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Are Low Starch Horse Feeds Really Necessary?

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low starch horse feed

We always hear fellow riders and companies telling us the importance of keeping our horses on a low starch and low sugar diet, but is it really necessary or is this just a trend? 

Fact is no, low-starch horse feeds are not appropriate for every horse but can be very beneficial to most! So what lies behind the current low-starch craze?

What is starch?

We all may think we know our stuff about sugar and starch, but it never hurts to get a little refresher course to help us dig in deeper about the subject. Here is a great explanation from Kentucky Equine Research

"Starch is a long, complex chain of sugar molecules. Within the plant, it represents the energy storehouse and is found in particularly high levels in grains. Starches are considered nonstructural carbohydrates because they are found within the cell wall. Fiber, on the other hand, is considered a structural carbohydrate because it lends support to the plant.

During digestion starch is broken down by enzymes into minute sugar molecules so that it can be readily absorbed. At this point, starch and sugar in the diet are handled similarly. Sugar in the diet can come from the cell contents in grass, molasses from feeds, and certain treats. These sugar molecules cross into the bloodstream and end up as glucose, which gets distributed to cells for use as energy throughout the body. The hormone that helps clear glucose from the blood and into the cells is insulin. This distribution method of getting glucose to the cells for energy, glycogen-building, or adipose storage is part of the energy-generation system of the working horse. The harder the horse is working, the more important the system is." -Kentucky Equine Research

Ok, now that we have that understanding we can take a look at WHY there is such a starch craze in the equine community.

How Are Low-Starch Feeds Beneficial?

HIGH-STARCH = HOT: After digestion of a starch filled meal, large amounts of glucose hit the bloodstream and trigger the release of insulin which starts moving the glucose out of the blood and into cells. Rising glucose levels can have an effect on the brain of some horses and make them "hot".

Fun Fact: Glucose is the only fuel that passes the blood-brain barrier. A horse feed that delivers high levels of glucose into the blood stream at one time can potentially send significant amounts to the brain. This can trigger increased dopamine production and can cause heightened awareness or excitability. 

INSULIN RESISTANCE IN HORSES: Insulin resistance occurs when insulin loses its effectiveness in getting glucose delivered into the cell. This causes the levels of glucose and insulin to remain higher in the bloodstream for longer than normal.

The high insulin levels can cause lots of problems, the worst is making the horse more susceptible to laminitis. With insulin resistance usually comes obesity, making losing weight key in treatment & prevention as is decreasing starch and sugar in the diet. 

POLYSACCHARIDE STORAGE MYOPATHY (PSSM):Horses with PSSM store an abnormal amount of glycogen (sugar) in their muscles, which disrupts the balance of energy metabolism causing their muscles to become sore and stiff. Thousands of horses have been identified with tying-up associated with polysaccharide accumulation in the muscles. 

Feeds that are high in starch tend to worsen symptoms of PSSM, which makes feeding a low-sugar & low-starch diet very important! CLICK HERE to learn more about PSSM regarding tests and treatment.

HIGH-STARCH = pH Drop: Did you know? The end product of fermentation of starch AND sugar is lactic acid. Lactic Acid can have quite an effect on the pH of the cecum. If high levels of starch are fed (especially at one time) the resulting drop in pH in the cecum may affect the balance of the fiber-digesting microbial population thus upsetting the ability of horse to be able to digest necessary calories from fiber. This is referred to as hindgut acidosis. This is why it is recommended to never feed more than 5lbs of grain per feeding. 

Each horse digests starch a little differently, so finding the right level of starch and sugar consumption your horse should have unfortunately may require some educated trial and error. Managing & balancing the ideal starch intake for your horse is very important! 

For those of us with horses that do not need an excessive amount of starch (i.e.  race horses) low-starch based diets make a lot of sense and can be key in helping our horses remain healthy & happy!

Finally, there are healthy horse treats for the starch sensitive equine. Introducing nutrigood Low-Sugar Snax. All-Natural ingredients. Irresistible, natural apple or carrot/anise flavor horses can’t resist. The peace of mind that your horse isn’t getting extra sugar and starch he may not need.  Low-Sugar Snax are great for all horses, whether they need a controlled sugar or starch diet, are overweight, or if you simply like to feed less sugar. There is NO sugar or molasses added to our formula, ensuring no more than 6.5% sugars, which are present naturally. Low-Sugar Snax are more than good, they’re nutrigood.

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Article Sources:

Kentucky Equine Research

Gabby Gufler

Gabby Gufler

Gabby Gufler graduated from Truman State University in 2013 with a BS in Animal Science & Nutrition and a minor in Equine Science. Gabby currently works on Manna Pro’s marketing team, and enjoys competing regularly with her six horses.

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