Is sugar bad for my horse?

Sugar - a word that strikes fear into the heart of any horse owner. Clare Barfoot, equine nutritionist at Spillers, explains the role of sugar in the equine diet and whether low-sugar feeds are beneficial. 

 Sugar-rich grass - the equivalent of a chocolate factory! 

Sugar-rich grass - the equivalent of a chocolate factory! 

Sugar, like 'carbs' for us, has become a feared word, but like everything in life, it's not all black and white.

Healthy, active horses cope well with some simple sugar in their diet. Grass, which is the natural diet of horses, can contain large amounts of water-soluble carbohydrates, which include simple sugars such as sucrose - the same type of sugar you may put in your tea.

It stands to reason that horses can absorb simple sugars pretty well in their small intestine, but this isn't where the story ends.

The pastures our horses naturally evolved to graze on are very different to some of the improved pastures we see today. 

This is due to the cultivation of more sugar-rich grass varieties, which means turning horses out on such grazing can be the equivalent of letting us loose in a chocolate factory.

The dangers of sugary grass 

High-sugar grazing, coupled with native ponies who are in a low level of work and/or overweight can cause problems. 

This is because large fluctuations in blood glucose may contribute to insulin, the hormone responsible for clearing blood glucose, to become less effective.

It's thought that this can contribute to conditions such as laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome, and PPID. 

This is why you have to manage grass intake so carefully when dealing with a laminitis-prone pony. 

Consider you horse's feed as well as his grazing and forage before you start a low-sugar diet. We're lucky there are a large choice of low sugar and starch feeds on the market, so choosing one suitable for your individual horse or pony shouldn't be too much of a challenge. 

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