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Low NSC feeds for laminitis, lameness and founder in horses

What is Laminitis in horses

Laminitis is a complex disease which involves inflammation and of the horse's hoof laminae (the structures which suspend the pedal bone from the hoof wall).. When hoof laminae become inflamed they lose their integrity, and allow the weight of the horse to drive the pedal bone downward through the hoof, damaging arteries, veins, the corium of the coronet and the sole of the hoof. There can also be excessive hoof growth, so that the hoof wall grows away from the pedal bone, causing the hoof integrity to be compromised. Once the pedal bone moves the condition is then referred to as founder.

Laminitis and founder causes severe pain and in acute situations, euthanasia is the only humane option. Laminitis is the second most common cause of death in horses worldwide.

The good news is that laminitis is largely preventable. There are some simple measures that horse owners can take to help prevent it. The key to prevention is understanding what causes laminitis and avoiding the feeds and situations that may put your horse at risk.

How do I know my horse has Laminitis

What causes Laminitis in horses

1. Acidosis related laminitis (hindgut acidosis) caused by the overfeeding of high starch feeds or feeds that cause carbohydrate overload. These carbohydrates, and in particular the sugar fructan which is contained in many pastures, passes undigested into the hindgut, where it is fermented to volatile fatty acids, and lactic acid, where they cause the pH of the hindgut to decrease (acidosis). This causes major changes in the types of microbial organism living in the hindgut. Research by Pollitt (2008) has shown rapid increases in the numbers of the bacteria Streptococcus lutetiensis prior to the onset of laminitisIt is suggested that the death of these organisms, and the release of microbial endotoxins is associated with the onset of laminitis. All horses are susceptible to this form of laminitis. This form of accounts for approximately 20% of all laminitis.

2. High NSC feed, insulin resistance related laminitis (Endocrinopathic laminitis).Horses that are fed high non structural carbohydrate (NSC) feeds(>11%) that are digested in the intestines, are susceptible to this form of laminitis. These horses are usually obese, often insulin resistant, and having Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). It is generally accepted that high NSC diets (>11% NSC) will contribute to laminitis, however the science is being debated. One theory is that at a holistic level, when animals receive a balanced diet, the intestinal micro-organisms attempt to live in balance with the host animal, termed symbiosis. In contrast, dysbiosis is when there is overgrowth of these normal organisms, caused by an oversupply of digestible nutrients. The overgrowth of organisms are thought to cause an excessively permeable intestine, and/or a perforated hindgut, termed "leaky gut syndrome" Microbial population upsets and subsequent damage to the intestinal mucosa allows leakage of sugar molecules, bacteria and pathogens into the bloodstream. The higher than normal circulating blood sugar causes the cells to become resistant to insulin, disrupting glucose transport into the cells. The high blood sugar also stimulates the adrenal gland to increase cortisol production, which may cause damage to the lamellar structures in the hooves. The net effect is inflammation, laminitis and then founder.

How diet helps Laminitis in horses

Laminitis is a preventable disease. As a basic rule of thumb, keep your horse in trim (not fat) condition, exercise, and preferentially feed low-starch, low-sugar (low NSC) feeds.

1. Weight management

Do not let your horse become obese or overweight. Horses carrying excess weight are more likely to have insulin resistance, EMS and thus are more susceptible to laminitis. However, if you do need to put weight on a thin horse eg suffering from Cushing's disease, or insulin resistance, use a low NSC, low sugar feed like CoolStance, CoolFibre, sugarbeet pulp or soybean hulls.

2. Choose non NSC forms of energy energy

Use low NSC forage and feeds and high energy fibers to meet your horse's energy (calorie) requirements where possible. If the hay has high levels of NSC, then it will have to be soaked prior to feeding. Only use grains or grain based feeds if absolutely necessary to top up your horses energy requirement.

If you do choose to feed grain, preferably feed only processed grains. This may reduce the risk of starch being delivered undigested to the hindgut. NEVER feed grain or grain-based feeds to overweight horses, horses with Cushing's disease or insulin resistance or horses that have previously had laminitis.

3. The right pasture and  forage

Be vigilant with the type of pasture and hay you feed. Most forages have been developed as feeds for cattle, and can have high levels of NSC, such as fructan (which can cause acidosis related laminitis) and simple sugars like glucose and sucrose (the high NSC can trigger endocrinopathic laminitis). If you are concerned about the levels of these carbohydrates in your pasture or hay you can have the level of NSC tested (see
If you are concerned about NSC levels in your pasture, only allow your horse to graze in the very early hours of the morning when NSC levels are lowest. Temperate pasture species like ryegrass and herbs like chicory and plantain accumulate the highest levels of NSC and should be avoided. Choose low NSC pastures, and graze when the NSC levels are lowest.

4. Supplementary feeds.

 If you supplementary feed, then select those feeds that have a low NSC and digestible fibre (see article on Selecting Suitable Feeds). Do not restricting to twice per day. Horses are designed to eat at leat 18 hours per day, and restricting feeds to twice per day causes a preprandial release of insulin. Feed in hay nets, or slow feeders so that the horse has to take all day to eat the feed.

5. It's all about balance for hoof quality

The horse's hoof quality is affected by all nutritional components including protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Balancing these components is vital for overall hoof health and function. As tough as the hoof may seem, the hoof wall is primarily 95% keratin, which is an insoluble protein similar to that in hair and wool. The hoof also contains oils, which are responsible for maintaining the barrier to water loss across the hoof wall. Healthy hoof repair and maintenance therefore requires a balanced diet, which also provides the sulphur containing amino acids required for keratin synthesis, and oils for tensile strength and moisture content.

Recommended Stance Horse Feed for Laminitis in horses

Selecting suitable feeds for horses with laminitis or founder requires an understanding of the causal effects as described below. The major requirements of a feed are;

Farriers report that when pasture fed lame and laminitic horses were fed CoolStance, there was improvement in hoof condition and reduced lameness. The composition of CoolStance is in summary, <12% NSC, 20% protein (containing methionine, cystine and glutamic acid), and 8% coconut oil, (which is rich in the medium chain triglycerides lauric and caprylic acid), and reasonable levels of copper and zinc.