founder to result.    Oats are readily digestible in the foregut, but sadly cause a sugar spike, and thus an insulin spike, after being eaten.    Your horse will suffer from a “sugar high” after eating a meal, and then a sudden drop back down, not the ideal slow absorption of digestible energy which would be available from more fibrous foodstuffs and roughage.   Plus you risk the development of IR after years of subjecting your horse to these conditions and sugar spikes. 

Because the horse’s digestive system is a slow system that can only take in a small amount of food at a time, horses do not do well with “meals”, like we eat and like dogs eat, for example.    Feeding 5 lbs. of a “complete feed” twice a day with no hay, or feeding primarily oats or corn with little forage, will not only leave a horse with sugar spikes and drops several times a day, but it will leave him very hungry in between these 12 hour meal intervals.

NSC, or Non Structural Carbohydrates, is the measurement of starch, sugar, and fructans in feed.    Most horses safely can eat feeds with less than 25% NSC. However, horses who already have metabolic disorders should receive a diet with less than 10% NSC.    Here is an analysis of the NSC in several cereal grains in the marketplace today, by Equi-Analytical Laboratories in Ithaca NY, reported on a dry matter basis of the following:

Corn: 73.3% NSC

Barley: 61.7% NSC

Oats: 54.1% NSC

Wheat Middling: 32.0% NSC

Wheat Bran: 31.1% NSC

Rice Bran: 21.2% NSC


To the contrary, here are the NSC values of some roughage based feed:


Soybean Meal: 16.2% NSC

Beet Pulp: 12.3% NSC

Alfalfa Cubes: 10.2% NSC

Alfalfa Pellets: 9.3% NSC

Soybean Hulls: 6.3% NSC


Hay typically averages around 11-15% NSC, depending on how and when the grass was cut.


Most sweet feed, given that fact that’s it’s primarily made with a mixture of corn, oats, barley, and molasses, is at least around 45% NSC, and could easily approach 75% NSC depending how it was mixed.   Very few feed companies offer the NSC value on the product label.   Please read your ingredients, read your labels, call the manufacturers, and know what you’re feeding your horses.  Never assume its safe simply because it’s labeled as “Horse Feed”.   Although horses seemed to do just fine 50 years ago eating high energy corns and grains and grass, we must remember that not only did horses have to work for a living back then, but the grains and grasses were a different variety than what is available today.  Today’s grains are all GMO, or genetically modified organism, and consequently are storing more starches than the grains of the past.


Rather than supplying energy to our horses in the form of dangerous sugar, we can feed them proteins and fats, which are actually much more digestible and bioavailable.   


As an industry, we need to rethink how and what we feed.   Thankfully, there are many new protein and fat energy dense feeds available on the market now made with low starch/ NSC.   Most are marketed for horses with “metabolic problems”, but are perfectly safe for all horses in order to prevent problems.


Horses need hay, primarily.     Horses should have 20 lbs. of hay per day, first and foremost, broken up into 2 or more feedings.    The more you can spread it out, the less time they will stand around idly with no food moving through their gut, and you lower your risk for ulcers, colic, and metabolic disorders.   Since most horses today are backyard pets and we all have 9 to 5 jobs, not many of us can throw out hay 4 times a day.    If you only can feed twice a day, try to give as much hay as possible, and spread out the forage so it takes several hours to get it all eaten.    Many horses with very low workloads do not need any extra calories from concentrated feeds, hay will provide more than enough energy.  Most people over feed their horses.   There are vitamin and mineral supplements now available to ensure your horse gets all the nutrients he needs, which is especially useful if he doesn’t need extra calories from a concentrated feed.  


If you have a horse with a heavier work load, such as a performance show horse or heavily ridden trail horse, you may need to supplement additional calories on top of the hay.    Choose a low starch, high fat, high protein, fiber based feed, and simply feed according to his body condition.    Each horse will most likely need a different amount of supplemental energy, so never assume all the horses in your barn can eat, or should eat, the same amount of feed.    Feeding a high fat, high protein, high fiber feed will provide your horse with sustainable energy rather than a sugar high.   Find feeds that are based with alfalfa, beet pulp, soybean and rice bran rather than wheat, cob, barley, oats or corn.


