The Equine Practice Inc, Travels With Doc T

Carbohydrate Dependency – Decomplexicating Equine Nutrition Part 6 of 12

I know this is getting very detailed. Read this anyway. Print it and then mark it up with a highlighter. Ask your barn friends to test you on it. Become a student. Become your Horse's Advocate.

But for those who feel overwhelmed, don't weave in your stall. I am going to summarize everything into a simple plan of how to feed your horse in the coming weeks. I am also turning this into a course for those wanting to dig in deeper or go at a slower pace with some guidance. Stay tuned!

When I enter any convenience store in the United States and walk through all the aisles of food available, I discover just how dependent we are on carbohydrates. After eliminating all items containing grain (corn, wheat, rice and others), grain fed meat (jerky, hard boiled eggs, dairy products), inflammatory oils (vegetable, grain, seed, soy), non-nuts (peanuts and cashews) and artificial sweeteners I am left with water and pistachios. That’s it!

When I enter a feed store for all animals (horses, swine, cattle, goats, sheep, poultry, fish) I see bag after bag of grains, grain byproducts and inflammatory oils. This leaves stacks of hay which is the preserved staple of all equines and ruminants. Poultry should be eating grubs but in stead are fed grain. The fish don’t eat grain except when farm raised where they do.

What Is Hay?

Hay is made of carbohydrates called non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). This is a fancy way of saying starch which is how sugar is stored in plants. This becomes glucose in the gut which is one of the two fuels animals use regularly to produce energy. Hay is also made of structural carbohydrates (SC) which is a fancy way of saying cellulose. The gut bacteria convert this into short chain fatty acids. These become ketones which is one of the two fuels animals use regularly to produce energy. Hay also has protein and other free elements such as minerals and electrolytes. These will be discussed in later blogs.

The Equine Practice Inc, Travels With Doc T

Early June in NY – It’s time to cut hay.

The ratio of SC to NSC is dependent on many factors such as:

  • the time of day the hay is cut.
  • if it is baled immediately or left on the ground.
  • if the grass grew in shade or directly in the sun.
  • if the grass is grown organically or not.

The key point here is that you cannot determine with your eye if the hay has a lot of sugar or does not. The only way to determine the sugar content (NSC) of hay is to have it tested. Every batch of hay you buy will need testing because every truck load and every field it is cut from will be different.

With pasture, you can see that there is a summer productive phase where sugar content will be high and there is a winter dormant phase where the pasture stops growing. This is how it works.

Remember hearing the expression, “The grass grew overnight?” That is because it does. All plants use sunlight to power their factory and gain their fuels from the soil and air. This is the process of photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is exhaled by you and your horse and contains Carbon and Oxygen. Water has Hydrogen and Oxygen. There you go – C, H and O – the elements needed to make glucose and cellulose. What a cool system! And the exhaust of plants is…. Oxygen used by every mitochondria on the planet to power all animals. The circle of life.

As the sun shines on the plants (grasses and legumes as well as anything else horses will eat) they use photosynthesis to make NSC or starch. This is the fuel they need to grow, reproduce and defend themselves against predators. After the sun sets, photosynthesis stops and the NSC is converted into SC or cellulose. This results in the grass growing overnight. This process repeats until the dormant winter comes and the plants transition into protecting themselves from cold weather and shorter daylight. This is why hay was created. We needed horses to continue to work through the winter and by preserving the summer grass, we were able to keep the horses in good condition for the tasks we had planned for them.

Why Feed Grain To Horses?

Grain was introduced for several logistical reasons. Foremost is that grain is a more dense storage of starch. This made keeping energy easier for long voyages such as across the Atlantic Ocean. Less storage space was needed than with hay. Grain was safer because the chance of fire or dust production from molding hay was less. Today with the surplus of grains in the United States and the high cost of transporting bulk hay, it has become more economical to use grain rather than hay as the energy source for horses. This is even more evident in today’s world where horse owners no longer have pasture enough to sustain their horse or horses.

The economic pressures of owning horses is pushing horse owners into feeding more grain. Lack of pasture, poor quality hay and the rising cost of hay make feeding more grain a logical solution. But the cost in their health is waking owners up to the fact that horses were never meant to eat carbohydrates every day of their lives, especially in a concentrated form. I call this carbohydrate dependency and it is stressing the mitochondria and the insulin systems. In addition, because all grains are soft seeds, they have in the outside skin proteins that are part of the plant’s defense system (lectins – in a later blog). The sole purpose of these proteins is to make the predator (the horse in this case) sick by disrupting the hormone and immune systems. This one – two punch is literally killing horses with disease, lameness and premature death. Yet with all the evidence before us, both the economic pressure and the effectiveness of potent and powerful marketing, grains as a primary feed for horses continues to be fed.

Paying For Left Overs

And as usual, there is more bad news. The Wall Street Journal reports business news and one day it had a front page article titled “Awash In Corn, U.S. Imports More” by Jesse Newman and Jacob Bunge.

Say What? Did I read this correctly? The article said that there was a surplus of corn being stored in the United States. Smithfield Farms, the leading pork producer, was looking to save money so they built a port in North Carolina and imported corn from Brazil and Argentina driving it past our stock piles of corn in trucks because this saved money over paying U.S farmers and the railroad to ship it to their stock yards.

