Is Your Horse at Risk for Laminitis this Spring?

grass with caution sign

Caution! Grass that’s high in simple sugars and starches can trigger a laminitis attack in sensitive horses!

Was your horse or pony “a little sore-footed” last spring when the grass started coming out?

Is your mule a little on the chunky side?

Does your donkey have a cresty neck or fatty deposits at the top of his tail?

Is your miniature horse an easy keeper?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, your equine buddy may be insulin resistant.  Grass, hay, and bagged feeds that are high in simple sugars and starch can trigger a laminitis attack in insulin resistant equines!  Plan to limit grazing time this spring, and make other adjustments to your feeding program, to ward off a potential laminitis attack.

Please note! Laminitis is a medical emergency that requires prompt veterinary treatment. Follow your veterinarian’s directions when caring for a laminitic equine.  This article is not a substitute for a consultation with a veterinarian.

My horse was fine last spring, why would this year be different?

Horses’ bodies change as they age, just as our bodies do.

  • When a young horse’s growth slows, at age four or five, the risk of laminitis from simple sugars and starch goes up sharply, and continues to climb for the rest of his life.
  • Horses over ten years old may develop Cushing’s disease, which causes some horses to become more sensitive to high levels of simple sugars and starch.

Read on for details! Three ways you can reduce the risk of spring laminitis:

  1. Limit your horse’s access to spring grass, feed low-carb hay instead.
  2. Choose a bagged feed that’s guaranteed less than 12% starch and sugar.
  3. Add a supplement rich in magnesium to your horse’s diet. Copper and zinc, too!

1. Limit access to spring grass – Feed low-carb hay instead.

Why does spring grass cause some horses and ponies to develop laminitis?

  • Grasses that grow best in cool spring weather, like fescue and rye, can store up high levels of simple sugars and starch when conditions are right.
  • Springtime cold snaps, when temperatures drop below 40 deg F, can drive simple sugars and starch even higher in growing grass. Watch out for warm days and cold nights!
  • Spring grass is low in magnesium, a mineral which helps horses metabolize sugars.

How can I manage my horse’s grazing time to avoid laminitis?

Bright sunlight fuels the sugar factories in green grass, so avoid allowing your horse to graze when the sun is out.

  • During the day, turn out in a tree-shaded pasture.
  • Allow grazing at night (10pm-10am) instead of during the day.
  • Put a grazing muzzle on your horse during daytime pasture turnout.
  • Cloudy, rainy days are safer for pasture turnout.
  • Restrict grazing using strip grazing, or a paddock paradise or track system.

Want more details? Read this article by Katy Watts.  Some horses are so sensitive to high levels of simple sugars and starch that they may develop laminitis after only a few mouthfuls of grass, grain, sweet feeds, or high-carbohydrate pelleted feeds.

Where can I find ideas for setting up a paddock paradise or track system?

Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise website

Blogs, FAQ, and Discussion Forums about track systems

How do I find low-carb hay to feed instead of pasture?

Hay can be high in simple sugars and starch, especially hay from cold-season grasses such as fescue or oat hay. Try bermuda hay instead, or soak hay for 30 minutes in warm water or 60 minutes in cold water, pouring off soaking water before feeding, to reduce simple sugars by about 30%.

2. Choose a bagged feed that’s guaranteed less than around 12% starch plus sugar.

How much starch and sugar is in the feed I’m using now?

Most grains, sweet feeds, and pelleted feeds contain 25-45% starch plus simple sugars. If the manufacturer does not guarantee a max level of starch and sugar, you might be risking a laminitis attack – even if label claims say ‘Low Starch and Sugar’ or ‘safe for special needs horses’.

Can you recommend a feed that’s guaranteed low starch and sugar?

These feeds are guaranteed to contain less than around 12% simple sugars plus starch:

Read labels carefully! Triple Crown Low Starch and Triple Crown 12% Supplement contain much higher levels of simple sugars and starch than the safer feeds listed above.

Where can I buy these feeds?

Standlee Certified Premium Timothy Grass Hay Pellets are available at most Tractor Supply Co. stores.

Triple Crown and Legends feeds are available locally at Garvin’s Feed and Seed, and across the Southeastern U.S. at Southern States stores.

Table of Starch and Sugar Levels in Triple Crown Horse Feeds

Find a Triple Crown dealer near you

Find a Southern States store near you

3. Add a supplement rich in magnesium. Copper and zinc, too.

How can magnesium help prevent laminitis?

Spring grass is low in magnesium – a mineral that helps horses metabolize sugars, making cells sensitive to insulin so glucose is quickly and easily absorbed from the bloodstream. Add a magnesium-rich supplement to your horse’s diet, such as:

For a 1000 lb horse, feed the supplement at a rate that provides 8-10 grams of magnesium per day.  Adjust according to body weight, 1 gram per day per 100 lbs body weight.

Print instructions for using Magnesium Oxide as a horse supplement.

Zinc and copper can help build stronger hoofs!

Many hays and pasture grasses do not supply enough copper and zinc – minerals which help your horse grow strong, healthy skin and hooves. Most commercial feeds do not have enough added copper and zinc to prevent deficiency. Feed a supplement rich in copper and zinc, such as:

Compare Supplements (daily serving for 1000 lbs body weight)

Supplement Magnesium Copper (RDA) Zinc (RDA) Daily Serving Cost per serving
Magnesium Oxide 10g 0.6oz $0.15
Quiessence 10g 2.5oz $0.86
Source Focus HF 79% 56% 1.5oz $0.67
Integri-Hoof 94% 79% 3oz $0.79
Triple Crown 30% 8g 110% 88% 12oz $0.27

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Triple Crown 30% Supplement is a winner – more of what you want and less of what you don’t: low price, low carb, packed with minerals!

Not sure what to do? Get help!

Join the Equine Cushing’s yahoo group – an internet group for the discussion of laminitis, founder, equine Cushing’s disease, and insulin resistance, moderated by veterinarian, published author, and equine nutrition consultant Dr. Eleanor Kellon, DMV.

Contact me – let me work with you to put together a management plan and an affordable, mineral-balanced, carb-controlled diet that is healthy for all your horses but essential for managing an insulin resistant equine.

Read more about it!

ECIRHorse – Info about Laminitis, Founder, Equine Cushing’s and Insulin Resistance – Your first stop for information about laminitis, founder, equine Cushing’s disease, and insulin resistance.

Safer Grass – A Resource for Equine Forage Nutrition – Read more about hay and grass for sugar and starch-sensitive horses.

Nutrient Requirements of Horses Online Calculator – Enter your horse’s body weight, life stage, and workload to see detailed nutrient requirements for calories, protein, vitamins, and major and trace minerals.

Horse Journal Field Trial of Hoof Supplements – Do hoof supplements really work? Read this article from the May 2009 Horse Journal, documenting results from a field trial of 28 hoof supplements.

Body Condition Scoring for your Horse – University of Maine Cooperative Extension Program – Wondering if your horse could stand to lose a few pounds? Rate your horse using the Henneke Condition Scoring system (a score of 5-6 is ideal).

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