Hoof Nutrition Intelligence is a twice-a-month web segment that is designed to add to the education of footcare professionals when it comes to effectively feeding the hoof. The goal of this web-exclusive feature is to zero in on specific areas of hoof nutrition and avoid broad-based articles that simply look at the overall equine feeding situation.
Below you will find Part 1 of the latest question and answer installment that you can share with your footcare clients.
Q: Can free choice feeding reduce the chances for laminitis?
By Juliet M. Getty, PhD
A: Horses living in the wild don’t suffer from the ravages of insulin resistance, which is the main cause of laminitis. The same can’t be said for domesticated horses.
Yes, it’s partly true that we don’t normally see laminitis when horses are free to feed themselves. But we do see insulin resistance, and that’s actually a blessing in the wild since insulin resistance is the body’s way of avoiding starvation.
During a harsh winter, when the food supply is sparse, wild horses will hold on to body fat to help them survive. They do this by having an elevated blood insulin level. When insulin is high, the cells cannot release fat. This is a survival mechanism.
We duplicate this when we restrict forage. The horse responds the same way, as he is in survival mode. And he holds on to body fat.
Anything that causes insulin to rise will keep a horse fat. Hundreds of studies with humans confirm the connection between elevated insulin and obesity. Stress causes obesity in humans because cortisol (a stress hormone) causes the insulin level to rise. At the cellular level, the same is true for horses.
Equine studies show how insulin rises during stress, so why isn’t this being extrapolated to obesity in horses?
Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t seem to make sense that eating more causes weight loss. Yet it’s not the amount that is eaten, but the type of food that has the most impact. We also know that starving oneself will result in weight loss (mostly muscle loss), but will slow down the metabolic rate so dramatically that the weight comes back on with far fewer calories than it originally took to maintain one’s weight.
Yet the horse-related studies we choose to follow involve starving the horse to lose weight. The conventional advice appears to work: Give the horse an amount of hay equal to 1.5% of his body weight, keep him in a confined small space much of the day so he cannot graze and he will lose loses weight. And if he doesn’t, then reduce the amount of hay to only 1%.
What you are left with is a horse with less muscle mass, stressed to the max, with a sluggish metabolism so he will never live a normal life of grazing on pasture again. Instead, let your horse tell you how much he needs to eat. Show him that he can start trusting his instincts, which is the message you want him to understand.
Start by giving him more hay (that you’ve tested for suitability or soaked) than he could possibly eat, enough to last all day and enough so there is some left over in the morning. That means he needs to always have forage available.
If he runs out, even for 10 minutes, he will never get the message and will continue to overeat and continue to be fat. And worse, the hormonal response to this stress can induce a laminitis attack or relapse.
Juliet M. Getty, PhD, is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Located in Lewisville, Texas, her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.
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Click here to read part 2 of the Sept. 15, 2020 installment of Hoof Nutrition Intelligence: How does proper nutrition impact hoof growth?