Do you think the corn farms threw out the unwanted corn? Nope. Instead they found more markets including ethanol for our cars and feeding us, our pets and our horses.

Speaking of salvaging things, you will be shocked to read the label of almost every bag of food, treats and supplements you give to your horses. The ingredients of almost every bag I read has 1 to 5 grain byproducts: wheat middlings, oat hulls, rice hulls, soy hulls, wheat bran, rice bran, grain distillers byproducts, sugar beet pulp and more. All of these are after production waste they have you pay for to get rid of through your horse. None of these ingredients are found “in the wild.” And do you remember what I said about the lectins and where they are found? That’s right! In the outside of these grains are proteins that affect your horse in bad ways adding to the carbohydrate overload.

Summary

The only good thing about grain is …. nothing.

Having concentrated carbohydrates available every day, year round is unnatural. It causes strain on the horse’s body systems which take it’s toll on the whole horse. It does this through mitochondrial exhaustion and insulin hormone communication disruption. This results in disease of your horse as well as many unwanted behaviors coming from a horse that just doesn’t feel good.

Just think for a moment. Do horses in the wild have access to grain year round? Do they even have it for more than a week where you live? How about byproducts being available in your pasture? I didn’t think there was any. Then why are we feeding these things when the science is showing that it causes so many problems in both humans, horses and other animals?

Now ask yourself if your horse is doing well on carbohydrate dependency. My point is that carbs may not be bad once in a while and in fact they are necessary and are in all grass in your pasture. It is the year round availability of carbohydrates that is the menace and needs to be stopped if you want to see your horse return to a normal life – the way he has lived for 55 million years without corn, oats, wheat middlings, distillers byproducts, molasses and sugar beet pulp.

Carbohydrate isn’t the only problem in horse nutrition. There are lectins, GMO, pesticides, inflammatory oils, and over supplementation. All to be discussed with the final blog on how you CAN make a difference in your horses.

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Comments 10

  1. I am so happy for the education. Dr. T. My usual feed store ran out of soybean meal so I called around to other feed stores. I could only find soybean pellets. When I looked at the ingredients it was full of grain and carbs…exactly as you said. So glad I knew not to buy anything with grain in it. Thanks again!

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  2. Thank you for educating us. It is areal eye opener. What are you thoughts on feeding alfalfa pellets
    ? Look forward to hearing from you. Marianne

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      Alfalfa is a good feed for most horses and the pelleted version is convenient. I think that about 1 flake’s worth a day is enough for most. If your horse is one of the few that gets soft feces or squirts or even becomes “hot” then don’t feed them until the gut has a chance to reestablish the normal gut microbiome. This may take up to a year if he has had a lot of medicines (any medicines).

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  3. Hi Geoff, wow. I am really behind on reading this awesome info on horse nutrition, I caught up and read it all today. I really need to admit it has been one of my true shortcomings. I have had so little knowledge and understanding of the horse’s nutritional needs. I of course have seen the benefits of the no grain challenge. Thankfully my horses do lead a grain free life. The meals they get in a bowl is soaked Timothy pellets and some Celtic Sea salt. Of course they get lots of time on pasture and hay. I really look forward to hearing about the salt you prefer, and what if any supplements should be given. AND balancer, seems so many people are using balancer.

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      For everyone, Ducka and I go way back to my first days at Cornell. It is interesting that all this information wasn’t available there or at any other vet school. What was available was masked in confusing statements, yet I used Dr Hintz’s text for much of the information as the material and research is still relevant. But putting it all together has led to missing pieces such as this idea of carbohydrate dependency.

      Thanks for becoming grain free. Any pure salt will work. Iodine deficiency is rare in horses so if you want to use iodized salt that’s OK. Salt with sugars added such as the trace mineral salt blocks should be avoided. Any sea salt or rock salt the horse wants to eat is OK.

      Part 10 is about vitamins, minerals and electrolytes. Your answers will be there.

  4. Hi Doc T,
    I have a question, I have a mare that is IR and has had two episodes of laminitis.First time was 2 yrs ago. We sold our home where she was on pasture 24/7 no grain and moved to our new home where there was no pasture for a year. I had her on hay and a supplement/balancer. Once the pasture was back I let her out on it she was fine for the first couple months then got laminitis. I got her thru that and for the next year she did fine on pasture spring thru early winter. This January we got a cold snap and boom she got laminits again. So back to hay and a supplement. The more I read your articles the more I am convinced I don’t need to add anything, no supplement. I thought that there was a need for them to make up for what is lacking in the hay. I am going to stop all supplements, stick to hay. I also leave out free choice Red Cal salt and mineral supplement. Do you think the Red Cal or Red Cal Mag is okay alone or do I need to give other salt? During her laminitis episode she tended to eat quite a bit of it, I was thinking she was lacking something.

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      I can’t reply directly to your case.

      Salt without minerals and sugars is fine.

      All hay is summer grass and therefore has a starch component. You need to remove this sugar by soaking the hay.

      I find most people in your situation are not feeding any protein to help the hooves. Please read the next blog on protein to understand that without enough variety of protein, the hoof will be weak.

As of November 2018 I will no longer reply to comments. There is just not enough time in the day! I sincerely appreciate all of your interest and am grateful for the time you take to comment here. Doc T

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