Lastly, your horse’s hooves will make a dramatic improvement with a low starch diet.    When the excessive sugars stop rushing through their blood stream and the insulin level drop back to a normal level, the hoof laminea stops living in an inflamed state.  It becomes properly “fed” by the glucose in the blood.   I often see horse hooves improve in just 6 weeks in between trims when horse owners switch to a low starch diet.    


Horses are designed to eat dry grasses throughout the day.    Very rich lush pasture and sweet feed is a known laminitis and founder trigger.   No horse should have molasses in their diet, as they simply aren’t designed to handle that much sugar.


 The longer I trim, the more I believe there is no way to create a great bare hoof as long as the horse is fed a sugar filled diet.   The sugars destroy healthy laminea as fast as we can create it.  In fact, horses who are taken off grass and sweet feed will have improved hooves in just 6 weeks.  By keeping them on high starch diets or in an overweight condition, the laminea is constantly fighting the elevated insulin in the blood stream, and it simply cannot become strong.


Recent research determined excess sugar in the blood stream raises insulin levels, which diverts the glucose in the blood stream away from the hooves.    Healthy hoof laminea require absorbing an incredible amount of glucose from the blood supply to remain healthy, therefore diverting it causes instant laminea die off, inflammation, and laminitis.    Feeding excess sugars on a regular basis will cause a perpetually weak hoof attachment that all the proper trimming in the world can’t fix.      A sudden sugar spike can trigger a laminitis or founder attack.   Worse yet, a horse with any degree of insulin resistance will be much more susceptible to founder if fed any sugar at all in his diet.   Feeding excess sweet feeds and grass throughout a horse’s life will increase the odds of the horse developing IR, which is similar to human diabetes.


I have seen hooves improve dramatically in a matter of weeks after removing the sugars from the horse’s diet.    Soles will pull up and become concave, walls improve and the laminea tightens.


*I used to believe straight oats were a safe horse feed, but recent personal experience has made me change my mind.   Oats have a very high sugar content, one of the highest in the grain family.    I don’t recommend oats for horses.    An older gelding of mine had a puffy sheath, which, come to find out, is one of the symptoms of insulin resistance.   At the time oats were in his feed mix.    I removed the oats form the diet, and the sheath instantly went back to normal.    I had been swollen for a year, and even the vets hadn't been able diagnose the cause.    Oats are digested very easily and the sugars are absorbed very quickly in the foregut.  This causes a sugar spike in the blood stream, and for an Insulin Resistant horse, it wreaks havoc with thier systems.  The sugar in oats is similar to candy for us, it causes a sugar spike that drops as fast as it comes.   It does not provide sustainable energy for the horse.



Always read the labels on your horses feed.   If molasses, oats, corn, or other high NSC valued feedstuffs are listed in the first few ingredients, your feed will also have a very high NSC value.


New Low Starch/ Low NSC feeds are now becoming available at feed stores.    This is wonderful news for the horse world!  We are now able to choose smarter, and safer feeds for our horses.  


Years ago we had to "mix our own" low starch horse feeds, but I really don't  recommend doing this unless you simply can't find a low starch feed in your area.   There are wonderful feeds available that are already minerally balanced for you.   It is VERY frustrating and time consuming to balance your own ration, and you risk throwing off your horse's mineral balance if your ratios are off.    Your horse will do much better if you stick with one feed and not dilute it.


If you CAN'T get a low starch feed in your area, I can send you a mix I formulated that worked quite well for my horses.


Important hoof supplements are biotin, methionine, and copper.   Copper is very often under supplemented, and many of our horses are deficient in this mineral.    I highly recommend these supplements to anyone trying to build a strong hoof on their horse.  






Safe Low Starch/ Low NSC Feeds:

Triple Crown "Low Starch"


Nutrena Safe Choice



Purina WellSolve L/S


 *(L/S stands for "Low Starch".   Wellsolve W/C stands for "Weight Control".   The W/C is not low sugar, but rather low fat, so I don't recommend it).



Buckeye Safe'n Easy



Seminole feeds "Wellness" feeds




Co-Op Equi- Lite



Equi-Jewel Stabilized Rice Bran


Purina Ultium


Ultium is a low starch feed with 16% NSC.   This feed packs in the calories at 1800 calories per pound.   This is a great feed for horses who need more calories but not more sugar, such as thin horses or performance horses.

 Alliance Nutrition® Equine

 Forage First
for Health & Performance

Our unique Forage First approach is specifically designed to make it easy to feed your horse as nature intended..

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