Diet is key when it comes to addressing laminitis and founder in horses. The number one priority is to ensure that the diet is low in simple sugars and starch.
When testing forage, Ethanol Soluble Carbohydrates (ESC) is the measure of simple sugars. It's the ESC and starch that need to be considered when assessing forage for the laminitic prone horse. Anything with a combined ESC and starch content below 10% is considered safe. Unfortunately, many feeds, pasture and even hay, can be much higher than this.
Do not starve a laminitic horse! Starvation can cause a condition called hyperlipaemia and can worsen IR. Starvation will also cause stress and a stressed horse will be more susceptible to laminitis.
The next most important factor is to ensure that the diet is balanced in minerals. This also requires you to test the primary forage to determine baseline current mineral intakes so you can supplement what is lacking.
Along with ensuring that the diet is low in sugars and starch, and with balancing minerals, there are a number of other additions to the diet you can make to help your horse.
Below is an outline for the temporary emergency diet, what to feed NOW to help your horse. Ideally, you will find a source of hay that you can test for nutrient analysis and then the diet will most likely change according to the results. Until you can find a source of low sugar hay and test it for minerals, follow the diet below:
Soaked grass hay at between 1.5-2% bodyweight. The bulk of the diet should be made up of plain grass hay. If you can find hay that is made up of primarily native grasses this will tend to be lower in sugars than improved pastures such as ryegrass. However, the only way to know if the grass is low in sugar and starch is to send it to the lab to be tested. You cannot tell if hay is high or low in sugars by looking at it. The factors that contribute to sugar content in the grass when cutting for hay are complicated. There are a few general guidelines but you need to test to be sure.
In the meantime, it is safest to assume that the hay you have is too high in sugars for your horse. Soaking hay in water and discarding the water, has been shown to reduce the sugar and starch content by up to 30% (1/2 hr in hot water or 1 hr in cold water).
It should be fed at 1.5% body weight for an overweight horse or 2% of ideal body weight, whichever is larger. For example, if your pony weighs 400kg and is overweight – 400 x .015 (1.5%) = 6kg hay/day (dry weight).
Feed hay in a slow feeder net so that your horse has a slow trickle of feed 24 hrs a day if possible. Find great nets at various sizes at www.allbarewithnaturalhoofcare.com.au
Image: Slow feeder nets can be used to slow hay consumption, allowing a trickle feed over 24 hours.
A small amount of lucerne chaff can be used to tempt fussy eaters, however, start slowly as some very sensitive horses find lucern difficult to tolerate.
The best way to balance minerals in your horses' diet is to test your hay and balance the minerals according to the test results.
The testing process can take a while, however, so in the meantime it may be a good idea to feed a commercial supplement BUT you need to choose carefully as many commercial supplements contain ingredients that can be harmful and are low in the minerals your horse actually needs.
Missy’s Bucket Minerals is an excellent choice. Designed specifically for horses in Australia, especially in the Southeast, it balances the average pasture and takes into consideration the high levels of Iron we have in our soils. This is important as there is some evidence that high levels of Iron can worsen Insulin resistance in susceptible horses.
Watch out for hidden sources of high sugar feed! Is your pony reaching over the fence to the apple tree or eating the straw bedding you’ve put down to make him comfortable?
If your horse is a picky eater and doesn’t like this new feed, don’t give up! Always add supplements after the horse is used to the new carrier.
You can also add the following to tempt fussy horses – sugar-free flavourings like peppermint, beetroot or anise powder, 1 cup of brewed tea such as peppermint, chamomile or raspberry leaf, sage, a pinch of wheat germ or a handful of lucerne chaff.
It may also be helpful to ensure your feed bin is shallow. Often it’s the smell that will put a horse off, not the taste. Deep sided feed bins tend to trap the smell making new additions hard to disguise!
Apple cider vinegar can be a useful disguise as it has quite a strong smell. Slowly get your horse used to the apple cider vinegar before adding supplements.
It’s really important to start any new feed or supplement slowly and it may take you a month or two to get your horse to eat the optimum amount of supplements. Don’t worry, as long as you’re feeding low sugar or soaked hay at 1.5-2% body weight, the minerals can wait! It’s much more beneficial to start slowly and gradually build up, than rushing your horse. Once he’s developed a dislike for something it can be hard to turn him back!
You may find that your horses coat has already started shedding, this is triggered by the longer daylight hours and marks the start of the long winter coat loss! This process will continue over the next few months and it's important to provide adequate nutritional support during this time to encourage a healthy and shiny new summer coat.