Written by Equine Nutritional Therapist and Medical Herbalist Antoinette Foster.
© 2019 A Foster Hi Form Australia
The common consensus when managing a horse with equine metabolic syndrome is to supply the horse less feed and exercise more, however reducing the feed intake and increasing exercise may not necessarily be the problem solver.
There is another aspect to weight loss which has nothing to do with the feed intake but more to do with hormones more specifically. Hormones such as cortisol and insulin will dictate how much body fat your horse will store.
When a horse undergoes stress it instantly tells the body to hold on to the fat, this is very similar to chemical changes that occur during a famine. Horses will generally feel safe based on their naturalinstincts in this situation. In simple terms the horse’s body is then tricked into gaining weight not losing it.
Horses, as we know are strict herbivores and require a high level of constant roughage throughout the day. It may make sense to feed less to a horse that is suffering from EMS or Laminitis however, by feeding the horse less contradicts the natural instincts of the horse. Removing feeds that perhaps may be quite fattening is a common-sense approach, but to restrict the amount of roughage that the horse has access to, whether this be hay or pasture is detrimental to the horse’s health.
The anatomy and physiology of the horse has not changed much throughout the evolution process over thousands of years. The animal has simply become larger, but they are still perpetual grazing animals that require high levels of roughage. Not allowing your horse to consume enough roughage in a day will create more stress not less.
When a horse is grazing or consuming hay this process produces saliva and it neutralises the acid that is constantly flowing into his stomach. The horse’s stomach should never be empty as he needs roughage flowing through the digestive tract to keep the muscles active. If this does not happen the muscles tend to get loose or flabby this can also weaken the intestinal tract and can create an unhealthy situation which could lead to serious complications.
The hindgut or caecum must be full for the digested material to leave the horses body.
If horses are not being provided enough roughage per day it may also lead to behavioural issues such as chewing fences, trees or even consuming their own manure. Horses chewing or eating materials that are not suited to the species can create physical and mental issues which includes discomfort.
When horses experience high stress levels which includes pain or intense exercise or even being transported to an event, cortisol levels are increased.
Horses that have a restriction on the amount of roughage available to them can lead to pain within the stomach or anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract.
It has been well documented that a high percentage of domestic horses being fed a hard feed develop ulcers during their lifetime. It stands to reason that ulcerations will occur very quickly if hay is withheld. This can be for even as little as one or 2 hours, because the stomach continually releases acid it makes the horses digestive system quite vulnerable.
When cortisol levels increase due to a restriction of feed intake these elevated levels stimulate the liver to derive glucose from glycogen stores, this can result in insulin being secreted from the pancreas.
Horses that suffer from EMS which includes a multitude of equine metabolic syndrome cases often the vet will recommend to lock the horse up overnight, limit the amount of feed and perhaps even where a grazing muzzle during the day. If you consider that the horse is a perpetual grazing animal and requires a constant level of roughage throughout the day you can understand very quickly that this will become a stressor for the horse.
If your horse is boxed overnight and you are supplying hay, when you arrive in the morning to check and feed your horse your horses hay nets may be empty. The horse may have finished his hay 2 hours
earlier or 5 minutes earlier but at the end of the day, your horses hay nets or slow feeders should never be empty. Reducing the amount of intake of roughage throughout the day will not allow your horse to lose body fat, instead your horse is more likely to lose muscle tone. Horses that lose weight in this way don’t have any change in their body condition score, neck etc. what does tend happen is that longissimus dorsi muscle thickness is reduced and the metabolic rate can be affected. So it may appear that your horse has lost weight but in actual fact that is not the case. Some studies have shown that if the horse is not deprived of hay overnight they show a much greater degree of insulin resistance. So, keeping those hay nets full until you arrive the next morning is extremely important to reduce the risk of physical pain and discomfort. Your horse’s brain will begin to tell him to hold on to the fat, insulin levels will increase and when insulin levels increase the horse is not going to burn fat.
Other studies have shown that horses that only have access to hay and no grazing have an increased risk of insulin resistance. As opposed to those horses who could graze on pasture, insulin resistance decreased. The explanation; the horses were also allowed to move around freely whilst grazing.
A horse that does not have constant access to pasture or hay, means that the stomach will be left empty for several hours and will have an increased level of cortisol. Horses who have empty stomachs for a period of hours tend to eat their feed when it arrives very quickly this is not a normal way for the horse to exist. When food is limited horses tend to be waiting for the next meal.
The horse’s metabolic rate can also be affected if there is a restriction of the level of roughage being fed during the day. Not providing your horse sufficient roughage throughout the day causes the horses body to break down tissue for glucose. The metabolic rate will then slow down even further as muscle is lost.
The Equine Smart Gut test can look at the horse’s faecal sample to provide you with an insight into the levels of bacteria in the horses gut microbiome and the ratios. It is important to be aware that there are no good or bad bacteria, it is actually about the ratios of the bacteria contained in the gut microbiome. There are 7 major gut phylums and within these gut phylums there are many different bacteria species. The Equine Smart Gut test can determine several issues relating to digestive health, stress, inflammation, immune function, effects on skin and coat condition and also more serious conditions such as leaky gut syndrome, ulcers etc. firmicutes is the most common gut phylum, this makes sense because this phylum is directly related to consuming a high fibre diet.
To assist your horse to lose weight it is important to provide the horse with free choice roughage that matches the normal natural environment for the horse.
Exercise is obviously very important for each horse, reduce the amount of concentrates that are being fed or look at a feed such as Harrys Choice that is very high in natural roughage suited to the species. Lowering the amount of fat intake in the horse’s diet will also be an advantage, however, all horses require some fat in the diet.
I would highly recommend having your hay tested to ensure that is low enough in sugar and starch and calories. It would be also advantageous to have your pasture tested and your soil. I always encourage horse owners’ trainers and riders to have their horses out on pasture as often as possible for this is a natural state for the horse and will encourage a healthy, mentally sound horse.
If your horse has access to roughage 24/7, whether it be in the form of pasture or hays he can then make his own choice when to walk away and return to his hay or grazing. This also encourages the horse to be more relaxed and will also help with the metabolic rate.
I do not recommend using grazing muzzles for horses this can create a high level of stress, this is not a natural way for horse to be grazing or consuming any feed. If you must use a grazing muzzle never use it beyond 2 hours maximum, I believe it is incredibly stressful and quite dangerous to use grazing muzzles. Today there are many different options for slow feeders, they include large hay nets with small holes, Porta grazers, there are a few good options that you can purchase online. If you don’t have a large hay nets then provide at least 2 nets, particularly if the horse is being left overnight with little grazing or being boxed. The golden rule is to make sure your horse has access to either pasture or roughage 24-hour is the day. We recommend the use of the Oxydane 1 large level scoop, 2 large level scoops ProflamAid Plus and BioEquus 2 spoons daily as a protocol for EMS, the inclusion of EquiGesic PLus may be of great benefit 1-2 spoons daily. The golden rule: ensure the horse has access to continual roughage. For information on individualised diet plans and managing EMS related conditions please contact one of our highly qualified nutritionists.