Reasons to exorcise the 'demon' in grain

Reasons to exorcise the 'demon' in grain

It's not always to blame for obesity, other horse-health issues, and still has a place in some equine feeding programs
May 01, 2008

Fit and thin: This endurance horse not only can handle but actually needs high-energy food. (Photos: Dr. Kenneth Marcella)
The International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), based in Norfolk, England, has long dealt primarily with cases of neglected and starved horses, but now there is a newer issue facing this organization.

"We have seen a 100 percent increase in people concerned about overweight horses since 2005 and have seen an equally dramatic rise in the number of reported cases of laminitis," says Samantha Lewis, coordinator of the ILPH "Right Weight Road Show" that travels around the country educating horse owners about correct ways to feed horses.

"Obesity is becoming more of a problem and an under-recognized one, too," says Dr. Josh Slater of the Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, UK. "People tend to see a fat horse as a healthy horse," he adds.

It is interesting that, while society views obesity in humans as a problem, most horse owners tend to keep their horses fatter rather than thinner. Though human-body perception may be driven by advertisers using thin models and entertainers with their personal chefs and trainers, equine body perception is driven by the show ring, where it's been said that "you won't win if you're too thin."

"The type of horse considered suitable to win in a show class today is in fact obese, and this 'ideal' filters down the line," says Dr. Robert Eustace, founder of the Laminitis Trust and director of the Laminitis Clinic at Wiltshire, UK.

Overweight: An obese pleasure horse like this one should not need grain. (Photos: Dr. Kenneth Marcella)
Equine veterinary medicine, however, has done a good job recently of highlighting the problems associated with obesity and overfeeding in horses. Many of our clients can speak knowledgably about insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing's disease, and most have heard at least something about the problems associated with fructans and other sugars presenting a danger in the grass.

Barbaro's saga brought laminitis into the general public's consciousness.

Horse owners are more aware that what their horses eat either can help or hurt. This scrutiny is focused on carbohydrates because they are the source of most of the previously mentioned problems as well as a host of other diseases and conditions.

Excess carbohydrates in grain can cause everything from colic to laminitis; carbohydrates in fresh green pasture can be equally damaging.

The take-home message is getting misinterpreted by many horse owners. They are coming away with a belief that all grain is bad and should be avoided under all circumstances.

It is not difficult to see why such a belief is taking hold.

"I'm here to stamp out grain," said Dr. Nancy Loving at an American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Healthy Horse Workshop last year in San Antonio.

Actually she was making a point about feeding healthier calorie sources, but added, "In any case you can eliminate grain, do so because it (grain) can really create problems, such as gastric ulcers, obesity, obesity-associated laminitis, insulin resistance and colic."

Dr. Amy Gill is an equine nutritionist who advocates healthier dietary choices. In a recent article on feeding myths she writes:

Useful tool: Note the hanging scale at upper right. Nutritionists say the scale is one of the most important, yet underused, tools in managing the equine diet.
"Grain is not natural for the horse to eat." Then she adds, "There is hardly anything done with domestic horses anymore that can be considered natural."