Is Forage to Blame for the Rise in Equine Obesity?
Today, approximately one in five horses in the United States is at risk from complications stemming from obesity. While multiple factors contribute to obesity in horses, the culprit at the heart of most of these factors is urbanization. Urbanization in horses has led to more confinement, less exercise and higher planes of nutrition.
While horses are gaining more weight than ever, they also are living longer. Many horses today will live into their 40s and these aging animals require higher caloric density.
Low-calorie hay is often the right choice for obese horses, but it is not adequate for elite or geriatric ones. Considering this fact, it is important not to undervalue forage that was cut a little later. Remember, low calorie does not imply low quality if the palatability and aesthetics are acceptable.
It is important to understand the nonstructural carbohydrate value (NSC) of hay when it comes to diseased horses. Over the last several decades, veterinarians and equine nutrition researchers have gained significant knowledge about the pathology, diagnosis and treatment of several metabolic, digestive, and muscle diseases in horses that are affected by NSCs. The connection between NSCs in the horse’s diet and equine obesity is called Equine Metabolic Syndrome, which relates to insulin resistance.
Like humans, horses can suffer from insulin resistance, which means the body’s ability to regulate and control blood sugar is compromised. However, unlike humans, insulin resistance in a horse can lead to laminitis. Horse owners try to avoid laminitis when they purchase low NSC forages.
But what exactly does it mean for a forage to be classified as “low carb?” This is a difficult question since there is no standardized definition from either the equine industry or the forage industry. A small handful of equine nutrition research studies on Equine Metabolic Syndrome and obesity, place it at 10% to 12% NSC on a dry matter basis. The average grass hay is roughly 13% across the U.S. Some equine nutritionists suggest that forage products testing below 10% are “very low carb,” between 10.1% and 13% NSC are “low carb,” between 13.1% and 16% are “moderate carb,” and over 16% are “high carb.”
Most horses are consuming a greater percentage of forage products compared to processed grain products, so it is critical that horse owners know what is in the forage. A basic understanding of calories and carbohydrates in their forage products will help horse owners combat equine obesity and keep these animals as healthy as possible for as long as possible