Stephanie George BSc (Hons)

Sugar has become a hot topic over the last few years, mainly because we are more aware of the metabolic and digestive issues that occur in the horse, but how much do you actually know about sugar… apart from how many go in your tea?

Here at Saracen Horse Feeds we often get asked about the sugar content of our feeds, and this is information that we are more than happy to give out, however when considering the sugar content of your horse's diet it is important to look at the wider picture and consider everything your horse eats on a daily basis and not just what he gets in his bucket. You may be surprised to hear that grass and even long stem forage such as hay and haylage also contain sugar. How does it get there you may ask as these are not manufactured feeds?

Sugars are the ‘building blocks’ for plant growth and are produced through photosynthesis and this sugar is then turned into fibre for the plant cells walls. The amount of sugar found in grass changes on a daily basis and something as simple as a cloudy day can reduce the sugar production of grass and a sunny day can increase photosynthesis.

Sugar is a carbohydrate, like fibre, but unlike fibre it is a non-structural carbohydrate (NSC). Most of the NSC’s in the diet are broken down in the small intestine and become glucose (a simple sugar) which provides energy in the diet and can be used instantly or stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen to be used when needed. Glucose is very important to the horse as it enables the horse to function correctly and is the only ‘fuel’ that can be used by the brain and the only substance that makes glycogen. Glycogen is used for muscle contraction, respiration, brain function and nutrient digestion, making it a very important part of the horse’s diet.

Some horses require a low sugar diet to aid in the management of metabolic, digestive or behavioural issues, however it is very important to remember that percentages of sugar in manufactured feeds are not the be all and end all of your horse’s sugar intake. Horses are herbivores and were designed to graze for long periods of the day (and night). When taking your horse’s sugar consumption into consideration, it is almost more important to assess the sugar that is provided through their forage rather than finding the lowest sugar feed they could possibly have.


Here are some examples of a typical daily sugar intake for a 500kg horse provided through a range of feeds and through forage:

Product Sugar Content 
Conditioning Feed (2kg) 128gm
Low Sugar Mix (2kg) 120gm
Low Sugar Balancer (800gm) 71.2gm
Cereal Based Feed (2kg) 178gm
Grass (24hr Turnout on Good Grass)         891gm
Hay (7.5kg) 825gm
Haylage (10kg) 800gm

                                      N.B. It is always advised to feed more haylage than hay as it is higher in water and lower in fibre.


The horse would not be fed all of these feeds or eat this much forage on a daily basis however you will be able to see from the table, forage provides the main source of a horse’s sugar intake and this is very important to take into account when trying to feed your horse a low sugar diet. As forage is the most important part of the horses diet, this is always where we start when formulating diet plans for horses, and we will always advise customers to take the sugar content of their horses forage into consideration when they are looking for a ‘low sugar diet’. It is important to remember that the sugar content of grasses will vary depending on the weather, time of day, stage of growth, plant species and geographic region. These factors also apply to conserved forages alongside the time of year that they were cut. There are many methods of reducing your horse’s sugar intake alongside choosing a ‘low sugar’ feed such as using a muzzle to reduce grass consumption or soaking their hay to reduce the sugar content and these are things that we advise often on the helpline.

Horses do need NSC’s in their diet to be able to perform normal physiological functions and it is impossible to remove all the sugar from their diets however there are ways of changing their management that will help to reduce their intake.

Case Study:

Peeves is a 500kg 15.2hh Connemara who is a good doer. He is turned out during the day for 8 hours and is stabled at night. His daily recommended ration consists of:


Feed Sugar %  Quantity Sugar Content 
Grass 11% 2.7kg 297gm
Hay 11% 5kg 550gm
SHAPE-UP™     8.9% 800gm 71.2gm
  Total Intake = 918.20gm


Neville is a 500kg 16hh Thoroughbred. He is in light work and is turned out during the day and in at night. His daily ration consists of:


Feed Sugar %  Quantity Sugar Content 
Grass 11% 2.7kg 297gm
Hay 11% 5.7kg 627gm
Re-Leve®       6.0% 2kg 120gm
  Total Intake = 1.04kg

Shape Up Render


SHAPE-UP™ is a low-starch, high-fibre mix designed to provide a balanced diet at low intake levels. The ingredients within Shape-Up are utilised to support and maintain a normal, healthy metabolism particularly for those horses and ponies on restricted rations due to the need for them to lose weight. It can be used as a calorie controlled ration for those prone to laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing's in order to meet micronutrient requirements without excess sugar, calories and starch intake.


Re Leve EGUS


RE-LEVE® is a high-fibre, cereal-free ration with a very-low starch content. Highly digestible “Super-fibres”, soya hulls, alfalfa pellets, beet pulp and oil supply the energy, reducing the reliance on starch. RE-LEVE® is fully fortified providing a source of quality proteins, trace elements and yeast, as well as Vitamin E and selenium to assist normal muscle function. The inclusion of a yeast culture that is specifically designed for the equine ensures optimal microbial activity, to support optimum fibre digestion.



Need some guidance?

For a personalised feeding plan for your veteran horse please complete our simple and free Feed Advice FormAlternatively, if you would prefer to speak to one of our qualified nutritionists for some immediate advice, please call our feed advice line on 01622 718 487