Tuesdays with Tony

Sugar, starch, carbs. All words describing the same thing when it comes to horse diets, and lately, all words to strike fear into the hearts of those who feed horses everywhere. I’m a diabetic cat. I get the concerns about sugars. I’m also here to tell you that only a very small population (literally, it’s mostly ponies) of horses need to super-closely monitor their sugar intake. For the rest of you, the word of the day is moderation. For any horses working as athletes, the word of the day is need, as in you need some sugar in your life. So let’s talk sugar! 

What is sugar or starch or carbs?

Carbohydrate is the broad category nutritionists put sugars and starches into. Carbohydrates are the things the body breaks down into glucose, which it then uses for energy.  Starch is the name for the way plants store sugar, and sugars are the building blocks of all of this. Sugars come in chains, and those chains are named based on lots of things, but mostly how many sugars they have in their chains, and how those sugars are holding hands. 

For horses, there are two other categories of carbohydrates that are important: structural, and non-structural. These are sort of what they sound like. Structural carbs are inside the parts of plants that give them structure. That blade of grass needs some support to grow up instead of being a blob. These guys require help from bacteria for the body to absorb them, and that happens in the large intestine. Non-structural carbs are mostly inside grains, and are the plant’s own energy storage. Your horse (and you for that matter) can break these down all by yourself, and your small intestine takes care of that task.

Why all the worry?

Sugar, rightly so, is very, very strongly associated with laminitis. Let me backup a bit to give the full picture about sugar and laminitis. It’s not as simple as my diabetes. If I eat more sugar than I have insulin to process it with, my body can’t handle it, and things go poorly. Horses handle things differently because horses are weird. 

Give a horse more sugar than they need for a day, a week, a month, or even a year (What? I watch Friends when no one is around) and not a whole lot happens. The pancreas makes insulin in proportion to the amount of sugar around, the cells absorb it, and if they don’t need it right away they turn it into fat. After a while your horse has all the fat even the body thinks it needs. Like survive an entire year of drought, not just a season. Remember that’s how our metabolism thinks: survival. The metabolism says Okay, we’re good, and stops listening to the insulin. The pancreas says, Whoa! We’ve got a lot of sugar running around,”and makes lots and lots more insulin. 

This is where the cat and human pancreas give up and say, if you’re not listening we’re not playing, and stop making insulin. The horse pancreas NEVER gives up. No, seriously, NEVER. There are only a very few documented cases of horses who stop making insulin. 

All that insulin has other tasks it directs, and those don’t quit. Most of those tasks have to do with building and repair. This makes sense if you think about it. When you’ve got energy (aka: sugar) you should build and repair. The problem is with all that insulin screaming at those building and repair mechanisms, they get a bit rushed in their work and don’t do a great job. The feet are a prime example. The body is so busy building lamina that it does a not-great-job at it, and the cells are so busy not listening to insulin that they don’t even get the sugar to do the job they are designed to do. 

It’s not a great plan all around, and one Mother Nature avoids by making horses in the wild work really hard for their food, and presenting them with periodic starvation so they use those fat stores. You modern day horse owners definitely don’t make them work hard for food, nor do they experience periodic starvation unless you count breakfast being 5 minutes late! 

Don’t Panic!

If your horse considers a walk from one side of the pasture to the other exercise, and sports a body condition score of 7 or above (ask my Docs how to get a weight and BCS on your horse), you need to monitor sugar. Here’s the important thing: most of the sugar is coming from the grass in the pasture your horse is moseying across. Most of the calories are coming from that grass as well. A grazing muzzle and low-sugar diet like a ration balancer are your best friends.

If your horse does any work at all, evaluate the sugars in your diet with less of a critical eye. Most commercial feeds these days understand the value of controlling carbs in equine diets and they do a great job. There are some in there, but not too much for the average horse doing some level of work. If your horse is maintaining good weight, and a BCS of 4-6 you don’t need to critically evaluate how much sugar you’ve got for fear of all the dreaded carb side effects.

Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic

If your horse needs a burst of energy doing their job, you NEED some of that sugar! You read that right. You need some sugar. To turn that barrel, jump that jump, make it through that upper level dressage test with some pizazz, or spin and lope off, you’ve got to have sugar available. The muscles responsible for that quick fire use sugar. If you’ve had the zip in your step you were looking for, consider your horse’s diet. Keeping the athlete on ration balancers and alfalfa, for example, will have them looking good, but doesn’t provide much in the way of high test fuel for those muscles. Putting them on a high sugar feed isn’t the right answer, either. That’s akin to asking Michael Phelps to swim the Olympics on nothing but McDonalds. It’s all about fueling the athlete for the job they are being asked to do.

Need help formulating the perfect diet to keep the Dad Bod at bay? Or add some zip to your spins? My Docs are a great resource. They can help you get started, and help you find a great equine nutritionist to help with special needs. Just like lots of other things in life, sugar is perfectly fine in moderation. 

Until next week,


Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!

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