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Reducing The Risk Of Laminitis

Laminitis is a common disease and is the second biggest killer of horses and ponies in the UK.

It is a disease frequently seen in overweight horses and ponies in the spring, summer and autumn, although not all overweight horses will get laminitis and not all horses with laminitis are overweight. Of course there are many different causes of laminitis but with correct feeding and management, you can help to protect your horse or pony from this extremely painful and dangerous disease and the following top tips are designed to help.

Step One – Address hay intake

  • NEVER starve an overweight horse or pony, even if they are suffering with laminitis. Studies have shown that no horse should ever be fed less than 1.5% of their bodyweight in forage as this can significantly increase the risk of digestive and behavioural issues.
  • Make sure you are weighing your hay. It can easy to under or overestimate when feeding by slice, wedge, armful or haynet
  • For weight loss hay should be analysed for its non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content and should contain less than 10 - 12% NSC.
  • If low NSC hay cannot be sourced hay can be soaked to reduce the starch, sugar and calorie content.
  • Some hay can be replaced with good quality oat straw to reduce the calorie intake of the diet, as long as the horse has good dentition
Top Tip - Soaking hay for long periods of time has been shown to increase the bacterial profile of the hay which can cause other issues, such as an increased risk of the immune and digestive issues. Hay should be soaked for no longer than 30 minutes in warm water or 60 minutes in cold water. This has been shown to reduce starch and sugars levels by up to 40% while not increasing bacterial growth to a dangerous level.

Step Two – Consider grass intake

  • If you have a horse or pony that is very laminitic-prone you may need to remove grass from their diet completely. This does not mean your horse needs to be confined to their stable as many yards now offer bare dirt paddocks supplemented with hay for horses that cannot have grass.
  • Try and make sure that horses only graze when sugar levels in the grass are at lower levels. Overnight (late evening until early morning) is the best time.
  • Grazing muzzles have been shown to decrease grass intake by up to 83% and are a great way to allow horses turnout time whilst minimising grass intake.
Top Tip - Don't assume that poor grazing is lower in sugar. Poor grazing is often much higher in sugar than longer, well-maintained pasture. Stressed grass (from overgrazing, lack of nutrients, lack of water etc) will not grow but will continue to make and store sugar. As this sugar is not being used for growth it will instead be eaten by your horse or pony!

Step Three - Exercise

  • Exercise is an essential part of preventing obesity and the issues associated with it, e.g. Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Laminitis.
  • Research has shown that exercise can improve insulin sensitivity further helping to reduce the risk of laminitis.
  • Exercise programmes must be designed with the individual in mind and a realistic assessment of the horse made to establish a safe fitness regime.
  • Most of us lead busy working lives but just 20 minutes of exercise a day can help encourage weight loss. With a little thought, you can come up with some innovative exercise ideas that save you time but help keep your horse active and sometimes also helping keep you fit too!

Step Four – Don’t forget the hard feed

  • If feeding a forage only diet your horse is likely to be lacking in certain key nutrients such as copper, zinc, manganese and vitamin E. If hay is being soaked, then quality protein levels are also likely to be low.
  • To ensure these nutrients are being supplied whilst still reducing the risk of laminitis aim to feed a hard feed that is low in starch and sugar and high in fibre.
Top Tip- When looking at the starch and sugar level of the hard feed also think about the feeding rate. Some balancers appear to have a higher starch level compared to a mix or cube, but due to the low feeding rate actually provide less starch in grams. For example, a feed with 10% starch but a feeding rate of 500g per day will supply the same quantity of starch in grams as a feed with 2.5% starch but a feeding rate of 2kg per day (both will provide 50g of starch per day).

Which Saracen feeds are recommended?

Remember that Laminitis is an extremely painful condition and veterinary advice must be sought if you think your horse or pony is suffering from the condition.

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