Horse Tack Review

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How Sweet is Your Horse Feed?

Dr. Martin Adams - Southern States

Does you horse have a sweet tooth? Most horses seem to prefer sweet or textured feeds. Horse feeds have molasses added to eliminate the dust associated with oats and other ingredients in the grain mix, and to make the feed more appetizing or palatable to ensure that all components are consumed. Such concerns as equine Cushing's disease, diabetes, colic and founder, and hyperactive behavior have prompted horse owners to wonder about the sugar level in horse feeds, and molasses in particular.

Pure cane molasses is about 25% water and 50% sugar. The molasses used in commercial horse feeds is filtered and processed, and products are added to inhibit mold growth, change color, improve flow rate, prevent freezing, etc. This processed molasses will only have a sugar content as high as 40%, and textured or sweet horse feeds usually contain 10% molasses. That means that for every pound of sweet feed that your horse consumes, which will contain one tenth of a pound of molasses, just 4% or .04 pounds will consist of sugar from molasses in the grain mix. For comparsion's sake, grass and alfalfa hay normally contain 5% to 12% sugar. Fresh pasture will contain even greater sugar levels than hay on an equivalent dry matter basis. Thus, the added molasses in horse feeds will contribute less sugar to the horse's diet than pasture or hay.

Some people are concerned that there is a relationship between hyperactive behavior in horses and the amount of molasses, and therefore sugar, in their grain mix. Horses are herbivores and forage (hay and pasture) is their primary feed. Commercial horse feeds are used to balance and supplement the nutrients in the forage and to maintain the weight and health of horses that are used for performance or breeding purposes. Many equine experts feel that excessive grain and insufficient hay is the culprit for some incidences of hyperactivity. So it's probably not the sugar, it could be providing too many calories and not enough activity that could trigger the problem.

Recent equine research has also shown that increasing the fat level to 10% in the grain mix will significantly lower the rise in blood glucose that occurs after consuming a grain meal, which is another possible cause of hyperactive behavior in the horse. So feeding more hay and using a feed with 10% fat, such as the Triple Crown line of horse feeds (Complete, Senior, 10% Performance, 14% Performance, or Growth) could prevent or reduce hyperactive behavior problems.

A more accurate way of comparing sugar and starch content of horse feedstuffs is calculating the non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content. The amount of NSC is determined by a mathematical equation based on the nutrient composition of a particular feedstuff. Non-structural carbohydrate content of a particular feed ingredient consists of all sugars and starches digested by enzymes produced by the horse during the digestive process.

Table 1 (below) shows NSC values for selected feedstuffs and Triple Crown and Legends horse feeds. Timothy hay and alfalfa hay have the lowest NSC levels, which would be expected due to their high fiber content. Horse feeds higher in fat and fiber will naturally have lower sugar and starch values than feeds lower in fat and fiber. What may be surprising to many horse owners is that all of the horse feeds listed in the table have lower NSC values than oats.

If you have a horse that is prone to colic and founder, or has been diagnosed with equine Cushing's disease, or is a young growing horse that is a candidate for developmental orthopedic disease (DOD), select a horse feed with a lower NSC value, such as Triple Crown Growth, Complete or Senior, or Legends Maturity. Another option would be to increase the amount of hay fed and provide only a supplement pellet, such as Triple Crown 12% Supplement, 30% Supplement or Lite for horses that are at a maintenance or light performance level. This will provide a lower dietary starch and sugar level than feeding a conventional horse feed due to the lower feeding rate required.

Feedstuff/Horse Feed and their NSC
Timothy Hay 15%
Alfalfa Hay 20%
Beet Pulp 36%
Oats 46%
Molasses 60%
Corn 65%
Triple Crown Rice Bran 30%
Triple Crown Senior and Growth 28%
Triple Crown Complete 32%
Triple Crown Lite 23%
Triple Crown 12% Supplement 22%
Triple Crown 30% Supplement 19%
Triple Crown Herbal Blend 37%
Triple Crown 10 and 14 Performance 38%
Respond 36%
Legends Maturity 30%
Legends Pelleted Horse Feeds 38%
Legends Textured Horse Feeds 44%
Reliance 10 and 12 Textured Horse Feeds 42%
Reliance 10 and 12 Pelleted Horse Feeds 32%
Reliance 10 and 12 All Grain Horse Feeds 50%
Reliance 12P High Fiber 30%

1997-2004 Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points magazine, Feb 2004, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.