While equine obesity is a growing problem that comes with a host of health and welfare implications, let’s not forget that not every horse is a good doer, and this includes some laminitics. Feeding a laminitic for weight gain may feel terrifying but rest assured, it can be done safely - the key lies in choosing the source of energy (calories) in the diet carefully.

Why has my horse lost weight?

Weight loss may simply be the result of a shortfall in calories but it’s important to rule out the possibility of a dental issue or an underlying medical condition, especially if there have been no obvious changes in diet. If you have any concerns, speak to your vet and/ or an equine dental technician.

Where do calories come from?

The main sources of energy or ‘calories’ in the horses’ diet are fibre, oil, starch and sugar. Many owners are now aware that laminitics need to be managed carefully on a diet that is high in fibre and low starch and sugar, but the different terminology used to describe ‘starch and sugar’ can be confusing. Here’s a quick guide to busting the jargon:

-Non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) = starch + water soluble carbohydrate

-Water soluble carbohydrate (WSC) is largely made up of simple sugars such a sucrose (the sugar you put in your tea) and fructan

-Fructan is the ‘storage form’ of sugar in the majority of UK grasses

Cereal grains are high in starch but low in sugar. While UK grass, and consequently hay and haylage, contains very little starch, even mature meadow hay and winter grazing may be deceptively high in WSC or ‘sugar’.

sugar cubes for horses

The importance of forage for horses

Forage should be the foundation of every horse’s diet and while laminitics are no exception, it’s important to remember that forage is the largest source of ‘sugar’ in the diet. Ideally feed a low NSC (<10-12%) hay ad lib – although soaking hay helps to reduce the WSC content, ‘sugar’ losses are highly variable which means soaking alone can’t guarantee suitability. Alternatively, consider feeding a hay replacer that is low in starch and sugar, particularly for those at very high risk.

If your horse is fussy or has a poor appetite, you may need to monitor how much hay/ forage replacer they are eating – ideally weigh the amount you provide and what is left for around 3-5 days.

horse eating from haynet

Winter watch-out for laminitics

Winter grazing can present hidden dangers for those prone to laminitis. When the temperature drops below 5°C the grass stops growing but will continue to produce sugar whenever the sun is shining (as result of photosynthesis). When sugar is not used for growth, it’s stored as fructan, causing potentially high levels of WSC to accumulate  -  this is why turnout on pasture exposed to bright sunlight in conjunction with cold temperatures should be avoided.

What feed is best for horses with laminitis?

In addition to providing suitable forage, look for fibre-based feeds that high in oil and low in starch and sugar. Oil packs a real punch when it comes to calories – gram for gram, oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in calories compared to cereal grains but starch (and sugar) free. Feeding small meals will also help to reduce the amount of starch and sugar consumed in any one meal which may be particularly important for those with insulin dysregulation.

Think outside (or rather inside) the bag

First impressions can be deceptive and when it comes to choosing a high calorie feed for laminitics, the most suitable option may not be the most obvious one. A great example of this is SPILLERS™ Ulca Fibre. You could be forgiven for thinking that SPILLERS Ulca Fibre is just for racehorses prone to gastric ulcers but in fact, being high in calories and fibre but low in starch  (5%) and sugar (4%) makes it an ideal choice for poor doers prone to laminitis, including those at rest or in light work.

For specific advice on feeding your laminitic contact the SPILLERS Care-Line.