The importance of carbohydrates in your horse’s diet

Understanding how carbohydrates affect overall health is significant when formulating a successful feeding program for your horse.

Carbohydrates, both structural and soluble, are cornerstones of equine nutrition. Structural carbohydrates form the “fiber” component of your animals’ diet and are typically provided as either pasture or high-quality grass hay. Concentrate grains and textured feeds, on the other hand, are where the majority of the soluble carbohydrate load (sugars and starches), tend to originate in an equine diet. It is imperative that animal caregivers have a basic understanding of how these very different nutritional puzzle pieces can affect the health of their animals at different life stages and activity levels.

The problem with soluble carbohydrates

Soluble sugars and starches (sCHO) can impact your animals’ physiology in multiple ways. For example, a concentrate grain that is high in sCHO’s can result in elevated levels of glucose entering the animal’s circulation post-digestion. These sudden increases in blood sugar carry the potential to affect the animal’s central nervous system through stimulation of dopamine production. This process often results in undesirable or excitable behavioral changes.

In addition to nervous system effects, high levels of dietary sCHO can also affect the microbiome of the cecum. If elevated levels of sugar and starch make their way into the lower gastrointestinal tract, changes to the associated microbial population will begin to take place. When the microbiome shifts towards lactic acid producing bacteria, the pH of the cecum can be affected resulting in hindgut acidosis. This metabolic derangement can impede the fermentation capacity of the fiber fraction of the diet and subsequently affect how the animal pulls energy from hay and pasture.

Selecting a grain – moderation is key

Selecting a grain that is low is sCHO’s is an excellent way to limit the potential for gastrointestinal disturbance. It is, however, important to note that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to selecting a grain ration for your horse. Animals that are growing or being worked at an accelerated rate will require more starch in the diet to compensate for energy demands. It is important to consult with a qualified nutritionist or veterinarian if you have questions specific to the amount of sCHO that is appropriate for your animal.

Having your feed tested by a commercial laboratory for carbohydrate concentration is an additional tool that can be used to assess the appropriateness of your concentrate. Analyzing for structural carbohydrates, ethanol, water soluble carbohydrates can be a valuable tool in making grain-based decisions.