Stillman, Atkins, South Beach.?? Low-carb diet fads have come and gone for humans for over 40 years.? While they do result in rapid water loss and lower scale weight, few people achieve permanent success. By the third day you?d sell your soul for a carrot stick.
But humans are omnivores and can reduce carbohydrates drastically by substituting proteins and fats. Horses are herbivores and can’t.
So, while we can’t eliminate carbohydrates from their diet, we can make sure the ones we feed are as low in starch and sugar as possible. Stick with us and we’ll show you how to switch your horse’s hay from Frosted Flakes to Fiber One.
THE RIGHT AMOUNT.? To start, we know you’re not giving your overweight or insulin-resistant (IR) horse grain. You?re also limiting pasture time and/or using a grazing muzzle (Best Friend Muzzle, www.bestfriendequine.com, 800-681-2495). You also need to feed a basic pelleted equine vitamin/mineral supplement to meet the deficiencies in his hay. Many hoof supplements, such as Farrier?s Formula Double Strength (www.lifedatalabs.com, 256-370-7555) or Integri-Hoof (www.ka-hi.com, 717-274-3676), are excellent all-around supplements.
So, we’re going to focus on hay, the bulk of your horse’s diet. Start by estimating your horse’s weight with a paper weight tape.? It isn?t 100% accurate, but it shows weight trends, which is what we want.
Horses need 1.5 to 2% of their body weight in forage every day.? Start with 1.5%, so a 1,200-lb. horse will start on 18 lbs. of hay per day.
it’s critical that you weigh the hay and feed the same amount EVERY day. No guessing. (You can find hanging scales at any farm supply.) At the end of one month, check your horse with the weight tape.
Did he lose weight’? Congratulations, you did it! Continue feeding at the 1.5% level until your horse reaches his ideal body mass (see September 2011, p. 3). After that, if he continues to lose weight, gradually increase his hay until he maintains a stable healthy weight.
Did he stay the same or, gulp, gain weight’? Keep reading. We can help.
it’s NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. If you’re backed away from hay analysis and nutritional balancing because of the math, don’t worry. We’re not going to make you diagram the Krebs cycle.
As fellow owners of overweight and insulin-resistant horses, we know it’s not that difficult.? it’s minimizing the rapidly absorbed sugars and simple starches that cause a quick rise in blood sugar.? Feeding too much of these carbs causes an increased demand for insulin, with the resulting fat, weight gain and the strong possibility of laminitis.
When hay is analyzed for minerals and energy content, the testing lab provides information about the carbohydrate concentration in the hay.? (See ?Alphabet Soup,? below). Formerly called NSC, labs now report this as ESC and starch. The ESCs are the sugars.
What we need to prevent those laminitis-triggering sudden rises in glucose levels in our horses by feeding a hay with an ESC plus starch total of less than 10%.
Where did we get that 10% number’? Research and repeated clinical evidence from members of the online Yahoo Cushing?s Disease/Insulin Resistance Group, many of whom have submitted their horse’s bloodwork results both before and after instituting the 10% diet.
HOW TO DO IT. The ESC and starch levels of hay vary geographically. Hays from the south, which grow year around, tend to be lower.? In the upper plains and New England, grasses really amp up the sugar-making process due to the long dormant seasons. This often makes northern hays test quite high.
You can’t judge a hay?s content by looking at it, and poor quality hay isn?t the answer either. In fact, some straws test high in starch and sugar.
The only way to know your hay?s ESC+starch total is through a hay analysis, which is inexpensive and simple to do (see sidebar, p. 11). Some hay dealers have these figures available on lots they?re selling.
GETTING IT OUT OF THE FIELD. If no available hay sources test low enough, don’t give up.
The longer hay ?cures? after being cut and before being baled, the lower the sugar content.?? The plant will continue to metabolize sugar and respire until the moisture content falls below 40%.? Hay cut on sunny, dry, windy days (ideal haying conditions) will cure quickly and have a high sugar content.
Conversely, if the hay is knocked down during a humid cloudy period and requires extra days to dry, the sugar content may fall into an acceptable range.
If you’re on good terms with your hay man, or make your own hay, mow your hayfield at daybreak.? Grasses continue to metabolize sugar overnight and by morning, before the sun comes out and photosynthesis begins again, the sugar content will be lowest.
Can?t convince the hay guy to start that early in the morning’ Ask him if He’s got any rained-on hay. ?Rained on’? Really’?? Yep.
Remember when we told you ESC was a ?soluble? carbohydrate’? A good downpour can remove many simple sugars, just like soaking. Yes, you should still test it for ESC + starch, but chances are it will be lower. NOTE: This doesn’t mean buy any old ?wet? hay. Wet hay will mold and ferment; it’s a source of barn fires when stored wet (combustion). The rained-on hay must still have been re-dried out in the field and baled when it was dry.
SOAKING. Still no suitable low-sugar hay available anywhere’?? Make your own.
Katy Watts, an agronomist, published work on hay soaking to reduce soluble carbohydrates, the simple sugars that cause the rapid rise in blood glucose.? She found soaking hay in generous amounts of water (for 30 minutes in hot water or 60 minutes in cold water), would reduce the ESC by about 30%.
Owners of vulnerable horses using this method have generally reached the consensus that hay testing below a 10% ESC + starch total is ?safe? when fed in the prescribed amounts.? When the sum of the two is even lower, it can, in some circumstances, be fed free choice.
When you soak hay, the first meal can be fed immediately once your horse becomes accustomed to wet hay. The remainder can be aired out on an old window screen set on two sawhorses in a breezy area. Allow it to dry before the next feeding. (Don?t store wet hay because it will mold very quickly.)
Your horse may not be thrilled with wet hay initially. Wean him onto it by mixing or topping the soaked hay with dry, un-soaked hay, or waiting until it’s thoroughly dried before feeding, as above.
Many horses will look at you in disgust and go on a hunger strike when they first taste their low-sugar hay.? Stand firm.? It took our most persnickety gelding two months before he would clean up every flake.
Avoid soaking the hay for extended periods of time.? After a while, some of the sugar will actually return to the hay (it’s osmosis; remember your high-school chemistry’).? Stick with Katy Watts? 30/60 recommendations until someone proves otherwise, and rinse the hay after soaking to remove the ?sugar water? excess.
Be sure to drain off the water and dispose of it where your horse can’t get it. The discarded water may have started to ferment if it was in the hot sun. A quick, fresh water rinse of the hay after soaking will remove even more sugar.
You can also put a serving of hay in a hay net and soak it. Winch out the hay net after the elapsed time. It will be surprisingly heavy, and You’ll need to hang it so the water can drip out and rinse it.
Worried about winter’ You can soak hay when temperatures fall below freezing by obtaining a large picnic cooler with a drain device. It will keep the soaking water in liquid form for at least an hour.? Yes, you can feed frozen hay. Your stored hay is already ?frozen? in the hay loft.
BOTTOM LINE. If your horse has acute laminitis, or on the cusp thereof, make a real effort to feed the lowest ESC + starch hay you can. You owe it to him to give proper care.
Finding or making acceptably low carbohydrate hay may seem like just one more onerous, time- and money-consuming chore in horse care. Don?t wait until you?ve had a laminitic horse?paid the vet, paid the farrier, and cared for a horse in the agony of acute laminitis?to understand the importance.
What Else Is Lost In Soaking Hay’?
Besides insulin-resistant horses, soaking hay is often recommended for horses with PSSM, a severe, recurrent form of tying up; horses with heaves (aka recurrent airway obstruction/RAO or chronic-obstruction pulmonary disease/COPD) and for horses with HYPP.? Katy Watts? initial soaking study showed soaking lowers sugar levels by 30%. The only other major thing shown to leach was potassium, at 55%.
Potassium is usually found in abundance in forage, well above the recommended levels. The excess is excreted in the urine and manure of normal horses.? For horses with HYPP (Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis), a genetic muscle disease found in Quarter Horses from the Impressive bloodline, this is optimal. These horses are usually placed on low-potassium diets, sometimes even specially formulated complete feeds, to prevent their exposure to the high potassium levels found in pasture and hay.? Obviously soaked, low potassium hay would be a boon to those mildly-affected horses able to tolerate it. Alphabet Soup
A full hay analysis will be returned with lots of abbreviations.? When it comes to carbohydrate content, here’s all you need to know:
WSC ? Water Soluble Carbohydrates.?? Parts of the plant that are soluble in water, including the ?simple sugars? that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. Also includes fructans, which don’t cause the same rapid rise in blood sugar when digested naturally.
NSC ? Non-structural carbohydrates.? Includes all plant components, except the fibrous cell wall of the plant. Like WSC, it includes carbs that aren?t associated with spikes in blood sugar.
ESC ? Ethanol-soluble carbohydrates.? Simple sugars that do cause the high glucose spikes. They?re soluble in water, but the lab process, using ethanol, extracts only those problematic simple sugars and excludes the long-chain fructans.? Because of the increased specificity of this test, some labs no longer report the NSC levels of the hay.
Starch ?? Chains of pure glucose molecules.? Although ?starch? sounds more benign than ?sugar,? it’s not.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if you have the luxury of selecting between two hays with similar ESC + starch totals, and the quality is the same, pick the hay with the higher ESC. ( Then soak it!)
Testing Labs:? All the labs will instruct you on how to take a sample and furnish submission forms.
Dairy One?s Equi-Analytical, www.equi-analytical.com, 877-819-4110.? Options:? Test (600) ?Fast Track? includes protein, digestible energy, ESC, starch plus calcium and phosphorus levels.? $16;? Test (601) ?Equi-tech? includes the above, plus a mineral profile.? $26.
Litchfield Labs, www.litchlab.com, 517-542-2915.? Options: Equus Plus is a full analysis that includes ESC + starch and minerals.? $49.
Uckele Equine, www.uckele.com, 800-248-0330. Options:? Standard forage analysis $39.95; Forage analysis plus ration balancing $59.95. Note:? Uckele does not offer ESC levels at this time.